Recently, at the invitation of Mick Griffin, I traveled to Poland to attend the 2019 Pipeline Summit and present a keynote sharing the Zest success story and how we earned our first 100k users.
While preparing for the Summit, I made an offer via social media to share the deck with anyone who was interested. Around 200 of my friends and colleagues said: Send it to me. But once I finished my keynote, I realized that just sending the deck wouldn’t give them the full story.
To be truly helpful to my peers, I need to share the “how we did it” story that inspired the deck (which you can view here). So, I pulled together my notes from the Pipeline Summit speech to create the following article.
Community has always been at the core of everything we do here at Zest and that community has been the fuel that has powered our journey. And, to keep our community strong, our core values include the open sharing of knowledge.
In my keynote, and in this piece, I share my knowledge about what Zest is and why we created it as well as how Zest grew from a professional knowledge-building platform into the foundation for a 100k-strong and growing community of professionals dedicated to self-learning and professional growth.
When we launched Zest, we were on our own. We bootstrapped the company from zero to 30k users. Then, last year, we closed a pre-seed round that gave us the runway to take the Zest tribe to the next level. This summer, we released Zest for mobile and crossed the 100k user mark and the Tribal Self-Learning Movement was born.
Creating a community-driven, knowledge-building platform for professionals and teams
Ignorance is the path to extinction.
As the world moves forward, those who stand still will be left behind.
Knowledge has become the currency of a new world economy built on rapid-fire innovation and industry shifts. And, as we explain in The Anti-Extinction Roadmap for Modern Professionals, our mega-guide for self-learners, those who fail to pursue knowledge are destined for extinction.
But those of us who continually develop our professional knowledge will thrive. We identify and acquire new skills to move ourselves and our professions forward ensuring our survival and the survival of our craft.
We are gladiators in the fight against ignorance and information overload.
My co-founder, Idan Yalovich, and I created Zest because we had a need and we saw that our peers shared this need. What we needed was a tool to help us win the battle against ignorance.
When we tried to find quality information to grow our professional knowledge, we encountered too much-unfiltered information. The result of this information overload was that before we could begin consuming information, we had to waste valuable time trying to separate the useful from the useless.
Instead of advancing our knowledge, we were losing productivity.
The problem caused by content overload
We understood that the ability to gain knowledge is essential for the survival of modern professionals. So we began to work on a solution: Zest.
Zest is a knowledge-building platform for modern professionals. Like a Spotify of professional content, Zest filters, classifies, personally matches, and delivers content to each user on-demand. Zest’s unique user content curation and filtration process–and the human touch provided by the Zest tribe–is what makes it the solution to content overload.
To support effective and efficient professional growth, the Zest AI associate engine builds custom micro-learning paths that deliver individualized content selections to each user based on their personal profile and stated goals.
The content from which each custom learning path is built is sourced by members of the Zest community. This content curation by real people who are members of the Zest tribe and your professional peers is the first touchpoint in the Zest content filtering process.
Next, the content is filtered through Zest’s machine learning algorithms which distill and classify the content, discarding content identified as low-quality.
Once only high-quality, community-approved content remains, Zest’s AI matches individual pieces of content to each user or team based on their profile characteristics and stated goals and preferences. Zest users get the informative, actionable content they need, delivered when they want it.
Community participation for mutual benefit a.k.a. network effects is central to Zest’s solution. The contributions and feedback of each new member make the product better for everyone.
My recipe for going from 0 to 100(k) users
Taking Zest from zero of 100k users (Zesters) was a gradual process. Each step in the process added a new element to the whole. And like a layer cake, missing one of these elements results in a different final result.
So, the following sections describe my 4-layer recipe for perfectly balanced (and tasty) user growth.
0–5k Zesters: Be a (nice) human
The first layer is “Be a nice human.”
Forget what you’ve been told about doing things that scale and automating everything and focus on personally connecting with your users. Just be yourself.
How simple is that, eh?
As we spoke with our colleagues and friends about Zest, we learned that they were tired of talking to machines. They wanted to feel the warmth of our hands on their shoulders
They wanted to know that there were humans just like them who were building this product.
So, in the first few months after we launched, I personally communicated with thousands of users via email–no automation. When users submitted content to Zest, they received an email response from me explaining why their content had been accepted or rejected.
As a result of this personal interaction, I created real relationships with and got to know those early adopters. I learned their lingo, discovered their pain points, and received their feedback–the good and the bad–about our product. I was able to help people I’d never previously met find jobs and consult with them about their daily professional struggle.
The people I connected with became a tribe of power users who spread the word about Zest to their colleagues who then did the same. These early users are still active on Zest today. If this is not scalable, then what is?
Being human means that we have to set the right tone of voice (TOV) for our brand as well. The Zest TOV is one that communicates vulnerability, authenticity, and transparency (VAT). Our goal is to stay humble and deliver real value through each contact. To achieve this goal, the VAT methodology guides all of our communications with users from emails to blog posts.
Vulnerable doesn’t mean you need to be cheesy, though. This article, Good for our KPI’s, bad for our users–we’re killing our newsletter, is an example of how our VAT communication strategy looks in practice.In the piece, Idan details how we killed our newsletter because we believed it wasn’t good enough. It was a one-newsletter- fits-all product rather than being the kind of hyper-personalized content our users expected. Also, we made one too many mistakes in the way we delivered the newsletter, so we decided to kill it and explain why in a very public way.
A year later, we launched a new super-customized newsletter: UpSkill. UpSkill delivers custom-selected content to each subscriber based on their Zest activity and profile. This “anti-newsletter” delivers the kind of hyper-personalized experience that our users deserve.
As for authenticity, our social posts are designed with this value in mind. Our text and creatives, such as the ones we use to introduce new team members, are casual and unpolished and allow users to see the real people behind Zest.
Our VAT methodology doesn’t just apply to user communications either. When we started our pre-seed fundraising efforts, we created an open dashboard for all investors which displayed our KPIs. The dashboard included metrics that demonstrated our successes and not so successes. We chose to reveal both the good and the bad because we wanted to attract investors who shared our values and vision. The dashboard’s messaging invited like-minded investors to become a part of our journey.
What happened after we published this dashboard? It was shared and discovered by potential investors around the world. More than 700 of those investors contacted us and we found the right travel companions for the next leg of Zest’s growth.
As an added value, the larger Zest community also appreciated our willingness to share these early-stage, internal statistics.
6k to 20k Zesters: Switching on the machines, but gently
After we got to ~5k users, we felt that it’s time to switch on the machines and use more automation in our user-facing efforts. After all, there were only so many emails I could send in a day and we didn’t want to keep users waiting for feedback.
We didn’t abandon our VAT style when we switched on the machines, though. Our automated email texts were based on the tens of thousands of 1 on 1 exchanges we had previously shared with users. These correspondences informed our TOV and the content of our automated communications.
Our new set of emails also went beyond delivering my personal feedback on users’ suggested content or answering their questions. Now, we were focused on using our communications to drive further growth by making our users feel successful, appreciated, and part of a community.
To improve our chances of success, we introduced each new email gradually and tested everything to gauge our users’ responses.
Of course, introducing automation wasn’t the only step we took to grow Zest from 6k to 20k users.
How we developed the Product-[X] Fit methodology
During this second phase of growth, we also focused our energies on one of the key factors that determines the success or failure of any startup: that elusive unicorn known as product-market fit.
This process added an entirely new set of layers to our growth strategy and required us to change both our mindset and workflows. We began by breaking down our main goal into smaller, more manageable segments.
Using this methodology, “product” becomes “features,” “market” becomes “Zesters.”
Our workflow begins with the development of a feature that we then test with a few of the power users. This is the feature-user fit step. Then we iterate.
The next step is to achieve feature-tribe fit.
In this step, the feature is introduced to either the entire Zest tribe or a large beta helpers group to gain further feedback. Then we iterate. Only after we’ve completed this process for our product’s features do we move forward with product fit which repeats the same steps of testing the product with power users, then the full tribe or a beta testing group.
By taking each feature and the product as a whole though this multi-stage process of evaluation and iteration, we achieve our ultimate goal which is strong product-market fit.
Defining product-market fit starts with a retention-first mindset and clear retention KPIs
I’ve explained how we achieve product-market fit. But how can you know when you’ve achieved it? There are lots of definitions of product-market fit. But I think that most of them are pure fluff.
Our methodology requires data. You can’t claim to have achieved a goal if you can’t quantify it.
To determine if you are achieving growth, I recommend that startups track their retention rates. Good retention can grow your user base. Great retention can explode it.
Zest’s growth indicator KPIs include our Day 1, Day 7 and Day 30 retention rates, Power User Curve, daily and monthly active users, and the behavior of select cohorts over time.
- We track D1, D7 and D30 retention to see how many users are coming back to the product after their first introduction and how sticky the product is.
- Power User Curve analysis allows us to keep an eye on our most engaged and active users. These are the users who are most likely to be our brand advocates and drive our growth.
- Evaluating the DAU to MAU ratio reveals how important our product is in the lives of our users. How many of those who use the product at least monthly use it daily?
- Cohorts analysis to see the behavior of our users over time. This information helps us identify trends in user behavior and assess the impact of product additions and updates.
Adopting a product-led growth strategy
Yes, I know it has become the latest industry buzzword, but it’s not just buzz for us. Product-led growth is our strategy because we are a product-first company. This means that product defines our roadmap, core KPIs, and is responsible for generating user acquisition.
Marketing then steps in and supports the product roadmap.
These product-market fit methodology and product-first mindsets are the guiding principles upon which Zest’s growth strategy was built.
Here’s what that strategy looks like within the product.
Helping Zesters to adopt the product and the community
Once our mindset was aligned, it was time to grow a community. We wanted our users to understand how important they are to the company and how they function as an integral part of the Zest solution. We have implemented several strategies to grow the Zest tribe and strengthen our community. Here are three examples I really like:
- Infinitely onboarding our users
- Making the content contribution process transparent
- Building bonds between users
Our onboarding process is simple, unique and a little bit surprising.
We want our users to notice that this isn’t your usual onboarding experience. We also wanted them to feel a sense of accomplishment. So, each step in our onboarding walkthrough is accompanied by a success message.
In the above image, you can see what happens after you accomplish the first step in the onboarding: A success message pops up and takes you to YouTube.
What makes it “infinite” is that each time you open the app, different time- or action-based events may trigger new messages which allow you to discover new app features or revisit ones which you have not used for a while.
This process provides Zesters with a lot of micro “AHA!” moments and increases their product appreciation levels.
Transparent content contribution process
Content contributions from engaged users are the heart of Zest. So, we wanted to make the process of contributing content as transparent and frictionless as possible.
Once a user suggests content, they can check its status at each step in the distillation process. Users can also find out when the content they contributed will be published or, if it was rejected, they can view the reason.
A transparent and accessible contribution process aligns with Zest’s product and brand propositions and enhances the process’s credibility.
Building bonds between users
Creating networks within Zest is a core brand activity.
To build bonds and lay down the foundations for an internal social network, we added a “Thank a fellow Zester” feature that allows users with the tap of a finger to send a thank you message to a Zester they believe contributed a valuable piece of content.
Zest users can also follow fellow Zesters and receive alerts when someone they follow has contributed new content on Zest.
These elements of the Zest product all reinforce our commitment to community and the formation of lasting relationships with and among our users. But that’s not the end of our journey. Next, our team needed to prepare itself for the ride from 20k to 100k engaged and active Zest users
I encourage you to read The Roadmap yourself and share it with your team. It combines learning theory with practical applications in a way that allows you to implement strategies that will improve your productivity and understand why those strategies work.
Now please take a deep breathing and get ready for the next phase of Zest journey- our growth from 21k to 100k+ users — and discover how the strategies we used to transition from creating a solid foundation of early users to focusing on growth at scale.