The following exchange with Passionfroot’s co-founder and CEO, Jennifer Phan (@jen), surfaces a single recourse to the gusts of uncertainties any startup stands to face — a total, pre-product embrace of a community-first approach to building.
— The two realizations that led Jennifer towards this path
— How the community has helped shape the product, the GTM motion, and their cap table
— How they’re building a horizontal product with a vertical focus
— Jennifer’s thoughts on the current SaaS moment
Passionfroot has its roots in two realizations.
The first came about by the way of a side project.
I come from the VC world, so investing was my day job. But during the pandemic, I started a newsletter. Covering startups and technologies I was drawn to, particularly those that had a positive impact on our society and environment.
And within the course of shipping a few editions, putting my perspectives and experiences out there, I was able to attract a group of like-minded people. And many opportunities along with them.
The second insight came from being a part of On Deck’s no-code fellowship. Specifically via our program director, KP, who said something like: “Building in public and building an audience are powerful ways to increase your surface area of luck.”
These made me realize that starting a company doesn’t have to mean starting with a full-fledged algorithm or product. You can start with a newsletter. Or a podcast. And learn directly from the emerging audience.
Thus our pre-launch path with Passionfroot so far has been all about immersing ourselves into the worlds of our potential customers and gauging their hurdles; solving some with community-driven content first and taking others back to inform the product.
One could say, we’ve been community-first, product-second.
We take embedding ourselves in the community very seriously.
Our first hire after the fundraise wasn’t an engineer but a creator. This person is helping us build out a creators studio — a group of media brands and collectives — with an aim, quite like Relay, of inspiring and empowering creators with real stories, insights, and data.
The studio and the product already fuel each other.
Some of our content experiments have informed what we’ve built.
A very concrete example is the subject of pricing. Creators, unlike typical businesses, don’t have access to as many benchmarks for their offerings and thus end up with ineffective pricing structures.
We’ve solved this by sharing relevant content to some extent and are also working on surfacing pricing data within the product.
Then, we’ve also brought our community on to our cap table. Yes! Around 30% of our investors are actually creators themselves.
This happened because we’ve been working really closely with these folks to build out Passionfroot, deeply understanding their pain-points, and almost co-developing the solution together based on their feedback.
Inputs from the community aren’t just restricted to the product. Our go-to-market, how we think about positioning our brand, and even how we’ve drafted our messaging, have all benefited from their vantage.
And we arrived at this level of immersion by doing user research, almost as services, operating as COOs for different creators. To really just see what their day-to-day pains were, what workflows they struggled with most, and how they wanted to grow.
Because, sometimes, as a creator, you’re on so much of a hamster wheel that you don’t stop to think about some of those issues.
We were really taking inspiration from other founders in the network. One of them, who is also an angel investor, and is building for the air cargo space, actually interned at an air freight provider to get a deeper sense of the processes they could fix.
With that kind of work, some of the creators in the community started believing so much in our core idea that they ended up as first users, and also, as early investors.
This ‘do things that don’t scale,’ and ‘be their COO’ principle also extends once a user gets onboarded. Our customer success team runs a concierge program where they bring some of our users up to speed, manually, by really digging into their requests.
Acting as their no-code ops specialists, essentially, finding ways to solve things using no-code tools (such as Typeform and Zapier) they already use and constantly learning how we can automate some workflows better within our product.
All of this has helped us navigate the PMF questions such as: What are some of the signals to after? Should we build new features? Or invest in existing features?
This process has allowed us to identify hundreds of challenges that creators face. Including the tech stacks they work with, where competitive advantages might lie for us, and what our overall impact can be.
We’ve found that if we wish to truly improve their lives, we’ll have to build a very end-to-end, all-in-one sort of horizontal product like Notion/Shopify. Something that serves as a CRM and an invoicing tool. A single source of truth and a way to make money.
Quite broad, but still solving for one big use case: ‘As a creator, I’d like to make money with my digital products without having to juggle 20 different tools (it’s super annoying even if they’re no-code ones)’
And although the product is definitely pretty horizontal, to learn faster, we’re still niching down vertically by focusing on specific types of creators first.
Seeing people replace existing systems and habits with the product, plus funneling more and more transactions week on week through it, have been really strong signals. The next step is to introduce pricing and gauge PMF signals from that filter.
Quite well capitalized in the current situation.
Then it’s also worth mentioning that our target group of customers aren’t the big tech scale-ups who’re experiencing budget cuts and unfortunate lay-offs. The creator economy, in general, is still in its infancy. And things can still play out in many different ways.
In the big picture sense, as they say, great companies get built during such periods.
As early stage companies are forced to build on very strong foundations and get the fundamentals right. Have some KPIs and rules which, probably, should never have left the list in the first place over the past few years, but are back on now.
So yes, it’s definitely hard but perhaps a useful, necessary correction that’ll force us to embrace the realities better and faster.