How can I grow my customer base? What’s the trick to retaining new users?

These are two of the questions most commonly asked by our startup clients. There isn't a one-size-fits-all solution but, Kenneth Berger, a former Project Manager at Slack, shared a few road-tested tips at a recent Product Austin event.

Berger joined Slack as the first Project Manager in the spring of 2014. The company grew from roughly 20 to 200-plus employees and from 15,000 to 1,000,000 daily active users during his tenure, before he chose to step down in mid-2015. Berger’s tips revolved around building a product, acquiring new users, and making those new users stick around for the long haul.

Tip #1 - Craft several "big" stories, and see what sticks.

Having a revolutionary idea isn’t enough. Your idea must be packaged into meaningful, human stories to gain traction.

Early on, Slack made some bold statements within the media:

  • Slack is an email killer."
  • Slack is the next Microsoft.
  • Slack focuses on diversity."
  • Slack was the result of a failed game, like Flickr.”

Many of these stories took off. But why? Here’s what Berger would tell you.

First, Slack avoided cliches, opting instead to tell the stories that were more relatable. Industry-centric slants like “X dollars in funding” and “Our product offers X feature” hardly merits a second glance in today’s crowded tech headlines. A good story is relatable on a human level.

  • "Slack is an email killer” - Nearly everyone who works has a strong feeling towards email. You’ve got my attention. Even if the article calls the claim into question, we all are intrigued.
  • "Slack focuses on diversity” - Our industry is plagued by a lack of diversity. This is cause marketing: “By rooting for Slack, I can support this ideal I believe in, and it really feels good.”
  • "Slack was the result of a failed game, like Flickr” - Nobody’s perfect. This vulnerability humans possess is intriguing. What happened? How can I turn my own failures into Slack-sized wins?

Next, Slack offered multiples stories, not a singular story.

No fisherman becomes great by using only one type of bait.

Some stories merely fall flat - for example, what does being “the next Microsoft” actually mean, and is it a good thing?

The more you put out there, the higher the rate of uptake. Phase the stories out over time or tell them simultaneously. The important part is not having one specific story that alienates those who aren’t interested.

Tip #2 - Leverage PR early.

If all the above sounds good, you may be wondering how to get from where you are now to a library of meaningful stories. Keith suggests bringing in the PR pros early.

The media is often our distribution channel, so building a strong rapport early can yield incredible results. They know what stories will work. They create and manage stories for a living! Collaborate and craft your stories together. It might be intimidating reaching out to PR pros when only one or two features (instead of five) are built, but do it anyways. A story shouldn’t sell features; it sells the idea and the vision.

Tip #3 - Strive for high peaks and acknowledge valleys.

Few products are uniformly good in the early stages. Peaks are the highlights of a product. Valleys are the low points in the experience.

When the user is in a valley (a bumpy onboarding), ensure there is a peak around the bend (next few user interactions). Peaks can be full-fledged features, or simple microinteractions that require little development work.


Slack's overlay warning to check yourself before sending an @channel and potentially waking up teammates who may be getting their beauty sleep. 

Berger’s example comes from Slack’s “@channel” feature. When a user types “@channel” into Slack, everyone in the particular channel is notified.  After a handful of customer complaints, the product team identified this as a stressful moment since there could be 100 members in a channel, spanning seven different time zones. “@channel” is disruptive.

Slack saw the opportunity to reduce stress by taking the typical  “Are you sure?” prompt and adding the number of users and time zones that would would be affected. The best part - an animated rooster on the side emphasizing the significance of “@channel”, but more importantly injecting some humor to defuse the tense situation. The team stopped receiving complaints from users and started receiving compliments. The “@channel” interaction became a moment of delight.

Peaks create hope while the user is traversing through frustrating interactions. It bonds the user to the product, instilling loyalty and an acceptance for the not-so-good parts. We rarely forget magnificent views from the tops of mountains.

Tip #4 - Focusing exclusively on one metric might blind you...

When Berger joined Slack, they already had an impressive growth rate. He was stuck wondering where he should focus his efforts in his new role.

But through research, he soon suspected that the impressive growth to date had been fueled by personal connections and word of mouth among small, highly technical teams.

Some may have asked, “Why fix what isn’t broken? Growth is strong.”

But the impressive growth rate obscured the fact that they were on track to saturate their current market. Slack knew it wanted to target larger and non-technical teams, but they were spending the majority of their resources iterating for small, technical teams.

Berger went and spent time at Braintree, one of Slack’s largest customers at the time. There, he validated that Slack’s roadmap was ignoring larger teams. He also uncovered quick wins and features that would meet the needs of the broader audience.

Focusing exclusively on one metric can blind you from important trends below the surface. Watching and measuring the inputs underneath helps gain a holistic view of how your product is performing.

My favorite advice Berger gave related to the peaks and valleys, specifically building small moments of joy. Working in fast-paced environment leads to time and resource constraints. Microinteractions are a quick and often cheap way of adding a layer of humanity to products we build.

What tactics have helped you to grow a customer base and retain users?  Share your stories and let’s continue the conversation.

Follow Berger on Twitter @kberger