“Design Partners are Just Early Customers” and Other Notes on Structuring Early-Stage Research with Spellbound’s Founder, Akshaya Dinesh


In the following exchange, Spellbound’s founder and CEO, Akshaya Dinesh (@akshaya19), gives us a how-it-really-works glimpse into their efforts of shaping the product from scratch, with the studied and spirited involvement of design partners.

How design partners are really early customers
Choosing design partners at various stages of growth
The hands-on work of onboarding design partners
What it takes to get these early users to carve out hours
Continuing customer discovery while focusing on a best-fit segment


How design partners are really early customers

Spellbound really came out of the problems I had faced building Ladder (my previous startup). At Ladder, email marketing was our most successful channel, in terms of driving both acquisition and retention. It essentially helped carry users across the product funnel.

But I always felt that there were tons of missed opportunities with it.

Owing to a path ripe with potential friction. As when someone received one of our emails, they still had to click on a link and go through a bunch of hoops, say, on our website or had to switch between apps on their phone.

And in that long process of trying to get to where they had originally intended (if they didn’t already forget) to go, they would give up. I thought why couldn’t we just allow them to take the necessary action without having to jump out of their inbox.

That’s kind of where the inspiration for Spellbound came from.

As a first step to see beyond my own itch, I began with a bunch of customer discovery conversations and interviewed teams that were sending lots of emails.

Product managers sending out transactional emails. Marketing teams. B2B SaaS folks. B2C. So, all kinds of industries and companies (although, if I were to do this again, I’ll do deeper discovery during this phase and know exactly who we could focus on before heading into the next phase).

As a result, I had this broad pool of insights that I could pull from.

To try and map the common pain points across all those different teams.

I realized that anybody that sends any type of email has the same pain point: “we’re not converting enough. We want more people to be engaged. We want more people to respond or take another action.”

But that was too broad.

So the next thing we did was onboarding design partners.

Other founders have often asked me questions about design partners: “Do I need to get a design partner to sign an LOI?” “Should they pay money for using the product?” “What qualifies them as such?”

There isn’t really a clear definition. To me, they’re just early customers who are willing to use an incredibly unpolished version of the product and offer a lot of instructive feedback.

I’d also add that there were a bunch of folks early on who were verbally quite excited (“This is brilliant, please get me onboard, I’ll pay anything for it”) about the product.

But when I sent them an invoice (and this is where real validation takes place), they actually didn’t care enough to pay. Although, with those who did want to pay, this ask led to some useful, early pricing discussions.

That invoice helped weed out the people who feigned interest and said nice things initially, just because they didn’t want to tell a founder that the product sucked. So I would suggest not going crazy on legal agreements, just the simple monthly subscription fee can be enough.

Past this stage we still brought on many different types of folks. B2B SaaS startups and scale-ups. Ecommerce brands. Other B2C companies.

Even then, the group was quite broad. So we had to pick an industry to focus on among those design partners. And we found out that the ecommerce segment was actively asking us for more features.

They were the ones that kept coming back: ”How do we send more emails? There’s this bug, please help us fix it immediately.” Vs other segments that needed us to keep pushing them, “hey, have you tried using this? Can you do it this way or that way?”

In fact, getting a similar sense of a need’s underlying urgency, shaped our early roadmap. We looked at patterns across multiple customers in the same vertical and asked them repeatedly — “is this a dealbreaker for using Spellbound?” — to isolate the highest priority features.

Choosing design partners at various stages of growth

Our product’s wins come from enabling companies to optimize their email marketing programs and that optimization requires sizable lists. An early stage startup with a few hundred email subscribers just wouldn’t pay us to get a lift on their campaigns.

So we’re a better fit for slightly larger-sized customers.

Even among those bigger folks, our design partners sat at various different stages. We did a couple of pilots with huge, billion-dollar enterprises. Then we also had Series A startups, some still early, others more growth-stage efforts.

Testing across these stages made it clear that we wouldn’t be serving ultra small startups. It also taught us that if we went after companies that were at the very, very large end of the spectrum, we would have to figure out a lot of stuff that we weren’t sure we could.

The usual difficulties. Long sales cycles. Harder cross-function buy-ins. And oftentimes our buyer wasn’t the end user at these big orgs.

So having a variety of design partners helped us narrow down not just the industry-type our best customers could come from but also that the mid-market/SMB sort of companies were going to be the sweet spot for us in the short term.

The hands-on work of onboarding design partners

At first, there was no no-code platform.

For our first design partner, the offer was simple: “we’ll build you a custom-made interactive email from scratch, just so you can test and tell us if the conversion rates improved.”

In this first interaction, we (an engineer and I) were very hands-on and we’d reach out to the partner if we needed something. And they could write to us through a Slack channel we had set up (we still do this for each customer) just for them.

Although there wasn’t a fixed cadence of meetings, we did many calls to onboard them, to learn what sort of analytics they wanted, to set up the email for them, and to gauge the direction they wanted the product to take.

The second design partner was the first to actually have access to a real platform to design their emails in. We spent even more time with them as our product was difficult to QA internally, because of all the edge cases of different email clients and environments.

Plus, it was also heard to ascertain how different customers would use different features.

So we spent several hours on Zoom calls.

Kept getting on the phone with multiple team members to debug, to find out what was missing from the early integrations, and why certain integrations weren’t working.

Both these design partners spent so much time informing the product, it was equivalent to paying for it — we easily took up ~10 hrs from the schedule of 5 full-time employees, so they were technically paying thousands of dollars with their time.

Post these, though, as we had the majority of things cleaned up and a clearer reading of the advantages we were offering, we started charging.

What it takes to get these early users to carve out hours

How do you get someone to spend that much time?

I’d say that comes down to early stage founder hustle. And it really helps to have pre-existing relationships with those first design partners.

Our first, whom we had built a bespoke email for, was actually another startup in the accelerator batch we were a part of. I already had some rapport with them. They trusted me with their time because we were going through a similar experience at the accelerator.

Then, we onboarded our second design partner as an advisor to incentivize them.

Giving people some advisor equity or some way to make them feel they have a stake in the business, is a great way to get them to spend more time. This can also mean that maybe they’re an angel investor. Or maybe they’re friends with one of your investors.

Just keep hustling within your network to see who you already know, who has a reason to want to help you, and then turn them into a design partner.

If you’re thinking of getting your first 10 customers with BDR-style cold emails, chances are none of them are going to care enough to carve out that much from their schedules.

This reaffirms what my mentors in B2B have always said. That the first 10, maybe 20 customers are never brought in cold, they always come from the network.

Starting with a warm introduction ensures that they feel they can’t just screw you over and have to stick around and listen to you.

Continuing customer discovery while focusing on a best-fit segment

Another thing we’ve done is that we never switched off the discovery phase.

There are 3 learning stages that all startups go through:

The first is the customer discovery phase where you’re doing pure research interviews, just talking to potential customers. There’s no product at this step. You’re not trying to sell them anything. Just mapping out the broadest possible pain points.

Then there’s the design partnerships phase, where you’re onboarding a very deliberate cohort of early adopters to get feedback and iterate on the product.

The third phase is when you start onboarding customers.

And I’ve continued having discovery conversations across the last two phases.

I still take meetings with whoever would talk to me about interactive emails. Still searching for different challenges and having a better insight into the ones that we’ve already built for.

This often means talking to people outside of our chosen segment.

Even though we’re focused on ecommerce, I still talk to other B2B and B2C companies. So that I can hear out new use cases and envision what the product might be able to help them with years down the line.

Or perhaps I can just point them in a competitor’s direction, that way, help them with advice in the short term and keep in touch for the future.

It’s always nice to make sure that even though you’re doubling down towards one direction, you’re not closing yourself off to other opportunities. Striking a necessary balance between being focused and open at the same time.


Related reading from the Relay archives:

Cord’s co-founder, Nimrod Priell, on why they did 78 pre-product user interviews
Userlist’s co-founder, Jane Portman, on research that preceded building a must-have SaaS


Thanks for sharing notes on Spellbound’s early research, @akshaya19!

The bit on understanding the special commitment these early customers make and designing their incentives accordingly is so important to get right.

You’ve also hinted at how these first conversations helped inform your thoughts on Spellbound’s pricing. What else has helped there, given that you’re pricing for a category as established and competitive as email marketing?


Hi Krish! Love what you’ve built. In terms of pricing, we’re still really early and have a lot of work to do there as we scale. Our product is actually quite unique in that we have very few competitors in our customer segment, so we’re not worried about the competitive nature of pricing.