When you’re growing a company with limited funds, it’s easy to focus exclusively on programs that “make sense on paper.” But sometimes, it’s the impractical and unscalable experiences that give businesses the edge they need to grow.
I started my company as a solo entrepreneur in 2003, and at that time, my primary objective was to serve small businesses in a way that no competitor had. Through our growth, we made three big customer-focused decisions. These decisions made no sense when you looked at the costs and resource requirements for a business of our size, but in terms of serving the customer, they made all the sense in the world.
Today, we have more than 100,000 customers, more than 600 global employees and more than $100 million in annual recurring revenue. As I look back, some of the ideas that seemed the most unscalable are what ultimately set our business apart in the market, leading to the success we enjoy today. And within these ideas are an important lesson I believe other entrepreneurs should keep in mind:
Unscalable Idea No. 1: Offer free one-on-one support to everyone. I believed that if we trained customers to use the product, they would use it well and find success. But small businesses often lack the time and resources to adopt new software. To combat this, we offered free one-on-one strategy sessions for every customer.
This was a bit of a crazy idea for a few reasons: Not only was this a potential hit to revenue, but also our entire team was only about 10 people at the time. In order to meet this goal, one team member ran 40 to 50 sessions a week for about six months straight. While the initial training sessions did not add millions of dollars to our company, they showed us that going the extra mile is what creates advocacy — and that advocacy drove growth we didn’t have to pay for with expensive marketing programs.
By connecting with all of our customers on a personal level, we learned their pain points and how every segment of our users defined success. And every new pain point we discovered ultimately led to a solution that improved our product road map and customer experience.
Unscalable Idea No. 2: Say no to industry-accepted norms. In addition to training, starting costs were often a barrier to adoption for small businesses, especially because so many of our customers came to us after experimenting with and outgrowing other solutions. Small organizations don’t have the time or money to waste in rework, and many will suffer through a bad solution they already have rather than take the risk of investing in something new. To solve this, we decided to offer free services for all of our customers.
Without the startup costs, small businesses didn’t have to worry that they were investing money in our solution before they ever saw the value. This approach differed from the industry norm, but it gave us many more new customers than we could have expected otherwise. Many of these customers grew with us, and by continuing to leverage this model, we gained a detailed understanding of pain points and opportunities our customers have faced in the past, which led to additional product innovation.
Unscalable Idea No. 3: Go to the customer, no matter where they are. As we began seeing that our solution could be used everywhere, we made the strategic decision to physically support our customers in nontraditional hubs with in-person, daylong training sessions that we called “study halls.” This was a big shift from the typical focus on traditional hubs (e.g., San Francisco, Chicago, New York, etc.) but was necessary for us. Because we began focusing on non-traditional hubs, we began seeing customers all over the country and sometimes the world.
It was a large time and money investment to go into markets that didn’t guarantee a return on investment, such as Albuquerque, Des Moines, St. Louis and others. But in going to the customers and providing service in their regions, we fostered huge levels of enthusiasm, loyalty and advocacy and grew more quickly in nontech hubs than we might have otherwise expected.
Unscalable ideas foster innovation and growth and help define brand identity.
There’s a balance to find between making the right choices and taking the right chances. In each of the examples I cited, we didn’t know whether the original idea would be something we could support, but in each of these cases, we were able to learn from these moments and turn these unscalable ideas into mature programs that showcased the best of what we wanted to deliver for our customers.
It never felt possible to send teams to every small town in the world where customers might be. It never felt possible to offer one-on-one sessions to every user within hundreds of thousands of accounts, but the more we iterated on the idea, the more we saw its potential for scalability.
The biggest idea to take away from ActiveCampaign’s unique growth is this: Don’t stick to what you think you should do for short-term gains. By making the customer experience the focus, even if it means going around traditional business rules, I believe you have the potential to see an incredible payoff. If you’re always focused on what makes sense on paper, you will miss out on unique opportunities to grow.
My hope is that more growing businesses will find the confidence to invest in the customer without fear, knowing that prioritizing the customer experience is often a winning bet.