Jan. 29, 2023

Lessons from Airtable’s unconventional growth strategy | Zoelle Egner

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Zoelle Egner is best known for her time at Airtable (currently valued at $11 billion), where she was the 11th employee and built and led the initial marketing and customer success teams. Currently she’s the Head of Marketing and Growth at Block Party, a company that designs consumer tools for online safety and anti-harassment. In today’s episode, we explore the marketing strategies that helped Airtable punch above its weight and build an established brand. We also dig into how Airtable was able to find its first super-users, how customer success played a key role in getting early traction, and the do’s and don’ts for marketing investments. Zoelle also shares her experience working for VaccinateCA (which ended up playing a massive role in helping get people vaccinated during the pandemic) and several tips for obtaining valuable customer feedback.


Find the transcript for this episode and all past episodes at: https://www.lennyspodcast.com/episodes/. Today’s transcript will be live by 8 a.m. PT.


Where to find Zoelle Egner:

• Twitter: https://twitter.com/zoelle

• LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/zoelleegner/


Where to find Lenny:

• Newsletter: https://www.lennysnewsletter.com

• Twitter: https://twitter.com/lennysan

• LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/lennyrachitsky/



• Patrick McKenzie on Twitter: https://twitter.com/patio11

The Last of Us on HBO: https://www.hbo.com/the-last-of-us

• Airtable: https://www.airtable.com/

• Hacker News: https://news.ycombinator.com/

• Block Party app: https://www.blockpartyapp.com/

• Kathy Sierra’s book Badass: Making Users Awesome: https://www.amazon.com/Badass-Making-Awesome-Kathy-Sierra/dp/1491919019

• Gainsight: https://www.gainsight.com/

• Datadog: https://www.datadoghq.com/

• Notion: https://www.notion.so/

• Zapier: https://zapier.com/

Computing Taste: Algorithms and the Makers of Music Recommendation: https://www.amazon.com/Computing-Taste-Algorithms-Makers-Recommendation/dp/0226822974

Ancillary Justice: https://www.amazon.com/Ancillary-Justice-Imperial-Radch-Leckie/dp/031624662X/

The Happiness Lab podcast: https://podcasts.apple.com/us/podcast/the-happiness-lab-with-dr-laurie-santos/id1474245040

Gastropod podcast: https://podcasts.apple.com/us/podcast/gastropod/id918896288

Everything Everywhere All at Once on Showtime: https://www.sho.com/titles/3493875/everything-everywhere-all-at-once

Extraordinary Attorney Woo on Netflix: https://www.netflix.com/title/81518991

• Figma: https://www.figma.com/

• Webflow: https://webflow.com/

• Clay: https://www.clay.com/

• MKT1 Newsletter: https://newsletter.mkt1.co/

• Emily Kramer on Lenny’s Podcast: https://www.lennyspodcast.com/how-to-build-a-powerful-marketing-machine-emily-kramer-asana-carta-mkt1/


In this episode, we cover:

(00:00) How VaccinateCA helped bridge a gap in infrastructure

(05:00) Zoelle’s lessons from her time at VaccinateCA

(18:04) How Zoelle broke into the tech industry

(19:01) Flocking patterns

(24:21) What Block Party does

(24:32) Zoelle’s storytelling

(29:15) Tactics for punching above your weight as a small startup

(31:30) The importance of having a highly detail-oriented person on staff

(33:33) Why Airtable used billboards

(36:43) Growth and marketing strategies at Airtable

(42:29) Using data provided by your customers to build features that help future customers

(50:59) Why customer success and marketing should be one team

(52:56) Things to avoid in marketing

(58:04) The power of templates

(1:00:58) Why Airtable did not prioritize templates for top-of-funnel revenue 

(1:02:04) Why just getting PR to “get PR” is not a good strategy

(1:04:57) The importance of getting customer feedback and investing in customer success

(1:05:51) Simple strategies for getting customer feedback

(1:07:53) Lightning round


Production and marketing by https://penname.co/. For inquiries about sponsoring the podcast, email podcast@lennyrachitsky.com.


Zoelle Egner (00:00:00):

There is sometimes a recommendation or an instinct just like, "Ship things super, super quickly and get them out there." And I'm not saying don't move fast. Obviously you need to move fast in the early days, but make sure someone rereads your email so that it sounds good. Invest in having a decent photo or a decent illustration. If you have sample content, this is actually a big one, sample content for your productivity app as an example. Take the time to not have it be like Jane Doe 12 times in the name list. Have it be references to your industry so that people are like, "Oh, hey. That's a joke about Steve Jobs. I'm a designer. This person is thinking about me."


It's small stuff, but it tells that person, like, "The people who worked on this were thinking about me as a customer, they built it with me in mind, and that means that it is more likely that this is going to fit my needs than something generic." And that builds up both the brand trust that we've talked about, but also the personality of the company, and makes people want to root for you. And frankly, when you are small, you need everyone rooting for you that you can possibly get.

Lenny (00:01:02):

Welcome to Lenny's Podcast, where I interview world-class product leaders and growth experts to learn from their hard won experiences building and scaling today's most successful companies. Today my guest is Zoelle Egner. Zoelle was one of the earliest employees at Airtable, where she led their early marketing and customer success teams, and generally just helped Airtable grow into the legendary business that it is today. She also spent time in Box. She's advised dozens of startups on marketing and growth, and is now head of marketing and growth at a startup called Block Party.


In our conversation, Zoelle shares how to punch above your weight as a startup, the most effective and impactful growth and marketing tactics throughout Airtable's history, including their use of billboards, marketing investments that are often high ROI, and those that are rarely a good use of time, why PR and launches are actually useful to startups, and also when they aren't, and a lot more. It was so much fun chatting with Zoelle, and I'm really excited for you to learn from her. With that, I bring you Zoelle Egner after a short word from our wonderful sponsors.


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This episode is brought to you by Pando, the always on employee performance platform. How much do you love the performance review process? Yeah, it's time consuming, subjective, biased, and there's rarely any transparency. With the rapid shift to distributed work, it's a struggle to create the structure and transparency that you want to help your employees have the highest impact and growth in their careers. Pando is disrupting the old paradigm of performance management, including a continuous employee-centric approach, so employees stay engaged, see their progression in real time, and know exactly when and how they can level up. With Pando, managers can leverage competency based frameworks to effectively coach and develop their teams and align on consistent growth standards resulting in higher quality feedback and higher performing teams. Visit pando.com/lenny for more info and get a special discount when you sign out and reference this podcast. That's pando.com/lenny. Zoelle, welcome to the podcast.

Zoelle Egner (00:04:12):

Hi, thanks for having me.

Lenny (00:04:14):

It's very much my pleasure. Something that is pretty cool is that we actually met in my newsletter Slack community. I actually looked this up of how we actually started chatting, and it was me cold DMing you to get a discount on Airtable for the newsletter subscribers. And you very happily got me that, hooked us up, and then you became a go-to Airtable person for advice on what Airtable did right and wrong over the years. And so thank you for being that person and also I'm really excited to have you on this podcast and to learn from you.

Zoelle Egner (00:04:43):

I am super excited to chat.

Lenny (00:04:45):

Awesome. You're probably best known for your time at Airtable, which, correct me if I'm wrong, you're employee number 11.

Zoelle Egner (00:04:53):

That's right.

Lenny (00:04:55):

Okay, and at Airtable you led marketing, you led the customer success teams, so we're going to chat about all that stuff. But before we get into that, I want to chat briefly about this other project that you worked on, that from the outside felt like a really fascinating thing, and a really impactful project, and a really cool team. And it's called Vaccinate California, I think, is that how you pronounce it?

Zoelle Egner (00:05:13):


Lenny (00:05:13):

See, I just-

Zoelle Egner (00:05:13):


Lenny (00:05:15):

VaccinateCA. Okay. Could you just talk a little bit about what this was? What were you trying to do? What was the impact you had? How did it all go?

Zoelle Egner (00:05:21):

Yeah, absolutely. So VaccinateCA existed to help people in California find and get a COVID vaccine as quickly as possible, and that sounds really trivial right now, but you have to wind back to January of 2020, when vaccines were first coming out, and it was really hard. So just as a reminder, because most of us have blocked that from our memory.

Lenny (00:05:40):


Zoelle Egner (00:05:41):

The federal and state systems didn't really exist yet, and so everything was this horrible hodgepodge, where eligibility depended on not only what state you were in, it was down to the county, and even sometimes the individual facility. You would be at a Walgreens, and talk to them, and they'd be like, "Oh, you have to be over 65, and also in one of these 12 categories of employment in order to get the vaccine." And then you'd go a mile away and they would tell you something totally different. So people would stand in line for hours. There were phones going off the hook, utterly madness, and really, really scary for a lot of people who were trying to figure out how to keep themselves safe.

Lenny (00:06:17):

Yeah, I remember those days well.

Zoelle Egner (00:06:19):

Yeah. So this organization was founded essentially by a tweet by Patrick McKenzie, for those of you who are on Hacker News Patio11. And he had basically this really simple premise, which is, "If you call a pharmacist, and you ask them who they can give a vaccine to, and what vaccine they have, and then you put that answer on a map, someone else doesn't have to make the same phone call. And that takes lots of pressure also as a healthcare system and also helps people to match supply and demand."


So surprisingly, somehow, that tweet, which is essentially like, "Call people, put in spreadsheet, put online," turned into an entire, full nonprofit that was mostly on Discord, Zoom, Airtable, and not only had this entire hundreds of volunteers who were making phone calls in the state of California and eventually, actually, nationally, we became Vaccinate The States eventually, we were also doing this thing called web banking. So we would go and scrape all the official sources as they started coming out, and then validate them because they were not always correct. And eventually we had the most comprehensive database and map of locations in the entire country, including more comprehensive than the federal government and most of the states because they had really complicated limitations on what they could and couldn't publish based on some relationships they had. We didn't have those limitations.


So it meant that we became this clearing house, essentially, for this information and we built an API. We were working directly with Google. And if you ever looked up vaccine locations on Google Maps, that was us feeding that to them, which was really cool. And we also made maps you could see on county websites, so it would help you understand what was available in your area. One of the coolest things that I've ever worked on.

Lenny (00:08:01):

Okay, exactly. That's exactly I imagined how epic this was. Just to make sure people understand what you're describing, basically you had hundreds of people sitting there on phones calling vaccine locations, getting the specifics of who is able to get a vaccine there, and then just giving people a pointer of where they can get a vaccine.

Zoelle Egner (00:08:18):

Exactly. So I came in initially, a colleague of mine at Airtable had been helping out with the building out of the backend. And they started getting media attention. And they thought, "Oh, well this will help more people understand that this resource is available." So I got brought in to do some PR help, basically help them figure out how to get the word out, and then ended up actually quitting my job at Airtable to work on it full-time.

Lenny (00:08:40):

Oh wow.

Zoelle Egner (00:08:41):

Yeah, I was on the board and also managing all outreach and other stuff. So we did lots of really cool education, helping people understand their eligibility at all. Built a bunch of fun tools for that as well, but it was a pretty incredible six months, where we filled a really critical gap in the infrastructure of the country.

Lenny (00:08:58):

It's wild that was the best solution, is just call people and create your own.

Zoelle Egner (00:09:03):

You know?

Lenny (00:09:03):

I imagine there was, at Airtable, were you using to store the data?

Zoelle Egner (00:09:07):

Oh yes.

Lenny (00:09:07):


Zoelle Egner (00:09:07):

We built an entire insane database, and then eventually custom software on top of that, to make the people who are making the phone calls more easily get the information in. It was a whole thing. Very cool to see, though, not just tech people get involved. We had, in our volunteer base, people from absolutely every walk of life, not just in California, globally. I remember there was a volunteer who said that he decided to join, he was based in Israel, and he had had no trouble getting the vaccine whatsoever, but seen something on Twitter about it, and just decided he wanted to make sure that people were able to get the vaccine as easily as he did. And he spent dozens of hours calling folks, even though he was in a totally different time zone. But really lovely to see all these different people, retired teachers. I think we had a bunch of 12 year olds who were helping out on the code, of all things, all who just really wanted to make sure that they could keep their community safe.

Lenny (00:10:02):

What happened with this organization? It's a nonprofit that now continues to run or what's happening?

Zoelle Egner (00:10:06):

No, we did something which is not common. We actually decided to shut it down after six months. Partially, that's because the existing system finally caught up. And frankly we didn't want to be in a place where we were pulling away resources that could be put towards other things that are going to be more impactful. We always saw ourselves as a stop gap, and once we got to the place where we felt like we weren't really being additive, we wanted to get people's time back, so they could work on other things. So it doesn't exist anymore. I think you can still go check out the archive. We found some researchers who are doing interesting research on it, because there's very fascinating data in there about the equitability of some of the distribution of the vaccine based on where it was available, but the organization is gone. We had that beautiful moment in time and have all moved on. Hoping we don't have to get the band back together, because hopefully it's not necessary anymore.

Lenny (00:10:58):

Oh, man. I'm watching The Last of Us right now about this-

Zoelle Egner (00:11:02):

Mushroom people.

Lenny (00:11:03):

... mushroom based disease, and that scares me now.

Zoelle Egner (00:11:06):


Lenny (00:11:06):

Anyway, on this podcast I try to get to things people learn from these experiences, and so I have to ask what you learn about forming something like this, just ad hoc, pulling a bunch of people together, and having them focus, and get things done, or just scaling it, or even shutting down. I guess what have you taken away from that experience that you maybe will bring to either future one-off things like this or even just your work in general?

Zoelle Egner (00:11:31):

Yeah, I'd say probably three things. One, the incredible power of a simple idea to bring people together. One of the reasons why VaccinateCA was so powerful and got so many people to help is everybody immediately understood why it would be useful and how they specifically could be making a difference. And combining those two things was an incredible way to bring a lot of people on board very quickly, because from a messaging perspective, messaging, something very important to me as a marketer, it was so concise. Like, "Pick up phone, help save lives." Really straightforward. People really, really got that. It allowed them to feel like they had agency in a time when everything felt really, really out of control. I think there's a lot of opportunities we have to activate our communities and give people that sense of control that are both going to be helpful more broadly for society, but also just for those individuals as well to make them feel a little bit more safe, a little bit more like they can actually have a difference in things.


I think in tech we often don't jump into these problems. This was not sophisticated technology. It was phones, Discord, and Airtable mostly being used like a spreadsheet. It wasn't anything wild. Even that very simple infrastructure was enough to make a huge difference. And we have some evidence that we saved a lot of lives as a result of it, which is pretty special. I think part of it is also just saying, "We don't have to be hesitant to jump into these problems. It's important to engage with experts in the field, is not to say that tech solutionism is always the answer." And again, this is not super sophisticated technology, but because we were able to go in and talk to the people who are actually affected, get into the system that already existed, and make something really simple, really fast, it actually did have a huge difference and that's really exciting.

Lenny (00:13:24):

Just to double-click on that one, actually reminds me, some founders of companies I've invested in, I often hear how much easier it is for companies that have a mission that people are excited about for them to hire versus companies that don't. And so it's a really good reminder of just the power of having a mission and a vision that is really compelling to people versus some B2B software that people aren't [inaudible 00:13:47] excited about, even though there's a great reason to have great B2B software. Love B2Bs.

Zoelle Egner (00:13:50):

There are. I love great B2B software. I've spent most of my career on it. But I agree with you. I think if you have an authentic mission and people aren't just like, "Oh, sure, okay. You're connecting the world." But really it's some telephony startup. Like, "Okay."

Lenny (00:13:50):


Zoelle Egner (00:14:05):

If people feel like it's genuinely authentic to what you're building, it can be incredibly meaningful.

Lenny (00:14:11):

Yeah. I just remember a founder who, he is a second company, because the first company did not have an amazing mission. The second one did. And like, "Wow. So much easier to hire for this new startup."

Zoelle Egner (00:14:20):


Lenny (00:14:20):

So totally get that.

Zoelle Egner (00:14:20):


Lenny (00:14:22):

Okay, number two and three.

Zoelle Egner (00:14:23):

Number two and three, I'll try and be more brief.

Lenny (00:14:25):

It's all good.

Zoelle Egner (00:14:26):

Number two, I would say just the importance of relentlessly repeating the exact same stuff over and over again, even if you feel like everyone definitely knows. This is something that I've seen play out in every single leadership role that I've had, but it was never more acute than here, particularly because we had this broad coalition of hundreds of people with very different backgrounds. Some people coming to the meeting, some people not, whatever else. I think I repeated the same three talking points about why what we were doing mattered 5,000 times. Cannot overemphasize how many times I said the same stuff, and so did every other member of the board. It really is important and people will fill in the blanks with totally wild things if you don't continuously have that discipline of repeating yourself. You just have to get used to saying the same stuff. And if you do it correctly, it's super motivating. Even if you're sitting there being like, oh my gosh, "I have to say it again." it's worth it.

Lenny (00:15:22):

This reminds me, I don't know where I saw this, it's just in my head right now, that the CEO and founder's job, their actual title is repeater in chief.

Zoelle Egner (00:15:22):

It absolutely should be.

Lenny (00:15:31):

It resonates. Yeah.

Zoelle Egner (00:15:31):

I've worked with some leaders who never wanted to. They're like, "No, this is going to be boring for people." And you just have to be like, "Honestly, most people are never listening as much as you think that they are."

Lenny (00:15:39):


Zoelle Egner (00:15:39):

"We wish that they would. But you have to say it 12 different ways in writing, and out loud, and all this other stuff. You're never as important as you think you are, unfortunately, when it comes to that."

Lenny (00:15:48):

Oh, these are great lessons. Okay. What else do you tell?

Zoelle Egner (00:15:51):

I think my last learning was really about the power of having a laughably small MVP for something. By the end of this, we were covering the entire United States. We had an API, we had custom software on the front end, this whole behemoth of stuff that we got to in four months or something. In the beginning it was truly, basically, a spreadsheet, and phones, and that was it. Even that, for the first few weeks while we were getting the rest of the infrastructure really going, not only had tremendous impact at one of the most important parts in the pandemic, but also gave us so much information about we actually needed to build that was going to be helpful. And I remember having all of these assumptions about what was going to be necessary to manage this coalition of people to make sure that we had really good data quality.


Because one of the most important things you can do if you're trying to be a trusted source of truth is actually have the correct information. Sounds trivial, it's not at all at that scale. And I was totally wrong about all my assumptions. I thought we were going to have to have totally different types of oversight. I thought we were going to have totally different tooling. And it turned out we could do something way lighter weight that would allow us to move much faster as the regulatory landscape kept changing, as all the rule making at individual places kept changing. And that agility, that willingness to do just the smallest possible thing is obviously a little bit of a trope in the industry.


People talk about it a lot, but it's never been driven home to me so much, because we're talking about something that had incredibly high stakes as people's health, and we're still able to do it in that context. So if we could do it there, you can imagine that the applications of that in other industries are just tremendous. So yeah, if you're listening to this, and you were thinking maybe you needed to add more stuff, I bet you could prune.

Lenny (00:17:39):

And it's nice to have the forcing function where the world is changing so quickly and the team's probably small, where you are forced to build small. Which I think is why this reminder is so important. Oftentimes you have more resources, and you end up building more just because you can. And yeah, what you're saying is oftentimes, "It'll shoot you in the foot."

Zoelle Egner (00:17:55):


Lenny (00:17:56):

Amazing. I didn't expect to get into this much detail with VaccinateCA and so I'm glad we did. Let's zoom out a little bit, and just fill in some gaps on your background, briefly. Can you just highlight some of the other wonderful things you've done in career? Airtable, we talked about, VaccinateCA, just broadly, what else have you been up to?

Zoelle Egner (00:18:13):

Yeah, absolutely. Okay, so I'll try and be brief. I worked in tech for more than a decade, mostly marketing and customer success, a little bit of ops. Before I got into tech, I was a little bit of a dilettante, so some non-profit, healthcare, dying big box retail, because I graduated right into the recession and I was certain no one would hire me. Turns out that was actually wrong. But on the plus side, now I know what dysfunction looks like at great scale, which is actually quite an education and very useful. But I always knew I wanted to get into tech, partially because I'm from the Bay area, and partially because I had been obsessively power mapping the industry, and looking at its flocking patterns, and who had what types of influence, because I'm a nerd. And I really wanted to see if I could get in, in the first place. Because-

Lenny (00:18:59):

Wait, can you talk about this, which, what is it you did? What did you call, a flocking pattern?

Zoelle Egner (00:19:05):

Sure. You can imagine in any community, there are nodes of influence, people who know a lot of folks, they have money, whatever it might be. And they're able to direct how that community or that ecosystem evolves. In the tech industry, typically VCs will often play a role in this, but so will certain types of executives. And you can follow how they move between different companies, and who they worked with, and then see that influences who gets investment in the future. It influences the different partnerships that evolve. It influences the assumed wisdom in various different careers. And because I'm a big old nerd, I was literally drawing diagrams based on-

Lenny (00:19:48):


Zoelle Egner (00:19:48):

... reading people's blog posts of who was influential in what way? Because I was non-technical. I tried programming, and I hated it, frankly. And so I was like, "Okay, it's 2010, it's 2011. There's not clear ways to get into the industry as a non-technical person. I need to figure out how to do this with people. Because otherwise I'm not sure why someone would take a chance on me with what I have done historically. And that sounds a little insane, but it's very effective. And I ended up getting my start in tech basically by identifying a company where I thought I had a unique set of connections or understanding of the space that they were working in, where I thought I could maybe email the CEO and be helpful.

Lenny (00:20:29):

And did this connect to that diagram you drew? Did this help you point in that direction?

Zoelle Egner (00:20:34):

Yeah, absolutely. So I was closely tracking YCombinator and that whole ecosystem. So I knew I wanted to find a smaller company, where they maybe were having more difficulty hiring, because they were less well known or a little bit less, I don't know, sexy. But while they were still connected into that broader group, because it has with a pedigree that people would take you seriously if you had worked at a YC backed startup.

Lenny (00:20:55):


Zoelle Egner (00:20:55):

Anyway, I got really pointy hat strategic about this, but it was effective.

Lenny (00:21:00):

Do you still-

Zoelle Egner (00:21:00):


Lenny (00:21:00):

... have this diagram, by the way? It'd be so funny to look at it right now.

Zoelle Egner (00:21:03):

No, I don't think I have it anymore. I might be able to dig it up, but alas, I think it may have been lost in one of my many moves since then.

Lenny (00:21:03):

All right.

Zoelle Egner (00:21:03):

It's been-

Lenny (00:21:03):

No problem.

Zoelle Egner (00:21:03):

... more than a decade.

Lenny (00:21:18):

Okay. I imagine that was true. Okay, so I think I cut you off. You were talking about some of the things you've done in your career.

Zoelle Egner (00:21:20):

Yeah, ended up using my studies of the space to get into a role as employee one at a developer focus YC backed startup. And the funny story on that is that I got that role by cold emailing the CEO while I was still in college. And then he actually followed up with me almost immediately, because I'd offered to introduce him to some professors, which was useful for the type of business. And then I ignored him for two years because I got busy with my thesis, and got other jobs, and whatever, came back to it and wrote this ridiculous apology email, being like, "I promise I respond to emails faster. I see that you're hiring. Would you give me a second chance? Please, can I come work for you? I have no experience that's useful, but I work really hard." And I figured he would either laugh me off of the internet or give me a job, and very fortunately for me, he gave me a job. So thanks, Ryan. Appreciate that. That was how I got into tech.

Lenny (00:22:11):

Thanks, Ryan.

Zoelle Egner (00:22:12):

Yes, we appreciate it. So that startup got acquired by Box. And when I went over to Box, they had never had paying developers before. So we were bringing over seven figure contracts. So I started developer success programs there. And then in a totally wild shift, I ended up moving over to run their social media editorial and internal comms, which doesn't sound related to developer success, but I had always been a writer, and I wrote this blog post about what it was like to be an early stage non-technical employee. There was a little spicy, talking about some of the challenges, and I didn't tell anyone I was going to do it. And I got this email from PR being like, "We need to have a meeting." And I was like, "Oh, they're going to fire me. I went too far." I thought I was being circumspect, that I went too far. And in the meeting they were like, "Hey, we really think you should apply for this job. We would love to have you run social media." Which is not the outcome I expected.

Lenny (00:23:05):

That's a cool learning, there. Just like, "Do stuff." You know? "Don't be afraid."

Zoelle Egner (00:23:08):

Yeah, it was definitely not the expected outcome, but one that was very exciting. So got to go run those programs for a couple years through the IPO, which is a whole education in and of itself, to see how comms changes when you become a public company. And then I was on Hacker News obsessively at the time, and I saw the beta for Airtable come out. Immediately signed up, and became obsessed with the product, and evangelizing it to everybody that I knew and ultimately ended up figuring out a way to finagle my way into that role as employee 11 there.


And it sounds like we're going to talk about Airtable more, so I won't belabor that, but marketing and customer success stuff, ended up leaving for VaccinateCA, and then the last little bit here is just when that ended, I really thought I wanted to start my own company. So I gave myself a certain window in which to try out different ideas, and at the same time was advising and consulting. Ultimately didn't end up finding anything that I felt so much conviction that it was worth blowing up absolutely everything else about my life in order to go heads down on a company. So eventually decided to go in-house with one of the companies I've been advising, Block Party, and now I run marketing and growth there.

Lenny (00:24:19):

Can you just explain Block Party briefly? [inaudible 00:24:21]-

Zoelle Egner (00:24:21):

Absolutely. We're an online safety company. We help users have more control over their digital experience. And our first product is anti-harassment and anti-spam tools for Twitter.

Lenny (00:24:30):

So you've worked at Box, Airtable, now Block Party. You've advised a lot of companies around marketing product growth. I'm curious if there's a thread that has maintained through all of those experiences in terms of what works well for marketing, and growth, and things you've learned that just consistently- [inaudible 00:24:52]

Zoelle Egner (00:24:52):

A few pieces that go into how I choose companies that create that thread. And part of this is about me wanting to match what I think I'm really good at with what will have the greatest leverage for a company that I work at. I've mentioned I'm a writer, really care about telling stories, and helping people to understand new or novel things. I also really care about product quality. I'm a little bit of a product snob. And one of my strengths is enthusiasm. So if I can't genuinely go to a customer and tell them, "This product is going to solve a real problem for you and it's going to be amazing." I can't do my job. So all of the companies that I've chosen to go to have had this foundation of an incredible product experience that maybe people didn't fully understand, and where I could come in and help connect the dots between that amazing product that's going to be really, really helpful and the opportunities for a much wider range of people to benefit from that.


So in practice, what that means is I often end up working at companies that are in a position to really punch above their weight from a brand perspective. They're typically much lower headcount than you would ever expect. They're typically way earlier stage than you would expect, but I've been able to put together a brand or an experience that allows people to invest themselves into the company with a high level of trust, I guess.


I'll be more specific because that's really ambiguous. Airtable, it manages mission critical workflows, highly sensitive data. It's super important. You only use tools you can trust for that type of thing. The same thing is true at Block Party, online safety. You have to trust the company that you're entrusting your safety to. And in my experience, people, and especially founders really underestimate how much every single touchpoint a customer has from word of mouth or the ad that brings them in the door, landing pages, signup flows, customer service experiences. Every single one of those moments is building a brand that is adding or removing trust.


So for me in the early days, that means thinking about like, "What are the signals that I can provide to future customers that say, 'We understand you specifically, and our solution is designed for a person like you.' And two, that will say, 'Hey, we're actually operating on a much higher level than you might expect for a company of our size or our stage. We take this really seriously. We have all the things in place to take care of you. So you shouldn't be afraid to spend six figures or put your safety in our hands because we've got your back. We're doing this the right way.'" Has tremendous dividends when you're in a business that is often driven by word of mouth. Because if you take care of people and you follow up that brand experience with a product experience that is really powerful and actually does the things that says it's going to do, then your word of mouth can become a huge driver of growth for the company.


Of course, the outcome of this in practice is really funny. So I remember really distinctly having to invite customers to go out to lunch with us when they would come to San Francisco back in the Airtable days, because we had 15 people in a teeny tiny office. It's not that I wanted to mislead anyone, but I didn't need to reinforce the fact that they were spending six figures with us when we had 15 people. If they had gone to look on LinkedIn, they could have figured that out, but we didn't need to remind them that we were so small, and they were running some of their most important processes with our product. I think I was on the phone with Slack at one point. And they were like, "Oh, well you guys are probably about the same size company as we are, right?" And I was like, "Not quite. A little smaller, just an entire order of magnitude, no big deal, it's totally fine. We're all smooth. We'll take care of you. It's going to great." But it-

Lenny (00:27:40):


Zoelle Egner (00:28:27):

... really makes a difference, all of those little things.

Lenny (00:28:31):

That reminds me, I heard stories of very early Airbnb days where they had to take meetings in a bathroom, or in the hallway, and they did interviews, I think in the hallway because there was no space.

Zoelle Egner (00:28:41):

We did a lot of calling from the hallway at Airtable, also from this weird internal patio you could only get to through climbing through a window. The window kept breaking. And so I, at one point, remember someone getting stuck outside trying to interview someone with the windows closed. Utter, utter ridiculous nonsense. But you know, that's all the fun things that happened in the early days before you become bigger.

Lenny (00:29:06):

Yeah, I love those early day stories.

Zoelle Egner (00:29:08):


Lenny (00:29:09):

I really love the concept of punching above your weight as a startup. What else did you do at Air Table or other places that help you do that? One is just don't let them see how small you are, necessarily. Are there any other technical things you recall that like, "Oh, here's things that really worked really well for punching above our weight as a small company at that point."

Zoelle Egner (00:29:29):

A couple of these things are very unsexy, but very useful. One, make sure that your landing pages, and your emails, and other things have a level of polish that makes them feel a little bit more done. I think there is sometimes a recommendation or an instinct just like, "Ship things super, super quickly and get them out there." And I'm not saying don't move fast. Obviously you need to move fast in the early days, but make sure someone rereads your email so that it sounds good. Invest in having a decent photo or a decent illustration. If you have sample content, this is actually a big one, sample content for your productivity app as an example. Take the time to not have it be like Jane Doe 12 times in the name list. Have it be references to your industry so that people are like, "Oh, hey. That's a joke about Steve Jobs. I'm a designer. This person is thinking about me."


It's small stuff, but it tells that person, like, "The people who worked on this were thinking about me as a customer, they built it with me in mind, and that means that it is more likely that this is going to fit my needs than something generic." And that builds up both the brand trust that we've talked about, but also the personality of the company, and makes people want to root for you. And frankly, when you are small, you need everyone rooting for you that you can possibly get.


So those little bits of polish that don't take a ton of time are absolutely worth it. The last thing I would say is making sure that in your public communications launches, if you ever talk to press, which some companies can and some companies can't, having more of a point of view than just about your product, you can try and say, like, "We are part of something bigger. Here's the broader circle or movement that we are a part of." It makes it feel more inevitable and more like you're not just self servingly talking about your tiny corner of the world, but that it's actually part of this much bigger trend. It will be more compelling and it feels like you're operating at a different level of sophistication that can be really helpful.

Lenny (00:31:28):

I love that. On the first point, basically, it's attention to detail and obsession with quality is what I'm hearing.

Zoelle Egner (00:31:34):


Lenny (00:31:34):

Just to make it clear, this isn't just a tiny team just pushing the stuff out. I imagine most founders would be like, "Yes, I would love, we are going to focus on quality. We'll make sure everything looks great." In reality it always is this trade off against other things they could be doing.

Zoelle Egner (00:31:50):


Lenny (00:31:50):

What do you think folks can do to help keep that level of quality high? Is it just one person being obsessed and just reviewing everything like a founder? Is having someone like you that's just very detail oriented, just review everything? How do you actually execute that when you have 1,000 things to do?

Zoelle Egner (00:32:05):

100%. I'd say there's one of two approaches and you articulated them here. One is you can have the founder that is the avatar of quality, who is just relentlessly being like, "Hey, we're going to do the 15 minute check. Yes, we're going through it. Yes, I'm going to send you a copy of this email, and someone else going to click every link in it, and make sure they're not broken." Or, you can have someone else be the avatar of that who is in the company. I would say in many of the companies I have worked at, that has been me, because I've been the marketing human who cares. But it doesn't have to be a marketing person, it can be someone on product. It can be, honestly, even someone on customer success if you're willing to let them provide their feedback on the way that you're showing up in the world, which you should because they have fantastic insight. There just needs to be someone.


And I think building that into how you interview can be very helpful, as well. So finding people who understand those trade-offs and that balance, and who are willing to put in the extra 15 minutes, but aren't going to spend an extra week trying to obsessively QA everything. You don't want to go that far. Just who has that bent towards detail can be very helpful. Also, just make yourself a checklist. It doesn't have to be complicated. "Every time we put out a blog post, these are the three things we're going to do. Every time we send out an email, it needs to be seen by at least one other person." None of this is rocket science. You just need to make a little process for yourself, and then it can be very fast and lightweight, but the dividends are worth it, I think.

Lenny (00:33:31):

I like how simple this is, just to look like a bigger company, is just pay attention and focus on the little things. It's not a big, whole thing. [inaudible 00:33:39]

Zoelle Egner (00:33:39):

There are some bigger things you can do if you really need to. My favorite silly example of this is Airtable, back in the day, got roasted on Twitter for having billboards that were not super specific about a specific problem or whatever. They were just billboards that we had out. And everyone was like, "This makes no sense. Why are you doing this? We don't understand." They were actually super effective for us because we had a different goal than everyone thought that we did.


For us, it was all about signaling to some very large companies that we were a legitimate and large enough company that they could trust, and we had geographical concentration in specific areas, because we were in the fashion industry, the media industry in New York, we knew exactly where all of their offices were and we knew if they saw our billboards, walking to work, and then got the request to IT for the budget in order to pay six figures for Airtable, they were more likely to be like, "Oh, it's not just some weird startup we never heard of." Like, "Oh, I've seen that billboard, they must be legitimate." And that sounds really silly, but it wasn't actually that expensive.


We got mostly remnant inventory, which is at the end of a particular buying cycle. Sometimes they haven't fully sold everything, and you can get the slightly less good ones that are still maybe where you want them for really cheap. And everyone thinks that you only buy billboards if you're huge. So that small signaling thing was a way for us to make sure that we remove some of the risk of not being able to close deals because we were so small. So you can get creative about it. Most of the time you're not going to do that. Most of the time it's like, "Reread your emails." But you could also push it even further if you need to.

Lenny (00:35:12):

What is that full rough cost of billboards like? Because I think people think about billboards and it's hard to even know what they cost. What's a number?

Zoelle Egner (00:35:20):

It really, really depends, so I'm hesitant to give you a number because which metro you're in, it ranges vastly. I would say you can expect that some of that inventory is in the low thousands of dollars, which is way lower than you might expect.

Lenny (00:35:34):

For one billboard.

Zoelle Egner (00:35:36):

Yeah. So you don't need to get a million. And I'm not suggesting you go get one on 101. Good luck to you on that. That's expensive. But you can get one in a reasonable neighborhood in New York for way less money than you might expect, if you're willing to do remnant.

Lenny (00:35:52):

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Following this thread a bit, my next question is, and this may be the answer, is when you think about Airtable's growth strategy, growth tactics over time, what would you say are one, or two, or three of the most impactful marketing or growth tactics that work best over time? And maybe billboards are one of them.

Zoelle Egner (00:37:02):

I wouldn't say they were the highest ROI, but they're certainly one of the more interesting things that we did. They were useful, don't get me wrong. But I think maybe some other ones are more interesting. The boring answer that I will caveat this with is that one of the pieces of our acquisition playbook, it was very standard, that did work quite well, was some unconventionally targeted Facebook ads. That era is over. So don't expect that that is going to work for your B2B business now because that that's totally changed.

Lenny (00:37:29):

And when you say unconventional, what do you mean?

Zoelle Egner (00:37:31):

We spent a lot of time thinking about a psychographic profile for our users. So the challenge of Airtable is that you can use it for anything. It can be used in every department within an organization. It can be used for personal stuff, you name it, it has a use, because you're functionally building your own software and you can build software for anything. Unfortunately, if you go out to the market with a message of, like, "Build your own software." The vast majority of people are like, "I want to do that. That sounds hard. That sounds stupid. No."


And so we couldn't really use super generic messaging, but to go really specific into verticals, which we did end up ultimately doing, didn't give us the broad coverage to go find new opportunities. You go really deep into one particular vertical or two particular verticals at a time with a small team, but then we weren't surfacing new opportunities that might be even more important. So we tried to balance that vertical specific work that we did with also trying to find this type of person who we had discovered was going to be the best champion for us.


And this is a tinkerer persona, someone who likes new technology, they like putting together the Lego building blocks of things, and you couldn't really find Tinkerer's Magazine. There's not like a place those people hang out. They don't just have one title. It's a psychographic profile as a type of person that could have many, many different roles. And so instead-

Lenny (00:38:56):

And Facebook doesn't let you do that anymore, right?

Zoelle Egner (00:38:59):

No. You can't target based on-

Lenny (00:39:01):

[inaudible 00:39:01] go.

Zoelle Egner (00:39:02):

... like, "They have a tinkerer mentality," unfortunately.

Lenny (00:39:04):

Okay, got it.

Zoelle Egner (00:39:05):

It's so sad.

Lenny (00:39:05):

Okay. I see-

Zoelle Egner (00:39:05):


Lenny (00:39:05):

... that it's not possible.

Zoelle Egner (00:39:07):

Yeah. But what you can do is you can say, "That type of person often likes these types of media. We've heard that they often are really into these podcasts, so they're really into reading about this type of personal development." And often that is associated with people who have these broad set of roles but have this typical mentality. So we would find clusters of interests that people might have, that often were shared by those people, and do targeting around that. And then when that worked, they'll look alike based on it.

Lenny (00:39:38):

Did not expect Facebook ads as one of these answers. So that's interesting.

Zoelle Egner (00:39:42):

No, and it's not a good idea anymore. Don't do it now.

Lenny (00:39:44):


Zoelle Egner (00:39:44):

Back in the day, it was great. Now I would not recommend. But I have some unconventional ones that I can suggest that are-

Lenny (00:39:44):

Get into it.

Zoelle Egner (00:39:52):

... not Facebook. There's a few different things, but I want to give some context first for people who are not as familiar with Airtable's business, because I do think these are really helpful pieces of context. The first is because of the types of industries that we are often very successful in, had a very similar network effect that we would see, where basically it was within specific professions, we would see people who, in order to distinguish themselves in that job market, would build a brand around the tools that they used, essentially. We found different ways to accelerate their process of identifying those roles, where it was really, really helpful to build a brand for yourself so that you could hop around to different jobs more quickly, accelerate your process, et cetera, and thus bring along a tool with you and evangelize for it a lot. So that's one set of things we were trying to achieve.


The second set of things we were trying to achieve that's also useful context here, is although industry virality was really important for us, even more important was inside of company virality, that was the real superpower of Airtable. We'd go from 10 people to 1,000 people a year. And so we were always looking for ways to make that happen within companies in more and more efficient ways.


And then the third piece here is no one had a good generic explanation of Airtable that worked for everybody. This is perhaps partially my fault as marketing, but it's also the fault of the fact that the market was not ready for the good, generic explanation to mean anything, like I mentioned before, people just did not care about the generic explanation. And the magic of Airtable was always seen in its specificity.


So we knew if we can get to the right people and we can connect the dots to them to the correct use case, so they want to go and evangelize to improve their careers, they will do that both externally and within their companies, and more importantly within the companies, they'll be able to go to their friends and say, "Hey, I'm using Airtable as a content calendar, but you have a UX research problem. And I understand Airtable enough that I can help you build a system. And now I'm a superhero internally because I helped you build this whole new thing. Look at me, I'm amazing." And they suddenly have fully done a sales pitch for Airtable without us having to do any work or understand their use case, which is great and very necessary when you are as horizontal as we are. So we had to figure out essentially, "How do we catalyze that word of mouth and build champions at scale?"


All of that is to say the two interesting things that we did were all around that. In the very early days, what that meant in practice was we literally had a Slack integration that we pulled in a whole bunch of information about anyone who signed up for Airtable, including their title, the company that they worked at, et cetera. And literally would sit there and had a little button in each of the records that came in that would allow us to email them immediately if we had decided that they might be someone we want to talk to. And we set up this whole automated system so that it would take two seconds to reach out to a ton of different people, being like, "Hey, we'd really love to get your feedback and help make sure you're as successful as possible on Airtable."


This is not scalable in the long term because there's a whole bunch of sending emails and doing meetings. But what it meant is that we were able to start building our mental model for what these champions looked like in practice by finding the patterns across them. And building the foundation is what ultimately became our customer success motion very early. And then we were able to say, "Okay, we found five people who have a content calendar use case with this type of title. And now we'll be able to go run an ad campaign based on that. We can build a bunch of templates based on that. Here's all these different hooks we can use, because we know this is what a champion can look like," in a way that was not going to be obvious if we hadn't talked to a ton of people. So it seems really unobvious as an investment, per se, but tremendous number of human hours going into just having an efficient way to talk to as many people as possible to build those mental models. That's number one.

Lenny (00:43:57):

That is fascinating. Essentially, you weren't even sure who would be excited about Airtable. Part of this is like, "Figure out the personas and groups of people that we believe are the right target to encourage and help support." And then part of that is, "Get it spreading within a company once you figure out these folks within a company." It's such a cool idea to just have a feed of ... I imagine the squad had certain attributes of the person, like, "Here's the company they work. Here's how big it is." And then they talk about, there's a mention of what they're using it for. Is that part of this?

Zoelle Egner (00:44:31):

Ideally. Though we were always very privacy minded, so we couldn't actually get much information about what they were doing in Airtable. We could never see their data, because that would be a tremendous failure of trust, to go back to what we were talking about before. So a lot of this, we would have guesses, and maybe we could see that they'd use certain templates but we didn't otherwise really know. And that was part of the reason why we wanted to talk to them in the first place.


The second reason is that if we could talk to them early, we could help them build their first space, and from there, if they were successful, they would have the tools to go and help other people within their organization. So if we catch them at the beginning, make sure one person was successful by over investing in them, then they essentially became support for everybody else. I should also clarify, these were not necessarily people who were going to be the buyers. The buyers and the champions here look very, very different for Airtable, which is a really an interesting dynamic that many companies do not have. But for us, the person who is going to sit down with a glass of wine on a Friday and build an Airtable base was not the person who had the budget who was going to pay for this thing.


And so we weren't initially looking for buyers, we were looking for champions, in part so that we could then go to IT six months down the line and be like, "Look, you have 500 people using this product, it's been very useful for them. It is time for you to pay now." Not sure IT loved those conversations, but they were really effective for us and meant that it was very, very easy to sell.

Lenny (00:45:57):

Fascinating. It makes me think a lot about the product led sales movement and how this is essentially that, but even earlier, because it's people just signed up and they're just helping them be successful, versus like, "This company's got 14 people using it. You should go try to sell them on an enterprise contract." Essentially this was a tool to help you figure out how to, basically scaling customer success and helping you prioritize who to go after, and being very hands-on with the strongest potential future big buyers.

Zoelle Egner (00:46:24):

Exactly. And I think what's interesting here is it helped us bootstrap two things. One was, to your point, building out the personas, and champions, and so on. And ultimately there's more scalable ways to reach those people in the long run. But secondarily, it also helped us deal with a real product education problem that we had in the early days. Because it was really complicated. Airtable, unfortunately, has two education issues that it needs to solve. It's not just, "How do I put the Lego blocks together?" It is also, "How do I design a piece of software and a workflow?"


And unfortunately if you're selling to content marketing manager or a UX researcher, there's no guarantee that they know how to make a workflow. Most software is opinionated, and it does that work for you, and you're like, "It either works for you or it doesn't." And maybe you're frustrated about what it forces you to do in order to work, but you can't really control it, which means when suddenly, you have the ability to create whatever workflow that you want, there's actually some education that needs to go into it in order to be able to make that successful.


It's not enough to just make an Airtable base that's pretty or that functions. You can't get your team to use it effectively if it doesn't fit into the broader context of the organization. It's still going to fail. And so a lot of this was us figuring out, like, "Okay, how do we help these people not only use our product but build something that is going to be durable, so that we do see that growth, so they don't see it as a failure, so it doesn't fail at that second order moment when it starts to get spread out to more people?"

Lenny (00:47:53):

It's a really good tactic for any SaaS product that just is hard to understand and needs, Airtable had both problems. Like, "I don't know what this is for and I don't know exactly how it's going to fit into my workflow." Imagine most-

Zoelle Egner (00:48:05):


Lenny (00:48:05):

... companies still have to deal with both those problems.

Zoelle Egner (00:48:07):

No, hopefully not. Hopefully not.

Lenny (00:48:07):


Zoelle Egner (00:48:08):

But once you actually get in with folks, it's very difficult to remove it. So suddenly your retention rates are incredible, your word of mouth is incredible, if you're willing to do that initial work. A lot of people think that Airtable was a pure product led growth company, and missed that huge customer success component that was always very, very important in the early days. And that helped us ultimately move more towards that PLG motion for a while, but was essential to getting it set up in the first place.

Lenny (00:48:35):


Zoelle Egner (00:48:36):

The other one that we did related to this champions at scale was we spent a hilarious amount of money on really fancy swag. I know this sounds silly, but branded AirPods level of fancy swag. Admittedly more people were in the office back then. Now they are more remote and this would not work as well. But back in the day, if you gave people something really good, not a pen or a sticker, really good, they would show it off to absolutely everyone that they talked to, because they were so excited they got branded AirPods. People would ask about it, walking by their desks. It sounds so like trivial. But for that couple hundred bucks that we spent knowing like, "Hey, this person's already a champion and if someone asks them, they're going to give a really good pitch." Totally worth it. Sometimes better to not skimp on swag. Hard to measure, very effective.

Lenny (00:49:27):

That's a great tip. And it connects to the general idea of find your champions and just do a lot to make sure they're successful, excited, want to evangelize, and an AirPod here and there feel like a really good ROI investment.

Zoelle Egner (00:49:40):

Was for us.

Lenny (00:49:41):

Anything else along those lines?

Zoelle Egner (00:49:42):

I think those are the big ones that I would highlight. The only other small note I would make from a process perspective is if you are going to overinvest in customer success, which I recommend, make sure that you have also set up a process to take the insights that your customer success people are coming up with and turn them into as much content as you can. Because that's where you're going to find scale in the long run. So for us, what that meant was we would talk to a bunch of customers and then customer success would have helped them build bases, and then we would create templates. So were not exact copies, because we're not trying to steal their intellectual property. We would say, "What is the fundamental workflow here, that other companies might have? How do we make a template that is useful from this?" And some blog posts that explain it, whatever else, that we can then put out into the market.


And the next time a smaller company that's not a Fortune 500 wants this sort of thing, someone can just email them that template and we don't have to go through this whole build process, they have something to start with. If you can find those insights and put them genuinely into use as a little conveyor belt, it will be much easier to scale. It will be much easier to come up with genuinely compelling content because it's coming from your customers, so they already care about it. You have strong signal that's going to be valuable if you already built it for them. Use that to your advantage, make that into a little machine. And it makes all of the go-to market that you need to do later easier.

Lenny (00:50:57):

I know that you have the strong opinion that customer success and marketing are basically the same thing and should be maybe one team. Can you speak to that?

Zoelle Egner (00:51:05):

Yeah. This is my spicy opinion, but both of them have to do the same things. They have to identify customer needs. They have to help the customers see your product as a solution to those needs. They need to remove friction from the process of getting value. They are hopefully both encouraging those customers to share with other people, and both of them should be engaged in translating insights from those individuals into resources that can help everybody.


They use different tactics. Marketing is going to use more scalable tactics. Customer success is going to be in the weeds, really talking to individual people, but all of the things they care about are actually the same thing. They just use different ways to do it. And if you, as a marketer, are not pretty confident in being able to say, like, "What I'm doing is getting the right people to get genuine value from this product," so much so that they want to tell other people about it because it's going to make them look good, then maybe figure out if there's ways to bring more of that to your process, because it will make what you are doing more effective.


And frankly, there's not a better evangelist than a person whose career you have materially helped to improve based on matching the right person to the solution so that they can have more impact at their company. So much said, one of my unofficial metrics for both marketing and customer success at Airtable, unofficial, was how many people we'd gotten promoted for using the product. I had a running tally of those people, and I knew if we were getting those at the major accounts we were trying to win, something good was happening and we were going to be successful with really large deals.

Lenny (00:52:36):

So curious how you tracked that. I guess you just check in with them occasionally?

Zoelle Egner (00:52:40):

No, I had my CSMs literally, they had really strong relationships. We were actually tracking it. It was a little embarrassing, but it worked really well.

Lenny (00:52:47):

I love it, with the great KPI. It's like dating apps and how many people get married, I guess.

Zoelle Egner (00:52:52):


Lenny (00:52:53):

Zooming out a little bit, you advise a lot of companies on marketing, customer success, growth, and things like that. Maybe there's a two part question, and see where you want to take it.

Zoelle Egner (00:53:03):


Lenny (00:53:03):

One is just what are activities that marketing, and growth, and customer success teams often do that are impactful and consistently impactful, things that you think startups should invest in that maybe they aren't, or they already aren't and they should definitely keep doing this. And on the flip side, things that don't work, things that maybe they should avoid. So maybe let's start there and there's going to be a followup.

Zoelle Egner (00:53:26):

Cool. Okay. I'm going to start with things to avoid, because I try and not to make too many blanket statements on this, but I have a couple that I am willing to make. So this is all with the caveat that channel market fit is really real, and sometimes these things might work for you. Don't discount just because I say that they don't work for me. There are certain types of flashy event marketing and sponsorships that you will get relentlessly invited to do, that will seem like they're going to be really great for signaling purposes, or for leads, or whatever.


And they're almost always a waste of your time, unless you are in an industry where you desperately need to get to a trade show, because that's where everyone hangs out. At that point, yeah, of course you're going to have to go do that. But if you're in more standard B2B SaaS, or that's not really a thing, there are better ways to get in front of those people than having your logo out there. That doesn't tell them anything. Maybe you get a branded session at the conference or whatever, but who's going to go to that branded session? Probably not that many people. And then you will have spent so much money and gotten nothing for it. Go to the event, do not fund your money on the sponsorship. It's stupid. And then the second one, which is definitely a very spicy opinion, but I'm going to go there.

Lenny (00:54:40):

Go there.

Zoelle Egner (00:54:41):

A lot of people think that the epitome of product marketing is creating your own category. And while I agree that it is useful to have strong differentiators, because it is, I think creating a category, getting a new thing in Gartner or whatever, is often a waste of your time. It is a huge lift, absolutely enormous, particularly in B2B SaaS, and I'm not always sure that it's helpful to have your super teeny tiny, little niche over here where you're like, "Oh, we have no competitors." That's not actually how buyers work. It's not really worth it.


That said, there are things you can do that feel like category creation that are actually effective, and that I do think make more sense. And specifically if you can elevate a profession instead of a category, that can make way more sense. So the great example of this is that Gainsight creating customer success or many companies altogether carving out DevOps, or rebranding DevOps, to be a thing that was suddenly a sexy job to have.


And I think that's valuable because a job is an identity and people will fight for an identity. A category of software is a line item on your budget. No one is excited about that. But people are very excited about their job being meaningful, and their job being important, and being taken seriously. And so if you could hold up either an existing or a brand new job and say, "This is really important for much broader business metrics, whatever else. We're going to create community for those people to come together and it's all about the job," and not about you. That can be very powerful and they'll take them with you. You become part of the identity of that career. Amazing. Do that, for sure. But like the Gartner Square, there's some opportunities for that where it makes sense. A lot of the times it doesn't. Don't do that.

Lenny (00:56:34):

Amazing. I love that. Is there more you wanted to add, there?

Zoelle Egner (00:56:34):


Lenny (00:56:34):


Zoelle Egner (00:56:39):

I think that's enough on not to do.

Lenny (00:56:40):

What this reminds me of broadly is just, "Stay focused on the customer and their problems. Don't obsess with who you are, who are you selling to and how will you make their life better." Reminds me of this old idea from Kathy Sierra. Does that ring a bell?

Zoelle Egner (00:56:55):


Lenny (00:56:55):


Zoelle Egner (00:56:55):

Oh totally.

Lenny (00:56:56):

... you make your customer a superhero, you want them to feel like a superhero. And if they-

Zoelle Egner (00:56:56):

It works-

Lenny (00:56:59):

... feel like a superhero. And yeah, that sounds like that's essentially what you did with Airtable, a lot of these companies you worked with.

Zoelle Egner (00:57:05):

That that is always the goal. Like, "How can you make them the hero of the story and not you? Because no one cares about your company, what they care about is themselves, frankly."

Lenny (00:57:12):

Are there any products or companies you think of off the top of your head that are really good at this, that are just like they nailed this?

Zoelle Egner (00:57:18):

Yeah, that's a good question. Certainly the two that I mentioned, that helped rebrand some of the professions, so like the Gainsights of the world. I'm blanking a little bit on the ones that have done this for DevOps really effectively, but there's certainly some that have.

Lenny (00:57:32):

Maybe Datadog?

Zoelle Egner (00:57:33):

Yeah, Datadog has done a pretty good job of that. I think where I get excited is when the companies do this in a way that feels less self-serving, or less obviously self-serving. And that means that sometimes you have to be willing to invest in things that will not have super obviously immediate ROI for you, but they will for the community, and for building the community. Oh, actually one really good example, I think Notion has actually done a pretty good job of this. People are really, really invested in the templates that they create, because it feels like you're not pushing Notion, you're pushing the beautiful creation that you have to solve a problem. I think they've done a really nice job on that process, and several of their competitors, I think have done a pretty decent job as well, but they certainly come to mind.

Lenny (00:58:18):

Thinking of templates, I know Airtable, known for templates, and you've mentioned this being a big part of the success, and I imagine a lot of companies now are just creating templates left, because they imagine that's the core, what helped a lot of these companies, Notion being an example. What is your take on the power and importance of templates for software?

Zoelle Egner (00:58:38):

I think they can be tremendously helpful if you are horizontal because they help to narrow the surface area for a user, so they understand how to connect the dots between their problem and your product. And if it is not obvious to someone how they can solve a specific problem, they're going to be like, "Oh, hey, that seems really cool. When I think of something I'll definitely come back." And then you have lost them. And so if you can be like, "Here are three templates that a person you might be excited about." That can be really helpful. Where people sometimes get confused about templates, or have the wrong expectations about templates, is when they think that templates are going to be an acquisition mechanism, and they don't build in the foundation that is necessary for that to be true. So a lot of people think that templates were what drove Airtable's top of funnel. That is not the case.


I was having a conversation with someone who worked a lot on SEO at Airtable in the much later days, and laughing over the fact that people thought that was a big source of traffic, because it was not. We did not optimize them for that. Good luck finding them in search most of the time. Not at all useful. Where they were helpful, narrowing that surface area, helping with matching patterns, helping people understand how the product worked, super helpful. Expansion within companies, tremendously useful.


But they were not a top of funnel mechanism for us, because we didn't put the work in to do that. We did not have an SEO engine. We weren't Zapier. Zapier has done a great job with that. They get a ton of traffic because they built it as a programmatic SEO play, but you have to be clear about what your goals are and what problem they're solving, because otherwise it is very easy to be like, "I'll just build a bunch of templates, and then all of the leads will appear," And that's not going to happen unless you invest in a lot more than at least Airtable did. So it can be useful to build them, know what you're doing it for, and how you're going to measure it, or otherwise you'll waste your time.

Lenny (01:00:29):

Do you think Airtable could have taken advantage of that top of funnel approach if they invested from an SEO perspective or do you think it wasn't an opportunity that worked?

Zoelle Egner (01:00:37):

I think it could have been. We would've needed to hire more humans. Airtable was an incredibly lean team for a very, very long time. From 2015, when I joined, until 2017 or 2018, we had barely 50 people. It was small for many, many years and so we had to make really difficult choices about what to prioritize and what not to prioritize. Should we have hired more people and done more things? I would argue in retrospect, absolutely, yes, there were opportunities that were left on the table, but in early days you leave good opportunities because you have to focus on other things.

Lenny (01:01:13):

Got it. And so a takeaway here is templates could be really useful for customer success versus SEO top of funnel. Right? That's-

Zoelle Egner (01:01:13):


Lenny (01:01:20):

... where they became powerful.

Zoelle Egner (01:01:21):

Still maybe helpful. Maybe for you, it makes sense to do the SEO play, just know that that is not a small play. It is an investment. It is not and not just like, "Have some people make some templates." You got to do way more than just that. It's not going to be sufficient.

Lenny (01:01:35):

Final potential question, depending on where this goes, and I'm curious how spicy this answer gets, and-

Zoelle Egner (01:01:35):

Oh boy.

Lenny (01:01:40):

It's around launches and PR. You work with a lot of startups, I imagine founders are always trying to plan a launch, get PR. I'm curious your take on the value of investing a bunch of resources in a big launch, the value of just getting PR as an early stage startup.

Zoelle Egner (01:01:56):

Yeah, just getting PR is not a good goal. I know that's been well stated in the market, but just to reiterate it, most of the time PR is not going to get you leads or users, it's just not. And you have to think about when you are creating a launch or doing a piece of PR, what are the breadcrumbs that bring someone back to something that can actually convert? If you have your big tech crunch piece and it's super exciting, it says all these great things about you, and it maybe links to you once, somewhere in the 12th paragraph or whatever, how many people are actually going to click on that link? Not that many people. How many people are going to read that and remember to go Google it? Not as many as you want. Okay? There's going to be so much coming out of the funnel, it is not a useful acquisition mechanism.


What it is good for is credibility. And that's where, if you have really clear goals, and you know how you are ready to leverage the asset of a piece of PR coverage, then it can be helpful to you. So the two goals I always recommend to founders when thinking about using PR, are either hiring or maybe improving the response rate for your cold outbound. Those are the two that I think make the most sense, because in both cases they have a different distribution mechanism. In hiring, you're going to include that in an email that you're sending to a candidate. And so it's going to increase the likelihood that they take you seriously, and get excited about the company, and maybe actually end up ultimately joining your team.


Cold outbound, you're using it as credibility to say, "Hey, we're a real company you can trust." Great. Both of those things are all emails that you are proactively sending. You know exactly who they're going to, and you know that asset is going to have, hopefully, the impact that you're looking for, and you can measure whether it makes a difference or not. But just getting a piece of PR, to get a piece of PR is like it'll help with your internal morale, but I'm not sure it's going to do much help for you. So have really clear goals and have realistic goals, or you will be disappointed.


Launches however, do not need to just be about PR. In fact, in many cases PR is a distraction, and instead you can have not just one big launch but a series of launches that allow you to stay top of mind, to create momentum with your users, and to show up in lots of different places because audiences respond to novelty, it gives them a reason to care about your company. And so have your big, annual launch or whatever, but also have one two months from then, and another one, and another one. Find ways to use that novelty to your advantage and to get into communities that you think are going to be good fits for your company.

Lenny (01:04:26):

I love that advice. Any final thoughts before we get to our very exciting lightning round?

Zoelle Egner (01:04:34):

Mostly just all of this is easier if you talk to your customers more. Build a system for yourself that will allow you to have those touchpoints. That's not just making everyone answer customer support tickets, though I do think that is a great idea, because it gives so much empathy and it's really helpful. You as a founder, if you're a founder, or a product manager, or whatever else, should find a way to get that on your calendar weekly or monthly. Go talk to people, it makes it better. You will have a better mental model. The other thing is strongly consider investing in customer success if you are a B2B company, early. Airtable had it before sales, which is a very unconventional approach, but early is worth it. It has huge dividends if you actually listen to them. If you're not going to listen to them, though, don't hire them, because that's sad.

Lenny (01:05:22):

I have followup questions on the customer success piece, say someone wants to invest in customer success, is there a resource, or person, or anything that you could point folks to, to understand and think about how to do this well?

Zoelle Egner (01:05:36):

There's a lot for people within that profession. There's not as much for founders out there right now, unfortunately. This is an area that I very eagerly am looking for more resources to share with people. Minimally. I'll say, if you care about this, send me a message. I will give you some advice. All of our industry will be better if there are more people working on customer success. So I will help you. Send me a note. Otherwise, I'll try and dig out some other things and maybe you can share them, but there's not a ton. So people in customer success, please share your learnings more with founders. All of us-

Lenny (01:05:36):


Zoelle Egner (01:05:36):

... would like to see it.

Lenny (01:06:09):

Yeah, I've actually been looking for someone to write a guest post in the newsletter, about just how to set up a customer success team. And so if you're listening, you think you could be that person. Let me-

Zoelle Egner (01:06:21):

Yeah, I have some people that I will not put on the spot right now, that I will send your way that I think- [inaudible 01:06:26]

Lenny (01:06:26):

Amazing. [inaudible 01:06:27]. Let's make this happen.

Zoelle Egner (01:06:28):


Lenny (01:06:29):

And then I wanted to ask you a question on the first piece of advice, which is, "Founders talk to the customers more often." Is there one tactical piece of advice you could recommend for how to do that?

Zoelle Egner (01:06:37):


Lenny (01:06:37):

How to find a customer, how to set it up consistently?

Zoelle Egner (01:06:40):

Totally. The simplest way to do this is to write a template email for yourself that you can send out very easily, that essentially says like, "Hey, thank you so much for using the product. I would really love to hear about your experience so far and get your feedback. Do you have 10 minutes to talk on the phone?" I know it is important that it's on the phone and not a survey because you get way more instinct from unstructured conversation than you're going to get from sending them three things in a Google survey.


Set it up, come up with a hypothesis of the type of person that you want to talk to and then run a query against your database, find someone and send three of those emails a week. And it's not exciting, but you can automate most of it and it will be helpful. None of this stuff has to be complicated. You just got to have a system.

Lenny (01:07:23):

Great advice. With that, we've reached our very exciting lightning round.

Zoelle Egner (01:07:27):


Lenny (01:07:27):

I've got six questions for you. I'm going to go through them pretty quick. Whatever comes to mind, let's see where it goes.

Zoelle Egner (01:07:34):


Lenny (01:07:34):

Question number one. What are two or three books that you recommend most to other people?

Zoelle Egner (01:07:40):

Okay, I hate this question because I take pride in making highly targeted recommendations, but I will do it anyway. I'm pretty sure you mostly talk to product and growth people. Right now, obviously, AI is a big topic of conversation, so here are two books that will enrich your mental model for artificial intelligence and encourage you to think about it from different perspectives. The first one, a little bit academic, highly recommend it, though. It's a book called Computing Taste by Nick Seaver.


He's a professor of anthropology and he did this study of people and companies who build music recognition algorithms. And it's a really interesting book for a bunch of reasons, including that it's a academic take on both tech culture, and more specifically, the unspoken and underlying assumptions that many workers who are building in this space have. It can be a little spicy and uncomfortable for a person in tech to read, but I think it is a fascinating perspective and very relevant to the stuff that's going on in AI right now. So go check it out. Computing Taste by Nick Seaver.


The second is a fiction book, but the Ancillary Justice series by Anne Leckie, about a spaceship AI that ends up separated from its ship and trapped in a body. I'm going to leave it at that. Worth reading for a different way of thinking about AI.

Lenny (01:08:56):

I think we need a Zoelle full episode on book recommendations. These are amazing. Let's keep going.

Zoelle Egner (01:08:56):

So fair.

Lenny (01:09:02):

What other podcast of yours that you love to listen to other than this podcast?

Zoelle Egner (01:09:07):

Probably either Happiness Lab or Gastropod. I love food and also psychology, one of those two.

Lenny (01:09:13):

Interesting. Okay, we'll keep going. Favorite recent movie or TV show?

Zoelle Egner (01:09:17):

Movie, Everything Everywhere All at Once. And TV show, there's a Korean drama called Extraordinary Attorney Woo. That, I really enjoyed.

Lenny (01:09:26):

Favorite interview question that you like to ask?

Zoelle Egner (01:09:29):

Yeah. Okay, so this one is related to customer success. It's my favorite question of all. People hate it, sorry. But I like to ask anyone who's going to be in a customer facing role, who needs to be able to keep their cool, and also learn stuff on the fly, and respond to customers, to solve an unfamiliar problem using Zapier. And they can use the internet to look things up, whatever, but I basically lay out for them a problem that I, as the customer want to solve, and have them build it for me live. This both is surprising for most people, so you get to see how they respond to an unfamiliar situation, which every client will give you at some point, and it shows how they learn things in a very concrete way, which is really interesting. So check it out. It works really well for customer success.

Lenny (01:10:10):

I've not heard that one before. Fascinating. Top five SaaS products that you enjoy and an Airtable cannot be one?

Zoelle Egner (01:10:18):

Ugh. Okay, then I'll try and avoid any company that I have worked for. I really like using Figma. It's nice when designers let me play with things. I've been really enjoying working with Webflow, also means that I can do stuff on my own. This is maybe spicy, but I actually love Google Docs. I'm not a Notion's fan stand, sorry.

Lenny (01:10:18):


Zoelle Egner (01:10:36):

But Google Docs-

Lenny (01:10:37):

Can't [inaudible 01:10:37] them all.

Zoelle Egner (01:10:36):

... is like my best friend.

Lenny (01:10:37):

Google Docs is great.

Zoelle Egner (01:10:38):

Yeah. And then there is a personal CRM company that I invested in, so sorry, maybe this is not allowed, but called Clay, and it is the only way I've ever been able to keep track of my-

Lenny (01:10:47):

Wow. [inaudible 01:10:47]-

Zoelle Egner (01:10:47):

... relationships in a real way.

Lenny (01:10:48):

Clay's great product.

Zoelle Egner (01:10:49):

They're the best. And then I don't know if I love it, but I use Zoom so much that I feel like I must say it, because I spend so much of my time on it and it's categorically better than Google Meet.

Lenny (01:11:01):

Final question, favorite book, course, article, any resource on marketing that non marketers can learn from?

Zoelle Egner (01:11:10):

Okay, it's a newsletter. Does that work?

Lenny (01:11:12):


Zoelle Egner (01:11:13):

Amazing. Okay, so there is a specialist VC firm called MKT1. It's run by Emily Kramer and Kathleen Estreich, sorry if I pronounced your last name, there, wrong, Kathleen. It's all about marketing. They are marketing experts and operators who now invest, but they make the best frameworks that you can immediately apply. And there's templates and all sorts of super, super tactical stuff, which a lot of tactical marketing content is terrible because it's actually content marketing for some bad platform. Theirs is not. It is genuinely good. Go check it out.

Lenny (01:11:43):

A huge fan. Emily has been on the podcast.

Zoelle Egner (01:11:45):

Oh, [inaudible 01:11:47].

Lenny (01:11:47):

Yeah. And I look at that newsletter as the Lenny's newsletter of marketing, and it's exactly how you described.

Zoelle Egner (01:11:53):

It's the best.

Lenny (01:11:53):

Huge fan. Great recommendation. With that, Zoelle, thank you so much for being here. This was a lot of fun. And we got through a lot of stuff, which makes me really happy. Two final questions, where can folks find you online if they want to reach out, learn more, and how can listeners be useful to you?

Zoelle Egner (01:12:09):

I am on Twitter @Zoelle. I'm also on LinkedIn, so I live there, come find me there. Otherwise, how can you be useful to me? Mostly like go forth and believe in customer success, and talk to your users, number one, because I am an avid user of technology, and I want it all to be better. Number two, no, that's all I got. Just go do those things and I will be so happy. Also, if you want to talk about customer success, anytime, hit me up. I'm here.

Lenny (01:12:35):

I'm going to add a couple more things, which you mentioned to me offline, that you're hiring at Block Party.

Zoelle Egner (01:12:39):


Lenny (01:12:39):

You're hiring growth people, PMs, engineers, and then you're also advising on the side with marketing customer success. Anything else you want to add, there?

Zoelle Egner (01:12:48):

Yeah, absolutely. Love advising early stage companies. I'm especially helpful for pre seed and seed, usually, anything PLG, positioning, messaging, figuring out your channels, experimentation, all that early, fun stuff. I love it. Happy to help anytime. And we are hiring across all of the teams, but especially mine. So if you would like to come and do all sorts of fun experimentation, and also help keep people online safe, come look up, Block Party. I'd love to have you on my team.

Lenny (01:13:18):

Blockparty.com, or where do folks- [inaudible 01:13:19]

Zoelle Egner (01:13:18):

Blockpartyapp.com. Did not-

Lenny (01:13:18):


Zoelle Egner (01:13:19):

... get blockparty.com.

Lenny (01:13:19):

You didn't. Zoelle, thank you. Very good.

Zoelle Egner (01:13:23):

Thank you.

Lenny (01:13:28):

Thank you so much for listening. If you found this valuable, you can subscribe to the show on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or your favorite podcast app. Also, please consider giving us a rating or leaving a review, as that really helps other listeners find the podcast. You can find all past episodes or learn more about the show at lennyspodcast.com. See you in the next episode.