Season 8 - Episode 4

Lean Into Product Led Growth

Lauryn Isford is a data-driven PM who is also deeply passionate about user experience, something she frequently taps into as Head of Self Serve Product at Airtable. In this podcast episode, Lauryn describes self serve software and the Product Led Growth philosophy she learned at Google.

Lauryn Isford, Head of Self Serve Product at Airtable.
You’ve worked in companies such as Dropbox, Facebook, now Airtable. How did you get your first product job?

Yes. Great question. So I started my career at Dropbox in the Dropbox rotation program, which is a program that Dropbox offered for many years for new grads to try out different functions and different roles to learn what they liked. And my first rotation of that program was on the self-serve team at Dropbox as an analyst. I was an analyst in training. I was a Management Science and Engineering degree major from Stanford, which is roughly the same as industrial engineering at other universities.

And so I came in ready to be an analyst and I ended up on the self-serve team. And what was exciting about that was, first of all, that it would later come full circle when I joined Airtable and I got to work on self-serve again, but also that it was opportunity for me to see what a self-serve team is like, and what it meant to work on growth and what it meant to be on a team that had Product People who worked on growth, and how that team runs and has impact on the business.

So that was my very first job out of school. And it was a lucky accident that it’s where I ended up in my rotation. I was at Dropbox for some time, and then I ended up going to Blue Bottle Coffee also to work on growth and technically in an analyst function.

So analytics was really my wedge into the tech industry, my foot in the door at these really cool companies. And it was what I was good at and what I loved. And at Blue Bottle, I also worked on growth and specifically on the e-commerce business. Something that you should know about me is that I’m a big coffee fanatic. I actually was a barista at Phil’s Coffee in the Bay Area in college, back in the early days before were tons of locations. So working at Blue Bottle was a no-brainer for me, especially when the e-commerce business was new, and young, and exciting, and there was so much growth to be had.

At Blue Bottle and learned a ton about what it meant to grow something totally different. I had this realization that I still loved numbers, and I loved data, and I loved being data driven, but that that wasn’t the full picture for me. So I started thinking about what this meant. Around that time is also when Blue Bottle got acquired by Nestle, which was a very bittersweet day. Though also a very happy day.

But it changed a little bit what the future looked like there. And so I knew it wasn’t the full picture and I wanted to actually be building what we were putting in front of customers instead of just analyzing what happened after we built it. So I started thinking about that and where I ultimately landed is I realized that the growth team at Facebook was the mothership. They were the original people who were doing growth the product way, as opposed to growth marketing, or internet marketing, or growth hacking the way that I had seen so overdone all over the internet.

So I took a leap and I went to Facebook and I leaned really heavily into being at a really big company in a big way, and I got to be on the Product Growth team. So that’s where I got started. I worked my way up at Facebook for a number of years, ended up having a team that oversaw Product Growth for a number of the important areas of the Facebook app that you see today. New user education and onboarding was one of the areas I was particularly proud of. If you’re familiar with or the free basics program, I worked on scaling both of those.

I worked on India growth and one of my favorite projects at that time was launching Reels in India, right after TikTok got banned, so that was a very exciting part of the journey. And throughout all of that, I learned a ton. I learned from world-class people who have built and scaled all different kinds of products that now have tremendous footprints internationally. And it taught me everything that I know today.

So that’s how I got started. And of course, as the title might give away, I have come back to startups. Airtable’s a little bit smaller than Facebook (but maybe one day will be much bigger 🙂 ). And what I do at Airtable is that I basically have come full circle to do that perfect combination of product and growth together.

My team basically is the team that oversees product-led growth for Airtable. That end user experience of progressing someone from their first experience on the Airtable website—through signing up, orienting to the product, learning how to use it, expanding their team, and growing their team on the product over time.

So as you said, you’ve worked on the growth team at Facebook, which is one of the pioneers at this. Can you define for us: what is growth the product way?

Yes. This is a great question, and something I feel passionately about. So I would say that in the past 10 years or so, growth has been a marketing function at startups and tech companies, predominantly. And this means things like SEO and SEM, performance marketing, website conversion, signup flows, and optimizing forms—these all tended to be things that were the sweet spot of a growth marketer, or even a growth hacker.

And growth hacking obviously has a lot of connotations that are also very marketing associated. So an example of that might be using notifications to get people to come back to the product, maybe using push on a phone, using email campaigns to bring somebody back, or to offer them a free trial and hope that they’ll convert to a paid customer. And a lot of that you can actually do without having a full stack engineering team, which is great.

And it really has created a lot of leverage over the past 10 years for growth teams to have a lot of impact. However, things are changing. And what I mean by that is there are a lot of things that have been done as part of growth in the past that cap out. So you can only set up so many perfect email campaigns before they’re diminishing returns to the impact you can have from that.

And there’s the leaky bucket problem. And what I mean by this is if you bring millions of people to your site or to your product through some great optimizations of the website, and search, and paid advertising, but the product is not retentive, then those users will churn out on the other side. So this inefficiency has become more and more clear to folks who are working in growth right now. That without being able to actually fundamentally change the product, you’re leaving a ton of opportunity on the table.

An example I would give to you of this would be: there’s a difference between somebody signing up for Airtable and then being left to figure it out on their own, versus somebody signing up for Airtable, and a growth practitioner deliberately understanding every step in the funnel where that user is educated and onboarded to the core functionality of Airtable and is able to be successful or not able to be successful. And then fundamentally changing that onboarding experience in product make that user more successful.

So in this case, you’re actually taking a very data-driven approach, the way that you would have in any growth team over the years. But to then inform what you build in the product and to measure and evaluate the impact and results on the other side. Just to go a little further on that, I would say a growth team that is a Product Growth Team today should be a full stack product org that sits alongside a peer team, which is a core product team, and focuses on progressing users through their life cycle. So this is acquisition, this is onboarding, this is free to paid conversion in product. This is potentially pricing and packaging. This is engagement and reengagement, and all of it requires a full stack team of all different functions who are fundamentally changing the user experience.

Yes, growth is beyond just marketing. Retention these days is becoming the new growth. It’s important for Product People to not just ship features for the sake of it, but also make sure that there is some adoption and real value added.

Exactly. And I would actually say if you were looking for a team like this, a great measure of if a team that is a growth team is more of a product team than a marketing team is to understand who the leader, the head of growth reports to. Because if they report to the CPO, to the Head of Product, to the VP of Product, it’s very likely that there are Product Roadmaps, full stack teams and resources. If they happen to report to the CMO or the Head of Marketing, then that’s a very different direction. And so that’s a litmus test that I would use if you’re looking for that kind of opportunity to get a sense for which kind of team it is.

Can you explain more about what being the Head of a Self Serve Product means?

Yes, absolutely. So there are roughly two sides of Airtable’s business. The first is revenue that’s generated within the product. You could say product led revenue. And this is: if you decide to sign up for Airtable tomorrow and you opt for our Pro Plan, which is a paid plan, and you add your credit card and you start paying for the service. Small teams tend to use this. We offer a complete set of paid plans that you can sign up for on your own. We would refer to those as product led revenue. And the plans that are made available to you without having to talk to somebody in sales as the self-serve side of the business, or self service.

The other side of the business, we would refer to colloquially as Enterprise, but would represent anything assisted by sales. So this is, you’re talking to a representative, or somebody assists you with a demo or you work with an account executive, something of that nature. And you work with our sales team to find the right plan for your needs and for your organization.

Now they’re not a perfect split, it’s sort of a Venn diagram. But the reason why this is important for us is, if we’re thinking about the scaled impact of what we can do with the business in product, it creates a very efficient engine. Because we can generate revenue for the business without always needing sales to support.

And that enables our salesforce to then focus on large accounts, to focus on specific customers and organizations who really need that high touch. It enables us across the business to be better for our customers and to be more focused and thoughtful about the experience that we’re providing.

To go a step further there, the way to think about it is that my team and what my organization focuses on is progressing users through that life cycle that I mentioned before, which is fundamentally a growth product team. But then on top of that, we’re also accountable for a product led revenue and the success of users who are signing up for Airtable in the product.

The sales team is incentivized on getting commission once they close a deal. How do you make sure that your sales team loves the self serve product team so they can focus on those bigger accounts?

The best thing you can do if you’re on my team is spend as much time as possible with our customer experience crew. Our sales and customers experience teams are so expert and knowledgeable and they’re the front line. Everything we build is with customers in mind, and they are an invaluable source of product ideas and priorities. They really help bring to light for us what we should be building in the product, because they talk to folks who started with that self-serve experience before they ended up, going through a demo or an implementation exercise or talking to somebody at Airtable.

So we need to be very much aligned, in lockstep. And what I found is actually that the two sides are quite synergistic. Because what happens is we’re able to create scale. For example, generate a bunch of leads that are really high quality customers who are starting to learn Airtable and are already in progress. And then we can work with sales to hand off the right leads and the right potential future accounts to them based on what we’ve done on the product side.

So a very rudimentary, but straightforward example of this would be when someone signs up understanding what their job function is, where they come from, what their work email is, and starting to collect that information to know: who is this person who’s coming to Airtable on their own, in the product before talking to somebody on sales? And how can I make sure that I, as a Product Person on self-serve, am helping to triage that customer to the right experience. And so that’s something that we do, is we really focus on the handoff. Being thoughtful in how to help that user to the right experience is something that we do take responsibility for.

So it’s not just being a filter for the sales team to decide who they should talk to first. Customers are also getting qualified or they’re doing certain actions that are preparing them to then have a future conversation with the sales team.

Absolutely. Yeah, I think that’s exactly right. There’s a whole spectrum of customers. And the mission of Airtable is to democratize software creation. So if that means that what you want from Airtable is a single player, personal use experience for your own to-do list? Amazing. If that means you wanna try it out, get to know it, invite a couple close colleagues and make a decision later on if you want to invest in using Airtable professionally? Awesome. If you wanna go straight to your entire organization onboarding to Airtable, because you’ve heard about it and you feel like you absolutely need it, which I would highly recommend and agree with? Then that sounds great too!

So we do support the full spectrum, and I think this is so important because what I have seen in a lot of organizations is that there is a strong point of view that either self serve is the revenue generating engine or sales is the revenue generating engine. And the truth is that they have to coexist and that you are leaving things on the table if you don’t pursue both in parallel.

I’ve been on the buyer side many times as well. And when I receive a proposal about a tool that apparently the whole team uses and loves, it’s really hard to say no, because there is adoption by default vs. taking a chance on imposing a new tool.

Yes. I will say there is a really interesting opportunity that I would encourage anyone working on a relevant product to think about, which is: how do you create that permeation within an organization? And then how do you enable those individual people who have adopted Airtable or a similar product to connect with each other?

Because when many people are using a product in single player mode and they ultimately would like to use it together, that bridge can actually be very friction-ful. And it’s a very difficult one to get right. I’ve seen some interesting examples of helping to navigate someone when they join a SaaS product to other folks in their organization. But it’s not quite as straightforward as it sounds in theory. And the sooner you can help people create connections and feel like they are connected even in a lightweight way—something like social proof, which would be Facebok tactic—it really goes a long way to help to help a future buyer understand that there’s opportunity to use this tool to work together. And that piece can sometimes get lost.

There’s as trend now, which is companies focusing on doing one thing very, very well instead of trying to cover every single use case, and then integrating with other software. How do you think about Airtable as part of any company’s stack?

Yeah, I think that’s a really good question. I would say that the primary way that I see this fitting in is it enables a company to create, organize, and automate workflows. And that workflow piece is something that I don’t see represented well in the current stack of tools that businesses are using today for productivity and for collaborating together.

Something that we offer that is tremendously powerful within Airtable is our automations feature. And this enables you to automate things like…you can integrate with Slack, you can trigger emails to get updates from people you can alert folks to when the status of something has changed. And creating this kind of workflow within Airtable has efficiencies that cycle out to support teams and organizations that we haven’t seen replicated anywhere else.

So the way I would think about this is you’re basically getting the power of a relational database in a friendly collaboration UI. And that is what makes the workflow more effective versus having to have the whole G Suite or pick your favorite smattering of tools, Airtable actually sort of sits in between them and helps you bring some things together. Like it helps you create an integration with Slack while you continue to use Slack for your own collaboration with your teammates.

There’s a huge no code movement. But still there is a learning curve. As a user of Airtable, one thing is to create a sheet that looks like Excel or Google Sheet. Another thing is to start connecting and creating workflow. How can users make that leap?

The first thing I would say is I believe that we can do more as Airtable to make it even easier for you to learn how to use our product. So that is on me and I hope over the next months and years that onboarding and activating to Airtable’s power, and understanding the value of using it, will become more and more clear.

So what I would ask of folks who are considering it, is give us a try. And come learn through our educational resources, our onboarding tools, our help centers. We have these beautiful panels that provide resources to you in context, to help you navigate building your first Airtable base. Give it a try, and of trust that we are gonna be there to support you. I would say additionally, if you’ve had dreams, ambitions, visions of being able to create this kind of workflow before, we will provide that path for you and we are making it more accessible than anybody else has ever done before.

Playing around with our automations tool in particular; understanding what it means to use Airtable apps; getting some very simple data that you have in a CSV and a spreadsheet and putting it in there and sort of seeing what you can do with it. I think the visual impact of seeing how you can transform your data in Airtable in a way that’s very different than what you’ve seen before in a Google Sheet or an Excel, it is worth its weight in gold. So that’s where I would start.

Most of the audience are Product People. So what are some specific use cases for Product People to start making their own teams more productive?

We have this wonderful set of features, which we call Views. And Views are a visualization of your data. So one that I would highly recommend trying out is the Kanban view. You can literally have a Kanban right in Airtable. And not only can you have a Kanban of front of you for your workflow as a PM, but you can also do exactly what I just described with automations.

You can trigger updates, you can get your team to make adjustments to things you can integrate with Slack, you can do all sorts of fun things to make this Kanban come to life for your team the way that is most effective and efficient for you. And that should automate some of the manual processes that you’re spending cleaning things up, holding people accountable, and trying to sort of wrangle your team every time you want an update on something every week or every other week.

The Kanban view is a great one to get started. We also have a Gantt view, which I love. So I definitely recommend checking that one out. But even if you’re feeling like visualizations are not quite something you’re ready for, if you have a list of your teammates and some things about them—maybe their start date and their favorite snack to send to them on their birthday, something like that—just putting that in a grid on Airtable, and understanding how we can and group and visualize the grouping of that data should be enough to give you a feel for what you can do. And then from there, you can sort of think about if you want your tasks or your projects, or your marketing collateral, or your operations work streams to be imported in there once you see how the fundamentals come to life.

No code is disruptive because it’s empowering people to create, regardless of their background or experience. Access is being democratized and people can be self-sufficient, or self serve.

Exactly. And I think to your point, the most important thing in this window of time is to give that kind of no code experience a try and see what you can do. It’s like riding a bike. You just gotta open your eyes to what’s possible now that wasn’t possible five years ago. And as you get into a cadence of working with Airtable for one use case, I promise you five more will come out. It’s just a matter of understanding the underlying mechanism of what you can do.

You come from a pretty data-driven background. And Product Management in general is a blend of the quantitative and the qualitative aspect. How did you learn the human part of Product Management?

The short answer is that I tried it. So if you are hoping to break into Product Management and in a role like an analytics function, the best thing to do is to find a project your PM doesn’t have time for and ask if you can do it for them. And that’s how it began for me. And I think what I found is that being data driven, being a SQL master, being able to write my own queries and do my own data work is really a strength because I’m able to look at a potential product opportunity with a unique lens. And if you start in Product Management from day one, you wouldn’t have the same depth of experience around data that I do. And that many PMs who started in the data function would have.

So I would say give it a try and find those opportunities where you can raise your hand. I would also say, two of the areas where it’s most important to round out your skills are user research and design. So finding opportunities to become better at understanding what it means to really understand your customers and your users, and talk to them and ask questions. See them experience and dog food your product. It’s so important, and it’s something that in a data function you might not have as much exposure to.

And then the second piece on design is being a PM means that you need to be able to be well-rounded and levelheaded and well-reasoned in making the right decision for how to progress a product forward. And data can solve some of that, but it cannot solve all of it. So being aware that the way a user experiences how your product is built, the cognitive load that’s put in front of them, the decisions they need to make as they’re interacting with your product and progressing through it are really important and tend not to be something that you can answer by looking at numbers. So keeping that in mind, I think is an important balance.

You can definitely get the what’s with data., but not always the why’s. User research is helpful for this but often underrated.

Totally, totally. And I think the thing I would say about that is if you happen to have UX research full time on your team, amazing. Go learn from them. If you don’t, no problem. Find the customers you wanna talk to and go talk to them. Give them a call, $15 Amazon gift card, whatever it is. Figure it out, quick and dirty. Customer conversations to just sanity check and calibrate yourself on what you’re building and if you’re solving a user need are so helpful.

Lauryn, it has been a pleasure to learn from you. Is there anything else you would like to add?

No, thank you so much. It has been so wonderful to chat. I would say just overall, if anybody has feedback and ideas for how to make Airtable an even better place to build your own workflow, let me know! I’m on Twitter. Otherwise give it a try. And just in general, if any of you out there are working on growth and product growth, lean into it, and keep fighting the good fight, because there’s just so much stuff that we can do.

Tune again next week for another episode! Coming up: VP of Product at Iterable

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