Sometime late in the last decade, there was a subtle but important change in the way companies began to adopt enterprise software. Instead of new technology coming in by way of the CIO or IT department, employees began driving the adoption of new tools. I am referring to tools like Salesforce, Netsuite, and, of course, Slack.
Recently I’ve had the opportunity to mentor a fast-growing SaaS business that is using this bottom-up model. For a guy whose experience has been almost exclusively with the top-down approach that requires selling to VPs and C-level executives, this has been a great learning opportunity.
While I can’t say which has proven to be empirically better, I can say that I find a lot to admire in the bottom-up model.
1. End users are your allies
The top-down approach channels your SaaS sales efforts through a few executives who make decisions about the tools their employees use. Bottom-up, on the other hand, focuses on the people who will be using the tools in the trenches every day.
Unlike an executive who must weigh countless factors before making a purchase that will affect the productivity of an entire company, individual employees can try out new tech without significant risk to the company by signing up to use freemium versions of promising products.
If you can convert them to your cause, you’ve just created a very powerful sales ally. These allies will do a lot of the heavy lifting for you, not just championing your product to their colleagues, but to management as well. The more people who use your product within a company, the greater the chance they’ll demand access to features not available in the freemium version and upgrade to the enterprise package.
2. Bottom-up disrupts marketing and sales
Until recently, it was unheard of for enterprise tools to go viral. Why would they? Executives invest in affordable tech with a tried-and-true reputation, employees use it — sometimes contentedly, sometimes grudgingly — and that’s that. If employees do talk about the tool, chances are it’s to complain about it.
Now that more employees are starting to drive technology purchases, there’s a good chance they’ll talk about the ones they like. If it solves a real problem, easy to use, features some great design elements, and is possibly even fun to use, viral growth is not out of the question.
There was a recent article in Slate that used the term “Slackbragging” to describe people chatting about the benefits of using Slack to friends and colleagues, thus earning them a little social currency with their demonstration of technical prowess/hipness. The fact that people are out there talking about a cool SaaS they’re using at work is almost hard to believe. While Slack’s success might be an extreme example of bottom-up success, it’s not something anybody could have seriously imagined in the days when Microsoft Office was ascendent.
3. With bottom-up, a failure doesn’t have to mean defeat
When selling to executives, much is riding on a product’s performance. When execs plan to invest tens (or possibly hundreds) of thousands of dollars in a product, they want to be sure it works. There is little margin for error. If the product doesn’t live up to their standards, the deal could die in a heartbeat.
With the bottom-up approach, the prospect of failure isn’t quit so dire. If there are hiccups with your product, your chances won’t necessarily be crushed because of one poor user experience. If dozens of users with the same department or company are using your product and not experiencing problems, a few outliers will not significantly reduce chances of enterprise adoption.
4. Your users help you make your product better
Since the bottom-up approach requires a closer relationship with users, your support team is more in tune with their challenges. This means they can take user feedback to the development team for faster iteration on product fixes and upgrades. A sales team using the top-down approach could never hope to foster this level of rapid feedback between users and the development team. The bottoms up approach allows feedback to be heard directly by people who can take action without being filtered through the sales team.
Is the old-school top-down model of selling products to executives dead? It’s too early to say, but for now, probably not. But there’s much to be learned from companies like Slack, which are innovating how they build, sell, support, and iterate on their tools — and inspiring other SaaS companies to follow in their footsteps.