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How to nail category creation (and then some)
4 things we learnt about category creation from Maze CEO Jonathan Widawski
Figma did it for design. Slack did it for team comms. Zoom for meetings. Salesforce did it for CRMs.
Every once in a while, a tool comes along that pushes the envelope of our imaginations and brings our presumptions crashing to the ground. And reinvents how sh*t gets done.
In 2023, user research and testing aren’t quite the same anymore. And for that, we have Maze and Jo Widawski to thank.
And if you’re reading this and thinking “What do I need usability testing for?” - you’re not alone. But you probably will be.
Jo started up in 2018 with a mission to democratize testing. Within 3 years, Maze had built the foundations of a new category, washed away the demons of complexity it was mired in, and put a new weapon in the hands of - not just researchers, but designers, product managers, marketers, and many others.
Today, over 60,000 brands ranging from Uber and HP to McKinsey and GE use Maze for user research and usability testing.
Building a new category is no easy feat. Jo will be the first to tell you:
“Building a company is a lot about shooting arrows and then drawing targets around them afterward, and saying it was your vision all along. When we started, we really believed that we just needed to build better research.”
With the targets now drawn, we thought it’d be worth getting to the bottom of how the hell Jo and Maze did it.
This is the story of how.
The content trident 🔱
Maze’s employee #1? A content creator. (Elena - now their Director of Content) From day 1, Maze deployed a three-pronged content strategy that hit three key themes:
Prong 1 - Narrative: SaaS categories are social constructs too (surprise). Much like car companies, corporations, and organized religion, they’re based on shared myths, G2 badges, and stories that people tell each other. And only exist because of a widespread belief in their existence.
Prong 1 of Maze’s content strategy was content that built a belief in user research and weaved narratives around this category.
Prong 2 - Education: Educate the market about user research. Verbalize the category and put into words why user research needs a reinvention.
Prong 3 - Ammunition: You now have a few people on board your hype train. What do you do? Give them enough ammunition to sell the vision internally - through customer stories, guides, and reports.
“So yeah, for us, the uplift that we did was really about this content education. And then I can talk more if you want, about how the product-led sales-assisted motion helped facilitate the education of the market.”
At this point of the interview, needless to say, our ears were pricked up and our pupils fully dilated. Hell yeah Jo, let’s talk about that.
Product-led category creation ⚡️
That’s the thing with PLG. Once you open the floodgates, you never know who walks in through that door.
Setting out to democratize research, Maze did three things right:
Free to get started. Anyone anywhere can start testing products today. That includes, and this is important, non-researchers.
A loose ICP definition. Opening the doors to anyone in Maze’s case led to a flurry of designers, PMs, and other functions swarming to take it for a spin. Jo found out to his surprise that 80% of his user base was non-researchers.
Simple as cake. “Research” is a term that comes with its own baggage. Maze unraveled that mystery and kept their product simple. The first MVP was an ‘import InVision’ link. They made it extremely simple for people to both create, share and then consume the results of a test.
That percentage of non-researchers? Today, that is 95. ‘Democratizing [insert activity]’ is an overused mission statement in SaaS, but in this case, holy moly - frickin’ bull’s eye, Jo.
Maze’s final breakthrough through PLG was unlocking even companies where research didn’t exist as a function. From Braze to Porche to Vanguard, suddenly, everybody wanted a piece of the action.
The only way is up. Upmarket. 📈
From 2018 to 2021, Maze leaned into companies that didn’t have research capacities, and into people who weren’t in research roles - through primarily self-serve. Product-market fit was strong, but Sales was still done ad-hoc.
“It's very sad when you go to sleep at night and, IBM is paying you $19 per month. You feel really bad about yourself.”
Jo needed a way to align the immense value the IBMs of the world were getting out of Maze with the right price point.
Only 15% of Maze’s revenue was driven by their sales motion until 2021.
In 2021, they brought on board Will Paulus - a VP Sales with Mixpanel and Algolia pedigree, who had seen this product-led sales playbook play out at scale before.
And then in a single year, they tripled their ACV and 4xed the percentage of revenue powered by their sales motion. Up from 15% to 55%.
Today, it’s close to 70%.
What had just happened?
“We were no longer selling features. We were selling why you're going to be more efficient with the platform, why you're going to save money, and why you're going to become more competitive with your platform.”
For Maze, self-serve is a way to funnel users into their sales and enterprise motion. The sales pitch changed in tune to prove the mission criticality of the platform, Marketing adapted to produce content to help advocate for the mission of research while Customer Success started activating more users and unlocked pockets for expansion.
The switch to enterprise often also comes tagged with fear. Product fearing that they’ll become a feature factory. Marketing fearing that they’ll drop in significance.
“It's a very, very different mindset to get into, and so, it came to the point where I had to actually write a memo called ‘Going Enterprise’, and I'm happy to share it with your audience as well if they're interested.”
Wait, are you interested? If you are, leave us an ‘aye’, and we’ll send you a copy of Jo’s ‘Going Enterprise’ memo 👇🏻
The brand flywheel ⚙️
“Should I invest in an expensive branding exercise?” - is a question most founders wrestle with in the early days. With the evidence of Maze in full view, it’s difficult to respond to that question with anything other than a “Hell, yes.”
Jo made the conscious decision to invest in Maze’s unique brand really early. For three reasons:
The majority of their first users were designers; they were sensitive to the effort and craft they put into their brand work.
Maze was fighting the battle of the perceived complexity of research. They needed a way to make research seem playful and elevated while telling you “Listen, this is not going to be scary.” The result? See for yourself:
A brand is also a business investment: partnerships, hiring, enterprise sales— a powerful and uniform brand made all of these easier.
Despite being a team of 5 people working out a room, Maze’s early investment in a branding exercise made them seem much more mature than they were to the outside world. It helped them land a partnership with InVision early on. Which helped land Figma. Which helped land Adobe. Which further brought on more users to the platform, and invoked further confidence in existing users. Which further helped in recruitment. Classic flywheel behavior.
“I don’t think most companies invest so much in their brand early on, but for us, we perceived this as both a way to help educate the market with a strong brand.”
Jo’s not done, BTW ⏳
Maze’s ten-year mission is to help companies build hand-in-hand with their users. His goal is to have made research a default in such a way that companies behave just like they had a room full of a hundred of their users available at all times to ask questions to.
“And then it's no longer the company and their users. All of a sudden it's one entity that works together in building and shaping the vision for the company.”
Our full interview with Jo is now live across all (well, most) platforms. For more tea on category creation, NPCs in San Francisco, and what Jo calls “Your Growth Model Is Showing,” tune into the full episode.
This isn’t the first time we’re covering Maze. For a teardown of their growth, check out the other Top of The Lyne feature.