In the following exchange, Kairn’s co-founder, Patricia Bernasconi (@Patricia_Kairn), counters the often implied inevitability of product-market fit in the notion that all one ever needs to do is to build something people want.
She reflects on a determined, 3-year run of building — triumphantly, with a much-loved, product-of-the-week finish on PH — towards just that end. And recounts how cracking a SaaS category’s particular challenges in terms of account expansion and monetization play as crucial a role as pursuing user love.
— The importance of validating all early assumptions
— What an extraordinary Product Hunt launch uncovered
— Reasons that made a pivot incredibly hard
— What product-led growth really demands from startups
Early-stage validation has a lot of different steps.
If I was to go back to the very first set of questions I’d ask, they’re personal ones:
- Have I deeply experienced a given problem?
- How often have I searched for solutions?
- Is that a domain I want to pursue?
- Do I actually want to put my time into building something?
Kairn’s roots were in my own project management background. I had worked for different startup incubators. I had managed mergers and acquisitions. All complex projects where you have to make sure that a lot of people decisively work together.
And I had faced a lot of challenges using popular products such as Asana. Everyone else I worked with kept complaining about how difficult it was to really make effective progress. This formed the earliest layer of problem validation for me.
I followed that up with around 300 user interviews spread across 2 months.
We worked on Kairn with eFounders, the startup studio behind some great B2B SaaS companies. They were seeing the same problem play out across a lot of teams they supported and we decided it was a deep enough market for us to take a crack at.
With a goal of trying to talk to a lot of different personas, I’d interview freelancers, senior managers at big companies, and then team members/doers within those companies.
Just to understand who was doing what and how. Sometimes these were long conversations, sometimes short ones. Sometimes I even did Typeform-ish things to gather a bit more quantitative data.
But I’d say, even with all that in place, there’s one thing you struggle with as a founder. You have a strong bias and it’s very hard to avoid that. Something that shows up in the way you ask questions, in the way you present things, and it’s hard to step out of it.
How do you make sure that the Typeform you just sent out, is not trying to gather opinions that you are pushing people to give you?
That’s something I’d like to challenge.
Still, pretty much everyone we’d ask if they felt their work was well prioritized for the week, responded with a clear no. We saw that enough people faced this problem.
What we mistakenly assumed from the problem validation research was that just because teams (yes, not just people) already pay for project management apps, they’d be willing to pay for a new one.
3 years in and having made the decision to wind Kairn down, validating a more concrete path towards monetization, is something I’d definitely want to revisit.
We did our Product Hunt launch in March 2022.
By then Kairn was already being used by a lot of users as we had done multiple soft launches. Having started early in the summer of 2020, we had put out the first version (however embarrassing it was :)) by October that year.
It didn’t look great, but had this one main feature, Capture.
Essentially a way for people to add tasks, no matter which app they were using. We knew that people were switching from existing, more complex tools, primarily because of that feature.
So we tried to stick to this source of user love and built around it. We were onboarding people and building everything thinking: “how do we make sure that within 5 minutes of usage, the user understands the value, falls in love, and decides to switch?”
And we had some fantastic activation rates as a result.
(A few notes of praise from Kairn’s Product Hunt launch)
50% of people who had created more than 15 tasks in Kairn stayed for more than 6 months.
The crazy success of the Product Hunt launch (we were product of the month and brought in 3000+ sign-ups) forced us to go completely self-serve. And we realized that it’ll be hard work to maintain the same activation rates without manual assistance.
While the product was easy to start using, we needed to be constantly on users’ minds so whenever they thought ‘oh I need to do that’ they’d think of logging it on Kairn. That took us a lot of product iterations to be present without being pushy.
The other hard yet good thing that launch did for us was that it diversified our user base.
We went from incredibly tech-savvy people (ex: devs, growth marketers), who loved the keyboard shortcuts we had, the speed, the integrations, and other power features, to a lot of users who didn’t care about those as much.
Because we were ultimately building a horizontal solution, which made us ask: How do we replicate the same kind of activation for folks who don’t love exploring products and trying new habits? We needed them to fall in love with things that had so far been so core to the product’s adoption.
It was such an interesting moment.
Until then, we thought that we had built Kairn as an app that anyone could use. But the reality was different. It fitted super well for some power users and others simply didn’t get it. It was too techy. The product interactions were too trendy, which, in the end, turned out to be quite niche.
Shaping each aspect so close to user love for a specific sort of user, was almost a trap. 1) If the tool has a high enough price point (ex: Superhuman $30 per user/month) that early niche is sizable enough for you to build a business.
In our case, the category doesn’t command the same price points. At best, you’re looking at $10 per user/month. Then 2) unlike an email client, a product like Kairn needs to be adopted by everyone on a team.
Thus we could have easily monetized the individual users that loved us, but we would have missed out on our prized value prop which was user-first, bottom-up project management.
Even if 4 out 10 people in a team really enjoyed using our product, it didn’t matter, we needed the whole team otherwise projects would always remain partially updated.
That’s where we trapped ourselves.
We had assumed that we had product-market fit based on Kairn’s crazy early adoption, when we were only ever halfway there. We built too close to some users, forgetting that we needed wider adoption.
Our next focus right after the PH launch was unlocking team-wide adoption that’s where we had to deliver the most and, as importantly, capture the most value.
Then the tech market crashed.
Which almost immediately made teams way more careful about their budgets. Mandates were passed to ensure that the company only paid for software that everyone was using and that no team would use more than a single solution for the same job.
Plus, Notion was starting to build out more and more towards project management. And we knew that it would be hard for us to fight against them. Again, Kairn had excellent traction with individuals, not with extended teams.
Our runway was limited and investors criteria changed from number of users to number of paid company accounts. We started hunting for ideas that we could monetize.
One that we followed throughout the last summer involved a fundamental pivot. We had always gotten requests from some SaaS customers to integrate Kairn directly into their products.
The idea was to introduce Kairn’s collaborative features such as comments and Slack-like integrations into these tools. Our mission, then, became figuring out how we could provide developers with an SDK that enabled them to add collaboration in their SaaS.
This idea for a dev tool had a lot less friction in terms of monetization, but the question was how best to approach it? We even built an MVP over the summer and tested it out.
What dawned on me during that process was the reality that I had hired the team for a very specific mission. Kairn’s original mission. Which was: how do we build something that ensures that people feel like they’re having a great day at work?
Onboarding people onto an entirely different vision was very challenging.
I had to decide.
“Should I keep going?”
“Change the team completely?”
“Just because I wanted to keep the word, entrepreneur, in my LinkedIn bio?”
Was this an idea I could commit to?
Because dev tools take a long time to take shape and marketing them is a totally different play, too.
And although people were finding this new proposition appealing, research was also telling us that in-product collaboration was considered too much of a core thing and it would be very tricky for companies to agree to “externalize it”.
A lot of companies weren’t willing to outsource this part of their product. So we had a team that wasn’t keen on that new direction, and little market confirmation.
We ultimately decided against pursuing the pivot.
Another acutely difficult issue you need to tackle while creating an early-stage PLG roadmap, is that you’re really juggling 4 different roadmaps.
A unique one for:
- acquisition (what’s our differentiating winner?),
- activation (what will get people faster to an aha moment?),
- retention (what are the most-expected essentials, given that we were in an established space),
- and monetization (as I touched on earlier, what would be our individual-to-team, multi-player value prop that’ll be worth paying for?)
Overall, features that’ll bring new people in AND those that’ll make them stay.
They’re often not the same ones.
For a lean team of 10, we really needed to prioritize well.
The Capture feature I referenced earlier fell very much in the acquisition camp. But it didn’t help at all in expanding to others within a team.
Our Slack integration gave us access (acquisition) to Slack’s user base and made us visible to different people (expansion) in a particular team.
That was a non-stop, big question for us. How to pick which feature to prioritize and keep pushing in those 4 directions almost simultaneously.
How do we balance all these? I really believe that when we say, product-led growth, it’s not just about having a nice product. It means that the product is a growth machine. Hitting all growth levers at once.
— Nira’s co-founder, Hiten Shah, on pivots vs hops
— Basis’ founder, Bebe Kim, on why biz fundamentals trump all silicon-valley “must-haves”
— Missive’s co-founder, Phlippe-Antoine Lehoux, on how passionate early-adopters (who weren’t quite best-fit users) helped them set foundations for their actual paying customers