Being Obsessively Hands-on with Early Adopters to Accelerate Growth
Or, Why Product Managers Need to Swim in the Deep End of the Pool
In late 2013, I was a few months post-launch with a new edtech product called GoNoodle, and it consumed most of my thoughts in a day. We were growing, but we had a high churn rate that suggested there may be an early ceiling to that growth. Even when I wasn’t in the office, I was constantly ruminating on how we could unlock the growth I had faith we were capable of.
One day, I was in a private forum with a small group of our early users and was seeking feedback on the product. One user brought up a common feature request, and I cringed. It was that one nagging improvement — the one I knew deep down that we had to fulfill, and that would take an enormous commitment of time and resources and internal cat-herding to accomplish.
I responded with a semi-canned response — one that was sort of true but maybe not as true as it sounded: “That’s a great suggestion! We’ve heard that before, and we’re working on it.”
She responded, simply: “Please work harder and faster!”
I think of that woman’s response constantly, often with a chuckle. Admittedly, for a split second, I felt a little offended; I felt I was working harder and faster at that time than I’d ever worked in my life. But then I reminded myself that this woman had no context for how much effort it took from me and my team to run this fledgling product. Nor did she have any interest in how product management works. Her response wasn’t a comment on my team, as much as it was a clear assertion of where we needed to focus to find fit as a solution to her problem.
Six months after that interaction, we found fit. Our churn numbers went negative and we moved into rapid growth phase. And in retrospect, we did it by being obsessive about hands-on interaction with our early adopters. That effort that helped us identify where to focus and how to turn our early adopters into our growth engine.
Being obsessively hands-on was a fixture of the team culture, first and foremost. Here are my takeaways on how we created and sustained that internal culture.
We Had a North Star Metric
We knew exactly what success looked like, and there was ONE metric that mattered. Our goal was to get to 100K Monthly Active Users by the end of the school year. We had a clear definition of an active user. We had a live dashboard in our office (and online, that we looked at obsessively) displaying the current MAU count, and the trend over 30 days. That metric was the tool by which we made every product decision; if we couldn’t connect a decision to the goal, we didn’t do it.
We Combined Product Management + User Support
By necessity in those first few months, I was both product manager AND user support. It was, admittedly, my least favorite part of the job (“Hey, here’s a second inbox! Every message starts with a problem or someone who’s annoyed, and there’s a timer on your response. Have fun…”) But it helped me hear our users’ needs directly, and it gave me real people to talk to. This was invaluable for a product manager with an MVP in market.
I turned every “password reset” request into an opportunity to ask an early adopter what they thought about GoNoodle and how we could be better. And I let them know they had a direct line to the product’s creators. I saw each ticket as an opportunity to make our early adopters feel like they were part of our team. They helped us find and fix bugs, and also identify product friction we needed to address.
We Made User Support Proactive, Not Just Reactive
We saw positive improvements in engagement with users after a support interaction — and with that as inspiration, set up efforts to support them better before they’d write to us.
Using Mixpanel — our analytics + engagement messaging tool of choice in those days — I created a broad set of targeted triggered emails to users so that I could send a personal email when their usage suggested a support issue. Our efforts began with a focus on support, but also expanded in time to focus on engagement and building advocates. Here’s a paraphrased inventory of our most useful messages:
- Hey, looks like you haven’t used GoNoodle in a while. How can I help?
- I see you created an account but never got started. Anything I can clear up for you?
- I noticed you really liked this piece of content. We just released another new video I think you’ll really like….
- You’re a real tastemaker in GoNoodle — one of our most active users! Have you seen our newest video? I’d love to know what you think.
- You’re one of the 10 most active users <geographic area>! Question: how can we make GoNoodle better?
- Hi! We’re testing a new feature and you were one of a small number of users who saw it. I’d love to hear your thoughts.
Our early users loved feeling “part of the team.” By reaching out personally, we signaled how deeply their feedback was valued.
We Built Advocates with a Targeted Lo-Fi Referral System
After launch, we began to realize that a key value of GoNoodle was helping a teacher feel like a hero to students. It made the classroom fun, and there’s deep emotional value for a teacher to see a roomful of happy, enthusiastic kids.
We wanted to build a referral system to drive growth, but realized quickly that the best system was almost comically lo-fi. We’d use data to identify our most active user in a school, email them, and offer to send a packet of stickers for their students if they’d bring GoNoodle up at their next staff meeting. It was an honor system approach: all they had to do was reply with a “SURE!”
I’m sure some of those replies were empty, but it didn’t matter — the data showed results. In addition to the qualitative validation (teachers would regularly tell us how many of their colleagues were now also active users) we could see tangible “blooms” within schools where sticker packets were sent.
(As a side note: a year later we expanded the idea and build a digital referral system based on teacher referral signup links. The complexity wasn’t worth it — it never worked as well as our sticker system, and we retired it after a few months. Sometimes simpler is better.)
We Used Data to Drive Hands-On Research Interactions
Our product analytics data was the origin for all our main questions and hypotheses about GoNoodle. Using Mixpanel, we could break user data into multiple cohorts, like:
- Date of signup
- First content played
- Profile data
- Penetration of other teachers in the building also active
We could compare cohort based on retention metrics in search of statistically significant differences. We’d build hypotheses for why this might occur, and then reach out directly to those users to dive in deeper via interviews.
Our team culture of hands-on interaction with users helped us accelerate our drive to product/market fit. By the end of our first school year in market we were well over our goal of 100K Monthly Active Users. Most of the ways we assumed our product would improve post-launch never happened; instead, we went where user feedback lead us.
Of course, we didn’t do everything right — that first year was hard work, and we made mistakes. A few suggestions in hindsight:
- Staff up User Support as early as you know there’s enough work to keep sometime part-time employed. I almost burned out after a few months, because the support queue never stops — not for your weekends, your sick days, or your vacations. But once you hand it off, make sure you still schedule time to be an agent so you understand what’s happening.
- Find a way to share out the anecdotes you’re gathering from your user interactions. We did a great job of collecting those anecdotes as at team, but we did a poor job of sharing those learnings outside the product team to executives, marketing, sales, etc. It’s just as important to build alignment internally, and product teams have a responsibility to share what they’re learning.
- Remember your early adopter is part-unicorn. If you want to grow beyond this cohort, you have to make the effort to talk to the people who don’t love you. It’s easiest to talk to the super-fans, but your input can get skewed. We had to work extra hard to reach the users who didn’t get it, but when we did, we learned the most about how to make sure GoNoodle had growth beyond early adopters.
- Invest deeply in analytics, and keep a clean house. While we were using data non-stop in that first year, we were also doing a poor job of upkeep on our implementation. A few months later, we realized a lot of our data was flawed. As a result, we had to stop and re-instrument our analytics in the middle of our biggest growth phase at great expense and a temporary loss of trust in data.
That time — the transition from “just launched” to “growth rollercoaster” was a blast, but also some of the hardest work of my life. Hopefully these lessons learned enable other teams to get the same pleasure without risk of burning out!