Secrets of self serve go-to-market part 1: What it is and why it’s so powerful

Do customers discover, evaluate, and buy your product entirely on their own, never personally interacting with a sales rep or anyone else from the company?

That’s the question at the heart of self serve go-to-market models — the growth framework fueling some of the world’s most powerful, high-growth products.

What is self serve?

“A great self-serve product experience carefully examines every customer touchpoint and puts deep thought into how to simplify, streamline, and edit the various customer flows to help them accomplish what they need to, quickly and efficiently.” — Gokul Rajaram

Self serve means the entire customer journey can happen without any 1–1 interaction between customer and business. This means no talking to a sales rep, an account manager, customer success, a cashier. The scalability, efficiency, and predictability of these models can be fantastic. But a lot of stars — product, market, team, tech, infrastructure, pricing — need to be in line for it to work.

You can think of go-to-market models on a spectrum, with self serve on one end and high touch on the other.

In high touch models, sales reps reach out to leads who often may not even know about the product they’re about to be pitched. If the pitch goes well, the sales team works with that prospect to guide them down the funnel.

Sitting somewhere between self serve and high touch are various approaches to a medium or low touch GTM. In these, typically a mix of marketing and product bring the customer into the funnel. Customers then might request more info, start a trial, use a free version, or add their contact info for a piece of gated content. Sales reaches out to leads from there.

There are also blended approaches, where high touch or self serve brings some new customers and a medium or low touch process brings the rest.

The sales team, for example, may have a list of outbound leads they cold call, as well as a list of inbound prospects who have already kicked off a trial. On the other side of the spectrum, the sales team may contact some leads from trials, while the rest of the customers move through the self serve funnel.

I should also mention, many of even the most die hard self serve companies operate on what I’ll call a sometimes-touch model. Here, the company will work with customers on edge cases and particularly complicated setup issues. There seem to be two main reasons this happens:

  1. A big company migrating from another tool. Migrating over massive sets of data and user accounts for mission critical services can call for some hands on help, even in the most elegant products.
  2. Unifying disparate accounts and plans within one customer. Many self serve products are also bottoms up, meaning they sell to the end users and not the C-suite. This means there are often scores of disparate accounts floating around a company. A giant organization might have hundreds of small Dropbox plans floating around the company, for example. In these cases it can make sense for Dropbox to come in and help get everything sorted onto one account.

What’s unique to both these examples, however, is that there still is no selling up front. In these cases the buyer has already decided they want the service or has scores of users already.

With self serve, any direct outreach from the customer should be looked at as a bug in the model.

One quick note on definitions. You’ll hear people swap around different terms for this model: Self serve, bottoms up, low touch, no touch, product driven, product first. “Self serve” seems to leave the least room for semantic nitpicking, so that’s the definition I like. I think most of the the other definitions are either analogous (“no touch”) or represent a specific implementation that fits under the broader self serve umbrella (“product first”).

Why is self serve so powerful?

“Self-serve is the holy grail of efficient business models.” — Bryan Schreier, Sequoia Capital

Done right, self serve empowers two things: rapid growth and cheaper growth.

Rapid growth

For most high growth companies with exploding demand and exploding addressable markets, the biggest constraint is the infrastructure to actually serve that demand. The people, technology, and systems needed to get the product in front of customers needs to scale up as well.

Selling digital products over the internet tears down a ton of those constraints. The marginal cost of production is effectively zero. And with a modern cloud infrastructure on the back end, it’s possible for a company to scale up to meet demand instantly. This also makes self serve an ideal backdrop for another powerful concept, virality (but more on that in part 2).

Given this, the constraints become largely people-centered. You can’t scale up a salesforce in a matter of minutes. So if a high touch business wants to grow revenue 40% next year, they have to hire 40% more sales reps. And again the next year. As companies scale, this becomes wildly complicated. And it’s how we got the traditionally sales-bloated software shops of the 1990s.

With self serve, companies typically can serve all the demand that comes in. It’s not surprising that Slack, a self serve model, became the fastest growing enterprise software in history.

Cheaper growth

“Perhaps the most impressive part of Atlassian’s business is their go-to-market efficiency. While the median SaaS company spends between 50–100% of their annual revenue on sales and marketing, Atlassian has spent between 12 and 21% of their revenue on customer acquisition in the last three years. These metrics are simply unheard of.” — Tomasz Tunguz

Self serve and its one-to-many nature allows teams to spend a far smaller percentage of revenue on sales and marketing. But that’s only the beginning. They can then reinvest that savings back into the product, which fuels even more self serve growth. This kicks off a powerful flywheel motion. Competitors will try to spend their way into keeping up and struggle.

Roots in technology

Commerce is thousands of years old, but self-serve has only been around as a scalable strategy for maybe the past few hundred years. For most of history, people needed some type of 1–1 interaction to exchange physical currency, physical contracts, and physical products.

Self serve isn’t unique to B2B, it’s already exploded in B2C. And self serve is always propelled forward by technology. No doubt about it, tech and infrastructure are key to enabling self serve go to market models.

As technology and infrastructure goes up, so does the potential for self serve. Visit a modern gas station, it’s all infrastructure and technology. You drive up to the pump, insert your credit card, pump gas, leave. Fifty years ago, conventional thinking was that gasoline pumping was too dangerous for customers. Also, someone had to physically count your dollar bills and make change.

The invention of a national mail system, for example, brought us some of the first instances of broad scale self serve: mail-order catalogs. Mechanical advances in the 19th and 20th centuries enabled vending machines and automatic kiosks. Later on, people started buying over the telephone and with television ads. Another 20th Century invention — the credit card — is still at the heart of self serve.

Then, of course, the internet (and Amazon) fueled the biggest explosion of self serve we’ve ever seen. It’s clear that as new technology emerges, people will find an efficient way to sell on it. And increasingly, the most efficient way to do that is with self serve.

Read part 2 here.

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