September 6, 2018
Ep. #20, Feat. Leo Polovets of Susa Ventures
In episode 20 of Venture Confidential, Leo Polovets, General Partner at Susa Ventures, describes how he went from a career in software engin...
There is no universal developer, nor is there just one universal developer segment. In this session, our panel offers the audience the key components of high-fidelity personas, the research methodologies required to craft them, and the assets to capture and communicate to various segments. Special emphasis is paid to common ways we misread, manipulate, or over-index data points away from the needs of the target persona.
Brian Doll: Next to me is Stephanie Zhou, she runs Product Marketing at Figma. She just started there recently actually, so this is fun for us because she’s going through a lot of these exercises right now. She’s previously had similar roles at Zendesk and Intercom. Very successful organizations, known for product marketing. This is Dave Shanley, he’s a serial entrepreneur who’s worked in a lot of B2B SaaS companies. He’s been the VP of Marketing at Jama Software. Last but not least, we have Tanya Khakbaz, and she’s the Head of Product
Marketing at Stripe. You’ve probably heard of them before. She has been at Square for a number of years as well doing a lot of product marketing there too. Thank you everybody, for joining us.
The first question I have really about personas is where we all start. Since you’ve just started your new role, I’d love to ask you first. What do you think about when you’re building your first persona? Either because one doesn’t exist for the company or the product is changed, how do you approach the beginning?
Stephanie Zhou: Hello, everyone. Thanks for having me. I think for Figma, it was very clear. When the product launched there was a person in mind, and that was the Head of Design. It’s still a relatively young company, we launched just a couple of years ago, so I think that person has been the singular focus for the product teams and for the budding go-to-market teams. I think that’s really important, if you build a product you stay focused and even as maybe other folks start using the products. We have lots of non-designers that use the product but we still have that laser focus to start and learn from.
Brian: How does it scale up? Tanya, you’ve got a lot of products to think about. How do you scale up your thought of going from a first persona to growing that over time? How do they evolve?
Tanya Khakbaz: Before I joined Stripe, I was at a really small startup. We were like 40 people. First of all, I don’t like the word “Persona.” It has been a dirty word in almost every company I’ve ever worked in. I don’t ever use that word because I think it’s loaded with “Bob the Builder lived 10 miles from the whatever–“We were talking about that stuff, so I think what the essence of persona segmentation is ultimately figuring out your customer and the job to be done, and the job that they’re hiring you for. I think no matter how big you are, no matter how many products, that is the essence of what it is. What is the job you’re trying to do for which type of customer? Why are they hiring you? What is the true job, what are you replacing?
If anyone hasn’t read Clay Christensen’s Jobs to be Done article, it’s worth reading. It’s a little jargony, but it’s really helpful. I think that evolves over time for Stripe, definitely. It’s this core developer who wanted to just quickly take payments on their website. Over time, we have different kinds of developers globally. We have implementers who actually will implement us to certain websites that exist, and then we’ll have the startup developer. The developer in Atlanta looks really different, and then you have heads of payments, you have business decision makers, and those types of people have different needs but ultimately it’s just being super laser focused on what you’re being hired to do.
Brian: I’m curious, going to the details that people catalog for personas, there’s different things that are important. You had some thoughts, Dave, on what you include in those personas. Like, in the definition of those?
Dave Shanley: Coming into Jama, it was an existing organization and had been in business fo a while. We had those “Bob the Builder” very shallow, very broad personas. What I wanted to do is equip the organization with a model that we could go execute, that marketing could go execute, that product could map to. As we were thinking about new features and the go-to-market. It was developing a framework that focused on frustrations and moving people to that conversion event.
If you’re not moving people from frustration to what they want, and really articulating that down at that buyer, or moving their fears to their aspirations and speaking directly to that. If you’re not doing that, it’s too informational. Are you going to get that ultimate goal that you want, which is moving them down the funnel? Moving them towards whatever event means a conversion for you at that point, for that person. Really detailing that and documenting it and then blowing out the messaging associated with that.
Brian: I like part of what you said too, is that you’re trying to help people accomplish some goal. The marketing does part of that, it encourages that and maybe shines a light on it, but there’s other people involved in making sure that that can be fulfilled. How do you guys think about how the persona can be used within the rest of the organization? How do teams work together and use this as an artifact?
Dave: One, you have to have it documented. A lot of times you just get tribal knowledge and people walk away with different interpretations of things and so it is really important, on the product side, writing everything down and that you do capture that. We built this out into that framework and then socialize that with folks, and made sure that everybody was on board. We had a collaborative effort to unveil it and refine it and have people distill it down to what those frustrations that we wanted to focus on. It can be everything, there can be too many. It is really refining that focus.
Getting buy-in organizationally with different stakeholders, folks from marketing, and then running it through and then working with them on how they could apply it. There’s a lot of thoughts out there on “Do this tactically” or things like that, but people struggle with what to do first, how to prioritize that and how to actually blow things out.
Tanya: The notion of socializing it feels a little dangerous sometimes. It shouldn’t be “Marketing has developed this in a room by themselves and they’re shoving it down the throats of the rest of the organization.” Ideally, personas or customer segments and people, the problems that we’re trying to solve are actually owned jointly by product and marketing. It’s a company-wide segmentation, or a company-wide who-we’re-tackling, because the minute you start becoming fragmented then you’re done.
Dave: You have to believe in that focus.
Dave: Because there’s a natural prioritization, because you end up in a situation where there could be many people involved, right on the buyer side of the process, but who are we messaging today?
Brian: Have any of you worked in environments where interviewing was a regular part of enriching the persona? Have you done that?
Stephanie: Yeah, definitely. Talking to customers and non customers, especially people who may not have chosen your product, is absolutely critical. I’ve been really lucky. Working a few years ago at Zendesk, it was a very open culture where anyone can email a customer or call a customer.
I think that’s really important, just from a company starting out, is that anyone should be able to talk to your customer but then figure out a way to share it across the company.
I’m new at Figma, but one of the things I noticed that they started developing as their way of sharing is they just have a simple notes channel in Slack. Anyone that talks to customers populates key takeaways. There’s a quick summary, so you can just read the quick snapshot and then dig into the notes later. Just creating that transparency is really important and empowering.
Brian: That’s great. You’ve done some interviews as well, on your team?
Tanya: Yeah. We have a centralized user research team that actually sits in design, but every team across Stripe does user research. From engineering, to ops, to everyone. I think that’s absolutely critical. It’s knowing why you win, why you lose. Having that be a part of literally every part of product development, and again, it’s not just marketing. It is truly embedded in product development. I think that’s really critical.
One of the challenges is, as you get bigger and everyone wants to talk to the users, how do you not spam everyone, how do you find them?
There are a bunch of hacky things. I’ve shared this before with folks, my favorite, especially with going with prospects is it can be really hard but you just go to the place where your customer is. Go to conferences and lurk around the dev meet up and ask questions, go to the airport if you have a finance decision maker. They’re trapped, they’re sitting there. They will answer your questions. Just not being shy about it. There’s often such a big thing, so we do win/loss interviews and we offer people a bottle of wine as a small token of thanks for talking to us. People say yes. Ask them for 15 minutes, they’ll say yes, and but everyone always blocks off 30, so you get 30 minutes– Just ask. You’ll get to talk to people.
Brian: That’s a really interesting technique to have a structure around how you conduct it, so do other people pick that up and do it on their own?
Tanya: Yeah, totally. This, again, starts in the very beginning. When you’re in a really small company I really believe product marketing, growth marketing, product management are the same function. All the same function. What I do when I come in is “Who are the addicted users?” No segment, whatever. “Who are the people who are using us a lot?” Go find the lovers. Find out what is the essence, and not what feature, but why? What is the thing? Find the people who you think look like those lovers and aren’t picking you and go talk to them and find out why not. Then you start getting some patterns there. So you do that from the beginning.
When you’re small, you can share it out and it’s fine. When you get bigger, some of the things we do is we have a win/loss program, so all the product marketers split up a list of all of the customers that we won or lost and we divide and conquer and we have a Google group that tracks the notes. So you can make sure if you ever want to reach out to that user again, you have to check this group to make sure they haven’t been reached. There are CRMs and things for that too. We share those out and we quarterly do a synthesis across our team to find out what is going well, what’s not going well, and we share notes after every meeting with the whole company as well. Product, we tag them in when we’re finding things, sales–
Brian: Part of those interviews, or even just in your persona development in general, what kind of traits– Maybe they’re different for each of you, so I’d love to get an idea–
What traits do you feel are helpful in segmenting people who are a good and maybe not good fit? How does that change over time? I’ll start with you.
Stephanie: I’ve been thinking about this, because we don’t have personas today. I’m the first product marketer. I’ve been thinking “Do we need to actually document personas?” The last few weeks, I’m like “OK, I think we do.” Then, “Who will actually consume them?” But in terms of the traits, some things I’ve been thinking about pretty specifically is, what’s the role of our buyer? Obviously there’s Head of Design, but design has actually changed quite a bit over the last couple of years. There is the rise of the design ops person, and then there’s design systems, and that has become a big practice. That can be the same person at certain companies, but they can be two very different people that work closely together.
That’s been really interesting. It’s like, “OK. Who are they and what’s their goal, because their goals are very different if they’re two different people.” I think the company size, like some of the basic organizational facts actually do matter for us. I think you have to be a large enough company to have a design team, so I think those little attributes do matter. There’s softer traits, like culture. I think one of the value props of the product is having a very open design belief. What are the types of companies that embody that? Those are some things I’ve been thinking about. Not formalized yet, but those are the things swimming in my head.
Brian: What are some of the traits that are important for you?
Dave: In previous roles, in previous companies, there’s been a clear indicator of who the buyer is. We’re serving the customer of our customer. It’s really working the buyer’s journey backwards and thinking about all the people that are involved in that. At Jama because it’s so horizontal, the application is used by many different product-oriented teams and people interested in very detailed change management. It’s actually more around startups through to very large enterprises. It’s really distilling down what are markers that they’re going to be successful. They have to be invested in the process.
They have to show signals that they are already doing some things, that they are investing in the concepts and the process they’re going to map over into our software to be successful.
I think that’s interesting to dig into because that’s even relevant I think in earlier stages if you have a large, more horizontally applied platform or application.
Brian: It’s almost like qualifiers.
Dave: Yes, you definitely want to qualify people out. Even if you’re running a straight, inbound oriented funnel and don’t have a sales team.
Brian: This is the point that’s often lost for some folks, because maybe sometimes when you’re creating the first persona you want the biggest pool of people in the world. People with computers is maybe not the best persona, right? It’s all about, you can become more focused in your messaging, only once you have a group that you really can speak authentically to. How do you think about that?
Tanya: It’s hard to do that. Because it takes discipline and it takes alignment, and it means that you’re literally leaving things on the table. People can be really scared to do that. But then it’s just confusing if you’re not clarifying. One example for Stripe, we launched Stripe Terminal recently. I don’t know if people know it, but basically it’s your ability to extend your online point of sale to offline. It is not Square, where I used to work. Not for SMB coffee shop with no developers to come get the app and start using it. You actually need to be a developer to use it, or have technical capabilities.
For us, when we launched that we had to put code all over the place on that thing. You’re going to have to do work. You try to make sure that people are qualifying throughout the whole process, but it can be very hard because there’s a category that exists with a very different customer. The SMB customer who just buys the thing off the shelf. We were very clear in our marketing and our comms position etc. to make sure it’s clear that this is a developer tool. Similarly, when we launched Stripe Issuing, which is the ability for developers to like programmatically issue cards. We are not ourselves giving you a debit card from Stripe. How do you communicate that in a way that’s like “Don’t sign up for a card with Stripe right now.” How do you di that and make it friendly and accessible, but very clear who it’s for? That is the sign posting that you really have to do.
Dave: Which most people, I don’t think, match with the personas, because they’re mostly focused on who they want versus the end up pattern of who they don’t want, and then who will probably show up.
Tanya: Because they read the TechCrunch article and they’re like “Cool.”
Brian: Maybe there’s a habit, we have people who said no to the product, that must mean there’s a secondary persona somewhere, which is not maybe the best answer. I’m curious for each of you, how many personas is the right number? Do you think about it in terms of products, markets? If you think about it in segments, maybe it’s a little bit easier, but you mentioned a couple. Do you think about personas as just your champion, or do you think about them as the buyer also? What’s the right number for you starting out?
Stephanie: For me right now, it’s one. I hope it’s going to be one for a long time. I think it’s good to always have a primary, even if you have multiple secondaries, I think that provides a lot of focus. At Zendesk, obviously they started out as help desk software, and they’ve grown multiple products. They’ve had many crossroads. “Do we move into another segment or another persona?” They’ve really stayed the course on support, and how support has evolved over the years. It can be customer experience or success, but there’s still a primary lane. I actually think that’s incredibly important, because it’s really hard to be a lot of things for a lot of people. It really communicates your company’s vision for the future.
Brian: You mentioned support, that role changing over time. I think one thing that’s interesting is that one way to think about revving your personas is that the product changes, and there’s reasons that you might want to change, or you’re launching a new product. As you pointed out too, the market can change. Do you have any stories about market changes that you’re responding to in terms of the finer points of the persona? No? Good. Homework for everyone in the room.
Dave: Being at an older company, you’ve seen and you can go back in history and rewind and see forks in the road. Choices made, and not made. I think that’s interesting, that’s less market changes and more just decisions that were made, and it set you on a path. I think to really unlock, I think it is focus on a singular persona or indicators of this is the type of person or group of people that you’re really focused on.
You have to earn the right to unlock more. You have to have a very good reason, and you have to eyes wide open know that you’re taking on all of this other stuff.
So, are you launching effectively? Are you doing all the things to their maximum? The odds are you’re probably not. Odds are you’re probably not ready and you’re trying to do too many things too fast.
Brian: Anyone familiar with Reify? It’s one of our core things is that you really need to earn your right to a second or more personas. I think I’m sure we would all agree that there’s a lot of work that follows a persona, it’s not just the document it’s all the stuff you’re going to do because you now have that market. How do you keep them fresh? Do you do interviews on a recurring basis to do that? Is there a set schedule? How do you think about evolving them over time?
Dave: For us, we have a deep user base, lots of existing knowledge, both internally and externally. We’re always talking to customers, you can’t do that enough. If you get locked inside four walls thinking and echo, it’s not going to be productive. So it’s like, “How are you structured or unstructured? What are you doing to continually validate how people are using the products, and how are they being successful? Also, why are they almost not choosing you? Those customers that are going down that journey make a successful decision, but why did they almost not?” Sharpen those areas and polish them.
Tanya: I just keep saying my product thing, but these are being used for product development in theory, so refreshing them around a product sprinting cycle or when you’re doing product planning, and it’s like “Let’s look at our personas or user segments and polish off. What is our penetration in each of these? If we have a few of them, what are our growth rates? What are some of the blockers? Do we think there are new segments?” I think bringing that structure and framing, like “Do we want to go deeper in the existing segments we have with new products? Do we want to unlock new geographies, do we want to unlock new customer types?”
There are a lot of ways to grow, but bringing that framing and the new user knowledge and new competitive context into product planning is the best way.
Because it is actually immediately being applied throughout the company.
Dave: It’s critical.
Brian: Yeah. That’s a really cool exercise. I like that you brought up before, the jobs to be done framework. How do you think about how you are making these personas successful? Ultimately you’re want them to accomplish some goal, so how do the personas relate to that work?
Tanya: At the core of it for us, our main customer is really this ambitious fast growth tech company that is, whether they’re big or they’re already large but they’re ambitious and want to grow, or they’re smaller and have already been on that really fast growth path. Ultimately if they choose Stripe, we’re helping them grow and change their business model, grow globally, change pricing plans and do that without even thinking about it. It’s just a parameter of code. So for us, it’s not having to build more infrastructure to grow. That is us doing our job, is letting and being the platform for our customers to do that.
Stephanie: I think if people aren’t using it, it’s probably–
Brian: Is that bad?
Stephanie: It’s a good way of measuring success. I think if you see people organically, like sales should be doing discovery to figure out who’s that person and what they care about, and then using personas or jobs, like there is a way of framing that. Then if you’re not having those conversations with product early on about, “OK. Who is this for and what is it for?”
Brian: How do you know when they’re not working so well? It seems like everyone obviously approaches this with the best intentions and you talk to a lot of people, maybe it’s because of the market changing or whatever. How can you tell that the persona that you’ve developed isn’t maybe the best fit?
Tanya: Depends on what you’re trying to do with it. Like, fit for what? If it’s an artifact that sits on a PowerPoint, it doesn’t really matter. Ultimately the persona or thing that you’ve done works when the company is rallying around making choices because of it. It’s a guiding principle by which you organize all of your activities. Otherwise, it’s a failure.
Brian: How do you build some of the “courage” to use these personas, because you are making choices. You’re saying that “We maybe don’t care as much about this person or this segment, we want to make sure that we’re building product for this other one.” How do you make sure that it’s used as a knife in that way to fix product, look at market, where you’re spending money?
Dave: Consistency in application. I think it’s product marketing’s job to keep bringing the tools to the table and make sure that conversations are being started and led with those tools. That’s why I think frameworks are so critical because one, if you’re putting in place frameworks, ideally it makes everybody’s job easier. Because everybody is using that framework to go make decisions, and that decision felt a lot easier because we had this template and we were referring back to this template and it fit inside there.
We’re all working together in a more fluid way, and it’s not a roadblock. It’s not making or increasing friction, but product marketing is bringing that template as tools. That framework is part of the conversation every time.
It’s going to be that consistency to seed that in the rest of the organization.
Brian: Are there any techniques or metrics that you’ve used to see, looking back, “Are the customers that we’re getting fitting the persona that we think we’re trying to bring in the door?”
Dave: Absolutely, we look at that data.
Dave: It’s data in Salesforce, it’s based on enriched data, it’s based on feedback from the sales team.
Stephanie: Yeah. We capture that even just in the sign up spaces, or you can use Clearbit to enrich your sign ups.
Dave: Yeah. Looking at front end prospect info, even just who’s coming into the funnel.
Brian: Are there other metrics that you have in terms of trying to capture just this persona, or how you’re growing? Does the persona show up in some of the metrics that you track? That’s probably the only one, just like “Percent fit,” maybe something like that.
Tanya: I think you can look at how we were going through the funnel, just look at different funnel metrics too. You can look at awareness metrics if you have some specific segments or personas, you can be doing big brand awareness unaided or aided awareness with this segment and this persona. It’s all the top of funnel stuff working, and then you can look at your conversion for each of these and understand. Actually a lot of these types of customers were coming through the door, then we’re losing them and they’re not converting. So, what’s going on? Then lower funnel retention, who are our lovers and our referrers and our evangelists? Understanding that and then overall just understanding your penetration, “What’s the TAM for each of these customer segments? Where are you penetrating? How are you growing?”
You should be running your business against and across the funnel, on all your metrics aligned against your target customer segment.
Brian: Whether it’s a new product launch or something, each of you have been in a situation where you’ve created this new persona. What is the next several steps that you do once you’ve gotten this put together? You’re right about on the precipice of doing this, so what do you think about after the persona is developed?
Stephanie: Tanya mentioned this earlier, but it’s definitely not necessarily me coming to the table with “Here you go, everyone. I did all this research, here are these personas.” Throughout the process I would hope to involve product, sales, our CEO, our Head of Products. It’s like, everyone needs to be bought in throughout the process, so actually when it’s finalized– Air quotes because it’s not really finalized. People already bought in and they’re using it, so people are using it and you learn actually to see how people react to it and use it. You would hope they start using actually before it’s finalized, because then you can make it even better. But I would imagine working with sales to figure out, “Yes. These are our main personas
.” It doesn’t only involve just the designer, it could be like a procurement person or an IT person, so helping them navigate that and be able to speak to those different people, I think that would be a win for me.
Designers are interesting because they know the products really well already, so it’s really like “OK, what do they want in the future and how do we get there?” So I would say work, again it does not require me working super closely with product, because it’s really even not just what they need today but it’s what we think they need tomorrow.
Brian: That’s really cool. We have only a few minutes left, so I’m going to go just down at the end of the couch and back. There’s a lot of folks in the room that are founders of companies, first marketers, really trying to grow their business. What are just a few seconds of advice that you would give them as they think about product marketing?
Tanya: I think I touched on it a little bit but growth, product and product marketing in the beginning are basically the same thing. If you have multiple people doing those jobs, have them just be together at all times talking to your addicted people, talking to the turners that you thought wouldn’t be, getting to the essence of why you’re winning and why you’re not. Just running growth experiments too, because if you can use things like AdWords or Facebook ads or whatever to like test different types of value props to you, so that even if the product’s not there you can use growth marketing to help test what is resonating with people, and then feed that, if you have a bunch of hypotheses, into your product roadmap. I think trying to get those teams to be basically be working as one unit, like building the “What is the what? How do we get that customer, and what’s the motion? What’s the sales motion?” It’s critical.
Brian: How about you?
Dave: I’m super passionate at all stages about doing your little grid, four by four grid. One row its’ fears to what they want at the most individual level. Like, “I’m afraid of being fired. I aspire to be promoted.” Down at that core, not the company messaging and not broad-based product messaging, but down at the individual. “What are they frustrated about and what are you helping them achieve? What do they want?” Then take and distill that down to three things in each quadrant, and then blow that out three different ways for each of those. A logical argument, can you tell me a way with numbers? “80% of people choose blah-blah-blah because of blah-blah-blah.” Tell it to me in a gain way, like “How do I achieve something with this?” Or tell me in a loss avoidance way, “How do I avoid something?” I think doing it that way helps you really distill down and focus on what people want to achieve with your product.
Brian: That’s cool. Any last words of advice?
Stephanie: Final tips. If you don’t have customers, what do you do?
Dave: Talk to a lot of people.
Stephanie: Yeah. Or even, I was going to say maybe even looking at competitors, like worthy competitors are complementary products that you want to attach yourself to. Those are amazing cues of who you may want to go after and how you want to talk to them.
Brian: Awesome. Thank you so much everybody.