Evolving the Many-Sided Levers of Positioning and Expansion with Slite’s Co-Founder, Christophe Pasquier

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In the following exchange, Slite’s co-founder and CEO, Christophe Pasquier (@christophepas), briefly outlines the many shifts that have marked their efforts across: 1) positioning (from the quiet, passive beginnings of being early in an emerging category to the assertive differentiation required to take on the likes of Notion and Coda) and 2) expansion (from establishing it manually to mastering PLG).

Figuring positioning (and product) and their intertwined ways
Recognizing and shaping expansion

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“…we could be opinionated with certain workflows”

Slite’s story began in 2016.

Back then, our primary motivation came from realizing that writing was an important part of knowledge work and there were no products that addressed this necessity well.

The existing standards didn’t seem adequate. You had Google Docs for SMBs. Quip, Confluence, and others for enterprises. Not to mention the countless note-taking apps aimed at the prosumer market.

The problem with note apps and even with Google Docs was that they lacked basic collaboration features and enterprise products were way too complex. And the writing experience, save for some note apps, was terrible across the board.

Just as Slack brought B2C UX conventions to how messaging was done in the enterprise world, we wanted to do the same with writing and import the experience of the best note-taking apps and merge those from the start with organizational features.

Which was a new category and thus we didn’t spend as much time on positioning.

Our earliest attempts at messaging were quite direct.

The first: ‘The note app for teams.’

Followed by: ‘Get your team to write things down.’

As we began onboarding more and more successful teams and started learning what set them apart, another realization dawned on us. Those teams already had a deep culture of asynchronous communication powered through writing. They had a remote way of operating that was far from mainstream at the time.

Our simple, early positioning (‘note app for teams’) clearly fell short.

Which lead us to the next, more ambitious direction: ‘Where teams share knowledge.’

Around the same time, products such as Notion and Coda were beginning to explode. That changed things. For the longest time, we had been passive on the differentiation front, because being the only product in the category, it was all being done for us.

Now, we had to proactively convey our particular stance.

Yet another direction (definitely one that was much closer to those exploding alternatives at first) emerged through that competitive push: ‘One combined workspace. All your team documentation.’

Followed by differentiated versions that focussed on our ideal customers.

‘The perfect communication tool for remote teams.’

‘The workspace for async teams.’

This was an exciting shift.

Because it suddenly widened the gap between what we were saying to the market and what we were building. And it forced us to identify Slite’s true uniqueness in the process.

The thing with Notion, Coda, and others is that they’re built (at least that’s how they’re positioned) for everyone. They have to shape the products in a way that works for a senior designer at a startup and someone who just wants to curate a recipe book.

That comes with obvious drawbacks.

We didn’t have those at Slite. We could be more focussed because we were only building for remote teams that had deep async habits. Teams that wanted to bring the whole richness of their work into one tool for the purpose of collaboration.

So we could be opinionated with certain workflows. For instance, if we know a lot of these teams use us for project prioritization and roadmapping, we can chase features that cover those processes end-to-end.

For these teams, a document needed to be a blank canvas, where they could sketch mock-ups, monitor weekly progress, and even record themselves.

All that progress inside the product came about because of articulating why we were really different.

And over the past year or so, the search for that differentiated depth in the product, has surfaced a new featureset. A way to better address: Who owns goals? Are they on track? What kind of decision-making needs to happen for a project to be successful?

That specific product direction has made its way back into our messaging.

Making us highlight the outcomes we enabled over simply stating what we did.

‘Where remote teams make decisions and share knowledge’

And, I know, given how intertwined messaging and product have always been throughout Slite’s existence, a new iteration is never too far.

This speaks to how we think about demand as well.

If we were to capture existing demand, we’d only compete in the team wiki space. That recurring demand helps us pay the bills and everything. But we believe that we can have a much wider impact if we introduce more people to an async way of working and generate new demand in the process.

Something that aligns with our aim of building something exceptional and ambitious.

Which is why, I still contribute to our product marketing efforts, trying to put into words what we’re enabling for our users and continuously translating what we’re learning into various resources — templates, handbooks, a newsletter dedicated to async, etc. — not just the product.

“It’s our core growth lever”

Slite’s value is directly proportional to the percentage of people that use it in an org. Most of our best customers have adoption rates hitting north of 70%.

Expansion, then, is our core growth driver.

In the early years, we drove this through getting into the weeds and manually onboarding as many customers as we could. That, honestly, was the only way to get people started with that new tool.

Today, it’s different.

We rely on product-driven expansion mechanisms. Two of them to be precise.

There’s the basic, bottom-up adoption. A small team within a larger team or an individual inside a small team might pick us up first and they bring on additional users to work with and it spreads from there.

The other expansion pattern is expansion through use cases. Let’s say you come in for the wiki, end up liking the writing experience, and use it enough to bump against new async workflows you can implement. Which, again, kicks off the cycle of new users and teams joining Slite.

Product-led growth remains our biggest tool for growth and retention. And we’ve experimented to accelerate this across the funnel.

For instance, back when we were going through YC, our growth partner, Gustaf Alströmer, recommended a simple experiment that resulted in 5x more accounts with 2+ users almost immediately. It was massive. For users signing up with Google, we would import company contacts from their account and push them to invite potential collaborators to Slite.

But we’re still figuring out adoption. Especially when, with a tool like Slite, we’re hoping that a large group of people will change their habits of operating together.

How does that happen?

My best guess is that you have to give teams something that’s a game-changer, not just a vitamin. So the moment they have some people onboard, they realize our differentiated value quickly.

We’re starting to see some signs of this already with our latest product update. There’s a significant change in how people think of Slite ever since we’ve tied documentation practices to a decision log.

Our bet is that this would become an excellent entry point into new teams.

Then there’s pricing.

A good PLG strategy is incomplete without understanding pricing’s driving role. Although we have tiers, expansion doesn’t really mean upselling higher plans, it’s all about bringing in more users and teams.

So we have to be very deliberate about having just the right kind of friction when people are expanding seats. With free-to-paid conversions the more we can nudge people to bring on teams even on the free plan, the better we can grow going forward. We’ve done a lot of A/B testing to get it right.

In 2020, for example, we went from a metric of 50 docs a month on the free plan to 50 docs in total. This reduced the free accounts that would never have converted and those that were frequently making product demands quite far off from our roadmap.

More recently, we’ve been deploying a combination of pricing and product iterations to also push new user acquisition. By incentivizing public sharing of docs through the ability to brand them, sharing multiple docs at once, and better analytics on the one hand, and removing pricing restrictions on guest sharing on the other.

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Related reading from the Relay archives:

Loops’ co-founder, Chris Frantz, on deliberating aiming at a “won-and-done” category
Sunsama’s founder, Ashutosh Priyadarshy on reexamining the Superhuman onboarding

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Thanks for doing this, @christophepas! Also thank you for coming to our Amsterdam office. It was great meeting you (first time we have met someone doing the gorelay session).

Can totally relate to how one’s attention to positioning’s impact, changes so much over time, especially when building in a new category. And it’s so great to read that you still take the time to directly contribute to Slite’s product marketing efforts.

On that same thread, what have been the most decisive and impactful growth/marketing roles you’ve hired for and at what points during Slite’s journey did they happen?

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Thanks for having me Krish!

First impactful hires for us were

  • Product marketing, obvious given the article :sweat_smile:. We even wrote on why your first marketing hire should be a product marketer!
  • And growth engineering. Our model is based on bottom up adoption and sometimes virality across teams. Our best marketing tool is our product, and we invested in it 3 years in, when revenue was starting to grow correctly and so that we had validation of the current users experience, retention and conversion to paid.
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