Mark Tanner, Co-founder of Qwilr on the pitfalls of freemium & building in "The Land Down Under" 🙌🏼
Humans of PLG💥 ft. Human extraordinaire, Mark Tanner; the OG from Qwilr; Insight-packed, candid and LOTSA fun! Check out the full episode👇🏼
👋 Hey there! Welcome back to 🥁 Humans of PLG💥—a space where we bring you insights directly from the OGs - the humans in the drivers’ seat, building your favorite PLG companies.
Since we started this newsletter, our #1 goal has been to get enough folks excited about the product-led world that we so dearly love ❤️; this is yet another extension of this grand effort.
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Today, we’re picking the 🧠 of Mark Tanner, Cofounder and Chief Operating Officer at Qwilr; a smart document builder at brings the latest in design, web-based technology, and automation to your customer communications. 📑
As of today, deals worth more than $1B have been closed on Qwilr by teams at HP, ZenDesk, TikTok, MorningStar, Dropbox, and thousands of other businesses across the globe.
On a mission to make PDFs, Google Docs, and PowerPoint decks, today’s Human of PLG: Mark Tanner, is an ex-Googler himself!
We met Mark less than two weeks ago, as the guest of our opening edition of the closed-door Humans Of PLG💥 Fireside Chat series (more of these are coming up, stay tuned!)
Mark has spent time at McKinsey as an Analyst and at Google, leading Business for Android and Google Play early in his career. In 2014, he founded Qwilr with his childhood friend, Dylan; and the rest, as they say, is history.
In the 8 years that Mark has helmed Qwilr; the company has gone from strength to strength. Well over the $10Mn ARR mark, and having closed a $7.25Mn Series A in 2020; the company boasts a clientele that swears by the product! (We did a deep-dive on their growth levers. Check it out here.)
We dig deeper on all things Product-led Growth, the Qwilr story, the looming recession, and Mark’s hot take on freemium vs. free trial! 👇🏼
This interview is edited for clarity.
Mark’s Journey from Google to Qwilr 🏎
Mark Tanner (MT): It was quite serendipitous, actually. At university, I interned at McKinsey and very, nearly went down the consultant path, when an uncle of mine had this job available. Then, Google happened a truly excellent world-class tech company. Being on the Android rocket ship from 2010 to 2013 was like completely bonkers. Frankly, after that, the Google Play team was amazingly poorly managed on many fronts.
And it just didn't matter. We had this crazy stretch goal of getting 5 billion in revenue through the thing, which they hit like a year and a half early. And you're like, it just doesn't matter when you're on like a rocket ship like that. It just doesn't matter. It was certainly good to see both sides, but certainly, after four years at Google, I had had enough. I was ready to come back, and build something of my own.
On Bull and Bear cycles ⬇️
MT: I believe it's the founder's job to shield the team from a lot of this, because in the end, a lot of this is just noise, right?
I think whether you are getting a 100X ARR, multiple, or an 8X ARR multiple, for the average engineer, salesperson, or growth person, this stuff just comes and goes and changes with the time. A lof this is irrelevant to like doing what we are here to do, on a daily basis, which is to build excellent products, build an excellent go-to-market motion, sell to customers, and have them be happy, so we can retain them for many, many months.
What does it take for our Meme-Driven startup? 🎯
MT: At the end of the day, so much of it is just about: Do you have a great product? Have you figured out who your ICP is? Have you figured out how to position it to them?
What channels are they in? What memes do they like for your meme-driven startup? Figuring out these parts of the puzzle is really where the pain point lies. Do they enjoy coming to webinars with strange bearded Australians?
You’re experimenting constantly to figure out all these answers, and that’s where the focus should always be. An amazing bull run or the lows of a real sort of recession, et cetera. To try to not be too distracted by the noise is sort of the goal.
[Amen, Mark. Amen. Life Motto 🙌🏼]
On Freemium vs. Free Trial ↹
MT: My fingers have been burned by freemium a few different times. All these things depend on the context and what matters. With freemium, it can be easy to lie to yourself. With free users, the NPS can paint a totally inaccurate picture. They’re saying they love your product, but when you’re like, cool, now pay me like a hundred dollars. And hardly anyone does.
The real question you must always try to answer, is, how many of our customers are willing to pay you and pay you continually over a long period of time? I believe that freemium can be a little dangerous that way when you don’t have a specific point where you are forcing people to make a purchase decision.
So, it’s really useful to understand for your go-to-market motion, why your customers aren’t willing to pay. And I think that, with free, it can be hard for founders in the early stages to get an accurate assessment of customers’ pain points.
On the other hand, though, Canva has been free for ages. And it worked out pretty well for them. So, it really depends on context. In either case, you need to be pretty brutal with yourself about the nature of your customers: Are they genuinely active and happy with your product? Do we have a real path towards monetizing them? Cause a lot of people have fallen over by telling themselves easy lies.
[Damn, Mark. Spitting hard facts 🤯]
Founder-Led Sales to Sales team transition 💡
MT: With founder-led sales, you haven’t written down a proper process, or scoped out how you do this or that. So with the first hire you make, they just have to shadow you on every customer call and pitch. Early on you just doing that classic thing of just shadowing me let's go together. Then you flip it around and you have them lead it. , they take it on and that you start following them and giving them feedback. In my opinion, for an early sort of sales hire, it's okay for them to be relatively junior. As long as they’re hungry and ambitious. A little bit of sales background behind them is great, but you don't have to hire someone from Salesforce someone who is perfectly trained.
You just want someone who's gonna go out there, work really hard, and figure it out. And who's sort of just like eager and keen and involved and just very driven. I ran the sales team up till like relatively recently, managing at least a dozen folks between AEs and SDRs.
By staying close to the sales team you still have a pretty good tight feedback loop.
But I would say that the wonderful thing about sales is, that it's an incredibly easy discipline to manage in terms of I'm gonna help you, I'm gonna be onboarding with you.
And so I think like trusting that, that will happen. And again, you can do little tricks, like hiring two people at the same time so that they are collaborative, but also a little bit competitive and push each other along and that sort of side of things.
On Sales in Australia 🇦🇺
MT: There are a lot of technical founders out there who think of sales as being gross and as “used car salesmen” and whatever else and blah, blah, blah. And I think actually in Australia's a huge problem because Atlassian and Canva both spoke very publicly for a very long time about how they don't have any sales people, blah, blah, blah, blah. That's awesome for them. Both of them now have large sales teams, but I think you do sometimes need to encourage people. Cause at the end of the day, that sort of early founder sales is actually just as much about whether you're trying to convince them to buy from you. It's actually as much about like you just like learning from them and because you are the founder. They'll give you more feedback than they would just some generic sales rep I suppose, is another way of framing it.
On Benchmarking your PLG motion 📈
There's a lot of buzzwords in PLG. There's a lot of talk about free or this or that or whatever. And I think at the end of the day, not everything that every other company does is gonna work for you. You have to be very thoughtful, but also agnostic about how you approach everything here. And not, much as it's very easy to benchmark yourself against everybody else and be like, oh, why is it my conversion rate this or my K-factor that or whatever else.
Just be honest and being brutal with yourself about asking yourself those tough questions, which again, I think very much in the land of the free, it's very easy to not ask yourself the tough questions about - would anyone actually pay money for this? Is this actually providing real value and all that sort of stuff? And so I'd say that'd be the one part that I would want people to pay attention to. Cause those hard questions or hearing those nos or whatever it is. That causes pain.
Jerry Seinfeld has a line, which is “Pain is knowledge entering the body very quickly.”
You need that and so I think avoiding those sort of hard things is the one thing I would encourage you not to do.
On “Made with X” buttons 💥
MT: One thing I would say this is a very small thing, but like for both Typeform and for Qwilr - All the little branding bits that you have on your website, like, you know, there's a little button that says, “Made with Qwilr” or “Create your own with Qwilr” like that stuff. It's amazing how much that doesn't matter. That matters for people paying you money to remove that. Cuz they don't want it. It's great for converting someone from free to pay because they're like, ugh, I don't want this like ugly “Made with Wix” on my thing or whatever. But no one clicks on that. The clicks on the button were maybe 2% of viral visits. I mean, once we sort of figured that out and got to understanding how to sort of measure and track that that was like a huge moment for us and really unlocked a lot of growth.
Transitioning from Sales-led to Product-led 🤸🏼♀️
MT: The annoying answer is that it really just depends. Depends on your business. Depends on whether it really should have a product-led growth motion or a sales-led motion or marketing-led motion or some other sort of thing. I think that I think that if you feel though, as a founder, with a degree of confidence and clarity that something like this should be product-led. It’s hard to have PLG if you don't have self-serve. Obviously. And so, there's a whole bunch of work you can do around optimizing self-serve.
It could also mean that the product has some version of in-built tools as drivers of growth. Maybe, marketing or sales can try to expand it inside the company. Or you ideally have both where you are doing, an external loop as well as an internal.
With product-led growth, the mindset is to build a scalable engine that doesn't require headcount to grow. It just takes time to get going and you see these little inflection points and with the power of compounding, you will move.
A 10% improvement followed by a 10% improvement can lead to a 21% net improvement. It just needs the right kind of effort and patience for the effects to kick in.
On Qwilr’s Time To Value ⏰
This is I think a little bit of the founder's curse. I hate our onboarding. I'm like, oh, this could be so much better. But I think look, we did spend a lot of time on that. We did think a lot about it.
We did a lot of testing and iteration. We actually have a team right now. One of our product teams is working on activation. And doing some interesting work there, and I think one of the things that we've found as we've gone along is… and I'd say like one of the things that we're working on right now, which has been a super, super interesting lens, that's changed my thinking about how we approach this is:
When people come to Qwilr, there's a bunch of different jobs that they're looking to do. When we have people come to Qwilr now we now as part of the signup flow, ask them what are you looking to solve? Are you looking for like document automation? Are you looking for an all in one tool? So you get document, e-sign payment, all that sort of stuff in one, are you looking for just building incredibly beautiful, compelling proposals? Are you looking for like analytics to better understand your sales cycle, blah blah.
And you can choose more than one of these, but we now rank each of those things against their activation rate, their week two active rate and against their conversion. And it is wild, how much you see these different volumes coming in and then have different levels of activation here.
And so again, we are now thinking if you come in and you really care about analytics, maybe we should drop you in the dashboard first. Do you know what I mean? If you really care about document automation, maybe we should drop you into I don't know, the Salesforce or HubSpot CRM.
I think and this is that classic thing of PLG. It never ends. Like you think you're like, oh, we've done all this work and it's gotten better. And you're like, actually there's 75 more layers here.
Watch the full interview where Mark talks about viral loops, Sales, PLG, and more here 👇
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