How do you create a GTM strategy that will reach one of the world’s hardest targets — the developer?
Erik Frieberg, CMO at Solo.io, and his team are successfully gaining developers’ attention with the launch of Solo Academy. Helping thousands skill up on advanced application networking topics. The results speak for themselves.
Solo Academy’s instructor-led and on-demand courses are developer-approved, with 8000+ learners (leads) and an NPS score of 75.
Here’s the full story on why the Solo.io marketing team focuses on education and community in their developer marketing strategy? What results does this bring in for marketing and sales? How the bottom-up approach helps scale adoption and drives advocacy.
- Solo.io focuses on creating engaging buyer journeys for developers using education
- Generated 8,000+ registrations (within 2 months) since the launch of Solo Academy with an NPS score of 75
- Give fully hands-on access to their products to developers, showing exactly how it works
- Community-led is not for pipeline and sales. It is for education and brand awareness
- Now field engineers can do 80% more work and focus on content by using Instruqt’s automation features for infrastructure setup and maintenance
Solo.io — Application Networking from Edge to Service Mesh
Solo.io helps organizations move to microservices and Kubernetes. These products help developers with the application networking or communication between microservices. They provide application networking in the form of Glue Edge, which is an API gateway, and the glue is glue. Glue Mesh is a service mesh.
Founded in 2017, Solo.io focuses on control, reliability, and improving security observability. One key thing is that we’re an open-source and commercial product. This leads to the idea of an open core with enterprise subscriptions. Over the past year, they’ve had tremendous growth. Most importantly, their customers like them. A renewal rate is well over 98%. So pretty much everybody renews with them.
How does a software company reach unicorn status within four years?
There are big three big things that worked in our favor.
First, we are an open-source company—our fast growth results from a marketing strategy built on the product-led and community-led approach.
Second, At Solo.io, we sell a subscription. We do not work on a SaaS product model. We sell a subscription, which is key, versus a SaaS product. We’re not a website you want to give access to. We’re selling a subscription for a product.
Third, we can track that 80% of our sales are bottom-up product-led growth. And about 20% of there are more top-down initiatives companies have around digital transformation or move to microservices.
What does product-led growth mean at Solo.io?
At Solo.io, we mainly focus on two aspects of PLG. One is showing people how they can solve critical problems they have. And the second is to demystify it.
What do I mean by showing them, not telling them? It’s by having them experience the software for themselves.
Many of us are in marketing, and we go out and buy different products in the marketplace.
There’s a huge difference when somebody tells you how this tool works versus another person who says, okay, let’s do a 30-day trial and give you your hands-on access.
Because when you get hands-on access, you’re also like, Oh, wow, it’s like you open the kimono when you get full access versus constantly wondering, “I know you tell me this, but does the product work this way?”
And all those “gotchas” you don’t find out after buying it.
Why do you focus on targeting developers?
This is the majority of our marketing efforts. We go after developers, platform engineers, and SREs because they are really hands-on. We focus on the developers because they’re the users of our product.
We still do campaigns and messaging towards IT managers and further up the organization, but most of our PLG efforts are for the people who would be using our products.
Even better, we focus on directly targeting the people experiencing the pains that we’re trying to solve.
So what does the developer buyer journey look like?
Our strategy is to create messaging that focuses on the pains organizations face right now. This includes; moving to microservices, struggling with security, connectivity, or timely resolution with observability issues.
Our campaigns highlight the product offerings we have and how Solo.io can help you. Once a developer comes to our website or other online channels, they are looking to instantly see the value, understand what pains we solve, and learn more about using our products and services.
The question is, when they want to learn more, how do you keep a developer engaged enough to delve into your products.
When developers want to learn more, they want to get hands-on.
Based on my experience, there is a mix in how developers want to be engaged. Some love getting hands-on, and some are just looking for training to skill up.
We all have a specific price point we sell into as a buyer. At the moment, our average deal size is over $ 100,000. Not every developer that works at a company can afford that. And that’s fine with us because we have several efforts, including the community effort.
What consists of our community effort? The community side is where we educate and train people in the tech community. These people can fit into the category of someone who;
- will never be a customer,
- at that moment, aren’t working at an organization that has problems of the scale that are economically viable for us to solve,
- or is working at an organization that has the budget and is actively looking for a solution.
It doesn’t matter which category they fall into; they still want to learn about Kubernetes and Istio. They want to be more active in the community, skill up, and honestly get better jobs themselves.
The effort here is brand awareness. So they love to come to learn more about Kubernetes and get trained by us. They’ll remember us later on.
When developers learn, what content do you track to measure their engagement and get an idea that they’re ready to talk with sales?
We’re looking at all the signals where people come into our website when they convert to Anonymous and know how they interact with us and consume content. Further, on what educational things they sign up for; workshops or on-demand courses.
We try and do a good job of monitoring all that. Also, we keep track of our documentation.
Our marketing monitors all the signals that tell us; you’re actively evaluating products in the market.
How do you measure success with a bottom-up approach?
We score leads using the traditional ABCD for environment and company fit. Plus, we look into the activities made by developers. Once we have enough information about a lead, we send it over to sales. We track how they progress from an MQL to a sales-accepted-lead to an initial meeting to pipeline and close won.
I have good metrics showing that that last quarter, 80% of the new net sales pipeline was product-led growth. Based on my experience with other companies, it would be great if marketing could track any pipeline attribution.
I am very proud of how at Solo.io, we are at a point where we can directly track 80% of all marketing pipelines. That’s a pretty high number.
Developers don’t talk to sales. Is that true?
It depends on the sale. Developers are notorious for not picking up the phone. Still, they’re happy to communicate. If they find that interaction valuable, they’ll be glad to talk.
How do we do it? At Solo.io, we have both sales reps and field engineers. Our field engineers, in particular, are focused on bringing a lot of value and helping developers solve problems. So developers are happy to jump in a call and interact.
Slack channels are crucial for us, and we have one for both the community and corporate. Slack is where developers from different companies talk about their issues, post questions, and get the questions answered. They don’t care if it’s a sales rep, field engineer, or another person in the community. We get a lot of interaction via Slack.
When a developer enters our Slack, their reaction is, “Oh my God, this is a fantastic resource where when I have issues, the issues get answered.”
What are the challenges in running both bottom-up and top-down GTM strategies?
Our challenges are around the constraints we have — time.
So without a doubt, given my background in technology, I lean towards a product-led growth approach. To educate and give the end-user hands-on access to our products.
On the other hand, we’re hiring more sales reps as we grow. I have several sales reps asking for outbound content. They come to me and say,” Hey, I need more messaging for the CIO, and I need this and this” to show what sales call “business impact”.
I am not saying sales doing outreach; trying to communicate with CIOs is wrong. I acknowledge and see why we have to do this as well. We are a small marketing team, and we have a time constraint.
I also recognize we win some deals where a company is doing a digital transformation or a microservices initiative. At this point, we are talking to the c-level. We have to convince them how we will help them with that overall initiative.
These two examples are not bottom-up, technology-driven. It is absolutely top-down. So we, as marketing, are trying our best to support both initiatives.
The truth is, at Solo.io, we have just seen more success with our bottom-up effort. But the top-down definitely occurs without a doubt. Usually, the best situation is when they meet in the middle.
You have great support for the developer. You can help them, show the value of what we’re trying to do, and why he’s writing a check that’s so big. That is how the bottom-up and top-down approaches meet in the middle, and everybody’s happy.
How do you maintain your omnichannel approach with your target audience?
The answer is prioritization across the board between marketing and sales. The most challenging thing is getting ten requests from sales, and we can fulfill three of them. Then the question is, how do we prioritize? What do we focus on? What’s delivering more value? That’s probably the toughest negotiation. It’s usually not that the business-level messaging is wrong.
The hard decisions are focused on how we use our time. Do you want a customer success story, and do you want business-level messaging that we need more focus on here? There are seven activities that we want to do. Sales reps, how do you prioritize this?
What is your perspective on the community-led approach? What is the goal of community initiatives?
Solo.io does have Open Source Software. This helps us participate in multiple open-source projects. Things like Istio and Envoy are broad community projects. In addition, we have our own Blue Open-Source project. It suffices to say that we are putting a lot of effort into the community approach.
The key to community is to have the right goals. Your goals shouldn’t be around pipeline or sales or growing the business. When you take on the community-led, your goals need to be focused on awareness, training, adoption and building a group of people who not only understand and use your technology and then give back to the community.
The great thing about the tech community is that people enjoy helping others. They’ll contribute source code, tools, etc. This is great because you get a flywheel effect. Developers are skilling up, and giving back to the community.
You just have to be clear with everyone in sales and marketing as you’re building these community efforts. The goal can’t be pipeline. If your goal is pipeline, it’s just not going to be successful.
More and more developers trust their peers in recommending different tools. Why?
Yes, developers trust their peers. The idea is that they want to talk to people who have experienced similar circumstances to themselves.
For example, if somebody’s struggling with a particular issue around implementing certain types of security standards and if they can talk to somebody else who’s already done this. The majority of the community building we do is around that. The developer’s reaction is, oh my God, this is amazing.
Even better, we have organizations who not only give their knowledge. They are happy to share a set of code or functionality that it’s not unique to their business. It’s a compliance standard. They’ll put that back into the open-source project because they want others to benefit.
People feel that they’ve added feature A, and if somebody else gives B or C in the long run, we will all be better off.
A year ago, you started to rethink how Solo.io educates and engages buyers. Can you walk us through your journey?
Our journey began about a year ago. It’s progressed over a series of phases and deliverables. We started with hands-on workshops and moved all the way through the launch of what we call Solo.io Academy last month.
We’re still on this journey. As you can see in the photo above, there are phases. I’d like to jump into each and talk about what we did.
The first thing we did was rethink how we do hands-on workshops. In the past, we built out our workshops on Google and GCP. We were using their infrastructure and building out these workshops.
There were a few problems we bumped into with this approach. It was labor-intensive and very stressful. We could never be 100% prepared, leading to high costs.
Let me share two examples.
The mess behind preparing environments for live workshops
You were producing a webinar, and you had 200 people sign up. 200 people had signed up for a hands-on workshop, and all of the 200 people won’t show up.
As a result, you have to guess how many people will show up. Let’s say you guess 125. So you spin up 125 environments. That takes time and has costs. However, in reality, 135 people show up, and now you’re freaking out and crunching to spin up ten more environments asap.
This leads to a lot of manually intensive work for each workshop. What we did is, we stepped back and thought, hey, there’s got to be a better way can do this.
Coming from Puppet, I already had experience with Instruqt, and I knew there was a way we could automate the whole provisioning process.
The great thing about building workshops with Instruqt is that we automate environment maintenance and clean up and spin them up on-demand.
When 135 people show up for the workshop, we spin up 135 work environments instantaneously.
The costs behind manually shutting down environments
The big issue behind building your own environments is shutting them down on time.
You did a great job preparing for your workshop and just spent 3 hours in the workshop. Now you’re tired, and maybe don’t shut out all the workshops right away or lose track of stuff.
We all know what this means, the clock is running, and you’re running up the bill. The great thing with Insturqt is that it allows us to spin down the workshops right away and save costs.
The solution: Finding a platform to help us create workshop experiences on the go
More importantly, it works. Workshop attendees just log into a workshop. All the users don’t know what’s happening behind the scenes. Our audience has a great experience.
Automating workshop environments to focus on what matters — content
In the past, we had two to three people who would prepare the workshops, and it would take about 3 to 4 hours to do just the technical preparations. They didn’t have time to focus on the experience and delivering great content. Their main focus was on managing the environment.
There was a lot of stress and sweat before the workshop on how do I provision and set it up?
There were little, tedious tasks like creating a spreadsheet with 175 rows, 175 individual accounts, etc. That’s what you were worried about.
With Instruqt, all that worry went away.
Now you can start a workshop with literally 30 minutes’ notice and walk in, and then you focus on what do I need to do as an instructor? Not What do I need to do as an administrator of an environment.
At Solo.io, we started to automate and integrate everything
Our first step was like a slice in the puzzle. Once we got the automation of environments down, we started to ask, what else can we do? How can we integrate and automate this across the board? And so we began to look at things like, what is the webinar platform?
We decided to go with a live streaming platform called LiveStorm. It helps us both with registration and streaming. We started to look at certifications. When talking about community, people like to get certified.
Credly is a platform that allows us to produce the Istio Foundation and different certifications at foundation level and expert level that people really can show to their community on social media when they’ve completed a training and get certified. Another tool we started using is SurveyMonkey to get feedback on our training.
That infrastructure automation has freed up our time to focus on the holistic course experiences. This way, we can deliver more courses with a better experience and start to do things that before, honestly, we just didn’t have time to do things the right way.
By integrating our tools, we can do 80% more work
There are two important reasons we use many tools to run our training. From an end-user, they get a much better experience registering, logging in, viewing, participating in the workshop, and following up. It just is like a smooth experience behind the scenes.
As I said, we had three people dedicated to this before, and we were doing 20% of what we were doing now. Once we got rid of a lot of the infrastructure work and had the automation in place, we had one and a half, two people doing this. Now we’re doing 80% more work, and all this is also more integrated together.
You’re not seeing us move data around with spreadsheets. Now the data flows easily. The reps love it because they love to get notifications ranging from this account had three people register to here are the post-event activities.
Our reps can see what feedback the person gave the course, but we’ve added an environment survey in which we ask some questions about the users’ experiences with specific technologies. We see good submission rates with our surveys because they had a valuable experience with us. They’re happy to answer six or seven questions.
A sales rep can look at this info and start qualifying leads. They can look at an account and see they have two clusters that are not that big and perhaps not a prospect at the moment. On the other hand, they are excited when they read that an account is three years into their journey. They’ve got 75 clusters. This is a great environment. They know we should be reaching out to these guys asap.
Also, with our tools and integrations, we now have a lot more data
Our tech stack gives us a lot more data and goodwill. People appreciate the training that we deliver. It’s all free.
And again, it goes back to the fact that developers don’t like talking to sales reps. But if you’ve just completed a three-hour training and got certified, many more people are willing to respond to an email, ask a couple of questions, or participate in another event.
By creating hands-on workshops and on-demand training, we build a lot of solid goodwill and brand awareness.
We started to give certification and badges and found this helps increase our brand awareness and become viral on social
We use another tool called Bamboo, which tracks social media impressions. We see the avalanche of people that get certified and post it online. The best part is that these post gets seen by many, many people. Eventually, those people come around and start thinking, wow, my friend got certified. Maybe I should go check this out.
I see at Solo.io that the certifications turn into their marketing machine.
On-demand training — Solo.io Academy
We automated our workshops. But what we saw then was workshops are great. But let’s say you’re in EMEA and want to attend a workshop, but you look online, you’re like, OMG. The workshop for Intro to Istio was just last week.
There’s not another workshop scheduled for six weeks out. So you ask yourself, what am I going to do for five weeks?
We saw this as an opportunity to introduce more on-demand training. This way, there wasn’t a live workshop, but the website visitor believes a live workshop is a great experience. We can deliver you a hands-on and on-demand workshop where you can go to Solo Academy, sign up, and walk through the same content. You don’t have this much guidance.
The Solo.io Academy was the opportunity to introduce on-demand training. We started using Skilljar together with Instruqt to create a hands-on learning environment.
The same exact experience as our live training delivered on-demand.
We deliver an environment where Instruqt, providing the browser-based infrastructure, is on the screen on the left, delivering all the training material on the right. These windows are closed and resizable to those who read through the step and guidance.
At the bottom, we provide helpful hints. For example, if you’re learning about MTLs (mutual security standards). We’ll give helpful hints to learn more about that provision or something else. We take that for our course. We break it up into about eight modules and deliver it in Skilljar.
The nice thing about this is that you can start and do three modules for an hour and a half. You can take a break and come back to it. It’s the same exact experience as our live training, delivered on-demand.
Future: Documentation and Feature Samples
Now that we’ve done longer-based training, we’ve seen new opportunities.
Enriching our documentation
One is with the doc team. They have a lot of code snippets in our documentation, and people see it. Still, it would be fantastic if the doc team could take that and enable somebody to launch an environment, take this code and experience it for themselves, and test it out.
Because we can give you the software, the hurdle still is that it takes you time to install it and set it up, and maybe you don’t have the right environment.
I’ll come from a much larger company before where we’d give POCs, and it would take a company two weeks to set up the right environment to test their software.
What we are doing now with the on-demand environments is we can give somebody or label them to test it out literally in minutes.
I’ve partnered with the doc team to embed Instruqt environments in the docs. This way, people can look at the code, try it out in the sample environment, see how you do it, and activate certain features in the product. We’ve been testing it out, and it’s been great so far.
Bite-size feature-specific courses
Another opportunity is to create short specific courses. People often don’t want to take a four-hour course. But there are challenges people run into every day. They want to know, how do I implement my or how do I set up your rotating certificates in my infrastructure? So these are all like super technical towards our product.
We plan to help them by setting an environment where they can try it out, see how it works, and understand all these little things.
How do you justify your approach to education with Solo.io Academy/Workshops and measure its ROI?
We measure our ROI in two different areas.
The reduction of time, stress, costs
We can just literally look at our old AWS bills or GCP bills and compare that to the cost of Instruqt and other tools. That alone is enough to justify our approach and the tools we use.
Brand awareness, demand generation, engagement
And on the other side, you look at Solo Academy’s impact on increasing awareness, brands, and different types of engagement. Also, looking at the content, we create at Instruqt as a lead tool. Because many of us struggle with the question, when do you have gated or nongated content on your site?
Most people have a mini value calculator in their head, that the more value I give you, the more it’s justified that I ask you for information such as email addresses.
There’s no doubt that if I’m giving you a two or three-hour hands-on workshop, I have to ask you for some information. These events are tremendous contact acquisition activities for us.
So it’s easy to show the ROI when you look at the numbers and the types of companies and people we’re getting into the experience.
Now that we know how you measure ROI, how are the workshops and Solo Academy efforts performing?
Let’s walk through our main KPIs.
Cloud and infrastructure costs
So if you think about ROI, I can give you our previous costs to produce and run these workshops and the costs now. You’d see that the costs are much lower.
We’ve had over 8000 people participate in the Solo Academy program. As I mentioned three different avenues; social, awareness, etc. We have a significant increase in our brand awareness and differentiation against our competitors.
The other aspect is something called NPS Score (Net Promoter Score). If you’re not familiar with it, we ask you a simple question at the end of the course.
On a scale of one to ten, how likely are you to recommend this workshop to a friend?
You take the number of promoters minus the detractors to get your NPS score. If you get a nine or a ten, you’re called the promoter. If you give a zero to six, You’re called the detractor.
Our NPS score is 75.
What is a good NPS score?
If you’re not familiar with what is a good NPS, let me give you two brands you might be familiar with, to help you understand.
The iPhone and Apple are 67 and 68, respectively. Southwest Airlines is the most loved airline in the USA, a 62. Netflix is a 54.
When I show people in my company the NPS score of 75, they are amazed at the results.
I highly recommend doing NPS scoring. It’s an easy way to communicate something that says, well, how do we know if these things are actually working?
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