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GTM Playbooks

How to Build an Effective Developer-Focused Product-Led Growth Team

This post is part of our series on Product-Led Growth Playbooks, an emerging field that pushes the boundaries of conventional sales, marketing, and customer success. In the series, we share insights and advice from leaders who have built successful PLG businesses and offer specific playbooks for founders running high-growth software startups targeting software development teams today.

There’s a particular art to building a product-led growth (PLG) function in a developer-centric business. Scaling up your company’s growth while remaining deeply connected to the developer community, and your company’s mission can be tricky. If you do it right, however, the reward is huge.

I’ve had many conversations with founders about how to approach building a product-led growth team in a smart and effective way. I figured it couldn’t hurt to ask someone who has spent years building bottom up developer moats.

Meet Jeff Yoshimura: Jeff leads community, marketing, and customer success at Snyk, a developer security company focused on finding and fixing vulnerabilities in everything from code, open source libraries, containers, and more.  

Over the course of his career, Jeff has helped grow and scale companies from early stages to becoming public companies, most recently at Elastic, as a founding team member at Zuora, and as an early Salesforce employee and original member of the AppExchange team.

I was happy to speak with him about his experience and his PLG expertise.

Who to Hire as the Core Members of a Product-Led Growth Function

When you’re starting up a Growth team, there are three essential hires:

  1. A Growth Product Lead
  2. A Growth Marketing Lead
  3. A Growth Engineering Lead

Each hire should report to a respective functional leader such as the VP of Product, VP of Engineering, or VP of Marketing. You’ll also want to make sure this team has the backing of the executive team with an executive sponsor to drive strategic and organizational alignment. Now, let’s dive into what you need to look out for with each hire.

Growth Product Lead

Great Example: Ben Williams (Snyk Product Lead; ex-CloudBees)

  • Developer Empathy
  • This PM should have extensive experience in the developer-realm. Look for someone that has a CS degree or is technical, has worked for developer-centric companies, or has even worked as a developer themselves. This dyed-in-the-wool trait is essential to your PM being able to spot developer pain points and solve them empathetically.
  • Product Knowledge
  • Your first growth PM hire should understand the product inside and out. They should know the entire lifecycle and onboarding experience that a developer goes through when using your product like the back of their hand.
  • Growth Knowledge
  • Understanding growth through a loop based model versus a funnel based model is essential. This PM is data-led and experienced in the growth process, experimentation, and using loops to optimize product growth.  
  • Turnkey Forward
  • This PM should recognize that developers want to get to `Hello World` as fast as possible, without talking to sales or sitting through lengthy demos. Your product needs to be turnkey-ready. Your PM should be responsible for making sure a developer’s journey from sign up to first successful demo is as smooth as possible.

Growth Marketing Lead

Great Example: Francesca Krihely (Snyk Growth Marketing Lead; ex-MongoDB)

This person’s focus is less about generating revenue during the early stages of growth, and more about driving user acquisition through rapid experimentation and growth hacking. Here’s what you should look for:

  • Developer Empathy
  • Much like the growth PM, this person should be able to relate and empathize with developers and their needs.
  • An Eye for Content
  • This Growth Marketer should understand the power of content as both a form of empowerment for developers and a form of getting your message out to even more developers. They should lead the charge for showing SDR and sales teams what they can do with the right type of content and how to address:
  • Newly registered developers
  • What makes the difference between a PQL, MQL, and SQL
  • How to approach different developer personas in an authentic way
  • The Ability to Spot and Tailor to Audiences
  • A great Growth Marketer should know what type of content a developer needs at each stage in order to advance him or her on their journey. They should make developers feel like champions for using your product successfully.
  • Social Media Savvy
  • Blog posts are not the end-all-be-all of content. Nowadays, developers also look to Stack Overflow, YouTube, Twitter and Instagram for educational and informative content. To fully take advantage of those platforms, you need someone that’s experienced in social media-centric marketing.
  • SEO-Centric
  • The Growth Marketer you hire needs to be able to optimize content for SEO from the get-go. It might be easier to skip in the rapid pace of content production, but taking a moment to dial in your SEO strategy pays dividends down the road. They should monitor metrics and iterate based on how your SEO-powered content is performing as well.
  • Funnel-Minded

Your Growth Marketer should be able to spot bottlenecks in a funnel. Whether it’s getting developers to go from a nurture flow to activation to trial to becoming a paid user, or finding out how to tailor an enterprise marketing effort to a specific subset of developers, they should find the metrics and the solution to address those challenges.

Growth Engineering Lead

Great Example: Robbie Clutton (Snyk Eng Lead; ex-Pivotal)

The Engineering Lead is an incredibly important point person on the Product-Led Growth team. They connect the developer lifecycle teams that the PM and Growth Marketer lead with your company’s team of developers and the audience they’re building for — also developers. Here’s what to look for:

  • Developer Expertise and Advocacy

The Engineering Lead, whether they’re a Senior Manager, VP or anywhere in between, needs to be an integral part of the developer community as they are the steward for ensuring the product is built for and adopted by developers.  It’s important to keep the community you're serving in mind when designing your product led growth plan and adding context to metrics.

  • Leadership

This hire will need to be able to martial teams of engineers to address areas for improvement and iteration spotted by the larger PLG team. It can be difficult to get these types of tweaks on engineering sprints, so make sure your engineering leader has the communication skills and savviness necessary to underscore the importance of this work.  

How to Run an Impactful PLG Function

The best type of team is a cross functional or matrixed one with resources that are fully dedicated to the PLG team. This includes the three core roles described above (Product, Design, Marketing, Eng, Analytics) as well as committed support from BI/analytics, Customer Success or Support, Marketing, Finance and Ops, and the SDR and Sales team.  

Jeff recommends starting with a proverbial dream team, a collection of leaders across key teams who all share what they’re working on, what’s working, and what’s not. And then a focused effort on hiring leaders and individual contributors. For example, Leigh Moore, Snyk’s VP who leads the community, growth, and demand teams has been instrumental in helping the team create the strategy and foundation for the PLG function even before the team existed, and today, she continues to play a critical cross-functional leadership role. In addition, we had help from Snyk’s Strategy and Operations team, specifically, Marlene Brakane, who worked to establish the PLG operating cadence, structure, and reporting, which was important to ensure alignment across the various functions.

Here’s how you should go about building that team.

  • Align on strategy and goals

Make sure the team has one clear vision and one clear mission.

  • Align on the approach and cadence

Figure out and align on how you want the teams to work together (meeting, cadence, reporting, company-level and board visibility, etc). This helps make the entire process flued and ensures everyone knows their roles, responsibilities, who has ownership over what, and what should the teams work on.

  • Agree on KPIs
  • With leaders coming into the cross functional group from different wings of your organization, they likely have different metrics for success. You need to bring them together to decide on a few metrics of success that everyone can agree on and everyone can track. Here are a few common KPIs to think about:
  • # of monthly active users
  • # of new sign ups and upgrades
  • # of SQL, MQL, and PQLs coming in every month
  • # of highly engaged users
  • $ PQL pipeline
  • Free user to paid user conversion rate
  • $ Monthly ARR
  • Meet, Iterate, Repeat

While these teams sound exciting, and they are, you need to keep up that excitement and have discipline around the team’s goals. It’s easy for meetings to get pushed and for priorities to change. Each member of the team has to prioritize their commitment to driving the success of the PLG goals. They have to share their efforts, their data, and their critiques where necessary.

How to Optimize Overall Developer Experience

So, you’ve put your team together. You’ve empowered them to be successful. Now, let’s dive into a friendly reminder of what success really looks like. For most PLG-forward companies, it means optimizing a product experience for developers and making it easy for them to sign up and start scaling fast.

Your product is used by a developer trying to solve a particular problem. This determines the value of your product, where it sits in a developer’s larger ecosystem of tools, and how you can add value to that developer’s experience.

For example, Synk focuses on integrating Snyk into a developer’s workflow and how the product can help find, fix, and remediate vulnerabilities. A bit differently at Elastic, as the core Elastic Stack was open source, the PLG efforts  focused on the developer experience in a managed cloud environment, allowing developers to easily configure clusters, add data and turn on advanced features like machine learning and try out new turnkey solutions. Context is everything when it comes to your product.

There is no one-size-fits-all optimization strategy because dev tools are quite different. Before you design your strategy, think of where your product fits in a developer’s toolbox and what they’re trying to do with it.

Here are key factors to consider when designing your product-led growth strategy:

  • What is the core problem a developer is trying to solve with your product?
  • What value does your product provide to a developer and their team(s)?
  • How does your product fit within a developer’s workflow?
  • How do you create viral developer adoption from a developer’s use of your product?
  • What is the monetization path from free to paid?  

To paraphrase Field of Dreams, “If you build it developers will come. And if you build too many barriers to get in, they’ll leave.”

When you build a great developer product, don’t forget to tailor the onboarding experience to developers too. Treating their onboarding experience in the same way you’d design a UX flow for a gated piece of content, like a whitepaper, won’t work.

Here’s what you should do to give them a great experience while also gathering the information you need.

  • Provide users with great product documentation. This is important for onboarding, activation, and adoption. Bonus: docs can be great for SEO too!
  • Don’t ask for too much information up front. Be very specific when choosing what information you require a developer to provide before moving on in the onboarding experience.
  • Use telemetry to fill in the gaps in information left by a more spartan onboarding experience. For example:
  • Offer native authentication
  • See if they’ve connected with their IDE of choice like GitHub or BitBucket
  • Determine if they’re connected to a private or public repo
  • Find out if their email is connected with a company or not
  • Follow up with the developer after they’re up in running and see how you can deliver additional value. Ask about their use case, their organization, their role and title. But, this can only happen after you’ve demonstrated value.

There are no shortcuts to product-led growth success. But, if you’re patient when assembling your foundational PLG team and diligent about iterating based on that team’s findings, you’ll scale a lot faster and farther.