Otter's Head of Growth & Marketing on Sales in a PLG world, US vs China and building a winning growth team 💪🏻
We sat down with Chang Chen, Head of Growth & Marketing at Otter.ai; so you don't have to.
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Today, we’re picking the 🧠 of Chang Chen, Head of Growth and Marketing at Otter.ai; an AI-powered note-taking ✍🏼 and real-time transcription 📑 platform that automates MOM for each meeting— easy to share, access and search for all.
Otter is loved by teams at Zoom, and Dropbox and has even found a niche among researchers and students alike!
We met Chang back in June and were blown away by the gamut of experiences she has under her belt.
An industry leader with 14+ years of experience in lead generation, user acquisition, life cycle marketing, social media marketing, and business strategy- we instinctively knew there was a lot we could unpack on all things growth.
She has extensive experience in building and scaling both B2C & B2B businesses, having built efficient growth engines that scaled ARR from zero to millions.
She's one of the folks in the industry who has seen the entire evolution of growth as a function first-hand. We are more than pleased to have her on her growth interview series!
Rahul Krishnan from Toplyne (RK): Welcome to the Humans of PLG interview series, Chang! We would love to hear how you discovered growth as a role. Do tell us about your journey!
Chang Chen (CC): I actually started as a chemical engineer. I learned how to manipulate data and how to structure my problem-solving. Soon, I pivoted into growth and marketing when I started an e-commerce company. Back then, we were doing things to help the company acquire and activate new users, before convincing them to make purchases. We were exploring and experimenting with different tactics and back then, no one called this growth.
Many tactics that we were experimenting with back in the day are now referred to as growth. We were doing growth marketing, building onboarding flows and building viral loops. So yes, I started as an engineer and then I discovered my way into growth, as I was doing everything I can to grow my own company.
(RK): What does growth mean to you today, Chang- and what are some of the key changes that you've seen happen over time?
(CC): The function and responsibilities of growth are tied to the company stages. For Otter.ai we introduced a new way of meeting collaborations with automated notes and a centralized company knowledge repository.
Our biggest competitor was and still is nowadays, paper and pen. We were asking the users to change their existing behaviour and we needed to gradually educate the market.
In the early days, the focus was on market education and penetration. We didn't think too much about monetization and were focused on prioritizing growth and expansion. It wasn’t until 2020 that we started experimenting with monetization.
So now, in addition to getting more people to know about this new technology to automate their meeting notes, we’re also improving our capability to monetize.
(RK): Do you think there still exists a trade-off between monetization and free engagement?
(CC): It's not a trade-off per se. It's more about users at different stages. I don’t think either monetization or free engagement should be the end goal. The end goal is to create a product that can be 10x better than the existing way and to build a sustainable business.
Free engagement is designed for new users, in order to introduce the product to them, and to educate the market about this new way of doing meetings.
Monetization, on the other hand, is about building a sustainable business that can pay our bills. For our premium users, our focus is always on supporting them with events, exceptional customer experience, additional features and other valuable resources that help them derive more value from our product.
(RK): At Otter, what kind of impact does the growth team drive for the business?
(CC): For the growth team, we have three functions: Analytics, Lifecycle/Growth Product Management, and Growth Acquisition.
Analytics started because the growth team needed data. So, we started to work with our engineering team to understand our users’ clickstream and how we can capture quantitative as well as qualitative data about user engagement. This would, in turn, help us understand our users' intentions as well as their multiple use cases.
As for Growth PM; It is also a lifecycle team if we consider it to encompass all the other traditional, communication channels. This team experimented with in-app user onboarding, activation and conversion flows.
Last, but not least, is the Acquisition team. For the acquisition, we use content and SEO, we build organic viral growth loops, and we run paid acquisitions to accelerate the growth loops. The goal is to introduce Otter to more potential users.
Damn, we love how the Otter Growth team is structured!
Let us know how your company thinks about growth / growth teams?
(RK): Can you give me an estimate as to how big the growth team is and how many people work within each of those three units?
(CC): We are still a pretty lean team at the moment and are hiring across all functions.
(RK): In your years of experience in growth, what would be your number one takeaway?
(CC): The biggest takeaway for me is to understand user motivation when they sign up for our product and their expectation as to what they are looking for and use our onboarding experience to meet those expectations.
We’re always trying to exceed those expectations. Otter is a broadly appealing product. If we think about people who have meetings; they usually have all kinds of meetings - internal recurring meetings, 1 on 1 coffee chats, external customer meetings, or students taking notes for classes. Researchers out there are using our product for qualitative interviews as well.
With all the different use cases, they all have slightly different expectations for what the product can do for them. The key is to think about how we can personalize our onboarding flow to meet and exceed those users' expectations and, accelerate the reaching point of the “aha” moment.
(RK): Otter went through a spurt of growth during the pandemic and grew almost 800% in revenue around that year. Would that be accurate?
(CC): Yes, I think that's a publicly available number. Yes.
(RK): That's a crazy growth rate. How did the growth function's role change at that time? Did your priorities change in that timeframe?
(CC): Yeah, that's when we started to think about monetization. Before that, we didn't spend too much time thinking about our pricing plans, pricing tiers and paywalls. During the pandemic, we also devoted resources to supporting the people who were impacted financially and physically by the COVID
(RK): What would you say is the single biggest mistake you've seen PLG companies make?
(CC): I don’t think this is a mistake, it’s more an observation: some of the PLG companies don't like the concept of sales-assist. It almost feels like they think it would defeat their PLG company’s positioning if they build a sales team.
On the other side, I have also seen more traditional sales-driven companies that don’t like the concept of PLG. They feel that a PLG mentality is going to hurt their SLG momentum in some way.
But I think both can and should coexist, because, if we think about our users, some users will need to talk to the sales team. And at the same time, there is a different set of users who just don't want to talk to you. They want to explore the products themselves and they feel really comfortable putting the credit card on file and buying.
So for a company to scale, I do think that eventually, we need to build a PLG motion and a sales motion at the same time. We will need to conquer both segments of the market to continue to support a company’s growth. I think eventually we will still need to see both coexisting and in an ideal situation, both growth levers - they will nurture each other and collaborate with each other.
Do you agree with Chang here? What’s your take on PLG + Sales-assist? Let us know 👇🏼
(RK): What have you seen are the biggest differences as a founder in the US versus China and what are the similarities?
(CC): The US and China have pretty different operational models, in terms of thinking about different tactics of growth, different channels and also the types of talent - ease of hiring is different and that also leads to different sorts of talent in the company.
I believe that the company culture is built by the type of people we hire. So usually, the US and China will have a different company cultures as well.
But for the similarities, I think the growth engine, system and design are pretty similar. And it's the same obsession with users. Both are also focused on how they can build a better product to provide more value to the users. I think these are the two biggest similarities.
(RK): What would you say is the one tool that you started using in the last year that changed your life or has been a game-changer for you?
(CC): I started to use Calm more. So I've been working from home for the last two and half years. But for the first few months of it, I didn't do a good job separating work from my life. And that was quite stressful. Later I started to meditate more with Calm and started to set rules around my work. I set up physical boundaries, left work in my office and never talked about it in my family room.
I was able to reclaim my work-life balance and I think Calm really played an important part in it because it was the meditation that helped me define the terms of priorities in my life.
YAY! We stan Calm, and did a piece on how they’re gamifying meditation; while building a $ 2Bn rocketship. Check it out. 🧘🏼♀️
(RK): One Twitter or LinkedIn profile that you would highly recommend that others follow?
(CC): I am following Reforge blogs. I'm also following Open View blog, Growth Unhinged. They have in-depth analysis as well as industry benchmarks.
(RK): What's the funniest meme you've seen in the last year?
Noice, we’re definitely adding this to our list. Have you checked some of our most loved memes of 2021? (PLG edition only.)
That’s a wrap for today, folks. Let us know who you’d like us to interview next? We’ll make sure to reach out to them 🙌🏼
We help PLG companies (such as this one☝🏼) with their GTM experiments: be it monetisation, activation or retention. Start small, rapidly iterate and deploy at scale 🚀
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