March 10, 2022

Unusual Insights for founders building a self-service motion

John Vrionis
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Unusual Insights for founders building a self-service motionUnusual Insights for founders building a self-service motion
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Editor's note: 

Successful execution requires founders to embrace new models for organizational design, and hiring team members who have nuanced skills. Success also requires setting the right KPIs that align with cross-functional initiatives. With the hope of helping founders working through similar questions, this guide highlights some of the best practices we’ve seen in the field.

By other names, the concept of product-led growth (PLG) and self-service has been around longer than you might realize (think AOL in 1983). But it wasn’t until many years later that the tech community coined the term in reference to free-to-use or free-to-try software packaged in a self-service go-to-market motion. 

As we’ve described previously, self-service isn’t the right approach for all software companies. But many of the recent successful startups have continued to evolve the model and demonstrated a path to efficient hypergrowth through a self-service GTM. At the heart of this execution success is a product that enables users to find, try, and buy, and organizations built to support this GTM motion. 

In many ways, early-stage orgs have an advantage over established companies to experiment with self-service models. Building from a blank canvas vs. pivoting an existing organization and its practices is an advantage primarily due to not needing to overcome inertia. At the same time, the self-service function is by definition more cross-functional than traditional marketing, sales, and engineering efforts, and as a result forces founders to rethink how best to build teams, place responsibility, and define KPIs.  

We are continually learning about how early-stage companies should approach self-service as a core function by collaborating with our founders and working closely with them to hire, achieve, and measure momentum. Repeatedly, we’ve found that where founders can benefit the most from our experience centers around the following two questions: 

  1. How do you make it easy for prospective customers to find value in your product on their own?
  2. How do I, as a founder, build and organize a team to best execute on a self-service motion?

Let’s start by addressing the first question. 

Learn from high-touch feedback before communicating at scale

The mission of self-serve is to remove all possible friction for a user to to quickly discover the “Aha!” value in your solution. During the early days of building your product, you want to define each step in the user journey and obsess over removing barriers to progress. Identifying onboarding blockers, ambiguity in the UI, and poor documentation are typically the highest leverage items to spend cycles on. Watching or videoing users as they engage is heavily recommended whenever possible to best understand where gaps exist. Conversations with early adopters help the entire team prioritize where future development should be focused and how to better deliver user experiences at both the free and ultimately paid tiers.  

As Grafana’s VP of Self-Service, Dave Dorman, explained to us, before the company could scale their self-serve offering, they hired a success engineer to work directly with customers and identify their early adoption stumbling blocks. While directly assisting the customer in resolving any issues they encountered, the success engineer also documented and communicated those challenges back to the product and engineering leaders in the company. The feedback loop became a critical workflow in the organization and drove prioritization of features that enabled a successful self-service pipeline. The entire company was contributing to the smart decisions that ultimately resulted in a higher efficiency motion of: self-service User -> Sales Qualified Lead -> converted (paying) customer. That approach worked so well that the self-service team grew by adding additional technical success engineers who became some of the most valuable employees in the company.

Education and Community are necessary investments

Once you’ve built a product that quickly and easily addresses an important need for your target users, you must enable them to succeed with your product through constantly evolving education, documentation, and community support. Users want to experience as little friction as possible when getting started with a product but it's equally important that when they have questions, they can quickly find answers and get back to work. A knowledge base, documentation, technical guides, and tutorials enable users to find their own answers. 

Pro Tip: Team Unusual has worked closely with a number of our portfolio companies to introduce animated GIFs as part of the documentation as a successful mechanism to provide answers to self-service FAQs. Check out this example from OpenMetadata.

Building learning resources that anticipate your users’ needs demonstrates that you understand and care about your users and, ultimately, helps develop trust. Some of the most helpful developer resources that we’ve seen in B2B SaaS are produced by engineers who know a product inside and out. They empathize with their users and anticipate the questions that they might ask. In our experience, developers and engineers are naturally curious, so if your product is meant for these personas we strongly recommend an early hire who serves as a vocal advocate. They can engage directly in Slack channels or other modes of communication to have direct conversations with your audience in a way that helps them to understand how things work in the language they’re familiar with. 

To further support your users, it’s important to create a community around your product to enable peer-to-peer knowledge sharing and support. It’s essential that your users have a forum to help one another, especially for the corner cases and unique issues that individual users may encounter but that are not feasible to try to cover in general documentation. When done well, education and community resources become an extension of your product and your brand to your users. Community building is an art in its own right and we’ve written about that here

Shift your mindset away from traditional sales — but not completely

While modern founders have embraced the idea that they want to avoid replicating the traditional top down sales motion that was the standard a decade ago, it doesn't mean the company doesn’t need a sales team. The beauty of self-serve is that it simultaneously generates awareness and adoption, while also enabling your desperate users to self identify and ultimately provide qualified opportunities to salespeople

For example, a single user who discovered your product through published content or an active community and has a positive experience eventually becomes a candidate to upgrade from a single-user license to an enterprise-level license. Most products have natural breakpoints where in a user’s journey in order to continue to have a better experience engaging with an informed sales person makes sense.       


In the case of Grafana’s dedicated self-service team, technical success engineers are the first line of defense, tasked with engaging with free-tier customers to answer their questions and listen to feedback. “The self-serve mindset is a cultural thing, but there are definitely humans involved,” said Dorman, who in addition to leading Self-Service at Grafana, previously worked in a similar role at DigitalOcean. Self Service can’t be thought of as an independent or separate function within the company left to succeed or fail, but rather embraced by the entire organization. The best Self-Service companies make the motion central to the culture and that starts with the founders giving it first class status. 


Establish cross-disciplinary collaboration and dedicated resources

Even in the earliest days of building your company, to succeed with a self-service motion it's critical to build a culture of cross-collaboration. As a Founder considering how best to organize your resources, you’ll need leaders at every function who are believers in the model and respect the guardrails. At Unusual, we’ve seen much greater success when founders built a dedicated self-service team that reported to a Founder or C-level executive. Many founders are reluctant to commit full time headcount to a dedicated Self-Service team however in our experience its the highest probability way to make sure the organization prioritizes the needs of this effort. Having the self-service leader report to a Founder or C-level team member sends a message to the company regarding its importance. 

As founders hire for the self-service team and consider the necessary skill sets we recommend thinking of this group as part product management, part technical success, and part support. Grafana’s self service team started as a very small team of “technical success” experts and evolved as the company grew. Team members were technical enough to troubleshoot with users and deeply understand the product, and they had the interpersonal skills to support users of all levels. Self-Service drives the priorities and is accountable for the KPIs related to this aspect of the business and at the same time helps coordinate activity across the other major functions.

The functional teams in the organization each have a major contribution to a successful self-service motion. Marketing drives the necessary level of awareness and website visitors. Product Management is obsessed with gathering feedback from users and buyers and improving each step in the respective journeys. Engineering prioritizes features that enable users to have a rapid adoption experience and seamless journey to that “Aha” moment. Community and Education are responsive to user questions and needs, and contribute essential tutorials and high quality documentation. The Sales function must respect the sanctity of the user in the self-service journey and correctly time when to engage! This demarcation point differs for every company and depends specifically on the nuances of the USER/BUYER journey.

One of the most important fundamental changes in the Modern GTM vs. the old GTM model for enterprise startups is creating specific steps and action items for two distinct personas: the USER and the BUYER. Learn more about the Modern GTM USER/BUYER Journey here.

Dorman attributes his team’s successful execution to aligned communication and collaboration across the board. His self-service team is in sync with the marketing, sales, engineering and product teams and has access to committed resources even without any engineers reporting directly to him. He shares his team's learnings with everyone because the company treats self-service as part of the lifeblood of the business. 


Self-Service motions are fundamental to the success of many modern startups. For founders embracing a Go-To-Market strategy with Self-Service as a core component, there are four key takeaways: 

  1. A product experience that has limited friction for users to experience the “Aha!” moment 
  2. Highly supportive Education and Community programs to assist users on their journeys
  3. An organization that treats self-service as a first-class initiative
  4. Dedicated resources and cross-functional execution 


— Team Unusual

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