Wes Bush is a SaaS marketer who has quickly developed a reputation as “the free trial vs. freemium guy.” He helps SaaS leaders launch and optimize free trial and freemium models via his consultancy, Traffic is Currency, and is also the founder of the Product-Led Summit.
I caught up with Wes to talk about his free trial vs. freemium framework, our own customer acquisition process, and the start-up scene in Waterloo, Canada.
Geoff Roberts: All right, so first thing's first—before just a moment ago we’d never met, but I have come to know you in online circles as the free trial vs. freemium guy. Tell me about your early career path and how you decided to zoom in and focus on this one particular problem.
Wes Bush: I feel like I really stumbled into this space and I've been doing marketing and demand generation for the last seven years now. I’ve tried virtually everything when it comes to generating demand and leads for a business. But it wasn't until I launched a freemium product and we went from 0 to 100,000 users in six months, where I was just absolutely amazed by the fact that that was possible. We were delivering so much value and I really came to see freemium and free trial models as a supercharged lead magnet for a business. You can make that lead magnet also turn into customers for your business. So once I realized that I just saw that this is the future.
People want to try before they buy and even if you look at a business like Costco, you want to get a sample of something to test it out and see if you really like it. Or you're thinking of buying an expensive cologne or a perfume, you want to try it before you actually buy it because you might hate it and never want to wear it again. So it's a really great way to build trust as well as find out if the solution is right for you or not.
Geoff Roberts: Good analogies. What was the business that you mentioned that went from 0 to 100,000 users in six months and what were you doing previous to offering a freemium model at that company?
Wes Bush: That was at Vidyard and we did have a free trial at the time but it wasn't the most successful. A lot of free trials for B2B SaaS products, when you sign up there really isn't too much value right away unless you connect your data or maybe you upload something and in Vidyard this was the case. You wouldn't be able to see value quickly because you didn't have any videos and unless you signed up for the free trial with the expectation that you’d upload a video right away, you weren’t going to see value. So we built a freemium product to help people create videos very quickly—it would take three seconds to record a video and then the video would be logged in your free trial. So it was actually a freemium product that complimented your free trial.
Geoff Roberts: Got it, makes sense. When you talk to early stage SaaS companies today, what are the one or two most common mistakes you see them making when it comes to deciding on a free trial versus freemium model?
Wes Bush: The biggest mistake I see people make is talking to other founders. I know that sounds really weird, but just taking someone else's opinion on what you should do is really a bad framework for deciding what you should do. A lot of other founders are basing what they're recommending on their personal experience and the fact is you have a different business, a different market, and a different audience. There are so many things that you need to look into in order to make an educated decision for yourself.
Geoff Roberts: One of the things that I think a lot of companies struggle with that do decide to go with a free trial— and something I'm wrestling now with one of our businesses—is do you collect credit card information upfront or at the end of the trial? When does it make sense to ask for payment information upfront?
Wes Bush: As a general rule of thumb I always recommend against asking for the credit card upfront. There's been quite a few studies done about the overall conversion rate, and if you're looking at bottom line revenue it's typically much higher if you don't ask for the credit card right away. You're just going to have more people coming into your free trial, and although the percentage of them who become paying customers is going to be a lot lower, the overall volume is going to be much higher.
However, there are some cases where it makes a lot of sense to collect credit card information upfront. There's companies that deal with a lot of spam and that's a perfect use case—if you get a ton of spammers signing up for your product that's a really good stop gate. Also with products that have a lot of seasonality to them. So let's think of a SEO product, if you’re a one man band or product, then you might just want to do an SEO audit on your site maybe once a year. So you'll just sign up for a free trial and then you'll never come back because you don't want to pay the recurring costs. A lot of these products will see that people are coming back and just using a different email to sign up for the same product. So they’ll just say okay, you’ve got to pay to play because you’ll just keep signing up for this free trial indefinitely unless we add some friction here.
Geoff Roberts: Good point. So for people that decide to go the freemium route, the problem quickly becomes okay, how do I create a sense of urgency in the sales process? We're giving people access to the product for a longer period of time but we still have customer acquisitions goals and need to get buyers to act sooner rather than later. What do you recommend for freemium companies in terms of how they can go about creating that urgency?
Wes Bush: There's a couple ways I've seen companies do it. You don't have to have just a 100% freemium product, you can create a hybrid solution. I've seen companies do this very successfully where they'll lead with the free trial that gives you access to a lot of the key features for 7 or 14 days but then at the end if you don't upgrade, you actually get put on a free forever plan.
For example, Clearbit’s free version goes into your Gmail and enriches your contacts. I thought that was a really smart way of offering a free plan, because it’s essentially free advertising. They sit inside your Gmail and how often do you check your email? If you're a working professional you're in there multiple times each day seeing Clearbit again and again. You should also think about how you can make your freemium product amplify your paid product. So Clearbit sits inside your email and what they're doing is using a lot of your data to enrich their own data. So by giving away a free product Clearbit makes their own paid product more valuable.
But to get back to your question about how do you get people to the upgrade from your freemium product... A big part of it comes down to pricing and if you lead with your product, one of the interesting things is that your customer acquisition model is really tied super closely with your revenue model. If you don't give away a bunch of features, your customer acquisition model suffers because now you have a less powerful offer. On the other hand, if you give away too much and your freemium product has everything people have no reason to upgrade and now your revenue model is shot. You need to fix that and hold back some features, so the best way to look at it from a upgrade perspective is to base your pricing on value metrics.
Patrick Campbell from ProfitWell says there's two types of value metrics, starting with functional value metrics. If I'm Wistia, this is the number of videos you can host on the platform, so you can use that as a value metric. If someone gets three videos uploaded, okay now you're going to have to upgrade and once those three videos are uploaded you should be able to really understand the value of the product anyways. On the other hand, you could use an outcome based approach to value metrics. So it could be how people actually viewed your videos, or how many people came to your website—you're really just trying to pick metrics so that when the product is used you grow with the customer. That's a great way to increase your expansion revenue as well as upgrade rates.
The free trial vs. freemium framework
Geoff Roberts: Awesome. Let’s transition to the free trial versus freemium framework that you shared with me. What is it, why did you develop it, and how do you use it in your day to day work?
Wes Bush: Yeah, so the framework that I built to decide the free trial versus freemium question focuses on four main areas of your business. The first part is your market strategy, so it really focuses on understanding how you want to position your business in the market. For example, say you want to disrupt an existing market dominated by a tool like Adobe Photoshop. Photoshop is really complicated and you can take a full year of learning the program and still have a lot of ways to improve your Photoshop abilities because there’s just a ton you can do with it. But the fact is a lot of people don't actually use anywhere near the full capacity of Photoshop and that's why a company like Canva, which makes it really simple to do graphics, was able to claim huge part of this market.
Second, there's the ocean conditions—is it a really competitive space you're in? If it's a competitive market like say email marketing and everyone has a free trail or freemium offering, it's almost the expectation in the buying process that offer a trial or freemium product. If you're creating a new category, that's a really great place to be but oftentimes a free trial or freemium model isn’t the best fit because you have to educate people so much. It's like Salesforce with the cloud—initially a lot of people didn’t get it. Their sales team had a ton of objections and when you're creating a new category, you actually want to hear those. If you try to automate your entire funnel right away, you're going to miss out on so much valuable feedback.
Next there's the audience are you trying to focus on—do you need a bottoms up or top down approach? What I mean by top down is are you trying to target the executive team, or from a bottoms up perspective are you targeting managers or day to day workers? If you're targeting a top down approach and using a free trial or freemium model, it's going to be pretty hard for those executives depending on how complex your tool is to really get up to value because they're probably not using the tool day to day. A bottoms up approach pairs really well with a free trial or freemium model. That's why you see companies like Slack grow from the bottom. Someone on a development team will say, hey let's start using Slack. They'll send it to a bunch of their coworkers and it spreads internally to other teams. Then when it comes time to upgrade it's really a no-brainer because they already have maybe 30, 40 people on a team who know and love the product and have gotten value out of it.
Then the last part of the framework is time to value. Now if you have a really long time to value, it's going to be really difficult for a free trial or freemium model and I’d actually recommend against it. You want to make sure that your time to value is quick as possible. Freemium models need to be even quicker I'd argue, because you’re using this no hand-holding approach for the most part and you need people to realize value as soon as possible without human intervention. So that's my framework at a high level—I'd love to take your thoughts on it. How did you find it walking through it?
Geoff Roberts: Yeah, so it made logical sense to me—I sort of understood in most cases what was behind each of the questions. I decided on a freemium model for Outseta for a couple of reasons and your framework gave us a score of 10-2 in favor of freemium, so it validated my thinking in that sense.
A couple of factors that went into that, starting with the market we are selling to. We’re targeting very early stage SaaS start-ups, who are often finding us the day that they open their doors. These companies tend to have very different timelines in terms of when they're going to start using the CRM, versus when they're going to set up the billing system, versus when they want to send their first email campaign. So we wanted to provide enough time for companies to sort of grow into the product and adopt each of its core features as their need for it arose, rather than saying hey you've got 7 or 14 days to kick the tires on all these different aspects of the product.
The second factor is just the product is really big. It's basically three or four well known software categories delivered in one platform and when we think about the onboarding process, everyone's going to start in different place. It's not like everyone wants to send an email campaign first, some people want to start logging deals in the CRM first, some people want to set up billing first. So I felt like we needed to expose people to each of our core features during the onboarding process.
One of our struggles as a result is with people starting at different points, how do we show them value quickly? What action should we present them with first when we don’t know exactly what it is they want to do first? If you look at the initial onboarding screen when you first log in to our product, we say hey you can import your contacts, you can set up your customer support email inbox, you can send an email campaign, author a knowledge based article, each of these being key actions that the product helps with. What’s your take on this approach versus being more specific about what we want users to do?
Wes Bush: I always like to think of onboarding in terms of dominoes—what’s the smallest action you can get people to do that sets them up for success in the future? If you think of Hubspot, it's similar to Outseta in the sense that there's the marketing side and the CRM. Hubspot’s sales product is really great to lead with because it's a Chrome extension that you can setup in less than five minutes. By leading with that product, what happens is your CRM fills up with all your contacts so you now have people to market to. So it's just like a step ladder or you're pushing one domino at a time and it just gets kind of easier as you go.
With your product what I would recommend is seeing out of all the features you have, what is the first thing you need someone to do in order to take them to that next step? Maybe you lead with sales, then you follow up with marketing, and then it's subscriptions or something like that.
Geoff Roberts: I think the obvious one is import contacts. You need contacts in the CRM to send an email campaign for example; it’s also what our pricing model is based on. The only case I would say where that probably isn't the right initial action is a company that doesn't have any contacts yet, which is common in our user base, but the domino analogy makes sense.
Wes Bush: Okay, awesome.
Geoff Roberts: So when I went through your framework, one of our answers that came back as “free trial” was based on the size of the total addressable market. If you have a smaller total adjustable market, you’re suggesting a free trial rather than freemium. Why is that?
Wes Bush: One of the problems here is that freemium has a very low conversion rate—typically you'll see anywhere from 1-3% of people who sign up for your freemium product actually turn into a paying customer. So in this case it's a good indicator of saying is your market big enough to support this? If you have a really small market and that low conversion rate of 1-3% percent, you might end up with 100 or 1000 customers and then be capped.
Geoff Roberts: That makes sense. So going back to our own pricing model, one of the pieces of feedback that we've heard about our own pricing is there is a segment of buyers... let's call them solopreneurs, or indie hackers, or makers, who are pretty much unwilling to pay for any product until they get to a point where they're bringing in revenue. They’ll use a Trello board to track their sales process, Hubspot CRM, the free version of MailChimp, and will live with whatever pain exists until they're bringing in money and then will build a real tech stack.
We offer a freemium plan where we give you 250 contacts but access to every feature—the idea here is knowing these businesses have different implementation timelines we give them all the time they need to get everything set up, configure their account, and figure out if they like all the features. Then once they start using the product in earnest, they will very quickly go over that 250 contact limit and upgrade to a paid plan. The feedback we’ve heard is many of these folks intend to go over 250 contacts well before they’re bringing in revenue, so they don't want to incur a $99 per month charge before they really need to.
One experiment we’re considering is giving the entire platform a way for free, but then taking a larger percentage of payments processed through our payment processing system. This would align our pricing model with the most important outcomes based value metric—revenue— and we’d take a cut that's a little bit larger than the 2.9% Stripe charges for example. Curious what your take is here and how we can better appeal to that segment that's very price conscious upfront?
Wes Bush: I definitely recommend leading with whatever that product feature is that's going to help someone get that revenue. So in most cases that's going to be the sales tools and you just want to help them get to the point where they’re willing to pay because your product has helped them generate revenue. I definitely do agree with some of the sentiment around the 250 contacts. In this case I’d definitely think about what are those first tools that you could give people? Maybe you give one of them away for free, it's a sales tool, and then you help them build those contacts so they don’t even have to import any contacts—they’re already there. So then you get that stepping stone where the next upgrade is the marketing product and it’s just a natural extension of the journey.
Geoff Roberts: Yeah that makes sense. I think the other challenge for us is just putting pricing out there that, given the scope of the product, maintains some semblance of simplicity. Contacts seems like a fairly well understood measure of the value people are deriving from the product. What we've heard and seen with our customers is once you move onto our paid pricing plans, the product's a bargain and much cheaper than the competition. The part we’re still wrestling with is that entry level customer and how we can get them in and show them value relatively quickly while still not taking forever for them to upgrade.
Wes Bush: Okay got it.
The start-up scene in Ontario and Wes the bad Canadian
Geoff Roberts: So let’s switch gears a bit—I saw you're in Waterloo, Ontario. What can you tell me about the start-up scene in Waterloo?
Wes Bush: The startup scene in Waterloo is actually really exciting. Out of all the cities in Canada it's has the highest density of start-ups and I think that's really fueled by the fact that there's some really incredible engineering universities around us so there's lots of really great talent that you can hire as a start-up. There’s beginning to be a lot more of these successful companies that are growing and then their employees move on to other companies, build them up, and so what's really exciting about it is just seeing the snowball effect and how it's growing bigger and bigger.
Geoff Roberts: Are you born and raised in Ontario or...
Wes Bush: Yeah, so I was born and raised in Ontario. Have you been?
Geoff Roberts: I haven't, I'm from the Boston area. I've been around Canada quite a bit, but I haven't been to Ontario or Waterloo.
Wes Bush: Make sure you go during the summer.
Geoff Roberts: Yeah, no kidding. What's the most Canadian thing that you love? Are you a hockey fan? What do you love about Canada in general?
Wes Bush: So I feel like I'm not a good Canadian. I don’t like the winter, I'm not big into the sports like hockey. This is not very Canadian at all but I like mountain biking, and forests, and hanging out in the nature, and lakes. There's so many lakes in Ontario. I love that part.
Geoff Roberts: Very cool. If you weren't the free trial versus freemium guy, what else could you see yourself doing? What other direction could you have gone with your career?
Wes Bush: I think I'd still be doing something very similar. I like behavioral psychology, because just figuring out what makes people do certain things and deconstructing it is so fascinating, whether it's deconstructing habits or just why people bought a product online. But yeah I'd still probably be doing something in a similar field.
Geoff Roberts: Outside of work, tell me something else about yourself that your online audience doesn't necessarily know that's going to bring Wes to life.
Wes Bush: So couple things about me, I travel quite a bit. I actually built my business to be location independent, so I'm actually in Thailand right now. I really try to avoid the winter as best as I can and so there's a lot of things I do to just try and explore new places, and try new food at a bunch of these other places which is exciting. I'm also trying to learn how to ride a motorbike. That's fun.
Geoff Roberts: How's the food in Thailand been so far?
Wes Bush: It's really good. I'm not sure if you like Thai food or not-
Geoff Roberts: Love it. How long have you been in Thailand at this point?
Wes Bush: I've been here for a couple months and I usually typically I travel between here or the Los Angeles area so hopefully we can meet up one day in person. And then Toronto, so I kind of make my rounds every year.
Geoff Roberts: Awesome, well that’s all the questions I have for you so I'll let you go. Go get some Thai food! It’s been fun.
Wes Bush: Likewise, thanks so much for having me.