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Podcasts > Tea Time With Tech Marketing Leaders

Enabling and Igniting Product-Led Growth

Kerry Guard • Wednesday, January 4, 2023 • 66 minutes to listen

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Peter Wheeler

Peter Wheeler is the Senior Manager - Product Led Growth (Startups, Nonprofits, Developers) at Okta.



Hello, I’m Kerry Guard and welcome to Tea Time with Tech Marketing Leaders.

Happy new year y’all. 2023.

What’s new… let’s see. I got a kitten! Otis. He’s four months now. So stinkin' cute. My kids are back at school. They are in year 2, which equivalates to first grade in the states. They’re doing great. Reading. They’re reading. Mind-blowing. Fluently. Like not sounding out each word. My son reads to me at bedtime now. Wild. What else is new… OH! My business partner is back from paternity leave. Q4 went well, but very happy to have him back in the pocket with the sales team. Let’s go!

Speaking of Let’s Go! You’re not here to listen to me jibber jabber, which I’m great at. You love it!

You are here to listen to my hang out with tech marketers. To hear their stories of how they got started, the challenges they’re facing, and what they know best when it comes to the craft of marketing. So let’s get to it.

This week, I have a very interesting guest. He’s someone who thinks like a marketer but doesn’t necessarily consider himself a marketer... He’s a Marketpenuer? I just made that up. It’s not a real thing, but I think it describes him! He’s actually the Senior Manager of Product Led Growth for Startups, Nonprofits, and Developers. He gets to act like an entrepreneur inside his organization at Auth0, helping them accelerate engagement of their product offering. He’s got such a fun job. And it lends itself to the out of box thinking, which he’s done a ton of!

It’s 2023. The world is not what it once was. Which makes this podcast perfect timing.

Peter Wheeler joins me to discuss product lead marketing growth. PLG. How to build your product in a way that it does the heavy marketing lift for you. He’s got great stories of examples of how he’s done this and he shares resources to help you get creative and start using it yourself.

Let’s take a listen.


Kerry Guard: Peter, thank you for joining me on Tea Time with Tech Marketing Leaders. Excited to have you. Before we dive into our conversation, which is going to be incredibly helpful for folks, especially now, given the shift in the financial atmosphere, so to speak, in terms of giving people some great ideas and how they can help their businesses grow in a really valuable way to their customers. Before we get there, tell me your story. What do you do? And how did you get there?

Peter Wheeler: Okay, so currently, I work in the customer identity product unit, which is almost zero. We make a sign product. If you log in somewhere, you've probably used us, especially Okta in the workforce, where I represent the customer side product. We make that product a solution for developers that they use to make applicant applications and websites more secure and easier for stakeholders to access.

I lead marketing, revenue development, and special initiatives on that side of the business with our social impact, product offering, startup program offering, and strategic initiatives to help developers integrate our services into more of their work. That's what I'm doing currently. How did it get here? I've been a serial entrepreneur my entire life. That was a mouthful, to begin with. Been a serial entrepreneur my entire life and started my first business when I was 16. I drop-shipped a car stereo on the internet, and I'm going to date myself this was back in the late 90s. It was even before and e-com. We didn't have those terms back then and went through many industries. I ran the catalog division of the world's largest Philadelphia auction house. It was our motive for a long time with BMW mini cooper, both being a general manager of a store and launching their lifestyles and after-sales divisions in different types of regional areas.

Started locally-owned restaurant promotional platforms all over the place gave birth to a beer familia course, and I'm looking forward to helping with their balloon race team later this month. I've been all over the place. I needed to get a real job. A few years back, I'd been engaged for five years, and my fiancee at the time was like, “I'm not getting married to an entrepreneur who needed a little bit more stability to start a family.” I respect and understand that, and I did then as well. I buckled down and went to work in the geospatial arena for a firm that did both a self-service freemium product-led growth platform, but then also did it using commercially supported open source, which for me was a category that was pretty cool and pretty because we all know open source software, but then there's a business around making open source software business technology. I was there for a couple of years, and we were acquired, and I took the opportunity to take some time off and become a stay-at-home dad.

I was missing time with my year-and-a-half-old daughter, and COVID hit. So then I knuckle down as a stay-at-home dad and made a pledge to do consulting, but for over half of my consulting to be pro bono for nonprofits during that time. I started to love the space and many people were, “I would support. I'd write a check, or maybe I'd sit on a young friend's board or something like that.” But I never really got my hands dirty outside of regular volunteering. Being able to do what they call skilled volunteering, I don't necessarily like that term, gave me insight into what that space was. COVID started clearing up, found a great school for my daughter. I was masking.

We were feeling good about everything. I started looking for entrepreneurs in residence roles. By that time, there was a category where you could be a full-time employee entrepreneur. How do you beat that? And I lucked out and found this role with auth zero, where they were looking for an intrapreneur, somebody to assist in building this social impact program that they have. I jumped on it, and we mutually lucked out. They chose me for the role, and I've been there for 15 months since April 21. It's been an absolute blast. So that's how I got here.

Kerry Guard: Wow! The journey and the ride are so cool. I have to come back to this because you said it, and it bugged my brain a little bit open source, you support open-source products, but from a business standpoint?

Peter Wheeler: Commercially supported open source being that you would have like a professional services contract or managed services offering work that we would do. If a company would like to use this particular piece of open-source software, the company would provide engineers and programmers to make the proper modifications or help set up or do training or long-term support for that software that nobody was buying. In the case of this organization, they were also basically doing. I'm going to change the terms and make it more standardized here, but they were rescanning or repackaging an existing open-source software piece, putting their own features into it, and reselling it. I hate to make it sound like it was a bedazzled jeans Etsy store. But that is what it is, and there are certain codes of conduct and ethics and different ways of licensing.

One of the things that I loved about it was how engaged that type of organization is with the developer community, and how the company could take customers and customer requests and align them to maybe requests they're made by the open source community and be able to push those code updates that they did as a paid project to the open source project, like making it wholly sustainable. And when you think about it, you then have an unlimited footprint of developers and a product roadmap that is determined by not only the people that are building it but the people that are using it and also people that are paying to use it. That was so awesome.

Kerry Guard: That's cool. I'm familiar with open source, and my Aspen contributes quite a bit to open source products, but the point of open source is that they don't generally make money. They're open to the public for anybody to use. It was like, “Tell me more about how this thing is sustainable and how it's been commercialized.” Very cool in that it's commercialized, but it's still in the sense of the intent of open source, which is that anybody can contribute in a thoughtful, meaningful way. That's cool. Tell me, Peter, one challenge you're currently having.

Peter Wheeler: On a marketer's level or a personal level as a marketer, people often joke that I'm a guest on the life path of Forrest Gump. The majority of the work I've done is big experiential-style stuff. We're now getting comfortable doing interactive events, trade shows, and everything else. You risk it being a super spreader event every single time. It's hard for me, but that's where all of my glory stories from marketing come from, in that the revenue numbers, percentages, and increases in this and that that, just like all the after-the-fact business case stuff, is cool, and that's something I want to talk to you about. Maybe with a client or an employer, but when you're sitting at a dinner table, you can say, "Hey, I gave birth to a beer one time, here's how." That's a different thing than saying, "Oh, I was able to, with a six-figure campaign, helpfully bring in nine figures of recurring revenue over a six-month period doing blank." Nobody cares about that. It's very interesting. Over my shoulder, I turned many Coopers into food trucks. I talked about how making a lemonade stand out of many Coopers was cool and fun, but what was the business case? You'd be so bored, and that's not me.

Kerry Guard: I'm all about the numbers. So I don't really go there. What was the business case? How does it build a revenue? Tell me more.

Peter Wheeler: I'll say this to the general public, that the non-marketers or the non-salespeople, it's boring, where we want to push what was the cool thing we did. So for me, that's where my personal heartbreak is where I'm standing right now. Theres so much runway and green space in not only the categories we address but the type of business we're in, and I'm in heaven. Anything is standing in my way that turns out to just be a fluffy cloud. It's a great place.

Kerry Guard: Where does that come from? In terms of the sky's the limit, nothing but a runway feel for where you are. Is it just this perfect match of an audience, product, and creativity? Or is it an endless budget? What's that runway for you?

Peter Wheeler: I'm going to lead with what I usually say at the beginning. All these opinions are my own. They are neither past nor present employers. And I might misquote something or exaggerate a number or two, but that's just for a fact or to get a point across. Don't hold me to it. You can always ping me on LinkedIn if you need clarification. Where that green space and fun are for me, categorically, is in this identity and product stuff that we're in and that everybody needs.

If you're making something to secure it or to make it easier to get into for the right people, but not the wrong people, or just laws that are put into place, whether it be HIPAA if you're managing medical records, or GDPR if you're operating in Europe, or PCI if you're taking payments, in any fashion, those are simple compliance methods that you have to think about. And when you look at a global scale, every country, even every state in the United States, has some other thing that this product influences or I wouldn't say is influenced by, and keeps up with over time, so that when you're building and innovating in whatever industry you're innovating in, you don't have to worry about that extra element. So for me, trying to sell somebody on it, saying, "Oh, you need this because of the type of product I get to represent right now." It's very "set it and forget it." It's very easy to do subjective terms, but most people would find it because we're famous for our documentation. We're famous for our community; We're famous for our customer support. It is easy to do. And that, for me, is the awesome part. Regular business stuff such as budget and teams I get to work with and everything else that's all stellar and great. I'm very appreciative of it, but the product itself, what it offers at the core, makes my job a lot easier.

Kerry Guard: With everything you were saying, for some people or marketers, that's almost too much. It would feel very daunting, like, "Oh my gosh! "I have all these audiences to consider, countries to think about, and elements to figure out how to sell to all these different people." But for you, it's a dream.

Peter Wheeler: The other half of what makes that dream work is that I got to come in with the special audience. When I was hired, it was exclusively for social impact for this particular product at Auth0; this was before the merger, and social impact organizations, or we'll call nonprofits in the United States, charities where you're at, not-for-profits if you want to say it wrong. They're unique. There's a nonprofit version of everything, which is crazy to think about, and it's the only vertical described by the thing it doesn't do. We don't refer to veterinarians is not a restaurant. They're called veterinarians, so that little piece of the audience I got to work with has restricted funds. You were talking earlier about using shared storage services, engineering, or other shared services; the team isn't yours.

It's spread across a couple of different organizations. You're not profiling. I've never been a fan of personas, which comes from experiential, where your customer is your unique customer. We try to blend a little bit of the jobs to be done. We're looking at the end result: you have a blank, and you're looking to blank. You don't want to do password resets anymore, or you want to make sure that two forms of identification are applied to get into something. Those are what we're solving for, and we're not doing it product lead. We're like, "Hey, here's this feature called MFA." We have all these factors of authentication and note that it's confusing and with the product marketing framework that they gave me runway to write, I'm working with a mostly unaware audience; they don't even know that this stuff exists and they don't know that they're using it all the time. They don't know the benefits they're finding from it, and I can build them into an aware audience. And then within aware, I'm showing them how to use it and what the end result is for them, and that's cool. So that's what makes this type of thing work—I got to start with the audience I started with. This has expanded into our whole product-led growth section. This is expanded into that; it's our self-service product. It's also expanded into our startup product and our product offering again startups. You can be a founder and either, what do they say, the chief cook and bottle washer.

Kerry Guard: What it feels like?

Peter Wheeler: And you get it; you're an entrepreneur. I always joked that entrepreneur to most people just means "unemployed." You have to be able to speak to that person and identify their needs, form of communication, and intake. And that's what's made this work for me.

Kerry Guard: It sounds like you started with one audience, though, and then you're able to scale, figure out what works for nonprofits, and then say, "Where else can this apply?" which is really helpful and not feeling blown by trying to tackle the whole elephant essentially. The other thing you did, which I love, and I feel people say this over and over again. But we're never quite sure how to approach it, and you're giving us a very clear roadmap. I want to come back to that: it's just problem, solution jobs done. What do people have to do on a daily basis? How can we relinquish some of that pain with what we have to offer? We don't need to talk about what we have to offer. We just need to talk about how we can solve this specific job for them, and do it for them and get it done. They don't set it and forget it.

Peter Wheeler: We're scratching the itch, not showing that building a scratcher in front of them and showing them why the pieces and purposes are and everything else, you have an edge. This is how it's scratched. This is the damage that's left behind. This is the way we prevent it.

Kerry Guar: For nonprofits who are short-staffed, having something as small might feel as small as authentication, which is important. So what might they have to do daily? It might not be a lot of work or have, but to have this taken off their plates to know it's in good hands and done. And one less thing for them to have to worry about is, from a mentality-taxation standpoint, a huge relief.

Peter Wheeler: I'm a huge enemy of "tech debt," as I refer to it. In other engagements, I have more of a true debt because, as you're right, there's stress involved. One of the things that I love about being a Midwesterner, and one of the things that I love about the nonprofit audience, is that a good referral is worth 1000 hours of research. In my first year here, I spent almost every moment not on marketing but on customer experience and customer journey advocacy as an element of marketing. And that is what helps the numbers; that is what helps the return. That is what prevents this issue of abandonment. It's worse as you go through all this effort and make this huge investment on your side in product demos, phone calls, sending gifts through your ABM, figuring out your CPC, and all these other things that marketers are worried about.

Let's spend as much money as possible and fill that fall. You're dropping it within; you're letting it go. You're not building the enablement materials, and you're not doing the follow-up on the tail end that shows, "Hey, just checking in. Is it working?" Did you get where you needed to get on a self-service product? Selling that to an organization is nearly impossible. I really lucked out that I hadn't because I came into an organization that already believed that. But if you're working with product lead growth, if you're working with a freemium model, convincing everybody we need to spend a little bit more on our self-service customers, you're going to get an eye roll. But that's one of the things that's made it work. We have success stories, and it's very easy to call up and get a case study. It's very easy to take that case study and make the narrative positive about the customer. Nonprofits are awesome to work with because they're doing awesome things. I love just talking to the customer, not even for any kind of case study, and being able to tell their story and then saying, "Okay, one sentence in this ten pages case study." we can say our element did blank to help them get to this solution, maybe we saved them 100 hours of programming, maybe we saved them ten grand, maybe we halted some breach that they were having or improve some process and improve their security culture or posture. That's cool!

Kerry Guard: And that's the tech debt of this dude stress relief that you get to help them with.

Peter Wheeler: Exactly. They're making this huge investment. Thank you for catching me because I was rambling, but I'm passionate about it.

Kerry Guard: No, and I love that. I want to dig into the model you have in terms of self-service, which is important because there are elements that come to that, but also why it's successful. You mentioned early on that three things about your specific product made self-service possible. Documentation, customer support, and community. Am I missing anything? Or do you feel like those are the three elements that have really made this self-service to nonprofits possible?

Peter Wheeler: I would self-service for a developer-centric product is possible, as well as for the nonprofit community element. There are organizations we work with externally that are stewards of the space; they might be continuing education platforms. My favorite is we are for good. Becky, John, and Julie are just kicking butt. They're doing the next generation of training. There are tons of marketplaces out there. They're independent; my favorite right now is POND; they piggyback for nonprofit organizations. I will not go into that but check out their website, and then their industry-led ones, like the folks over at Monday, have started digital lift. And that's a type of community completely different from what we control in our product. It's a community that we can contribute to by being a product represented in one of those communities and by sponsoring something or just putting in that advertising dollar or donation dollar or our volunteer time doing a hackathon with employees. The nonprofit audience is cool, just for how wildly experimental we can be again from an experiential background that's important for me, like how much hands-on, how much with people, and how much interactive. It's not minutiae at that point. It's like this. This true proven enough of what you're doing.

Kerry Guard: It's really important that you mentioned that this is specifically for these three things to help the developer-centric community. But when you're talking about security and products in the audience, we're talking to in terms of marketers, who are for brands of cybersecurity, and vendors, their products will need to go to people who can implement them. Having these three things, even though they're not for developer audiences but for a very technical audience, still feels very relevant to me. How far can documentation go so that they don't have to get on the phone with cash or smarter every five seconds, or if they do, customer support can turn around with a very clear thing to help them get to where they're going as quickly as possible? Because time, especially cyber is of the essence. We can't mess with our tech on a regular basis; we need this to work, and we need to trust that it's going to do what it said it was going to do. It's going to be implemented correctly. So to me, documentation makes a ton of sense. I imagine it makes everybody's life easier, not just on the customer support and developer cyber, even as a marketer, like how much content you have to work with when it comes to the way your product makes everybody's life easier, to your point, getting that job done.

Peter Wheeler: That's content. No way I can take credit for that; that comes from a solid product team, a solid customer success team, and a solid developer engagement and relations team. Business marketing and product marketing—kick out those materials as well. It's a full company lift to develop a culture that cares about your customers. I lucked out, being in an organization like that, where they've given me freedom, and I've been able to make an impact in working with the customer stakeholders. I talked about that whole unaware and aware audience that I built into our product marketing framework. We have cybersecurity checklists, but they don't mention our product. They are oriented around, and there's a personal one that a nonprofit or a startup or anybody because it's publicly available on our website. They can take it in cobranded, and say, "Hey, stakeholders, whether it be employees, program recipients, volunteers, or cousins, check this app, check these boxes, and what's your Wi-Fi password look like, do you have posted notes with passwords on your monitor, do you share passwords like simple things that you and I think are simple, but not that aren't culturally like there yet, and being able to help with that." That's next-level documentation. That's the next step, and then also doing workplace ones, and that builds us up into that aware audience. Then that aware audience understands why it's important, why they should engage the unaware audience, and how it makes everybody's life easier. You're developing culture at that point, and that's the framework. That's what we're doing.

Kerry Guard: I just don't know that people make the time as an organization. Luckily, your organization's built from this. I actually think, full disclosure, that my husband actually worked on the documentation when he was at Auth0 before it got picked up by Okta. All he did was the documentation of how the product gets implemented for developers across all the different systems. It's a heavy lift, but I think he was actually able to automate a lot of it because he's a programmer.

Peter Wheeler: The documentation is a heavy lift, so the implementation is not.

Kerry Guard: Even with the documentation, elements that could be automated so that it was up, it can be kept up to date, easily and regularly. But that being at the core, the entire organization has to rally around that. When we're talking to marketers about having an easy product to sell, this might be an opportunity to say, "Hey, have we thought about how we could, and to your point?" It could start with a marketing team creating a simple checklist asking, "Have you thought about doing these things for yourself as a single person or within your company or whatever to ensure your security?" And then it can bleed down deeper than how your company did it, which was the other way around. The point is that the power of documentation can lend itself to building that trust and starting that culture in that community, which ultimately lends itself to an easier sell and an easier way to get people to go from being unaware to being aware and starting to figure out how to use your product and begin that process. That leads to some customer support because once you have that team to do the customer support with the right documentation, it is easier. You're able to build a community around it. I just loved how you set Okta up in this lovely way. It makes my job so much easier because I have these things that I can build upon.

Peter Wheeler: And I got to speak to the audience I started with: marketers. Does that make sense? Integration product to a marketer. There's no RevOps to do with it, but there are things like profile enrichment, where when people are using social sign-on, you can start collecting information that you beg for, such as birthdays and correct email addresses, and things you've asked permission for, of course, but that's something very cool. A lot of other terms, like "progressive profiling," sound very scary. It's not a scary thing, but it's very helpful in a marketing mindset, and nonprofits are 9-10 sales in marketing, aka searching down donations, recurring donations, building systems around that, and then programs. We were able to speak to those two end solutions. I got to start with marketers; I got to try and explain a very tech-heavy piece of equipment, not an actual thing you buy, to an audience that likes to flip. No offense to anybody here because I'm one of you. But flip switches, looking at reports, making pretty pictures, and speaking eloquently were really...

Kerry Guard: Hard audience to sell to. I hear you on that.

Peter Wheeler: It's such a graceful transition into product-led growth.

Kerry Guard: It may be because this is what it's all coming down to. When we're talking about product-led growth, we're talking about these three core things: being at the center of that, and then allowing your product to do the work for you in terms of growth and in the freemium model is what I want to get into. My transition right now is essentially what's happening in the world, which is that everybody's tightening their belts from a budget standpoint, and marketers have to get scrappy again.

There was a little money that was a bit free-flowing, and budgets were booming, ad spend was up, and SEO was kicking butt, and now everybody's like, "We don't know what's going to happen in the world." And maybe we're in a recession, and maybe we're not—nobody's quite sure. Let's just either keep things flat or tighten things up. I mean, with all these layoffs as well. And so marketers have to get a bit scrappy again, and when we talked to Peter, we came across product lead growth and the freemium model. And I was like, "What a great way for marketers to get back to building up their audiences again, especially with cookies going away." "What a great way to get experimental to bring new people into a bit scary." And so when we first did it, we started talking about this because I worked with a company ten years ago, and they had a freemium model. They were blaming us for people not converting; they were signing up for the product left, right, and center, but then they weren't buying into the business model. They were just saying freemium for a while. So we had a lovely conversation about that, and that's where I wanted to sit today as marketers continue to figure out what this new world looks like or how they can get creative. It's actually going back to what people were doing ten years ago, which is what you're doing now in product lead growth and the freemium model with Okta and nonprofits. Why do you believe so much in this model? And how and why does it work for you?

Peter Wheeler: I lucked out in this scenario. I came in for the social impact. The VP I report to is also in charge of startups. I know that category. I've been there many more times than I really want to think, and this product-led growth, self-service arena with freemium product doesn't work for everybody. There's current news about abuses in programs like that and programs having to be shut down, and I don't think it's necessary. A small group ruined it for all of us. That's not the case at all. But I come from what I consider to be one of the original product-led growth categories. I spent a lot of time in the automotive industry to get a real understanding of product lead growth.

People test-drive cars before they buy them. Why can't they test-drive your product? Why can't they test-drive it as a customer? Why can't they just lease it? Your demo will never show them what they need to know; they're never going to have the headaches they could experience as a regular user, nor will they get the glory they would experience as a regular user. And I think about that every time I do this; I'm like, "Oh, this is a lot like the car industry." This is very much like it, and you think about graduation, like, everybody's saying, "Oh, if we do a freemium model, they're going to be leeches forever; we have the Succubus attached to our business." That's not true. You're making an investment in this up-and-coming organization or this stable organization, whose needs are going to grow. And, like in the car industry, if you help this teenage kid out, you get a discount on repairs. Now you've got a loyalist, and they come back and buy their next car, and then they've got a really good job. And they buy that fancier version of the car, and then they've got kids and buying multiple cars. Then they're getting to that retirement level and buying the biggest, baddest thing they can get. They're referring friends at the time and doing everything else, like being ambassadors for your brand if your product is so good that it can be your ambassador.

We can think of certain warehouse stores where people walk around the shopping carts, and those carts always have a bag or a box of whatever somebody wearing a hairnet and white gloves at the end of an aisle is giving out. Let your product speak for itself. That's all you're doing right here. We've packaged it uniquely because we have special audiences, and I can get into that in a little bit. But the simple thing about product lead growth is that you eventually get a product-qualified lead in STRS. We love how this stuff comes in. They know the product, they know how to use it, and they know the purposes of it. At that point, it's just like "order taking," and we think we need these features. Can you explain them? Or do we know we need this? This is our budget; how do we make this work? As opposed to starting from the base of, "Are you even aware?" because that's just not the case anymore. We took care of it with a very simple introduction.

Kerry Guard: It sounds like you're talking about two different things. In terms of that, it's all free. Trial versus the free-base model, so to speak. When you test drive a car, you get all the features and give it a good run, and then you buy it, get all you get to drive off with those features forever, but you don't. But if you're looking at a freemium model, you're not necessarily getting to your point. You get those upgrades once you reach that stage of needing more than you can buy, or you say, "Okay, I've been using this freemium model for a while, and I know how it works." But now I need more. What does that mean? I just want to be clear. There are two avenues you can go here, and some people do try them; you get two weeks of trial. And then you can either buy it or not; some people have it for free. Try it to get more features, see what that's like, and then decide what you need.

Peter Wheeler: You're just poking holes in my analogy back in the car thing, and I love the car analogy.

Kerry Guard: That's fantastic because that's talking about longevity.

Peter Wheeler: But when you go on that test drive, you might say, "I don't really need a heated steering wheel; I live in Florida." So you're going down with our sliding scale, self-service product. That's what we're accomplishing. You come in, you do the free trial, and the free trial is that we'll start you at the top. You can work your way down. Here's every feature you can possibly have, and you have it for this chunk of time for free. When the time runs out, you're going to move to whatever the free band is. Let's say that in the meantime, you have the option of using the sliding scale to figure out what level you need to be at for your usage and locking in at that level. Then, when the free period is over, we'll start billing you for that and the right size of your features, functionality, bandwidth, and everything else. And that is what makes self-service products and freemium-style products work. And the next level thing that I love is the ability, and none of this works in all cases—but something that also works for us is the ability to change it from month to month.

If we're working with an organization that might have a humongous trade show or gathering and they need a lot of users all at once, they slide that scale up to massive users and pay for that usage at that time, and then they bring it back down. You see that everybody's moving to the cloud; I have no idea what that means. But they already have to be on the cloud, and I know in instances where I've been in or on a cloud, it's been paying for what I use. So not buying something, this is where you're talking about purse strings, and everybody is moving to a usage-based model.

Now, modernization is what has allowed us to do that for sure. It's very exciting to be able to represent products that do that. But that's where we're in a cool spot with that usage-based model. Trade shows over. You don't need all these logins anymore. But when you scale it back down to a basic or go back to free, because you didn't, you still don't need everything on it.

Kerry Guard: This is a key differentiator, and I love how you're explaining it because I feel some people talk about it or do the trial piece but never want to give their product away for free. Why free even if you put $5 on it? What's the benefit of it being completely available, not completely in terms of all the features, but having some piece of your product free?

Peter Wheeler: I'm going to scale back to my personal opinion because I have no clue. This is a good question; I'm going to go back to my boss about it. But in my opinion, faith in the product you're offering is something in which somebody will find value. We've seen this over the past decade as the whole, like, buy me a coffee style platforms have come out, whether it be a medium article, you read the whole thing all the way through, maybe you subscribe, and then that person gets a little bit of cash. There's always been this presence of putting something out there and letting others find value in it. So that's faith and what you're doing is one of them.

Another reason you would do this is that there's this old misnomer that if you don't attach a $1 value to something, people won't respect it and that free isn't free and isn't worth it. If it's free, then it's not any good. You haven't explained what it is well enough if their perception of something being free is not good. Otherwise, free samples wouldn't exist. People try it, they like it, or they don't like it, but at least they were able to try it. And again, we're back in the trial aspect of it, but if you look at freemium, it's just somebody making laps and getting the free scoop of popcorn or, wherever it may be, jerky there at the end of the aisle over and over again. There's nothing wrong with that.

Kerry Guard: People have moved away from it, though, going back to my original scenario, and I think you have these. I hate this word so much that I'm going to use it like…

Peter Wheeler: Let's call them freeloaders,

Kerry Guard: Freeloaders. That's the kind of stuff we're going to upgrade. In your experience, I know you're not speaking on behalf of the product, but you believe in this model. It is not the case that people do to your point, using the car analogy. People will find that moment where they've got to tip over, and they'll either scale up or back down, as I did. I use this product, which I love, for online signatures. And at one point, I was sending out so many contracts that I had to scale up. Okay, I need this thing right now. I need to send out more than three contracts a month. I need more, and then I got to a point where I said, "Okay, things have calmed down." I don't need three, and they let me scale back. I look forward to the day that I get to scale up again. Did they earn my trust when I was able to scale down with some companies? Oh, well, you're on the annual plan. You can't scale down, and now you're stuck with however many subscriptions you have until your contract renews, which is frustrating.

Peter Wheeler: That's just daft. But I understand.

Kerry Guard: But trust building…

Peter Wheeler: You're hitting it. One of them is advocacy. You've got this individual. We're acting as if everything is frozen in time. You've got an individual that's used to saying it for free right now, and maybe they've use it for free for six years. Yes, that does affect you; that does affect some bottom lines. If you built the product and put your offerings together properly, it's a minimal investment in this person's goodwill. This person being an advocate, they're somebody else's expert; there's somebody else's nephew that knows about computers. Let's ask him; that's who they're going to. "Oh, I use this platform." "I'm on the free plan." But for what you need, they have it because they're aware of it. So that's good. You've got this advocate; you've got somebody who's a contributor; you've got a regular user, which means you're getting regular user feedback, user data, and information you wouldn't be getting by hoarding your product. If you just stepped back and said, "Okay, if I got a blank for free, what would I be doing with it?" "Would I be giving back?" "Would this be my first choice when I need more?" "Where does the relationship fall?" It's really sad for me that we're assuming the worst use cases and the worst intentions from our end users. I'm not going to quote any psychologist on it because I'd get it wrong. But it's not healthy because that's you painting a picture of yourself. If you go into it thinking about how you would ruin a scenario, that's something that you fix and plan against, but that's not what you plan for. You plan for the good.

Kerry Guard: I can talk about just this wild day. But for marketers who might not feel they have a lot because it's on the product side, and marketers don't always have an impact there. But to make a freemium model work, there is marketing that needs to support it to make it viable. We talked about the company side and what the company can do to make it viable, from the documentation to the customer's success in the community. From a marketing side, how do you help that customer on their journey and continue to support them? We're talking about adding value to our customers. Everything around demand generation and how the market shifted away from leads to more of, "How can we support you?" "How can we give you more information and what you need?" "How can we help you make the ultimate decision you need to make?" This is a no-brainer; we'll just give them the product. They need it.

Peter Wheeler: Value doesn't have to be a reward. We're looking at it, and somebody's coming in, they're seeing our product; we should probably be charging for it at any level, even this completely basic addition, which we shouldn't be charging for and not letting anybody try for free or not letting anybody use it for free. We keep getting this whole "free trial" mindset, not letting anybody use it for free because we see that it has a lot of value, and the value we need to provide our customers is respect. And say, "We recognize you're doing something cool." We want you to recognize us as being a part of it and marketing in a fashion where people say, "Oh, wow, they're willing to give this free addition that is sufficient for what I'm trying to do," so that I can do what I do. That is great marketing and architecture right there, just to phrase it that way. It doesn't have to be that you have the best free fireworks show and that there are cheap seats all the way in the back. If you want to watch it for free, you can stand outside the fence. It's about respecting how your product is utilized and the individuals choosing your product to get where they're going.

Kerry Guard: Perfect segue. Let's talk about the individuals in the audience and how this may pertain. One of the things we talked about was powerful for the audience. You talked initially about nonprofits, but you're also dipping your toe, or maybe you're fully fledged now after 15 months of talking about small businesses and startups specifically and how you're supporting them. How is it the same packaging for each audience in terms of getting it for free? It was the jobs to get done. The itch they're scratching is something that you're helping them scratch from a problem-solution standpoint. When you're talking about the freemium product lead growth model, how are you supporting these audiences in that way? Is it giving each audience the same thing and just saying it differently? Is it changing the model to fit the audience?

Peter Wheeler: So, with the nonprofits, we support them across the board. With Auth0, the customer identity product, the free plan is available to anyone. They're excluded. They're the regular embargoes we should be doing, and the why not, but it's free. There's a free plan period, all forward slash pricing, there's a free plan, sign up, create your tenant, download some documentation, play with it, put it on your WordPress website, whatever you want to do. Beyond that, we have our self-service product and our enterprise product. Now in social impact, we were part of the Pledge 1%, and we focus on contributing and giving back through volunteering and donations, and part of the donations are product donations. We discount it, and on the self-service, it's half price, and on discounts in gross terms, let's say cost savings in our enterprise, the cost savings are up to 35%. That's currently what we're doing.

In startups, it's a completely different package. When I came on, it was $99 a year, and you got an enterprise contract. It was a full blown just so long as you were part of it. You had to really earn it on the tail end or pay for it full price when you got out of it. It's that scenario there. It was packaged for that type of business. And even now, Eli Rabett is the guy that runs it for us at the moment, or—that's not a fair way of saying it—you'll ever have it because running our startup program, and he's rebuilt it in a much better usage scenario. And still in that self service product, lead freemium, whatever you want to call it model, where these organizations are getting support in their most crucial time. It's the pre-series A. You're worried about headcount, floor plan, and all this stuff; you shouldn't be worrying about how our product makes your product so much better. You should be able to just plug it in and go, and in the meantime, we're rooting for you. When it's time to graduate, we will have that conversation, and you will graduate as an official customer. And that's how we celebrate your success. That's kind of fun. That's a really cool and completely different package, though.

Kerry Guard: That makes sense, though, because they're two different needs.

Peter Wheeler: And this is green space. There's no product-led growth formula. There's a formula in marketing it, and to some extent, there's a formula in how you do the sales process with it. Those are guide paths, unlike here are some best-case scenarios, use cases, and standards. But you can find a way to make your product interesting, at least to special audiences. If it doesn't work in a universal fashion, what is an important audience for you? Are you trying to break into fintech? Are you trying to break into healthcare? How do you appeal to those organizations? Is leading with product the better way to do it? And that's just experimentation, planning, and daydreaming.

Kerry Guard: Correct me here. But if it was up to you, you would always lead with the product.

Peter Wheeler: I've been a salesperson for a very long time. And there's a difference between leading with value and leading with price. There's a difference between selling your product and letting your product sell itself. I would much rather discuss with someone their needs or that whole "jobs to be done" framework. Here are some needs we assume you have, and here are ways that we solve for it. We have solved it for others because your scenario feels similar to theirs. Am I close? You're close. Perfect. Try it. We haven't even discussed budget, money, or anything else. We're talking about a similar scenario with someone in a similar situation, assuming that there's going to be a similar budget, long-term needs, and a similar selling process. You don't have to worry about leading with that dollar value.

I'm also a strong believer in post-pricing online. Do not keep and hide the "contact us for pricing." There are software models that are complicated enough, and Elecard and pieces and everything else, you have to do that. But you shouldn't have to do it all the time. It should be elements of your product where they could buy off-the-shelf, non-bespoke off-rack, ready-to-wear stuff. That would be great. You have this ready to wear. You've already addressed all their concerns and answers. They're qualifying themselves or did their self-venting. I do not like vent but vent on back to yourself works. Do I have the budget? Do I have the time to do this? Is it timely to do this? Do I actually have the need? Am I in control enough? Where can I make this decision? Click, "Here's my credit card information." I'll get billed in two weeks, and it'll be monthly from there on out. How do I cancel? I just go onto my login here. I click "cancel" at the bottom. You don't make me answer 55 pages of questions and call a phone number to cancel. I would love for everything to be able to be led that way. It's not possible, but that would be great.

Kerry Guard: It feels product-led, and we're saying product-led so much. But it's customer, putting yourself in the shoes of the customer, what the customer is going to want. We're all a customer at the end, and you said this earlier; we're all customers at the end of the day. How are you going to want to interact with this product that isn't going to feel like you're not being trusted and are becoming an ambassador and it's having the freedom to control the product as you need it to get the job done at the end of the day and as a business that feels really like you're letting go so much control.? The payoff feels after talking to you, it feels like a no-brainer.

Peter Wheeler: I'm evangelizing this. And that's why I keep trying to put the caveats in; you have to design it. In a sustainable fashion, when I came on, for social impact that was sustainable because you don't want customers to feel that you're overcharging them so that you can give that discount to a nonprofit that they have no influence on or no understanding. The same thing with startups while you're building the full price for my up-and-coming competitor. We're building sustainable platforms as agnostic platforms to support a safer world. In my personal ethos and how I've been experiencing it, again, not speaking as a representative of the brand, I've been able to perceive it as a customer myself. And that's the cool part. It's a bit like the old "Hair Club for Men" thing; I'm not only part of it but also a customer.

Kerry Guard: If I could neatly wrap this up with a bow, I couldn't do it because there's just so much good detail in here about how to do this thing. At the end of the day, ensuring that the company at its core, has the right documentation, community, and customer success team to then build a freemium model on top of that in a way that gives power to the customer to control how much of the product they use, and then mark it in a way that solves a clear problem to a solution based off of what your audience needs. And to your point of breaking into an audience and being able to package it up for those audiences, that is the ultimate value you can give to your customers or prospects like that. It's just everything I took away from this.

Peter Wheeler: A nice wide ribbon to make that bow and it worked out just fine. I agree wholeheartedly. The only way product-led growth and freemium works, beyond making sure that it's a sustainable thing for what you're representing, is by developing that journey to get your freemium customer to a paid customer and then to that VIP superduper paid customer. Finding the indicators. What are the upgrade indicators? What do they look like? When do we sniff it out? What tools do we use to follow up? How do we create enablement and training for our teams? What part of this is automated and needs to be hands-on? What point is intervention if you're not planning against all of that? You are just giving away the house. It is a full move, and I wouldn't endorse that or recommend it. It's a bad utilization of it, and it's dangerous. There's definitely a heavy caveat, you have to plan for it.

Kerry Guard: It started before, they're non-emerald. It's got to go back to the company and how the company is built, how the product sits on top of that, and how marketing and sales can do their jobs in relation to that. I love everything you're saying. It's a heavy lift. If you're not doing anything today, and all of a sudden, you want to move to freemium, it's going to be a huge heavy lift. But there's a lot of elements in terms of what we're talking about of how to allow your audience to utilize your product, even if you just opened up a piece of it, even if you didn't have multiple tiers, whatever just yet, there's ways to start this. And to try it out in a way to see how you can give that value to your or to what you're talking about from a nonprofit standpoint, like, "Okay, we gave certain percentages off for nonprofits, or we gave the Cadillac away to the startups for the first year." There are a lot of elements and takeaways from this conversation that people can definitely get started with. And knowing that the freemium model can work, how can you start building that today so that in a year, you have that ready to go, and you can start building those ambassadors? You know, within that time, so before we close out, this was so good. I could keep going forever because there's so much more that you have to give. Our time is here and there's enough for people to definitely start working with. Before we go, people get to know you beyond just being the entrepreneurial spirit that you are. Have you picked up any new hobbies in the last two years?

Peter Wheeler: Yes. When I started to stay at home to do dad stuff because the bro pair or au pair had finally gone home, I got to do that. It was a wonderful thing. There were many periods where I needed things to be quiet for a young child that you're trying to make sure stays napping. But that also kept your brain activity going. I got very heavily into grilling and smoking, to the extent we're on many different online games because that's another thing you do while watching a sleeping child. My handle was Smoked Meat, and then the entrepreneur kicked in, and people started to ask me about the handle. They started asking about what I was doing, and then there were photos being uploaded of live cooks and webcam streams and everything else that I started selling barbecue around the United States to people that I was playing games with on the phone. It was funding a hobby that was very soothing. There's something so zen about just sitting; honestly, it's just sitting by a fireplace all day or all evening. That's great. It's a lot of fun. That is my COVID super bad habit. We've talked about these car collectors, that the next title they get is also divorce papers. I'm starting to feel that way with buying barbecue equipment, but it happens.

Kerry Guard: You funded it though, in your entrepreneurial spirit.

Peter Wheeler: Sadly, I haven't been able to keep up with it, and I haven't been able to ship it everywhere, but it's one of those things that, if you're special to me, a nice, ready-to-rock frozen pouch shows up. The best way to thaw barbecue. The best way to ship barbecue is to make it suzy.

Kerry Guard: Ah, that makes sense. Warm it up.

Peter Wheeler: They warm it up in a bag works out great. Doesn't it keep it about how it was when it was fresh? Here we go.

Kerry Guard: There we go. Look at that and more value at the very end here for all of you smokers who love barbecue. That's awesome, Peter. This conversation was packed. I hope people have the vigor to tackle some of these big challenges they face. I'm so grateful for you joining me. Thank you.

Peter Wheeler: Thank you. This is great. It's fun to get to talk about it this way.


That was my conversation with Peter. If you wish to learn more about Peter, Auth0, and product lead growth, you can find Peter on LinkedIn. Link is in the show notes along with links to Peter’s newly launched podcast, heygoodchat and his Advocacy Talk. We also included Wes Bush’s website on product led growth so you can learn more.

Thank you for listening! If you found this episode helpful please like, subscribe and share!

This episode is brought to you by MKG Marketing the digital marketing agency that helps complex tech companies like cybersecurity, grow their businesses and fuel their mission through SEO, digital ads, and analytics.

Hosted by Kerry Guard, CEO co-founder MKG Marketing. Music Mix and mastering done by Austin Ellis.

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