As product-led growth has taken off in B2B over the past several years, many comparisons have been made with the shift to e-commerce that transformed the B2C world over a decade ago.
Having led product growth at admired companies in both B2B and B2C, Hila Qu has rare, first-hand experience with what both of these transformations look like up close.
Hila was kind enough to sit down with me and share her perspective on some of the topics that are top-of-mind for many product and revenue leaders.
What would you say are the main differences between your experience leading product growth at a primarily B2C company like Acorns compared to a B2B company like Gitlab?
Traditionally, B2B companies are sales-led, so the primary focus is closing big deals through “high touch” interactions. With that as the traditional approach, there is less emphasis on using data to connect the entire funnel from marketing to product usage to sales. In B2B, there just hasn't been that strong of a need.
Even today, because of the sales-led motion, the silos between functions is much more pronounced within B2B companies. While I was at Acorns, I managed user acquisition, CRM marketing, and product growth. So I pretty much owned the entire funnel—from acquiring users via Facebook to getting them to download through the app store and finish registration, all the way through increasing usage of key features. My team managed that entire process… and it's quick! That entire process can happen in five minutes. So we had to rely on data to answer questions like, "Which channel is most effective?" "Which step has the biggest drop off?" Then, we needed to act on these insights through marketing and product experiments.
With the introduction of product-led growth and self-service, all of a sudden B2B is looking much more similar to B2C. Instead of “e-commerce,” people use “self-service” and “product led,” but it's actually pretty much what B2C companies have been doing for the past 5 to 10 years.
Based on your experience building product-led growth motion from scratch at GitLab, what would you say is the most burning need for a B2B company going from sales-led to product-led?
I think the most burning need is definitely laying out that data foundation—connecting marketing data with product usage and with sales activity— to map the entire user journey. Whether it's marketing campaigns or product usage, how do we guide the user to use the critical features—whether that’s during onboarding or with sales touches like calls, conversations, or emails.
Those are just touches. It's no different from when I was at Acorns: I send push notifications on the first day, I send an email second day if they didn’t act, and I gave them personalized feeds in the product on the third day. It's the same.
But in B2B, all that data exists in different places that don't even talk with each other. Product usage data is in the data warehouse, sales activity data is tracked in Salesforce, and campaign data is in tools like Marketo or Hubspot. Connecting that data is the first step.
Going a step back, what I realized at GitLab is a culture change is necessary to even recognize that there's a need to connect this data. I was really advocating for building the full-funnel data, connecting all the sales, marketing and product data together. But sometimes it is not obvious to everyone why it mattered. Again, this has been the status quo in B2B for many years. Coming from B2C as an “outsider” helped me see that more naturally.
So the data foundation is absolutely critical, but to make that happen, people need to recognize, “Hey, this can be done. It actually has been this way in B2C for many years.”
For the people who were used to traditional B2B mindset—very focused on MQLs, or closed-won deals, or leads, whatever their function was—what were some of the ways that you can show them the value of connecting all of that data together and get them behind this effort of building a data foundation?
Historically, in a sales-led motion, most B2B marketing teams are focused on their lead and MQL goals. Sales teams are focused on closed-won deals. Product teams are focused on product features and in-product flows such as sign up, trial and onboarding. So it makes sense that each function is focused on their specific part of the funnel.
But it's the same user going through all those touches across all those teams. And self-service greatly accelerated this process—so the entire experience has to be coherent and consistent.
We began to launch experiments, even though we haven't connected all the data yet. We began to show people, “Hey, small changes in a product experience actually can lead to a higher conversion rate for marketing!” That helped people understand it's all connected. It's all connected.
We also partnered with data team to bring visibility. Even a simple dashboard grouping trials by different product feature usage along with the conversion rate for those trials can shift the conversation to, “Oh wow! It seems new users who used feature A & B had a significantly higher conversion rate than those who didn’t.”
That helps the team make a connection between the different inputs and outputs to important metrics like conversion rate.
As another example, we used to talk about free-to-paid conversion rate without really understanding that metric is an output. If you want to influence an output, you need to think about the input.
The inputs to the conversion rate are our marketing channel sources, marketing campaign effectiveness, sales touches for non-self serve customers, and also the product usage early on (Do they get to use the most valuable features in the first 14 days? Do they invite enough team members?). We needed to paint that picture together to help people realize, “Those are the inputs we need to influence to impact the final outcome.”
We also did a lot of user research. We reached out to paying customers and asked them, “How did you become a paid customer?” Some customers basically said, “We have been using the free version for a really long time. We did all the evaluation and we shared the business case with our CFO. The decision was pretty much made when I reached out to your sales team.“ This helps everyone begin to see how free product usage helps drive the eventual purchase decision, even though this might be classified as a "sales-closed" deal. Again it’s all connected: product usage, marketing campaigns, and sales activity.
In that example where a lot of the evaluation and decision making happened before sales was even involved, did you get the sense that sellers preferred that scenario or that they would have preferred to have been engaged earlier in the process?
That's a great question. I think that the individual sales reps probably like when that happens. Because it reduces the level of effort they need to close this deal.
But If you ask sales leadership team, their thinking maybe more nuanced. They may worry whether we lost the opportunity to convert them earlier. Or did we miss an opportunity to close a bigger deal by allowing them to use the free product on their own? Maybe the customer still buys some seats, but not to the potential they could have.
Ultimately, sales incentives should be designed to encourage closing most revenue as efficiently as possible. And I think that’s what strategic sales leaders want to achieve. So, having a free product out there to nurture and qualify customers for them is a great lever. In fact, at GitLab we added an online sales team who become the growth team’s closest collaborator. That made a big difference.
You talked about how In B2C, you have push notifications, text messages, and email, etc. as different “channels.” In B2B, how do you think about deploying sales as a channel? Imagining the perfect scenario where you could deliver exactly the right touch at the right time for the right user, when would you choose to deploy sales?
That's something I have been thinking about a lot. How do we make the “cutoff” for the two funnels: sales-led and self-service?
The high level idea is that we need to make the self-service funnel almost, in a way, the default.
If you have a digital product that people can truly buy on their own, you don't have to justify the ROI of having sales working with them one by one.
So assuming there is a set of users who will be able to be acquired without sales, everyone should start in the self service funnel. From there, you qualify certain prospects into the sales-led funnel.
Probably the easiest qualifier is the size of the company. From there, how they are engaged with marketing campaigns? More importantly, how engaged are they with key product features? So the primary qualifier is the team size, which is the easiest data to get, and then you can combine additional qualifiers typically associated with MQL and PQLs.
This may be an obvious question, but what is it about bigger companies that make them a better fit for a sales-led motion?
It goes back to the potential LTV, right? Sales teams don’t want to handle every single small deal one by one, but they also don't want to miss the bigger deals—either lose them or sell them short. The potential LTV is the single biggest threshold, so whatever we can do to approximate that is how we should route users into the different funnels.
Thank you so much to Hila for sharing her insights with us. Hila is currently a growth advisor helping companies with their PLG motions. To hear more from Hila, you can follow her on LinkedIn.