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Nail your self-serve MVP product

How to design minimum viable self-serve product experiences for enterprise software that drive user activation


It’s critical even for enterprise startups embracing PLG to go through a private beta phase with 10 to 30 customers.

The key to a great self-serve product experience lies in demonstrating one strong value proposition early.

    Your self-serve experience must have a 15-minute “time to aha.”

Test the entire user experience before launch and avoid these common mistakes:

    • vague messaging
    • losing user focus
    • poor out-of-product experience

In a product-led growth (PLG) motion, users must be able to try the product on their own before talking to a salesperson in one of these ways:

• An always-free plan with limited usage
• An open-source version for developer tools
• A limited-time free trial leading to a paid plan

All three methods share one thing in common: they must be self-serve product experiences. 

Most advice about building a good self-serve software experience focuses on companies at scale that can employ dedicated growth teams to reduce user friction. But what do you do as an early-stage founder with a small team? This article aims to offer a strategic framework with a multitude of tips and examples you can leverage to build your product’s MVP (minimum viable product) self-serve experience for users to try before they buy. 

Before we dive into exactly how to nail your self-serve MVP, let’s cover the definition and goals. 

<whatisaselfserveproduct>What is a self-serve product experience?<whatisaselfserveproduct> 

A self-serve product experience allows users to sign up, try the product, and gain value from it without requiring onboarding or interaction from the company’s sales or customer success team. This is also the “user activation” phase for most products and is the primary goal of a self-serve experience. 

When should an early-stage company build and launch a self-serve product? 

The short answer is not on day zero. Let’s assume you’ve successfully completed your alpha product phase with your design partners and have decided on a PLG strategy. It’s critical even for enterprise startups embracing product-led growth to go through a private beta phase with 20 to 30 customers where they qualify and carefully onboard every new team. This phase offers valuable insight that will feed messaging, product, and the customer success roadmap. The self-serve experience should be built during this private beta phase based on learnings from onboarding and only launched publicly after receiving feedback from early adopters. 

The private beta phase should also include dark launches, where you are testing your messaging, sign-up flow, and early versions of your self-serve experience. You can target a small audience using Twitter/LinkedIn ads, for instance, in preparation for your public launch. 

Here’s a summary of the three early phases of product development along with a recommended timeline and activities for each phase.

<threephasesofproductdevelopment>The 3 phases of early product development <threephasesofproductdevelopment>

How much effort should I expect from customers for a self-serve product?

The short answer is: not a lot. However, the concept of self-service is a spectrum, not a hard line in the sand. The work involved for customers to try a product can range from hardly anything (think Calendly) to watching video tutorials (Webflow) or perhaps asking your friendly colleague in engineering/IT for a few minutes of help (Zoom). 

If self-serve is a spectrum, how do you know if your product is self-serve enough? In other words, when can you stop building and launch that free plan or trial? This is what we’ll help answer next.

<fifteenminutetimetoaha>Goal: Design for '15-minute time to aha!' <fifteenminutetimetoaha>

Great products begin with a strong value proposition and build on it over time, creating increasing ROI for their customers with every use. The key to a great self-serve product experience lies in demonstrating one strong value proposition early. Based on our extensive research, here’s a simple framework that founders can use to decide whether their product meets the bar. In essence, your self-serve experience needs a 15-minute “time to aha”.  

What is the time to ‘aha!’ (TTA)?

We refer to the “aha moment” here as the period in which the product demonstrates its first differentiated value proposition. This is not to be confused with small moments of delight and learning in general. In fact, you will need many of those delightful moments to continue motivating your users to invest toward reaching their "aha!" and beyond. For instance, if you are new to Webflow, your first big ‘aha!’ moment could be simply picking a great template for your blog within five minutes of setting up an account. 

Note that the nature of the ‘aha!’ experience needn’t necessarily include a full implementation of your product. The aha moment could be anything from a realistic sandbox to a pre-filled template or a partial implementation that mimics your product. 

This ‘aha!’ moment is also not the same as a fully activated customer or account. For an enterprise product, activation requires continued investment in the self-serve experience from more than one user on a team. However, it is a good measure for individual user activation. This transition occurs across steps 4, 5, and 6a of the Modern GTM journey — starting with an individual user getting activated (‘aha!’ moment) in 4, to a team adopting the product in 6a.

Learn more about The Modern GTM User/Buyer Journey here.

<primarybarriersto15minuteTTA>Primary barriers to the 15-minute TTA <primarybarriersto15minuteTTA>

There are three primary reasons founders struggle to ship self-serve experiences that have a 15-minute TTA:

  1. Significant implementation effort: your core product needs days or weeks of implementation by a technical team to start offering value. 
  2. Weeks or months of history: your product is only valuable after you have captured a few weeks or months of data from your customer.  
  3. Multiple active stakeholders: you have a multiplayer product with different roles spanning users and collaborators to access providers and it takes days/weeks for them to all pay attention to your product. 

If your product has any of these three barriers, you need to invest in creating a self-serve MVP that will circumvent them. Without explicitly circumventing these requirements in your self-serve experience, your product will not see high adoption in a free plan/trial.  

<easytolearn>Strategy: easy to learn vs. easy to use<easytolearn>

When talking about self-serve experiences, most founders focus on whether the product is easy to use. An easy-to-use product is necessary but not sufficient in a PLG motion. 

Visualize the very first time a user is trying your product as them standing at the lip of a chasm. The chasm might be fairly easy to cross but still requires a leap of faith because your user has never leaped across this chasm before. They don’t know where or how easy it is to leap from. 

Your product is the promised land opposite of this easy-to-use chasm. Adding a bridge will make your product easy to learn. The bridge to the promised land gives your user confidence to take each step needed to get across safely. Somewhere on this bridge is where they’ll experience their "aha!" moment — the moment that they can finally see the promised land clearly for themselves. They now believe that this product is easy to use because they learned how.  

This next section focuses on different ways you can build your bridge to the promised land! We also discuss which type of bridge suits the three modes of PLG fit the best.

<sixmethods>Tactics: 6 methods to get users to their aha! moment<sixmethods>

If you reframe the goal of a self-serve MVP as making your product easy to learn, it opens your team up to ideas for the product roadmap that they might not even think of as a part of their core product. But this focus on speed-of-learning can make complex products easily accessible and bring down your TTA to 15 minutes. Here are  six specific methods that you can use either as stand-alone or in combination to design your bridge to the promised land: 

  1. Empty-state design
  2. Week one out-of-the-box
  3. Hyper-real sandbox 
  4. Sherpa onboarding
  5. Back-to-school flow
  6. Friendly bot helper

Empty-state design

When your user signs up and creates an account to try your product for the first time, what do they see? For many companies, the answer is nothing. The user sees an empty product space with some kind of “blocking” step they’re not ready/able to take, such as  “connect with X” or “upload data in format Y.” Your user might not have the credentials to “connect with X” or not know exactly what you expect when you say “format Y.” They immediately lose confidence and move away from your product. You’ve given them a reason to procrastinate. Instead, you could offer pre-populated templates or step-by-step walkthroughs of your product. Here are two of my favorite examples of this from Webflow and Airtable. 

Webflow offers pre-populated templates to browse and choose from

Webflow is a no-code platform for web design and development. 

Imagine you are a new user to Webflow and are greeted by a blank site when you click on “new project”. The likelihood that you would appreciate Webflow’s value proposition is very low. Instead, they start you off with three options for starter templates based on their target customer personas — designers and web managers for SaaS and ecommerce companies. With a few clicks, you already have your first aha moment. 

Airtable offers a slick product walk-through of a template to learn

Airtable is a spreadsheet-database hybrid and low-code platform for building collaborative apps. 

People use Airtable to manage projects, track and organize inventories, plan events, and more. It can be very challenging to activate users in a product that is so flexible it can do a bit of 10 different products you have used in the past. Where does one start? Airtable addresses this issue by combining the same tactic you saw Webflow employ (a template pre-filled for a target customer profile) with a simple walkthrough that highlights their differentiated functionality. With every explanation, they highlight what their users weren’t able to do easily in their status quo — spreadsheets — leading to their first "aha!"

Week one out-of-the-box (OOTB)

Oftentimes, the best way to scope your self-serve MVP is to mimic week one  of your typical enterprise customer’s experience in your product. How can you unlock the first week of value with a few clicks? If you can do that — the rest of the implementation might take months — but your customer is now activated and committed. So use your private beta phase to identify what a minimal implementation design would look like and give your customers week one of value out-of-the-box in less than 15 minutes.

New Relic: Immediate OOTB value post-SDK install 

New Relic is cloud-based software that helps website and application owners track the performances of their services.

With an APM (app performance monitoring) tool like New Relic, the end user is an engineer who can install the SDK. Minutes after installing the SDK and restarting, the user has graphs and call trees that show a map of all the active functions in the application. Bill Hodak, New Relic’s first PMM (product marketing manager), and now marketing partner at Unusual Ventures, recalls this about the early UX at New Relic. “Most people found some surprises immediately,” he says of the cloud-based observability platform. “Down the road users could do configuration and custom instrumentation to get more visibility than the out-of-the-box experience, but that start was enough to provide immediate value in their first week.”

Hyper-real sandbox 

Oftentimes your product requires a lot of data from customers to demonstrate its value. With increasing security barriers within companies, it has become challenging to offer a low-friction self-serve experience for data products. A great way to circumvent this is by utilizing dummy data that your users can leverage to understand what kind of insights you would offer them with it. 

Amplitude: public demo with realistic data sets  

Amplitude is a product analytics platform that helps teams understand and optimize digital user behavior. 

When you get started in Amplitude, you can choose one of many demo apps (media, ecommerce, collaboration, etc.) to analyze without sharing your own company’s data. Your "aha!" could come from discovering the easy retention analysis you have wanted for weeks but couldn’t get from your internal analytics team. 

Sherpa onboarding

Not every product lends itself to templates or sandboxes. Learning by doing (not just seeing) is one of the best ways to understand a new concept, which is what I call the “sherpa approach.” In a Sherpa approach, the product offers a step-by-step, learn-by-doing guide that progresses alongside you. Below are examples from LaunchDarkly and Loom that have used a Sherpa approach to help their users learn by doing. By the time you’ve walked through their tutorials, you’ve essentially used the MVP completely. 

LaunchDarkly: start with a learn-by-doing tutorial 

LaunchDarkly is a continuous delivery platform that provides feature flags as a service and allows developers to iterate quickly.

Great documentation is extremely critical for sherpa onboarding in dev tools. This should be treated as a first class citizen of your product experience, not an afterthought to describe the day before you launch. In fact, the documentation IS the product. Put yourself in the developer’s shoes. Until they have implemented the software (using the documentation you provided) there is no value created. 

Loom: Drive desired actions through a checklist 

Loom lets users record audio, video, browser windows, and entire screens in a Chrome extension, desktop app, or mobile app.

Another great example of sherpa onboarding was the early user activation flow used by Loom. They broke down the individual steps their customers needed to take to quickly understand Loom’s differentiated value proposition. This checklist above highlights the ease of customization and sharing they offered (aha!) as well as ensuring that the user is notified of the views on their first video to bring them back a second time. 

Back-to-school flow

For products that require users to first ingest new types of knowledge, a video tutorial course can be extremely effective. If you believe a lot of end users might be new to their jobs or the specific problem that you address, educating them on how to approach it is the best marketing content and self-serve product experience you can offer. 

Styra: 30-lesson program to teach users about open policy agent (OPA)

Styra enables businesses to validate Kubernetes security.

Styra leads a vibrant open-source community for OPA (open policy agent) with hundreds of millions of downloads. Their introductory content helps their users become OPA experts before they get exposed to Styra’s product itself. 

Friendly bot helper

If you were born before the ’90s, you probably remember Clippy. I like to think that Clippy was just way ahead of his beady-eyed time back in 1997. The capabilities of virtual assistants have come a long way since then, and if your product facilitates collaboration, a friendly bot is a great way to get new users started! 

Slack is a team communication and collaboration platform. 

The infamous Slackbot serves multiple purposes for a new user. It’s a conversational walkthrough of key features on the surface but implicitly also pushes you to start using the product in a safe environment (no one sees what you typed) on your own. With Slackbot, you can get to an ‘aha!’ moment without waiting for someone else from your team to accept an invitation to join your workspace to start chatting with.  

<mappingtacticstoPLG>Mapping tactics to PLG modes<mappingtacticstoPLG>

A small, early-stage, team can’t test or implement all these tactics, so it’s best to choose one or two based on the nature of your product. Here’s a summary of tactics that we’ve found work best based on your company’s specific PLG mode (fast-working, habit-forming, or paradigm-shifting). (Refer to the Intro to PLG to refresh your memory on the three primary PLG modes and their criteria.)

<mistakesthatleadtofailure>Pitfalls: common mistakes that lead to self-serve failure <mistakesthatleadtofailure>

Now that we’ve walked through six methods to build a great self-serve MVP, let’s talk about some of the mistakes founders often make that result in poor user activation. 

  1. Vague messaging: In a top-down sales motion, your website can be vague in the early days as you talk to customers and learn more about what appeals to them. But in a product-led GTM motion, if your messaging isn’t crisp, the wrong people might check out your free plan — and worse — the right people don’t. This muddles your metrics in three ways:

  • False traffic signal: you think you have a good top-of-funnel but it’s not the right kind.
  • Activation rate: you have a bad activation rate because most of that traffic doesn’t convert to users.
  • Retention cohorts: Your early retention cohorts are poor due to the two metrics above. 

The best way to avoid this is a rigorous private beta phase along with dark launches to test the messaging and sign-up flows. 

  1. Losing user focus: Is your self-serve designed for your target users? A common pitfall is to design it for small teams/individual users when the company is supposed to focus on enterprise. In this scenario, you no longer have a growth flywheel, which was the whole point of adopting a product-led GTM motion. Some examples: 

  • Security: you require customers to share their data with you but don’t offer self-serve security features. 
  • Permissions: Your onboarding flow ignores the fact that your end user needs IT/admin permission to activate a new application. 

Unusual GTM sales leader Liam Mulcahy calls out, “You need to inform users who they might need to work with in order to get the product activated. For example, build in an auto-email when a user reaches a certain product milestone to let them know that they will most likely now need to whitelist IPs, what that means, who they should ask in the organization, and what they should do next.” 

  1. Poor out-of-product experience: In a self-serve experience, often what you do outside your core product matters as much as what you do in it. If your customers need education, the documentation and tutorial videos need to be critical product investments. Oftentimes, companies don’t realize that their email notifications aren’t quite working properly. Their end users are blocked from trying the product and getting to their "aha!" moment by broken links, password reset issues, SSO routing, and more.  

Takeaways & next steps 

In this article, we covered a lot of ground on the basics of a self-serve product and how to go about defining your product roadmap: 

  • The goals and definition of a self-serve product
  • When to launch a self-serve experience 
  • The 15-minute TTA (time to "aha!") design requirement  
  • Six methods for 15-minute TTA to drive high user activation 
  • Common pitfalls that cause self-serve experiences to fail 

Three of the important takeaways for me as a practitioner: 

  1. Don’t follow best practices blindly. Pick tactics that fit your product and PLG mode. 
  2. Design your self-serve experience based on the future enterprise customer you want to win, not just for startups. 
  3. Test every part of the user experience before launch — both within and out of the product when it comes to self-serve activation. 

Stay tuned: In our next Modern GTM article, we’ll focus on how to package a self-serve experience — free plan vs. free trial and what features go where. We’ll also dive into user activation and conversion benchmarks for different types of products so you can set informed goals as an early-stage founder.

Written by
Sandhya Hegde
Sandhya Hegde
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