I squinted at the number on my screen.
Could that be right? I closed my eyes and tried to visualize one million people.
That’s equivalent to:
- The entire population of Oslo
- Eleven Wembley Stadiums at full capacity
- The passenger load of nearly 3,000 Boeing 747–400s
That’s also how many people signed up to use our product, Jotform, in 2018.
To me, a million is one of those milestone, release-the-confetti kind of numbers. For a brief moment, I felt a little like Dr. Evil in Austin Powers.
I also know that one million isn’t an earth-shattering figure. Social media giants like Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube add hundreds of millions of new users each year.
Still, I’m proud of those new signups. A million is a big chunk of our total 4.3 million users. We also grew our revenues by 50% in 2018, and we’ve enjoyed that same year-over-year increase since 2011.
I share these numbers not because I’m an egomaniac who’s obsessed with hockey stick growth charts, but because growth — when approached in the right way—can be a healthy measure.
It can show that your product is valuable. People are interested, they feel confident enough to try it out, and hopefully, it makes their lives easier in a tangible way.
Growth also has two sides: acquisition and retention. We could sign up everyone in Oslo, but if few of those people stick around, our bucket has a hole in the bottom.
A healthy company cares equally for both sides of the equation — and it takes different strategies to attract and keep new users.
I don’t claim to have all the answers, but I’m happy to share what we’ve learned over the last few years.
Part I — Acquisition
1. Offer a freemium product
Combine “free” and “premium” and you get freemium — the business model favored by digital companies like Dropbox, Hulu, FreshBooks, and MailChimp.
Users can sign up at no cost, but richer features (like extra storage or ad-free viewing) require a paid subscription. That’s how Jotform works, too.
As Vineet Kumar explains in Harvard Business Review, a freemium model should effectively draw in new users.
“If you’re not succeeding with that goal, it probably means that your free offerings are not compelling enough and you need to provide more or better features free,” says Kumar. “If you’re generating lots of traffic but few people are paying to upgrade, you may have the opposite problem: Your free offerings are too rich, and it’s time to cut back.”
The key is to provide enough access that users immediately reap the benefits, and it’s easier for them to stay with your product than to explore another option — assuming you deliver a high-quality experience.
Take MailChimp, for example. You can sign up for free, but features like automation require a subscription. So, once people start to build and grow an email list inside the platform, switching to a different service would create serious friction.
“Start the paid plans at a stage where the user is too involved to want to stop using your product,” says Forbes contributor and Right Inbox cofounder Sujan Patel. “Think of the scalability of your product and where users need to be to want to pay for your product, or what additional features you can offer to push them over the tipping point.”
SaaS products can either rely on a small user base with a high percentage of paying subscribers (a fully paid model) or a large user base with a lower proportion of paying customers (freemium).
The best model ultimately depends on your business and your goals, but I believe in growing our overall user base — even if a small group pays to subscribe.
Over time, we’ve learned that word of mouth referral is one of our most powerful acquisition tools. Many of our free users tell their friends about Jotform, and that’s great for business.
2. Innovate with hack weeks or sprints
In his 2011 book, Drive, author Dan Pink describes a sprint strategy called the FedEx Day, inspired by an Australian software company:
“… these one-day bursts of autonomy allow people to work on anything they want (as long as it’s not part of their regular job) — provided they show what they’ve created to their colleagues 24 hours later.”
We stretch this 24-hour sprint into a full week, partly because I don’t want our employees to work around the clock, but also because I think five days allows more time for reflection. And recently, one of our team members came up with an idea that eventually doubled our sales.
Whatever you call these sessions, the blend of free time and the freedom to experiment almost always sparks innovation — and innovative solutions attract customers.
“When everyone’s time is too tightly booked on everything else that needs to be done, no gaps remain for the type of innovation that imagines the future and stimulates progress,” writes Aaron Skonnard for Inc. “Hack days create periodic opportunities for each person in the company to step away from their daily workflow and tap into their inner genius, to create a new improvement that can help the company in a game-changing way.”
3. Embed features that encourage virality
Product developers are seemingly obsessed with virality, and for good reason; it’s simply the digital version of word-of-mouth marketing.
We all want people to share our products with friends and colleagues. Viral features give users a little nudge, either to actively spread the word, or to passively connect others with the product through branding, standout functionality, or social connections.
Skype, for example, doesn’t work in a vacuum. Your co-worker needs to join the platform if you’re going to use it for debriefing sessions. And Trello Gold subscribers get extra features like custom stickers, backgrounds, and emojis. As they use these eye-catching tools, other people see what’s possible with a Gold subscription.
At Jotform, all our free users have unobtrusive branding at the bottom of their forms. Everyone who interacts with these forms — to make a payment, complete a sign-up sheet, or plan a meeting, for example — will also see this discreet logo.
Last year, 43.4% of our new signups came from viral features alone. Another 24.9% came from word of mouth. The balance found our product through search engines, referral links, ads, and social media.
It’s important to remember that virality isn’t a trick or something that can be forced. Instead, it’s an organic way to reach new users. Viral features also equip satisfied people to bring others into the loop.
Part II — Retention
“The only purpose of starting is to finish, and while the projects we do are never really finished, they must ship.” —Seth Godin, Linchpin
Ship. Deliver. Release. Publish. Update.
Call it what you like, but Godin’s message is clear: get your products into the hands (and onto the devices) of living, breathing people, then make them better. Repeat. And don’t delay. Our world moves too fast to get tangled up in irrelevant details.
Even once we’ve attracted millions of happy users, we have to keep those people happy. That’s the essence of customer retention — and it’s not always easy.
Our team is constantly looking for new ways to delight our customers. There’s always more to learn, but in my experience, these three techniques will rarely let you down.
1. Be obsessive about product improvement
The best part about building products? They’re never done. There’s always room for improvement. Bugs can be squashed and breakout ideas can be tested.
The worst part about products? They’re never done.
I’m (mostly) joking.
I love the challenge of growing and evolving our product.
There are no limits — and on the best days, it feels like playing in a sandbox. Also, I’m endlessly interested in how people improve their businesses with a tool so (seemingly) mundane as web forms.
But, that’s what all entrepreneurs do. We make apps, programs, and physical products like shoes and razors that may not change lives, but that certainly enhance them. That’s why we owe it to our customers to push for continuous improvement.
It’s the best way to keep users engaged for the long run.
2. Listen closely to your customers
Speaking of razors, Dollar Shave Club first made waves with its quirky marketing video. As the direct-to-consumer business grew to serve over 3 million members and 200 people, it also became known for its company motto:
“We don’t respond to situations; we respond to people.”
That’s the essence of strong customer service and user research.
Technology provides so many ways for us to listen and respond to users, from focus groups and formal research interviews to surveys, review platforms, and feedback or review invitations.
Interviewing our customers to learn how they use Jotform — and what else we can do to help them — has helped us grow in an increasingly competitive market where Google Forms stepped into the ring. It also inspired our biggest release to date, PDF Editor.
Otherwise, we’re driving blind. And by talking to people who use the product in vastly different ways and settings, we have a more precise sense of direction.
Our users help us draw the map.
3. Listen to the data
Data also talks, if we’re willing and able to listen.
For example, the New York Times offered unrestricted online access until 2011, when it started limiting readers to 20 free articles per month. Eventually, the company realized that people were getting too much; they had no reason to pay for a subscription.
By 2012, it cut the number of free stories to 10, and the online paper began to attract more paying customers. The New York Times listened to the data and tweaked its freemium model to hit that Goldilocks-style sweet spot.
We’ve gone through a similar evolution. Last year, our data showed that more free users were applying Jotform to process payments — a high-value product feature. Instead of allowing 10 free payments per month, we lowered it to three.
At first, revenues grew fast. But six months later, we discovered that potential subscribers were slipping away. The data told us that we had made a mistake. So, we reversed our decision and set the payment limit back at 10.
We also listen by releasing new features to a small control group, before they reach the entire user base. Then we analyze the data.
After all, it’s easy to break parts of our product. We dig too deep in the sandbox and take something a little too far. And even if customers can’t explain why they’re unhappy, our usability and A/B testing always reveals what’s going on.
Extra credit: Tell your true story
Paul Graham and Joel Spolsky are two of my startup heroes. I began following them before I launched my company, and 13 years later, I still heed their advice. I truly care about what they’re doing.
That’s because they’ve shared their stories.
Being open, transparent, and even a little vulnerable can help to attract and retain customers. Sharing the details of your struggles and triumphs shows that there’s a real person (or a team of people) working hard behind the scenes.
Think about enjoying a great meal with your friends. As the wine flows and the meal begins, what do we do? We tell stories. We share funny bits from our days, like how there was a guy on the subway with a live parrot.
That’s how people connect.
Your customers want a killer product, but they also want to connect with your brand. They want to know what you’re about and why this work matters to you and your team.
So tell them. And be sure to listen closely when they respond.