If you are an entrepreneur anywhere on the enterprise startup journey, Survival to Thrival is for you. In the beginning, it is simply about Survival– how not to die? With luck and hard work, it becomes about Thrival– how do we win?
Our first book — available in print here — is about the company journey. Building enterprise startups is different. Products take longer. Go-To-Market strategies are more complex. Common wisdom on product-market-fit is not enough to unlock growth. There is a missing link that we call Go-To-Market Fit. Then, growth happens, and everything changes. The startup suddenly shifts from Survival mode to Thrival mode. Maddeningly, what used to work no longer works for the company and for the people. Becoming a market leader depends on everyone, including the CEO, unlearning the very things that made them successful.
The response to the book was incredible, and notes from readers showed us we had many questions left to answer. Many responded: “We appreciate the insight of GTM Fit… but how do we find it?” So, we decided to mine the experiences of our portfolio companies to share a repeatable “recipe” for achieving GTM Fit.
To make this new resource available to all, we decided to update and release our entire first book in an amplified, online format with a new title: Unlock.
Based on reader feedback, we’ve updated Chapter 3 (Go-To-Market Fit) as the first step to revising and publishing the new version of Unlock. To better serve our audience, we want to provide a beta version of the updated chapter.
This chapter is a living document and a work in progress, and we hope it will improve as we incorporate feedback from our readers. If you have comments or suggestions, we’d love to hear from you. Please feel free to drop us a line in the feedback box or at S2T@StormVentures.com.
When many enterprise startups get to PMF, they feel they’re ready to take off. “We have product-market fit! Let’s grow! Hire sales! Invest in marketing! Spend!”
The unfortunate frequent reality kicks in. Instead of sales taking off, sales just bump along. The number of new customers grows sporadically, painfully disproportionate to the rapid increase in sales and marketing.
“We hired sales and invested in marketing, and the only thing that went up was our cash-burn! We’re frustrated. Our investors are antsy. What gives?”
What gives is this: PMF is sufficient to create growth and acceleration in consumer startups, but it’s not sufficient to create growth and acceleration in enterprise startups. The enterprise journey is different.
Many enterprise startups get to PMF but don’t achieve growth and acceleration.
Why? Because there’s a “missing link” between PMF and accelerated growth for the enterprise startup journey. Oddly, this missing link doesn’t have a name or definition, let alone a structure or advice for how to deal with it. Until now.
The Missing Link for Growth: Introducing Go-To-Market Fit
The missing link is something we call Go-To-Market fit, or GTM Fit. We think it’s every bit as important for enterprise startups as PMF.
Developing and achieving GTM Fit is the number one thing about building a business that enterprise startups miss. Too often, founders and early investors assume that rapid growth will immediately follow PMF. This is natural. They believe strongly in the product and the market opportunity.
The missing link is something we call Go-To-Market fit, or GTM Fit. We think it’s every bit as important for enterprise startups as PMF.
So, what exactly is GTM Fit?
“This may sound simplistic, but you have GTM Fit when you have a ‘Yes’ answer to these two questions: ‘Do you feel customers pull you in? And, do you have a one-page playbook for repeatable wins?‘”–Bob
What’s a metaphor for GTM Fit? GTM Fit is the difference between paddling and surfing. Paddling is painful. Surfers expend a tremendous amount of energy paddling for relatively little progress. Without GTM Fit, companies struggle to win deal by deal, spending lots of cash and energy. Tensions run high as growth is hard, repeatability is missing, and everyone stares at the rapidly impending zero cash date.
Once you find GTM Fit, you’re no longer paddling for your life. You’re surfing a wave with lots of leads where deals convert and repeatability is visible. For every dollar you put into sales and marketing, you get more than a dollar out. In other words, it’s pure momentum.
When to Look for GTM Fit
Start looking for GTM Fit midway through the search for PMF. Why? The customer interactions at the latter part of PMF provide major clues for and help inform the iterations to find GTM Fit.
In particular, pay close attention to customer behaviors during the latter half of PM Fit: what got their attention; why do they spend time with you; who commits and who doesn’t; who moves fast and slow; why did they buy and why did they not; and who actually makes the purchase decisions. The mixture of positive and negative data points are hugely valuable market signals for finding GTM Fit.
Why Does GTM Fit Matter?
Okay okay, surfing instead of paddling sounds all well and good — but do you really need GTM Fit to do that? Isn’t it enough to achieve PMF and scale up? Yes — if you want to waste a lot of time and money!
Some who believe PMF is sufficient to unlock growth will recommend that the simple answer is “hire more sales” or “invest more in marketing”—essentially spend your way to GTM Fit. That rarely works. Without urgency and a repeatable recipe to find and win deals, increasing sales and marketing spend is like throwing money against the wall.
The pressure to hit the gas on sales and marketing will be enormous, but don’t do it until you can see the repeatable GTM playbook and GTM Fit. Setting an explicit GTM Fit milestone with the board and the leadership team will help everybody manage expectations and create focus. Once you have GTM Fit and feel the momentum, then it’s time to hit the gas.
Finding GTM Fit is hard. The stakes are high. The search is stressful. It creates cultural and organizational changes, as GTM becomes as important as product. At the same time, it allows you to win customers, and that’s energizing. Seeing patterns emerge that can be repeated makes everybody in the company realize that they’re not crazy. Hiring grade-A talent becomes much easier. You pick up momentum, and it’s a blast.
The 4 Steps to GTM Fit
Let’s break things down. (And keep using the surfing metaphor because, well, we like it.) Finding GTM Fit is a challenge that has four parts:
- Catch the Wave: Nail the Customer Journey — and you harness lots of momentum.
- Build the Right Surfboard: Create a Repeatable GTM Playbook — and you get repeatability.
- Ride the Wave: Operationalize the Playbook — and you can scale the GTM.
- Improve the Ride: Iterate with Metrics — and you can improve GTM execution.
The four-step path to GTM fit starts with the Customer Journey (CJ), the framework for your GTM Playbook (see graphic below).
As you follow the path to GTM Fit, each step builds on the last, mapping onto what you’ve done before. When you reach the end, you’ll be able to see how everything fits together. If it sounds intimidating now, don’t worry. We’re going to take things step by step.
#1 Catch the Wave: Nail the Customer Journey
You can’t surf if you don’t catch the wave. But it’s not enough for surfers to find a wave — they need to read it, too. Is it a beach break, a reform wave, or a double-up? The structure of the wave will determine the searcher’s approach.
For the enterprise startup, finding the wave means identifying the Urgent Pain for the Ideal Customer Profile that drives customers to buy now. Reading the wave means understanding the entire Customer Journey (CJ). The wave starts with the Urgent Pain for the Ideal Customer Profile and ends when your company becomes strategic to the customer. This is especially critical for SaaS startups, since signing the contract is only the beginning of the relationship with the customer, and so much of the business is based on renewals and upsells.
The Customer Journey (CJ) is the backbone of your entire Go-To-Market. Everything else is built on top of it. Nailing the CJ means:
- Understand the Customer Mindset
- Start with the Urgent Pain
- Work out the Full CJ — Including the 7 Key Milestones
- End by becoming strategic to the customer
Let’s start with the first part.
Understand the Customer Mindset
Usually when execs think of the CJ, they think of “Lead, Land, Renew, Expand.” But that’s backwards! Startups need to look at the CJ through the lens of the customer — not the sales rep. The CJ is not the same as the SalesForce.com forecasting stages. The CJ stages come from observing what is actually happening inside potential customers as they engage with the startup. And that includes the customer mindset.
What does your customer stand to gain if your product works, and what does he or she stand to lose if it doesn’t? While founding CEOs are usually focused on the former, customers are focused on the latter.
Founding CEOs start companies because they have a positive vision of the future in which their product changes the game. When customers adopt the product, it not only makes a positive impact on the company: it turns the product’s champions into the company’s heroes. But it’s important to understand that your customers will have the exact opposite mindset. When they evaluate your product, they aren’t thinking I hope this gets me promoted. They’re thinking I hope this works and doesn’t get me fired.
“In vendor selection, there is more downside risk than upside.”–JJ Juergensen, MD of Cyber Risk, Barclays. Former MD of IT, Morgan Stanley.
Think about it this way: You identify new technology that works well, convince your boss to sign a contract, get it operational. There are no fatal glitches, and everything ends up working fine. You’ve made an incremental improvement in your company’s workflow. Result? Your boss is pleased. Do people know that you’re responsible for the upgrade? Maybe not.
Say you make a good vendor choice twice. Three times. That’s how you build a reputation for making good choices. You’ll receive praise, and probably get promoted. Sounds pretty good!
But what happens if you screw it up even once?
Your ass is grass.
“When we made the decision to adopt MobileIron at my company [a major investment bank], the stakes were high. The product had to work. If there was even one small blip on the trading desks, it would have been curtains.”-JJ Juergensen, MD of Cyber Risk, Barclays. Former MD of IT, Morgan Stanley.
No one seems to remember who’s responsible for positive improvements, but somehow they always remember who royally mucked it up. If you convince your boss to invest in new backup technology, then you’re hit by ransomware and your backup doesn’t work? Well, then you’re going to be the person everyone talks about ten years later over beers. Poor Susan, if only she hadn’t convinced the boss to spend $4 million on that software, she wouldn’t have been transferred to a basement in Kalamazoo…
Break Asymmetry By Becoming Strategic
How do you create upside for the customer and break the risk asymmetry? By making your product strategic.
Every founding CEO believes their product is strategic. But the truth is most products are a Version 2.0: a tool that replaces existing systems. It does something your customer was already doing, but better. In the best case scenario, no one will notice a change from 1.0 to 2.0, unless the product fails.
A strategic product is something that people notice. It not only helps the customer solve the urgent pain, it has a long-term value proposition. Usually, it’s part of an increasingly important wave over time: digital transformation, cloud migration, mobile enterprise, or consumerization of IT. It opens up new possibilities that will have an impact on the company, whether that’s driving revenue, cutting costs, or another main business objective. When a product is strategic to the customer’s business, it becomes a platform. It becomes embedded in the workflow, and people build things on top of it.
When you’re competing for a contract, there are probably other vendors that solve the urgent pain just as well. Offering a strategic product is what separates the best vendors from the rest of the pack. For example, MobileIron’s entry point pain was solving the urgent pain of secure smartphone email, BYOD, and getting apps. But its high-level strategic value was to enable the mobile workforce. Not only did MobileIron solve the problem of mobile security, it reframed the problem of How do I secure my devices? Instead, the question became How do you become a mobile-first company where smartphones become key devices for every employee? MobileIron answered the problem with a visionary long-term solution.
Sometimes a product is strategic because of the pain it solves. If the customer is facing an existential urgent pain that threatens their very survival, your product has the opportunity to save the company. However, most urgent pains are not existential. It’s up to you to make your product more than a 2.0. How can your product drive key business objectives for your customers and unlock long-term possibilities that would not be otherwise available? Finding the answer to this question is the key to winning long-term customers.
Strategic Products Turn the Champion into a Hero
When a strategic product drives key business objectives, people notice. The champion who leads and deploys the strategic platform becomes a hero within their organization. In part because of his work on integrating MobileIron into his company’s mobile platform, JJ was promoted to managing director, a 1 in 100 shot for any employee. How did that happen?
“The urgent pain that drew us to MobileIron was an existential threat. Our trusted platform — Blackberries — were going away. Our execs wanted to switch to iPhones, but we weren’t able to secure the devices. If we did nothing about it, in two years none of our tens of thousands of devices would work. Nothing clarifies the mind like knowing you’ll be hanged in the morning.”-JJ Juergensen, MD of Cyber Risk, Barclays. Former MD of IT, Morgan Stanley.
Clearly the downside risk of not solving this problem was huge. But what broke the asymmetry and made the upside so big? The answer lies in MobileIron’s ability to tie the urgent pain to a strategic destination. To see how that worked, let’s take a step back.
At the time, there were two general approaches to solving the problem posed by securing new mobile platforms. The first was the container approach, in which all the apps on your phone are put into a secure “container.” It was a trusted, familiar model. But the downside was that the user would lose the native Apple iPhone experience, and could only use applications that were specifically made for the container. Users would still be using a Blackberry app — on their iPhones.
The newer, untested approach was to leverage the native Apple platforms through their APIs. It meant retaining the “real” iPhone experience, allowing developers to securely develop apps on the iPhone. But it was riskier, since it relied on new platforms like iOS. For a firm like JJ’s, the downside risk of a data breach was catastrophic. So which approach did they choose?
“When we were down to the final decision between two vendors to handle mobile security, both of them solved the security problem equally well. The difference was that MobileIron’s solution relied on native platforms, while the other vendor took a “container-based” approach to security. We ended up choosing MobileIron because they had a clearer vision of where they were going. They saw that in the long term, execs would want their business devices to work exactly like their personal ones. A container-based approach would quickly become clunky and obsolete. And that’s exactly what happened.”-JJ Juergensen, MD of Cyber Risk, Barclays. Former MD of IT, Morgan Stanley.
Your goal should be to make your product strategic to your customers and turn your champion into a hero. But you need a way in the door. Your way in? Line up with the urgent pain.
Special thanks to JJ for all of his help on this section, especially the insight about how to make a “2.0” product into a strategic platform.
Start CJ With the Urgent Pain
The first step of the CJ is the Urgent Pain.
Without an Urgent Pain, there is no GTM Fit. Period. Growth will be slow and painful. Why? Urgent pain drives leads. Urgent pain drives customers to engage. Urgent pain drives customers to decide to buy. Urgent pain drives customers to buy new products from new companies vs legacy vendors. But most importantly, the urgent pain answers the question:
“Why buy now, versus a year from now?”
If you can’t answer that question, you do not have urgency. It’s that simple. Without a clear urgent pain, why should the customer put their reputation on the line to buy a new product from a new company? Or maybe they do engage with you, but it’s endless educational meetings and a never-ending sales cycle. Why should they even bother to spend their valuable time engaging with you at all?
Usually, the urgent “why now” problem won’t feel like a sexy way to disrupt the status quo. But finding this pain is important, because it creates the entry for the enterprise startup, and motivation for immediate customer action. And by addressing an urgent pain for your Ideal Customer Profile (ICP), you can methodically find and catch the wave of momentum.
So, how do you find the urgent pain that drives GTM Fit? By being open-minded and searching systematically. Some find the urgent pain by luck or magical founder intuition, but by far most companies find the urgent pain through a systematic search process:
- Be open-minded and cast a wider net — even it feels like heresy
- Document all the data — even it feels irrelevant at the time
- Find the patterns and hotspots
Be Open-Minded and Cast a Wider Net — Even if it Feels like Heresy
Imagine the enterprise startup surfer in the water. The startup paddled very hard to the spot where they think the urgent pain should be. But the urgent pain might not be there. It might be a little to the right. Or a little farther in front. Or a few yards behind. Regardless, the urgent pain is probably not where they thought it was when they started the company. It needs to be searched for — systematically. And that’s hard. Because finding the urgent pain almost always requires the startup to commit “founder heresy.”
Every founder has a founding idea — the reason why they upended their life, quit their cushy job, and terrified their friends and family in the name of building something revolutionary. To the founder, this idea is the guiding light, the raison d’être that justifies all the blood, sweat, and tears.
But the truth is that overly dogmatic focus on the founding idea can be fatal. If you’re too busy chopping down trees, you risk missing the pattern in the forest. And as attractive as the founding idea may be to the founder, the urgent pain for the customer is usually adjacent. And it’s not the founder that’s buying your product. It’s the customer.
Conventional wisdom tells startups to “focus, focus, focus” and drill down on the founding idea. But to find the urgent pain, you must go against the conventional wisdom and overcome the fear of founder heresy. The only way to do that is through experimenting — and listening to the data.
Start with the initial focus on the product-market hypothesis, but also cast a slightly wider net for adjacent pain points and customer segments.
Targeting product-market adjacencies isn’t free. Testing them diverts resources from the original idea. There is no hard-and-fast rule on this, but spending 20–30 percent of your energy testing adjacencies provides enough coverage to detect a potential hotspot that may be outside the initial focus.
Ask customers “what other problems are you struggling with?” Deliberately meet customers in different segments. Ask probing questions “if we had such-and-such, what would that mean to you?”. Modify initial pitch decks to catalyze exploratory discussions. Be willing to test adjacencies with digital marketing, prototypes or mockups.
Testing adjacencies complicates early sales calls, because they won’t be identical and will require some nimbleness. Emotionally, too, this approach can be difficult for founders and first developers, since by definition they are passionate believers in the founding idea. Pursuing anything else can seem like heresy!
Document All Data — Even if it Feels Irrelevant
Finding the urgent pain starts with getting the data: talking to customers and documenting those conversations.
Talk to Customers
Who decides what the urgent pain is? Your customers do. And there’s only one way to find out about their pain points: talk to them. Ask enough questions and listen closely enough, and your customers are bound to reveal what’s really bothering them — and what they’d pay to solve ASAP.
Here’s a typical situation. The startup has two kinds of communicators: the Evangelist and the Listener. (They could be salespeople, though these personality types are not limited to sales. For example, the founder is often an Evangelist.) The Evangelist is articulate and deeply passionate about the founding idea; they’re a great spokesperson for the product. However, because the Evangelist has a strong idea of what the world should be, they’re not in tune to the customer’s perspective. When the Evangelist does listen, they selectively hear only things that reinforce their point of view. The Listener, on the other hand, is the complete opposite. The Listener may not be particularly well-spoken, but they’re great at paying attention to the customer, taking notes, and figuring out what’s relevant.
Though you need an Evangelist to win customers, you need a Listener, too, especially when you’re looking for the urgent pain. In the early days of the startup, the team has to have an open mind. If you’re too focused on the founding idea, you may miss the adjacencies. That’s why it’s important to document.
Document, Document, Document
If data isn’t recorded, it might as well not exist. Later on, it’s too easy to forget, or worse, selectively forget to fit a certain narrative. The loudest voice in the room often gets the most attention — even if it’s wrong. Beware of internal biases and only listening to what you want to hear.
To avoid these pitfalls, verbatim documentation is critical. Starting from the very first sales call, the sales and marketing teams should making notes of everything that happens:
- What are your reps saying?
- How are customers responding?
- What made the customer choose to engage and buy — or not to engage and buy?
- Who is your champion within the organization?
Organizing data is key to analyzing it later. It’s helpful to have a template of questions for capturing feedback, like a spreadsheet or questionnaire.
Find the Patterns and Hotspots
With data in hand, the next step is to find the patterns. Fair warning: this part will be exhausting.
Lock the Team in the Room
To identify the patterns in your data, lock your team in a room and grind through all of your customer deals. Yep, all of them. 20, 30, 40 customer deals — one by one, on a whiteboard. Find out what happened in each one — and why.
Why does the whole team have to do this? Because all the information about your customer interactions is distributed across people’s brains, and each one of those brains adds its own biases. That’s why it was so important to document customer data. Because only data can cut through opinions, biases, and anecdotal evidence. The whole team needs to be together — to contribute their perspectives and get on the same page. They even have to agree on what questions to each potential customer and their specific wording.
This process will be painful. It will take hours. It will be worth it.
Team Members Aren’t on the Same Page.
If you ask every member of your team what’s driving deals and what’s getting in the way, chances are you’ll get a slightly different answer from everyone. And that’s not all. Opinions, hierarchy, biases, and anecdotes all tend to get in the way of making objective evaluations. To find the urgent pain that drives deals, you must arm yourself with the data to cut through the noise.
Answer the Key Questions
To work through the deals, start with the customers you have won, and ask these questions:
Patterns Will Emerge
As you grind through the deals, patterns will (hopefully) emerge. What drove interest? What drove deals to move? Which types of customers? What use case? And also — what had the opposite effect? Are there patterns coalescing around the deals that succeeded? If so, these are clues to the Ideal Customer Profile. But deals that were lost can be equally instructive. Every win, loss, stuck deal, or uninterested customer is the world teaching you.
The key here is to move from anecdotes to analysis and visualization. It can be a very powerful exercise to bring together and look for patterns in the who, why, and why nots, and then make them visual. Often, a use-case/customer grid emerges with various hotspots and cold spots — around different potential ICP’s or different use cases.
What you’re looking for is a repeated pattern of success with a certain kind of customer for a specific pain point. And when the data coalesces around a certain combination: bingo. You’ve found your urgent pain and your Ideal Customer Profile (ICP).
What happens if you have more than one hotspot? Painful sacrifice.
Often a startup achieves PMF, with customers clustered around the several hotspots. As a result, the GTM team now has a pipeline of potential customers clustered around those hotspots of pain points and buyers. Understandably, any deal that brings in revenue in a reasonable time attracts attention from the GTM team and absorbs GTM bandwidth.
GTM Fit requires making the tough choice to line up the GTM playbook and GTM resources on one or two customer problems with the most urgency, and then sacrifice the pursuit of legitimate customer opportunities that are tied to lower urgency problems outside the playbook. Sacrificing legitimate customer opportunities will drive a revenue-goaled GTM team crazy. The CEO and Board will feel pressure as well. But it’s a necessary sacrifice. Focusing the GTM playbook on the right urgent problems is the final link in the chain for GTM Fit and growth!
Examples: Urgent Pains that Unlocked Growth
Here are just a few examples of how B2B startups have pivoted to the urgent pain and unlocked growth:
- MobileIron. MobileIron’s long-term vision of securely managed smartphones was attractive to prospects — but not enough to make them buy now. By listening to prospects, the team learned that execs wanted their IT departments to exchange their old Blackberries for iPhones — and they wanted it done yesterday. IT departments were hungry for a solution that helped them relieve the pressure from execs, and MobileIron could help them do just that.
- Sendoso. Early on, startup Sendoso built a platform that made it easy for customers to send a Starbucks gift card to prospects as a meeting-maker. But it turned out that an adjacent pain was much bigger and much more urgent. Marketing teams knew they needed to invest in the direct mail/gifting channel ASAP, but it was a nightmare to manually execute on sourcing, shipping, ROI tracking, and marketing/sales alignment. Sendoso could solve this pain by building a sending platform to automate the marketing closet of schwag for customers.
- Talkdesk. Talkdesk’s customers wanted to set up a call center, but the software was just out of reach for any company without robust IT. Talkdesk could solve this operational problem by allowing customers to set up a call center in only five minutes.
Finding Urgency vs. Creating Urgency
It’s common to hear from the head of marketing that “we just need to create urgency” with the customers in order to sell the product. What’s wrong with that way of thinking? Instead of searching for your customers’ latent urgent pain, it means running around and scaring your customers into buying your product. It might generate a few sales, but it’s not a sustainable plan, because it relies on instilling fear rather than solving an existing problem. Taking the time to test adjacencies and discover the latent urgent pain is the only way to find a real path to GTM Fit.
Whether the startup stumbled upon the urgent pain by accident or extracted it through rigorous data mining to find the patterns, the takeaway is the same: without an urgent pain that answers the question Why buy now and not a year from now?, there is no GTM Fit.
Work Out the Full Customer Journey
With the urgent pain identified, it’s time to work out the rest of the customer journey and identify the 7 key CJ milestones. Lock your execs into a meeting room. Starting with the urgent pain, write down each step of the journey on a whiteboard (see diagram above for one example). Here are some questions to use as a starting point:
- What is the urgent pain that your customers need to solve? Is it routine or existential?
- How do your customers find you — or you find them?
- How do they become interested?
- Who are the champions/evangelists of your product within the company? Is IT, the CFO, the marketing team, etc?
- How do they decide to engage?
- How do they select you and decide to buy? Who has to sign off?
- How do customers get live with the product? What are the typical expansion stages (250 users, 1,000 users, 10,000 users, etc)?
- What roadblocks must be overcome as they go live?
- Does your product expand by getting integrated with other workflows or support new use cases?
- How does the customer decide to renew?
- How do you become strategic to the customer’s business? What new problems are you solving for them?
Beating out the customer journey is hard. It requires distillation, conversation, and compromise. At times, it feels like a fight. But it’s absolutely essential that everyone has the same view of this journey, as it will drive the organization and produce key metrics.
Overlay the 7 CJ Milestones
Once the CJ is defined across the top of the whiteboard, identify the 7 key milestones. These are the most critical parts of the playbook, and will become important leverage points when you operationalize GTM:
- The Urgent Pain. This is the pain point that drives the customer to buy now — not one year from now. (See “Find the Urgent Pain.”) Without the urgent pain, there is no GTM Fit.
- The “Wow” – What is the thing — or things — in your product or pitch that causes the customer to engage and learn more? Wow’s make customers advance forward through the customer journey. They convert skeptics into champions.
- Sign 1st Contract. This is when you begin your formal relationship.
- Time to First Value. This is the first point at which the customer gets value from your product. What is the first value? When does the customer experience it? At this phase, the champion has a clearer understanding of the path to reduced pain. But they’ll also have improved clarity on the barriers to success, and they’ll come back to you with a list of issues to resolve.
- Full Deployment/Expand. Full deployment can take months or even years from the first signed contract. Along the way, there will be several checkpoints for getting live, and they are often accompanied by problems, especially when scaling. Learning from and nailing these stages is critical to trigger expands and new use cases. If you’ve solved an existential urgent pain, by now your champion may become known within their company.
- New Use Cases. Once your product is fully deployed and integrated into the workflow, new use cases may trigger upsells and expands.
- Strategic Platform. Your product is now an essential part of your customer’s organization, a platform that launches them toward the strategic destination. In recognition, ideally your champion becomes a hero and gets promoted.
Nailing the GTM playbook is likely the first major cross-functional project that a team is forced to do, and getting everyone to agree on the stages of the customer journey will be a struggle. But it’s crucial that everyone get on the same page.
Example: MobileIron CJ at Major Customer
Here were the steps of MobileIron’s CJ at a major customer, from urgent pain to strategic platform:
Examples: CJ Spreadsheet
The S2T Customer Journey & Playbook Spreadsheet also includes sample customer journey stages. Feel free to make a copy and adapt it to your company’s own CJ!
Challenges and Common Mistakes
A shared view of the customer journey is harder than you think.
Consider the parable of the blind men and the elephant. Three blind men have never come across an elephant before. As an experiment, someone asks them to touch an elephant and describe what it looks like. So each blind man takes his turn and touches the elephant — but they all touch a different part of the elephant’s body! The result? The three blind men have a different idea of what an elephant is.
While the startup’s leadership team is most certainly not blind, they look at each part of the Customer Journey through their lens and from their perspective. That’s only natural. Try this: Ask the leader of each team to write down their view of the Customer Journey. Probably, leaders are mostly on the same page for the GTM playbook, but they have a 20% different view. 20% different means 80% the same, right? Unfortunately not. The 20% on which the four leaders differ is actually a different 20%. That means 0.8 same x 0.8 same x 0.8 same x 0.8 same = .41 same. That means that, to the rest of the company trying to execute the startup’s GTM plan, the leadership team is only 41% aligned and nearly 60% misaligned on the GTM playbook, making it almost impossible to achieve GTM Fit.
How can one build a repeatable GTM playbook if the different parts of the company don’t have a shared view of the Customer Journey? Force these views to converge. It’s critical. The team must have the same view of the Customer Journey. It’s the backbone of the GTM playbook.
The CJ Doesn’t End When the Deal Closes
For SaaS companies, the CJ doesn’t end when the deal closes. In fact, that’s when some of the hardest work begins.
JJ Juergensen: “The customer-vendor relationship is like any relationship. Everyone’s happy at the beginning. When you start having problems, when it’s tested, that’s when the strength of the relationship shows — or not.”
Bob: “When we operationalized MobileIron at JJ’s firm, there were a few times I got a call from JJ about a problem with the rollout, and I almost had a mini heart attack. Those were do-or-die moments. We had to fix it — or else. And we did!”
For a major deal, getting the customer live won’t happen overnight. Usually, there are several stages of rollout, and each presents challenges that must be overcome. The startup must be responsive to the customer and solve these problems as soon as possible. Failure to do so can mean you’re dead in the water, but responding well to problems will build trust and support expansion, upsell, and new use cases.
The Customer is Not the Entire Company
Your customers are individuals within the company. There will always be competing voices and interests in a sales process, so make sure you find a champion within the company whose pain point can be solved by your product.
Don’t Be Too Responsive to Customer Requests
It’s always good to listen to the customer. But be careful not to listen too much and waste time on trivial requests. You’re likely to meet with a few prospects who tell you they want to buy your product, but only if you add one certain feature for them. Should you do it? If it’s a request you hear over and over, it’s probably worth your time to add this functionality. But it’s a waste of your time to add a different feature for every customer, because it will spread your product team too thin — and probably lead to low-quality code that will cause problems later on. Save your energy for the big roadblocks and customer requests that will come up during the implementation phases. How you respond after they sign a contract will make or break your success.
End the CJ by Becoming Strategic
The Customer Journey doesn’t end with closing a deal. Ideally, it ends with your product becoming strategic to the customer and turning your champion into a hero. Here are a few pieces of advice on how to accomplish that:
Find the Hero Report
If your product has the potential to be transformational to an organization, you can help turn your champion into a hero — and a happy reference customer — by helping them create the “hero report.”
The end of the customer journey is when your champion becomes the hero of their organization. Help your champion create a “hero report” — a dossier of all they have accomplished using your product, something that they can present to executives that gets attention and gets them promoted. Your best users may have created the hero report already. Go find it. Then share it.
“I am perpetually surprised that companies don’t do this [make the hero report] for potential reference accounts every single time. It’s such an easy way to nudge a sponsor from simply happy to proactively driving your offerings.”-JJ Juergensen
Market Revolution, Sell Evolution
When educating prospects on your solution to their urgent pain, be mindful of their risk asymmetry. The key is to enlighten them about your product’s strategic potential (the upside) while minimizing risks to them (the downside). In other words, market revolution — but sell evolution.
Startups can become thought leaders by attacking the conventional wisdom of incumbents — the old dinosaurs that are big but dated. Your startup is the unicorn, poised to charge and disrupt. Attack with thought leadership and create a passionate community around the strategic destination promised in your founding idea. Make it provocative, controversial, and ideologically pure.
“At Marketo, a marketing SaaS company I invested in, our customer champions were early leaders in the new field of “demand generation.” Pretty soon, CEOs were asking for marketing leaders who had experience with demand generation. Building a community around your ideas creates a “flywheel effect” — a virtuous cycle that turns success into leads.”-Tae Hea
But most customers are not so revolutionary. They want support from the rest of the organization. They do not want to assume career risk and huge uncertainty. These customers, despite being a firm believer in the revolution, prefer an evolutionary approach. Help these customers by selling evolution, where each step delivers value to the customer to build confidence and overcome organizational resistance. This approach doesn’t place the champion at career risk.
Don’t Educate on the Urgent Pain. Educate on the Strategic Possibilities
Once you hone in on the urgent pain that your product solves, you don’t need to spend a lot of time “informing” new customers about the problem. They already know it exists!
“Sometimes a vendor will spend over 50% of our meeting talking about the problem in the market. But I’m already very aware of that problem. I live that problem! I want to know about the solution.”-JJ Juergensen
Instead, educate your prospects about the strategic possibilities. Take your version 2.0 product and make it strategic by educating the customers of the new implications and actions. How can you help them understand the problem in a new way and provide a solution that will open up new opportunities?
“The best vendors help you think and talk about a problem space internally in a way that didn’t occur to you before. They know where the puck is going, and what the different possible outcomes will be. They know problems they can solve for you not only now but in the future.
Another one of our vendors, Tanium, got our attention by changing the way we thought about a relatively sleepy space: systems management. They asked us: ‘How would your life be different if you could query every machine in your system to see if it’s running the current patch level of an OS — and get the answer in 3 seconds?’ That made us sit up — and think about problems and possibilities differently.”-JJ Juergensen
#2 Build the Right Surfboard: Create a Repeatable GTM Playbook
Once you’ve found the urgent pain for your ICP and understand the customer journey, how do you repeatedly find and win ICP’s that have the urgent pain? This is where the Go-To-Market Playbook comes in.
“When designing a board, I create [it] to fit the surfer and the wave… going for the ultimate surfing experience.”–Jeff Clark, Mavericks Surf Company
Like a surfer’s surfboard, the GTM playbook matches the surfer (your team) and the wave (your customer journey). It allows the surfer to catch the urgent pain and ride the wave to growth.
The GTM playbook is a step-by-step, repeatable recipe to find and win deals over and over again. It becomes the blueprint for your marketing and sales teams. It becomes the bible for every new sales or marketing person to ramp. It becomes a powerful tool to align the rest of the team behind a go-to-market plan. The GTM playbook is the backbone for repeatable sales that is the core of GTM Fit and unlocking growth. It’s that important.
Let’s talk about what the GTM Playbook is not.
- The GTM Playbook isn’t just a better PowerPoint pitch.
Many founders translate “GTM Playbook” into “I need a better PowerPoint.” The playbook is not a PowerPoint deck. Bob: “I learned the magic of the GTM Playbook from MobileIron’s early VP Sales, John Donnelly. The first thing John did when he joined MobileIron was to take our fledgling Playbook 0.5 and make it a real Playbook 1.0. I made the mistake of thinking this was just a sales-pitch thing. Boy, was I wrong. The playbook gathers and distills all sorts of things: value propositions, sales processes, customer engagement, and what everyone in the company needs to do to find and win customers. Playbook 1.0 became the core operating system for our go-to-market strategy and helped everybody in the company line up behind it. Nailing Playbook 1.0 played a key role in catalyzing the acceleration of our business in 2010.”
- The GTM Playbook is not a “brain dump.”
The GTM playbook is not a thirty-page braindump of everything a sales or marketing person should know. Instead of documenting everything that could be done, the playbook is about capturing the 3-4 key things we do to find and win customers at each step of the process. That distillation often requires a painful sacrifice of perfectly good ideas that are not essential to the process.
- The Playbook is not Playbooks, plural.
Finding GTM Fit requires the startup to choose just one GTM playbook. It’s just too hard to execute on multiple GTM playbooks as an early stage company trying to unlock growth.
What does a GTM playbook look like? The GTM playbook is a recipe to find and win customers over and over again. It has three main components:
- Customer Journey Stages: From urgent pain, to initial engagement, to win, to hero.
- GTM Actions (for each stage): What’s done/said? Who’s involved? Exit criteria?
- GTM Deliverables (for each stage): What does the rest of the company do/build to support that stage of the playbook?
Playbook 1.0 has to be simple. If the playbook diagram doesn’t fit on one to two pages, it’s not ready. Getting there is harder than it sounds. It takes distillation, sacrifice, and constant iteration on the ground with sales and marketing reps.
How do you know you’re on the right track? A good sign is when new employees tape the GTM Playbook up on their wall. A spectacular sign is when the leadership team and entire company adopt the language and the framework of the GTM playbook to talk about the business.
How does the GTM playbook evolve over time? For most enterprise startups at any stage, crystalizing the GTM playbook for new customers is the highest priority. Once established, metrics are key to iterate and improve on the playbook. Once GTM Playbook 1.0 is nailed, the process to develop a GTM playbook is very repeatable and extensible. Startups often create additional GTM playbooks for upselling customers, renewing customers, new markets, and even bringing new products to market. Building GTM playbooks becomes a core differentiator and execution expertise for the startups that want to build a fearsome go-to-market machine.
So how do you create a Playbook 1.0? Take the following steps, and then iterate, iterate, iterate.
Seed the GTM Playbook: Learn from “Davy Crockett”
The early stages of an enterprise startup are like the Wild West. In the beginning, there is no GTM playbook. The founder, and maybe an early sales or growth marketing person, are the rugged pioneers. They experiment to find the path through the woods to find customers and win deals, each in their own way. They are the “Davy Crocketts.”
Through a lot of hard work and a dose of luck, one of them eventually finds what seems to be a repeatable path through the woods to find and win customers. This is a big accomplishment. Their self-found map is the “seed” of your GTM playbook. Write it down.
“During early sales calls we had a whiteboard outside one of the cubes that said ‘What worked’ on the right and ‘What didn’t work’ on the left. We took notes on what kept a customer on the phone, what got to a second meeting, what caused a customer to invest time, and what caused them to move forward. And soon a funny thing happened: other parts of the company started paying attention to that list. It influenced our marketing slides. When we hired new salespeople, we used it as our starting point in teaching them. We didn’t realize it, but those notes were our first draft of our GTM Playbook.”-Bob
Davy Crockett’s map is a great rough draft, but it’s going to take more massaging. The playbook needs to be understandable, repeatable, and executable by the newest sales rep. It’s a concise recipe for conversions that are repeatable, and thus scalable and predictable. Refining that playbook means locking the team in a room — again.
What if Davy Crockett is the founder?
If the founder was the Davy Crockett who found the early path, there is a special trap to watch for. It’s a classic mistake to hire new reps and tell them “do what the founder does.” The GTM playbook must be executable by a mere mortal sales rep or growth marketer — not just a founder who has the “founder pixie dust” and gravitas that can open special doors, get special meetings, and make promises.
Should your first VP Sales be Davy Crockett or Braveheart?
During the search for GTM Fit, one of the classic and most important questions is: When to hire a VP Sales? Conventional answer: When it’s time to start selling. Our answer: We generally disagree, for two reasons: (1) No grade-A VP Sales will be the first salesperson in the door, and (2) grade-A VP Sales don’t author playbooks from scratch—they finish and scale them.
The better early path to GTM Fit is to hire Davy Crockett–style salespeople who can “find the path through the woods” by iterating and experimenting on sales to find and win early customers. The Davy Crockett-style sales rep develops early versions of the Playbook and gets the company close to GTM Fit. A Davy Crockett-style sales rep is comfortable working with no map and insufficient supplies, and exploring the unknown. Most grade-A VP Sales will intuitively recognize the difference between PMF and GTM Fit and choose to wait for clear signals that the startup is close to GTM Fit. What’s the first thing a grade-A VP Sales candidate will want to do? Talk to early sales reps and early customers to see if there is a repeatable pattern that will scale!
Then, as the company gets closer to GTM Fit, it’s the right time to hire the VP Sales. An exciting startup on the cusp of GTM Fit becomes a very attractive opportunity for grade-A VP Sales. Once aboard, the newly hired VP Sales will polish the playbook, build an army, and then—like Mel Gibson in the movie Braveheart—lead the go-to-market army into battle against the enemy!”
GTM Actions: Who/Say/Do + Exit Criteria of Each Stage
What happens in each stage is the foundation of the repeatable sales playbook. Marketing knows what to do. Sales knows what to do. The playbook becomes a great teaching tool for onboarding new teams. But nailing all of the “say-and-do” stuff down is harder than it might seem. One company finished 50 percent of its playbook in three hours—but then took another three weeks to finish the remaining 50 percent! Distilling everything down to one or two pages forces focus and sacrifice.
This is where the CJ becomes very important. Under each stage of the journey, answer these questions:
- WHO: Who from the customer’s organization is involved?
- SAY/DO: What is said or done at each stage?
- EXIT CRITERIA: What are the exit criteria to advance to the next stage?
WHO: Remember, the customer is not the company. The customers are individuals within the company, and different individuals — and committees — are involved at each stage of the sales cycle. Who’s the champion? Is it someone from the IT department? Engineering? Does the champion have to get approval from higher-ups? Who makes the final decision to purchase?
SAY/DO: Try to get this down to 3-4 things per stage. What does marketing do to generate leads? What is the script for the first sales call? What do you say at the first meeting? The second meeting? What do you do during the eval? When do you get the boss to the table? How do you hand off to customer success?
EXIT CRITERIA: These vary based on the stage. Here are a few examples: Lead is qualified. Ask for a second meeting. Ask for an evaluation (eval). Bring the boss to the table. Ask for an order. Complete a contact. Sign the contract. Complete training and setup.
Everyone will have an opinion about what matters most. And everyone will have to sacrifice ideas or historical habits they cherish. The biggest debates will happen here. This is hard work and requires quality time, typically dedicated multi-hour blocks every couple days for several weeks. It is some of the most important GTM work that a startup team will do.
Here is one example of Say/Do for a sales-led playbook:
Find the “Wows” and Identify Blockers
As you lay out your internal motion, keep an eye out for things that speed up or slow down deals: your Wows and Blockers.
What is a Wow? Every product or service that’s being sold has a “Wow!”—something in the pitch, the demo, the eval—that brings home the value proposition. A killer feature. A killer demo. A killer slide. A killer quote. Something that converts a moderate prospect into an energized opportunity, or from a trial customer into a champion for your product. A Wow is something that triggers an action from the customer and inspires them to move to the next stage of the journey. A Wow might prompt your customer to ask for more information, invite a colleague or boss, request a demo, or start a trial period. It nudges your customer to move to the next step of the customer journey.
How do you find the Wow? By listening to the customer. Here’s a typical situation: a founder is meeting with an early prospect, explaining the product and detailing this capability, that capability. The customer passively listens, until… they hear something that makes them sit up. Their body language changes. They lean in and say, “Tell more more about THAT.” That’s a potential Wow.
Who decides the Wow? Neither the founder, nor the sales person, nor the engineering team decides the Wow. The customer does. Listen to your prospects. Watch your prospects. Be warned: the Wow is often not the feature your engineering team is most proud of. Sometimes it’s a smaller function that is buried in your product — but is super interesting to the customer.
What do you do with a Wow? When you find the Wow, amplify it in pitches, build it into evals, and in some cases make changes to the product user interface to make it easier to find and demo. The Wow doesn’t have to be a major feature that’s frequently used in production by the customer. It just has to be a capability that causes the customer to engage and move forward in the GTM playbook.
Examples: Finding the Wow
- MobileIron. MobileIron discovered two Wows that made customers lean in and ask for more information: Selective Wipe and the Enterprise App Store. Selective Wipe was a feature that allowed IT departments to wipe work data from an employee’s phone without removing personal data. As employees started to bring their own devices to work, it used to mean losing all their music and pictures if they left their job. MobileIron found a way to selectively wipe work data — and made it easy to demo. The second Wow, the Enterprise App Store, was a private app store for companies where employees could get company apps. Though it wasn’t an important feature, it was an important part of the sales process. Customers saw they could have app stores for their employees — just like Apple’s.
- Talkdesk. TalkDesk found that their Wow was just how easy it was to use the product. They had simple, transparent pricing, signed short-term contracts, and we had a product that could be up and running in 24 hours. Put all together, adopting Talkdesk was a no-brainer, and low-risk compared to anyone else in the market.
- CloudKnox. CloudKnox, a cloud security company, addressed an urgent pain that automation had created for enterprise customers. For every customer, they found that there were 1-2 lines of code that could download or destroy all their cloud data, incurring huge regulatory risks. CloudKnox delivered a “Wow” by showing the customer which people in their organization had the nuclear keys to destroy all the data — in under 24 hours. That got customers to sit up.
- Vaunta. Vaunta helps small SaaS get through SOC 2 compliance, a certification that makes big companies feel comfortable using their services. The urgent pain was that SOC 2 compliance is confusing and expensive; it slows down and even deals. For prospects who had already gone through the painful compliance, Vaunta showed them how they could do it painlessly, with a dashboard that automatically updated every day.
Your Blockers are the opposite of your Wows — they’re what hold your prospects back from the next stage of the journey. Ask: What’s holding you back? What’s causing conversion to be lower? Common blockers include:
- missing features
- an execution issue
- a missing ROI analysis
- underwhelming demo
- onboarding is too hard
Blockers are NOT just “objection handling.” They can’t be solved by training the sales team better. They occur at all points along the playbook, and therefore must be addressed by the appropriate departments.For example, if your issue is the hurdle of the finance department, do an ROI analysis ahead of time, so your champion doesn’t have to.
Regardless of what your Blockers are, identify them and find a way to knock them out. Getting ahead of these problems will save time at crucial steps of your playbook.
GTM Deliverables for Each Stage
Under each stage of the playbook, clearly identify the tools and deliverables needed to support that stage in the playbook and move customers to the next. Ask “What are the key things we need to nail this step in the playbook?” Typical deliverables include:
- sales tools
- marketing videos
- digital marketing SEO/SEM campaigns
- customer presentations
- key “Wow!” product features
- legal agreements
- evaluation guides
- onboarding guides
The list depends on the playbook. The list of tools become top priority deliverables for the team and becomes part of the muscle of the sales motion.
Defining the list also has a very beneficial side effect for the rest of the company: the cacophony of seemingly endless requests from the GTM team to the rest of the company now makes sense. The playbook becomes a very powerful way to line up the different aspects of an early stage company behind the GTM strategy. The playbook provides clarity and motivation to the rest of the company—engineering, product managers, marketing managers, support managers, and others—to see how the thing they are working on ties into the overall go-to-market plan for the business.
Revise Davy Crockett’s Voiceover to Match the PowerPoint.
Just as your pioneering Davy Crockett sales rep found their own personal path to find and win deals, they probably give their own effective presentation over the standard sales pitch deck. As you beat out the deliverables at every step of the playbook, it’s a good idea to revise the slides to match Davy Crockett’s “voiceover.”
Example: Sales-Led Playbook, MobileIron
GTM Model: MobileIron followed a sales-led playbook where marketing generated leads and then handed off qualified leads to sales which then moved them through the sales stages.
Marketing: lead with the 2-3 story hooks to grab customers’ interest. Tools focused to drive leads and qualify them. Goal: convert leads to become 1st meetings.
1st Meeting: introductory call or webinar with simple messaging and education. Tools included presentations, simple videos, and the first Wow (show separation of work and personal data on a BYOD device). Goal: 2nd meeting for deep dive meeting with relevant parties.
2nd meeting: deep dive meeting with business and technical stakeholder. Prove value proposition, share long term vision, and provide peer references. If necessary, drill into competitive differentiators. Tools are more technical, plus the 2nd Wow (the “Enterprise App Store”). Goal: customer commitment to spend time on a product evaluation, which means customers get serious.
Evaluation: Customer live evaluation of product to prove value proposition and competitive superiority. The hard part: mobile was new; customers often didn’t know how to evaluate. Therefore, a critical tool was the evaluation checklist and test plan to help the customer, and of course highlight advantages. Evaluation checklist was a living document regularly updated due to new capabilities or competitive tactics. Goal: Ask for executive meeting to present results of test plan. The evaluation stage content was reverse-engineered to maximize impact of executive meeting.
Executive meeting: Present successful evaluation report, share long-term vision of company, and discuss execution capabilities to ensure successful product rollout. Tools include evaluation report, executive presentation, and personal calls from CEO or other company leader. Goal: business approval to select MobileIron and buy.
Win: Sign initial order and begin rollout and activation. Tools include quoting tool, legal agreements (preferably click-thru), and customer onboarding program. Goal: successful rollout and happy customer who buys more.
Example: Product-Led Playbook, SendGrid
A successful marketing-led self-serve GTM strategy is difficult. Early on, the startup must market and create awareness and persuade customers to commit to the product. SendGrid, a cloud-based email service, attributes much of its early success to its participation in the 2009 Techstars accelerator program and partnerships with startup accelerators, incubators, and others in the startup ecosystem.
To avoid the expensive ongoing customer acquisition costs typical of high-touch enterprise sales models, a self-serve product must provide a frictionless user experience and be immediately usable. In designing an easily accessible product, the startup then reduces the barriers that typically accompany the purchase of business software and can attract more customers to try, buy, and derive value from their product.
Sameer Dholakia, CEO of SendGrid, believes a self-serve GTM model requires the full commitment of the company—across marketing, sales, support, and, most importantly, product. The product must be designed to be bought without help from a salesperson. Even the culture of the company must be geared to self-serve. At SendGrid, it started with the founders wanting to build software to make the lives of developers better and easier, and that meant minimizing time spent with salespeople. Easy to say, but hard to do.
SendGrid’s self-serve GTM required the complete alignment of four factors:
- A well-understood problem: a specific value proposition (clear pain and use case) that is well understood by the market (without lots of education).
- Clear PMF: product clearly solves the problem, and the problem matters.
- A single buyer who is reachable: the user, the buyer, and the decider are the same person and one who can be targeted using digital marketing.
- Fast time-to-value: product is easy to buy, implement, and get initial value from.
More advanced self-serve GTM models involve a product-led GTM model where the product itself is designed to guide customers to consume more and upgrade to higher value feature packages.
Link: Playbook Spreadsheet
Here is a link to the S2T Customer Journey & Playbook Spreadsheet, which includes several examples of customer journeys and GTM playbooks, including the MobileIron playbook.
Review: Key Takeaways
Beating out the GTM Playbook is a long process! Here’s a review of the steps to building the playbook:
- Find the urgent pain. Without the urgent pain, there is no GTM Fit.
- Work out the CJ. The CJ is the backbone of your playbook.
- Learn from your Davy Crockett — your pioneer sales rep who found their path through the woods to repeatable sales.
- Define each stage of the customer journey — from the customer’s point of view. Overlay the seven key CJ milestones.
- Write down the 3-4 things that your company says and does at each stage of the CJ.
- Identify Wow’s and elevate them in the playbook. Identify Blockers and find a way to knock them out.
- List the GTM deliverables for each stage of the CJ.
Ready to Move On?
Not so fast! Laying out the customer journey and your do’s and don’ts can seem deceivingly simple. But in our experience, this part of working out the playbook takes the most blood, sweat, and tears. Disagreements come up, outlooks clash… and that’s okay! This is the time to work through differing opinions and reconcile them. When everyone’s looking at the same picture, you’re ready to put the playbook in motion.
#3 Ride the Wave: Operationalize the GTM Playbook
Now that you’ve found the urgent pain, defined the customer journey, and built your GTM playbook, it’s time to put things into motion. And just as a surfer balances on top of the board, riding the wave is all about careful coordination.
Here are the key steps to operationalize the GTM playbook:
- Get the team behind the playbook.
- Assign a leader for each stage of the customer journey.
- Identify the handoffs where the playbook crosses between teams.
The CEO Owns the End-End Playbook
First things first, the GTM playbook needs an owner: the CEO.
Why the CEO? First reactions to the GTM playbook are usually the same: “Oh, that’s just a sales thing.” Except that the GTM Playbook is not just a sales thing — it’s an everyone thing. The GTM Playbook cuts across marketing, sales, product, and customer success. It’s the most cross-functional project there is in a startup! The CEO is the only person with the visibility to see across the company — and the authority to get the whole company behind it.
The CRO Doesn’t Own the Playbook. The CEO Does.
In some companies, the CEO delegates the GTM playbook to the Chief Revenue Officer, who is responsible for Marketing, Sales and Customer Success. This reduces cross-functional challenges. But the ultimate answer to most GTM issues is product related — and the CRO is not responsible for the product.
While the CEO owns the end-end playbook, each stage will have a leader assigned to it.
Each Stage: Decide Who Leads
It’s time to get back to the whiteboard! Underneath your Customer Journey, identify which department or function takes the lead for each stage.
How do you figure out who leads what stage? By considering two inputs. Input #1 is your initial thesis about your GTM model. Do you think it’s sales-led, marketing-led, or product-led self-serve? This thesis might turn out to be wrong, but it’s a helpful starting point.
Balance Input #1 with Input #2. Input #2 is the observations you make as you are winning your first couple deals. Ask: How does the customer decide to buy?
Watch How the Customer Decides to Buy
To decide which team leader is responsible for which section of the playbook, pay close attention to how the customer “makes the decision to buy” as you’re winning early deals. Not the logistics of the decision, but the cognitive process for how a company engages with and buys your product.
- Committee decision? That’s usually best handled by a sales-led process (see diagram for example). Oftentimes the customer champion is unfamiliar with how to build an internal consensus to approve the purchase. A good salesperson leads the customer through their decision and helps the customer champion build that internal consensus.
- User and Decider two separate people? Marketing-led tends to work here. Much of the early engagement and selling can be done by marketing, and perhaps sales comes in at the end.
- User and Decider are the same person? If the product is reasonably well understood, a self-serve product-led approach GTM motion is often best (see diagram for example).
These bottoms-up atomic stage decisions in the playbook are the basis of your GTM model. While you’ll probably find your playbook resembles one of the standard GTM models (sales-led, marketing-led, product-led), there’s not a one-size-fits-all model to fit the playbook. Building your playbook from the bottom up will provide you the specific model that works for your business. No matter what is your GTM model, the most important thing is to make sure that everyone is aware of where they fit in, and what role they play.
Evolution from “Hands-on”: Automating Parts of the Playbook
In the beginning when direct experimentation is high, most startups begin with a manual, hands-on approach for each stage in the playbook. While modern sales and marketing tools can highly automate parts of a GTM playbook, it’s often expensive to automate until you know what is to be automated. But once you figure out what works, automation can make your GTM more efficient in the long run. For example, in the beginning, early customer sales engagement is hands-on with scripts; later, it can be automated using marketing tools. Early marketing engagement processes can also be automated by being built into self-serve, product-led processes.
Identify the Handoffs
Moving through the stages of the GTM Playbook is like a relay race — passing the baton from one leader/team to the next. And like a relay race, the handoffs are where races are won or lost: the baton is either smoothly handed to the next stage, or it’s fumbled.
Examples of handoffs are:
- Marketing hands off the lead to a sales rep.
- Marketing hands off a prospect to a self-serve demo.
- Online eval activity gets handed off to inside sales.
- Sales hands signed customer to customer success for activation.
- Customer success identifies an upsell opportunity to hand off to sales.
In the graphic at the beginning of this chapter, there are handoffs from marketing to product to sales to customers success, and back to sales for renewal. There are many possible configurations depending on your CJ and who leads which stage.
Handoffs are key. They are the most vulnerable points of the customer journey, where leads, prospects, opportunities, and deals get dropped or stuck. Handoffs are places where clear communication between teams is critical. Where deciding shared handoff success metrics is particularly important. Where operational complexity shows up. Where the CEO may have to get involved to resolve issues. Crisp handoffs in the GTM playbook help the business accelerate; sloppy handoffs are where things get stuck and slow down.
Challenges with Handoffs
Handoffs are tricky. When handoffs are not clear, problems arise. It’s pretty normal. Here are some examples:
- Misaligned leads. Marketing is using customer profiles, search terms, and messaging that drives lots of leads, which feels like a success. But those leads don’t have the urgent pain or use case that requires the product. The leads don’t fit the ideal customer profile.
- Misaligned deals. Sales teams are given incentives to go after large upfront deals, yet the sales playbook and historical deals point to a small initial deal followed by expansion. Deal pursuit doesn’t match the playbook.
- Misaligned product focus. The “Wow!” capability that motivates the customer to act is seen by the product team as unsexy and technologically uninteresting, and therefore doesn’t get proper engineering attention and marketing awareness. The product team has not elevated the “Wow!”
- Misaligned Problem or Use Case Across Functional Teams. The most fundamental and common misalignment is when all teams are not pointed at and prioritizing the same problem or use case. This is particularly common as the startup adds new executive leaders for each of the different functions. Everyone is moving fast and has a slightly (or not so slightly) different conception of the problem or how different customers experience the problem. The answer: the CEO and the team executives must force themselves and the company to line up on the same early use cases and customer focus. Easy to say, hard to do.
Sometimes the problem is a poorly defined handoff. Frequently, handoff issues are a symptom of a larger disconnect. Different parts of the organization — typically sales, marketing, and product — are not lined up on a common GTM playbook. Or perhaps, the team is aligned on 80% of the playbook and not aligned on 20%. No one is being malicious or stupid. Sometimes it’s a lack of clarity. Sometimes it hides a fundamental disagreement about GTM strategy. The key is to drive to clarity and repeatability.
- Marketing to Sales. Sales can only close as many leads as it receives — but not all leads are created equal. Marketing should focus on quantity and efficiency (handing off the largest number of leads in the most cost-effective way possible), but also make sure they are high-quality leads that sales can close.
- Product to GTM. Though product has not traditionally been considered part of Go-to-Market, nowadays it’s an increasingly important part of the GTM playbook, especially for SaaS companies. Decreasing Time-to-Value (the time at which the customer first receives value from your product) is an example of a product change that drives GTM results. The graph below shows a product’s Time-to-Value (in minutes) plotted against the number of self-serve paying customers. As the product got easier to use (through smaller Time-to-Value), self-serve exploded.
- CS to Sales. Upsells and expands are a key part of any SaaS business. When CS identifies a customer to upsell, there should be a clear and easy way for them to hand off that customer to sales.
Review: Key Takeaways
Putting the playbook into action is easier said than done. Follow these steps to get started on the right track:
- The playbook needs an owner: the CEO. Only the CEO can own the playbook, because execution requires cross-functional alignment.
- To build your GTM model, start by deciding which department or team is in charge of every step of the playbook.
- The handoffs between teams are where things tend to get stuck or dropped. Make handoffs clear. Have an agreed-upon metric that captures the handoff.
#4 Improve the Ride: Use Metrics to Iterate on Your Playbook
Once you’ve assigned leaders and defined handoffs, leveraging the right metrics will help you to drive GTM operations by setting goals, measuring outcomes, and keep iterating. Using this data-driven approach, you can iterate on your GTM just like you iterated on your product during the search for PMF.
The good news? There’s a metric for everything. The bad news? …there’s a metric for everything. That’s why metrics are so confusing. It’s easy to get lost in the cacophony of SaaS metrics.
So which metrics to use — and how? How do you convert the cacophony into a harmonious symphony?
The Hierarchy of Metrics
The first thing to understand is that not all metrics are created equal. Some are more important than others, and more importantly, some metrics feed into and/or make up higher-level metrics. That’s why it’s helpful to think as metrics in a hierarchy (see graphic).
At the foundation are the stage metrics, which measure the performance of each stage of the GTM playbook. The next level up are the team metrics, which measure the performance of each team (marketing, sales, CS, etc). However, the CEO can find the stage metrics to be too granular and the team metrics too siloed. Considered on their own, these metrics may be too low level — as if you are zoomed in too close on the picture.
At the top of the hierarchy are the End-to-End metrics, which measure the performance of the entire GTM process. These metrics give you the big picture about your business, and they’re the ones investors use to evaluate you. But looking at the End-to-End metrics alone, the CEO can find the End-to-End metrics to be too high-level. You’re looking at the whole picture, but you’ve zoomed out too far to see the detail.
Variable Zoom and System View
So how should you look at metrics? The key is to use two concepts we discuss more in depth later in our second book: variable zoom and system view.
Variable zoom is all about looking at the big picture and focusing on the details, all while being able to connect the dots. If the CEO sees a problem in one of the End-to-End metrics, they must zoom in closer to look at the stage metrics and team metrics and diagnose where the real problem lies. The CEO must constantly adjust their focus like a variable-zoom camera lens.
Variable zoom works best when the CEO takes a system view. Building a system view is all about seeing how the pieces of your GTM motion fit and work together as a whole (see example graphic).
Think about the GTM motion like a complicated machine, like a car. The brake pedal, brake piston, and brake pad are all important, but no one part slows the car on its own. If you tried to brake the car by using just the brake pads, you’d rear-end the SUV in front of you. Every part of the mechanism works together as part of the brake system. And when there’s a problem with your brake system, a mechanic needs to diagnose and fix the issue by looking at each constituent part one by one.
Just like individual parts of the brake system, neither sales nor marketing nor product closes a deal on their own. They work together as part of a system. And when there’s a problem with the system, the CEO needs to zoom in closer and diagnose the problem in each constituent part. The classic system view for GTM, which we will use and explore, is Lead, Land, and Strategic.
If your GTM Playbook is a complicated machine with lots of moving pieces, then your metrics are the gauges that tell you how different parts of your machine are running. We’re now ready to discuss each type of metrics — from granular to big-picture. But first, building up this hierarchy of metrics starts with constructing the right data model.
Check out Tae Hea’s blog, “How to Review GTM Results at Board Meetings.”
GTM Data Model: Go Back to the CJ
What’s true of any scientific experiment is also true for GTM metrics: the accuracy of your measurements is only as good as the data you collect. Having the wrong or inconsistent GTM data model can be a nightmare. The sales metrics don’t reconcile with the marketing metrics or customer success metrics, for that matter. It’s not possible to make data-driven decisions when you don’t know if you’re looking at the right data.
Before moving on, check: is your data model consistent? Is it based on the customer journey? If not, do not pass Go, do not collect $200. Go back and build a consistent data model. If yes, you’re ready to proceed!
Remember how we said the playbook gives you metrics “for free”? When you build your playbook, each stage in the playbook becomes a measurement point.
Keeping tabs on the stage metrics is like taking the “blood pressure” along each stage of your playbook. By looking at these numbers, you can diagnose where customers are getting stuck and what is making things go faster or slower.
You can monitor the flow of your GTM motion by keeping track of:
- the number in each stage,
- the number of new customers added,
- the time spent in each stage, and
- the percent that convert (make it to the next step).
The graphic above illustrates one view of stage metrics. As customers progress (move down) to the next stage, the number of customers in the stage and the conversion rate are shown.
To learn more about stage metrics, check out this post by Jacco van der Kooj, founder of Winning By Design, about the SaaS Data Model.
Team efficiency metrics can help you evaluate the productivity of your silos.
Think of each team as a little black box with inputs and outputs. In the example below, Sales resembles a black box with:
- Inputs: New pipeline (the dollar amount, # deals, and quality)
- Outputs: Wins (the dollar amount and # deals) and % of customers who fit the Ideal Customer Profile
Here are key metrics for analyzing the health of the sales black box:
Sales Team Metrics
- Sales rep metrics
- New ARR (TCV) per sales rep — the average performance
- New ARR (TCV) by sales rep — see the whole distribution
- Quota metrics
- Quota per sales rep — the target for the financial model (bookings forecast and commission). This is a key model assumption.
- % of Quota — the average performance, New ARR/Quota
- % of sales reps who make quota
- Quota / sales costs — is the quota target economically viable?
- Sales capacity metrics
- Amount of sales capacity — # reps x Quota
- Sales Capacity/Forecast (known as the coverage ratio) — <100% implies the forecast is unreasonable. > 120% implies inefficient sales.
- # ramped sales reps
- Sales rep ramp time
- Pipeline metrics
- Conversion rate
- Conversion time (average sales days)
- Amount of pipeline at beginning of quarter
- Amount of pipeline generated in the quarter
Check out Tae Hea’s blog post, “GTM Metric #1: Will I make the quarter? Do we have enough pipeline coverage?“
Marketing Team Metrics
- TO BE COMPLETED!
Customer Success Team Metrics
- TO BE COMPLETED!
Product Team Metrics
Historically, the product team has not been part of the sales motion. But as more SaaS companies move toward a self-serve GTM model, the product team is now accountable for crucial parts of the GTM journey. Here are some core questions for your product team:
- What Wow’s in the product solve the urgent pain?
- What in the product minimizes churn?
- What triggers expands?
- What is the capability in the product that makes the customer a hero?
Amit Bendov, Founder and CEO of Gong.io, has a great metaphor for how making your product easier can speed up GTM:
“Here’s a free tip for founders/CEOs that aren’t thrilled with their sales. Think of your product as a knife: if the edge is dull, your sales team will need to apply more pressure. If the edge is razor sharp, it’ll easily slice through the market. Make it easier for your sales team — the ROI is huge.”-Amit Bendov, Founder and CEO of Gong.io
Picking a “rally metric” can be a really powerful way to marshall different teams together and crack a bottleneck when customers are getting stuck at a particular point of the playbook. Because this requires cross-functional coordination, it can only be done if the CEO owns the playbook. Here are a few useful rally metrics tied to key points in the customer journey milestones:
-# of Evals/SE
-Time to 1st Value
-Time from Win to Active
As we explained in the intro to this section, building a system view is the key to focusing in on details while keeping an eye on the big picture. The GTM system is broken into three parts: Lead, Land and Expand. In this example, the team view and system view line up for Leads and Land, but not for Renew/Expands.
Your system metrics are the metrics you’re going to talk about in board meetings every week. They’re the metrics that show progress at key points in your GTM playbook, and you can operationalize them to tune up your internal process.
Lead and Land Metrics
Lead metrics are all about generating sales pipeline. How much $ is in the pipeline? What is the # of leads? What % of those leads convert?
In the Land phase, we’re keeping track of prospects as they evaluate the product and make the decision to buy. How many prospects are in evaluations? What % and how much $ are won? What is the overall #, %, and $ of deals closed?
While wins are important in the short term, it’s important to look at numbers related to your long term growth. What is the upsell capacity? Do your customers fit the Ideal Customer Profile? Without ICP fit and upsell capacity, there will be problems retaining SaaS customers down the road. Here are the key lead & land metrics:
- Customer Acquisition Cost (CAC). How much do you spend on sales and marketing to win one new customer?
- New Logo ARR Efficiency. Out of all the revenue from your new customers, how much of that was spent on sales and marketing? In other words, how hard do you have to work to win a new dollar of revenue?
Once your customers have decided to buy, strategic metrics can help keep track of how your customers are using your product and your capacity for growth in the long term. (Please note, we use the label “strategic” for metrics that typically capture the Lead and Expand stages.)
For example: what is the # of Daily Active Users (DAU)? Monthly Active Users (MAU)? Out of all your users, what % are active? Though these basic metrics will be helpful, there’s probably a better, more specific usage metric for your particular product. For example, for Slack the key usage metric was the number of messages sent by a particular date.
When it comes to your long term growth, the most important numbers are your $ Gross Renewal, % Renewal, and Net Promoter Score (NPS). How many of your customers are choosing to renew, and how many would recommend you to others? What is your $ of Upsells? What is your % Expand and your % penetration of the market?
Key strategic metrics:
- Gross $ Renewals. What % of the revenue you booked last year renewed this year? How sticky is your product, how important is it to your customers?
- Expand %. How many of your customers are expanding?
- Net $ Retention. How much money are your existing customers giving you per year? If your Net Retention is over 1, your customers are giving you more money every year.
- Cohort Analysis can help you compare progress on all these metrics over time.
Have You Found GTM Fit?
Here’s how you’ll know you’ve achieved GTM Fit. You’ll see it in the numbers. And you’ll just feel it.
End-to-End Metrics: Growth and Efficiency
Analytically, the Magic Number measures your Go-to-Market Fit. Your Magic Number (new ARR divided by your marketing and sales spend) answers the question, how much do you grow for every dollar spent on S&M? If every dollar of S&M spend brings in more than one dollar of revenue, you’ve achieved GTM Fit. But keep in mind that the magic number is a lagging indicator, and it may take you a few quarters to see a positive result.
The End-to-End SaaS metrics give you the big picture about your Go-To-Market, and they’re main criteria when investors evaluate your Go-To-Market:
- Net New ARR. How much ARR has increased/decreased from the period? It is the sum of all new ARR (such as lands, expands and upsells) minus the sum of all lost ARR (such as churn or contraction). In other words, how much are you growing?
- Magic Number. For every dollar spent on sales and marketing, how much new revenue did you generate? In other words, how efficient is your Lead and Land system? If this number is greater than one, things are going well.
The End-to-End SaaS GTM metrics are lagging indicators. They are the outcome of the GTM process — not tools to improve it. That’s why it’s important to remember: to tune up the playbook into a well-oiled machine, you need to look under the hood.
What Does GTM Fit Feel Like?
Enough of the GTM Fit analytics. You’ll know you’ve cracked your playbook because you’ll feel it. It feels like surfing with momentum. What does the lack of GTM Fit feel like? Paddling around in the water with no momentum. Signs of GTM Fit, or the lack of it, come from across the business. Here are some of the good and the bad:
The GTM Cheat Sheet
After making it through this chapter, we thought it would be helpful to put every part of the GTM Playbook onto one slide — the “GTM Cheat Sheet.” This slide is your roadmap for every part of building and executing the playbook. It’s daunting, yes, but not nearly as daunting as it was without a map!
Download the cheat sheet as a PDF here:
What if GTM Fit Feels Elusive?
Sometimes a company just falls into GTM Fit. Purchase orders are emailed in with minimal effort. The company can’t follow up on most of the leads it gets, and deals are easy to close. But that’s not common. Most companies struggle, iterating through trial and error to find GTM fit.
When GTM Fit eludes a company, one of two things is usually going on:
- Playbook problem. Lack of repeatable playbook that nails one use case with enough urgency to drive leads and catalyze purchases now.
- People problem. Different parts of the organization are not lined up on what’s in the playbook, often due to past inertia or differing interpretations of the playbook.
When the use case and problem don’t create a sense of urgency, and instead just feel “nice to have,” that’s a problem. It needs to be fixed. Start with the customers you have won. What made them act or what cause them to get stalled? Is there a consistent profile for customers who found the use case urgent? Does that profile naturally exclude the lost deals and uninterested customers? If so, that’s a clue to the ideal customer profile.
It’s also possible that the problem is urgent but you haven’t found the “Wow!”: that key metric, feature, or report that captures the attention of buyers and drives them to buy your solution rather than the competition’s. Get inside the head of the user and the buyer: What makes the buyer a hero? What are they scared of? What do they aspire to? What pain is solved?
How do you find the patterns? Identify the ideal customer profile? Find the pain? Tease out the “Wow!”? Your customers, prospects, sales and customer success teams will tell you. Every win, loss, stuck deal, or uninterested customer is the world teaching you. The key: move from anecdotes “to analysis and visualization. It can be a very powerful exercise to bring together and look for patterns in the who, why, and why nots, and then make them visual.
Above all, learn from the happy and successful customers who are using your product and understand its value. Also learn from customers who got stuck or said no. Both sets of customers are the flywheel that drive the development of Playbook 1.0, line up the leadership team behind the playbook, and create GTM Fit to unlock growth.
Down the Road: Changing the Playbook
As a rule of thumb, you need to nail at least one GTM playbook to unlock growth. But when should you change the playbook? When should you add a new one?
The playbook isn’t the Bible. It’s not static, and it’s best to tweak it as you learn from customers. But don’t take this advice too far! The playbook should not change daily. Nor should there be more than one playbook. At the early stages of the company, building multiple playbooks will confuse your team and spread resources too thin. Once you’ve successfully scaled one playbook, you’ve earned the right to add more.
As you enter your next act as a business, you’ll need to add new GTM playbooks for new markets or new ICPs. The playbook might need to change because of market disruption — like the upheaval recently caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. Whatever the circumstances, creating a new playbook means going through these three steps again. Don’t jam new things through existing playbooks!
“Once the playbook gets going, making changes is much harder than you think. Muscle memory is what makes the GTM Playbook work so well — but it’s also what makes it so hard to change. Real change takes three steps: 1) realization that it’s hard, 2) brute force shock therapy, 3) and intense repetition.
When we changed the playbook at MobileIron, I thought we could just give new directions to our teams and press play. But after a couple months, people just went back to what they were doing before! To make the permanent change, I decided to do something extreme. I took three weeks out of my schedule and asked every sales rep to come and give me the new sales pitch to me individually. Talk about intense. Unfortunately, we had to let a few people go because they didn’t get serious about the new playbook. But in the process we also identified some incredible young talent!”-Bob
GTM Fit: Exit Survival Mode. Get Ready for Thrival.
Achieving GTM Fit is a big deal! The startup now has a product with multiple paying customers who refer their colleagues, as well as a repeatable sales and marketing playbook that finds and wins customers with a sense of urgency. The startup has earned the right to no longer be in survival mode. The startup no longer needs to fear imminent death. With GTM Fit, it’s time to shift gears into Thrival mode, drive growth and GTM Acceleration. Very few companies ever make it this far. Getting here is a huge accomplishment. Stop and enjoy the moment!