Product-led growth (PLG), as opposed to a conventional sales-led approach, has gained enormous popularity and respect across the broader tech startup space, but how prevalent is PLG in the payment and Fintech ecosystem? What can be learnt and applied from the product-led growth methodology? Let’s first start with a definition. What is Product-led growth?
What is Product-led growth?
Product-led growth (PLG) is frequently defined as a “business methodology in which user acquisition, expansion, conversion, and retention are all driven primarily by the product itself.”
A product-led growth doesn’t rely on conventional sales and marketing teams. Instead, the product itself does the ‘selling’. In other words, its features, performance, ease of use, access and above all its virality drive rapid organic customer adoption. It’s a bottom-up rather than a top-down approach to growth.
Product-led as a methodology has emerged from real-world observations about how certain companies and their products have somehow swept into rapid existence without any real marketing or sales push. Slack, Zoom and Calendly are put forward as classic examples, but there are countless more.
In particular, the methodology has seen great success in B2B SaaS products targeting SME clients. This kind of environment appears to be a perfect fit for product-led.
For example, SMEs are more likely to allow and support a decentralised software procurement process than larger companies. End-users within the SME are able to test out solutions and make internal recommendations to colleagues. This kind of freedom is perhaps less evident at larger and more formal organisations.
The PLG methodology has in my mind at least two dimensions to it. First, a customer experience dimension and second, an internal organisational alignment dimension.
Customer experience dimension
PLG methodology postulates that the success of the bottom-up approach reflects a shift in the way people use and buy software and suggests it is a culmination of several technology trends such as smartphones, cloud computing, server-side web apps and more. COVID has accelerated this shift. In 2022, the lines between people acting as consumers and people acting as employees are blurring very fast. In both circumstances, exceptional product experiences are no longer exciting—they are expected.
The customer experience dimension typically follows a self-serve, often freemium model that we as consumers are now familiar with and apply it to B2B products.
It assumes the product is ready for the market and can achieve ‘product market fit’ which is when a company’s target customers are buying, using, and actively informing friends and colleagues about the product.
A community of product advocates is organically formed from the bottom up. This natural process propels the product into an initial viral growth phase in which the product itself drives customer growth without any sales or material marketing effort by the company.
Internal organisational alignment dimension
The second dimension of the PLG approach definition is “company-wide alignment across teams around the product”. This means all teams are working together in the pursuit of PLG.
It means breaking down silos to encourage collaboration in particular between product and engineering teams and customer-facing business teams, including customer success as well as sales and marketing.
The flip side is that an implied blurring of roles and responsibilities can create a more complex, slower and less efficient decision-making process.
PLG emphasises rapid product iteration to experiment with new features and test & learn from customer behaviour. To fully benefit from the learning loop, the process needs to be an inclusive and collaborative one where all teams are equally involved.
Contrast with sales-led growth
The PLG approach may not appear that radical with a consumer hat on. But it is an utterly new approach in the context of B2B products and, in particular, software products.
Historically, B2B software has been a sales-led activity. Sales teams went after big enterprise deals. They networked around organisations, found an internal champion, dealt with procurement teams, did demos and pilots, negotiated contacts, agreed on SLAs and finally onboarded and trained users. It was a very top-down approach in which a B2B software sale took a long time.
With PLG that is almost all out of the window. I say almost because the PLG playbook suggests that the product and sales led approaches can work hand in hand to drive subsequent phases of growth.
PLG assumes that an initial bottom-up product-led growth phase can naturally build up to a point where large sales-led enterprise deals are ready to be converted.
For example, in the early days of Slack (as well documented in Andrew Chen’s new book: The Cold Start Problem – Using Network Effects to Scale Your Product), networks developed organically within an organisation with more and more users joining and creating networks up to a point where an enterprise deal was an obvious next step.
The organic, bottom-up GTM approach is so radically different in the B2B software world. There are intermediary steps, including sales assisted PLG, where a user might need to call a customer agent to obtain an upgrade from the basic version.
Marketing led growth can also fit into the equation too. Once the initial PLG growth phase has produced a community, product marketing teams can contribute by nurturing, informing and educating the community. Thought leadership content can play a vital role in growing and transforming the early adaptor community into a far wider audience. Performance marketing – including SEO and paid advertising – can also further assist in accelerating growth.
What matters is that these approaches are sequenced correctly and emphasised and invested in at the right time. If they are, then all these approaches can work efficiently together to deliver on and maximize growth.
PLG in the payments and fintech ecosystem
All of this makes perfect sense in the context of tech start-ups selling B2B software. But to what extent is any of this PLG GTM approach prevalent in and relevant to the payment and fintech ecosystem?
PLG works best where individual users can try out a product. Stripe is perhaps one of the best examples of B2B PLG in the payment space. Stripe’s target user audience was developers who tested out the Stripe API based product. In fact, products that can be consumed via API calls are perfect for PLG. PLG is not necessarily limited to B2B, and in the consumer space, Revolut is another absolute classic case of PLG.
Marqeta is another fine example as are GoCardless, Modulr, Truelayer, Plaid, tink, Adyen, Checkout, Tide, Clearbank, Riskified, Payoneer. In fact, when you look closely, most FinTech’s are to some extent following at least the spirit of a PLG GTM strategy. They emphasise and incentivise customer referrals, focus on building communities of followers, offer sandbox environments, support self-onboarding and offer free trial periods. Most FinTech, deliberately or through experimentation and experience, in some way or other follow PLG strategies.
PLG is less evident amongst more established players including solution vendors, acquirers, PSPs and more broadly incumbent banks and FIs. The majority pursue a classic sales led GTM strategy with top-down sales teams focusing on selling to key decision-makers.
However, it’s perfectly feasible for a company to adjust its GTM strategy by adding a bottom-up approach to complement and work in tandem with a more conventional sales led GTM approach.
Companies in the payment and wider Fintech ecosystem can learn a lot from the product-led growth (PLG) methodology. A key principle of PLG strategy is experimentation, and this is probably the best way to start. Identify some bottom-up ideas and carefully test them out. It could be a tweak to a product feature or an adjustment to customer onboarding to allow self-onboarding. The key is to be able to measure the impact and learn from it. If these early experiments show promise, it may be time to investigate PLG strategies and develop a PLG roadmap.
Contact us to discuss if and how PLG might fit your organisation. If you are interested in finding out more about PLG, I recommend reading the following, which is a great entry point into countless community-driven articles on PLG: Productlet.org, and another solid article worth reading was published by Future.
The content of this article does not reflect the official opinion of Edgar, Dunn & Company. The information and views expressed in this publication belong solely to the author(s).