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NPLG 4.6.23: Ease of Adoption (Plain)
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NPLG Startup of the Week: Plain
Great customer support is built, not bought – and shared, not siloed. This is the statement that Simon Rohrbach and Matt Vagni, co-founders of customer support platform Plain, made their founding principle.
Simon met Matt at Deliveroo, where they helped scale the company from less than 10 employees to more than 2,000. As the company grew, product teams were pulled in a million directions. The faster Deliveroo’s operations scaled, the greater the strain on the company’s customer support operations. The tools available for customer support were hard to use, and completely disconnected from the company’s internal systems. Data was frequently out of sync, and even basic workflows required a maze of tabs to complete. It was there that Simon and Matt first found themselves wanting a support platform that was built to be built with. They imagined something like Stripe or Linear, but for support.
This is what they have been building with Plain for the last 24 months. Plain is building the customer service backbone for modern companies: easy to set up, yet infinitely extensible. The platform offers an opinionated, beautiful app for support covering everything from email and chat through to Slack and Discord notifications – without compromising on extensibility: Plain is built API-first from the ground up, meaning that anything users can do in the app, they can do programmatically using the exact same API the app is built on.
In this edition of Notorious PLG, Plain Co-Founder and CEO Simon Rohrbach shares their PLG strategy and why they spent nearly two years building before sending a single sales email.
Why PLG for Plain
“From their experience at Deliveroo, Simon and Matt had two key insights: In every modern company, support typically starts out alone and self-sufficient, with pretty standard tooling. But at one point or another, customer support starts relying on engineering and product teams for help: for everything from making sure they have all the customer data needed in one place through to automating parts, or even entire workflows. In fact, most modern companies viewed support as a company-wide duty, rather than a single job or team. Yet very few tools in this space were built with product and engineering teams in mind, leaving support teams frustrated and isolated with broken tooling that is hard to build with.
They decided to build a support tool that would not only be beautiful and simple to use, but revolve around engineering teams and internal systems as a core constituent, not as a necessary evil or a thing to replace. Specifically, this meant:
Focusing on ease of adoption in both product and pricing to prove value quickly
Embracing extensibility to encourage experimentation and keep their product surface focused
Prioritizing developer experience from day 1 to make Plain easy to build with
In this post, we dive into how Plan tackled each of these challenges.
Showing ease of adoption in both product and pricing
Support is a crowded and competitive space. The team realized that to succeed, the product needed to prove value quickly. In support, this is a particularly hard problem: Getting value from a support platform means having customer communications flow through it, which requires both some technical configuration and a leap of faith from the customer.
To circumvent this, Plain took two conscious product and pricing decisions.
Firstly, Plain built a simple but effective growth tool: Demo workspaces. Anyone signing up for Plain can create a demo workspace with a single click, and get a fully-featured app with working email, chat and fake customers who need help, just seconds later. These are the same demo workspaces the team uses on sales calls, so immediately after leaving a call, customers can recreate the same environment they just saw on a demo in a couple of clicks. As of today, almost every single signup creates a demo workspace first, before ultimately converting to creating one themselves.
Secondly, unlike almost anyone else in this space, the company adopted a usage-based pricing model rather than seat-based – the goal being to make it easy to invite the whole company to Plain without having to think twice about per-seat cost.
The second challenge Plain had to overcome early on was that the table stakes in support were deep - most of their SaaS competitors had been at this for over a decade. How could they grow without building every feature under the sun?
Here, one of Plain’s founding principles - that support should be an engineering concern as much as an operational concern - became unexpectedly powerful. The team saw customers being happy to build all kinds of integrations and improvements themselves, allowing the core product surface to stay focused.
The team invested in three core concepts that made it possible for customers to power Plain with their own data, regardless of where it came from or what format it came in:
Custom Timeline Entries- enable events to be pushed into a user’s timeline in any format using a simple, visual JSON based API. This way, customers can pipe anything from form submissions through to bug reports or Stripe events into Plain, and get all the context they need to help a customer.
Customer Cards- enable companies to show real-time customer information from companies’ own systems, in any format. Critically, this information is fetched (rather than pushed) in real-time, guaranteeing its accuracy.
Machine users- let companies complete almost any action in the Plain product programmatically and enable everything from building a customer-facing bot through to automating simple actions.
Prioritizing developer experience from day 1
In a world where start-ups are advised to get the smallest possible product out the door as quickly as possible, Plain took an unconventional approach to its first two years as a business. It didn’t sell. At all.
To really offer a great developer experience, the team wanted to build Plain API-first – meaning, that they’d use the same API to build the Plain app that customers would have access to, and considered API use cases just as important as app-based use cases. This was a large and complex upfront investment, and meant prioritizing things like:
Rich and granular error handling so API users could quickly understand what was going wrong.
A strong focus on conventions and consistency to ensure you can basically guess how the API works and that everything feels like one system.
Fine-grained permissions so teams could easily apply security best practices.
Comprehensive documentation with comprehensive recipes for going from zero to a fully working integration
The decision to focus so heavily on infrastructure and developer experience at the beginning, even though time-consuming, has quickly proved invaluable: During customer conversations, it has made it easier to convince engineering teams of the value of Plain and to demonstrate that extensibility is at the very core of Plain’s focus – validating the team’s initial belief that great support is built, not bought.”
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PLG Benchmarking (Startups):
This is a new section! I will continue to update these metrics and add new metrics. I would love your feedback on what else I should track.
Conversion rate (website → free user):
Activation rate (free user → activated user):
Paid conversion rate (free user → paid user):
Enterprise conversion rate (free user → enterprise plan):
3-month user retention (% of all users still using product after 3 months):
Conversion from website to free user:
<1 month on waitlist: ~50%
>3 months on waitlist: 20%
For more detail on acqusition rates by channel (Organic, SEM, Social etc), please refer to this prior NPLG.
PLG Financial Benchmarking (Public PLG Companies):
Financial data as of previous business day market close.
Best-in-Class PLG Benchmarking:
15 Highest PLG EV / NTM Multiples:
15 Biggest PLG Stock Gainers (1 month):
Complete Notorious PLG Dataset (click to zoom):
Note: TTM = Trailing Twelve Months; NTM = Next Twelve Months. Rule of 40 = TTM Revenue Growth % + FCF Margin %. GM-Adjusted CAC Payback = Change in Quarterly Revenue / (Gross Margin % * Prior Quarter Sales & Marketing Expense) * 12. Recent IPOs will have temporary “N/A”s as Wall Street Research has to wait to initiate converge.
Recent PLG Financings (Private Companies):
Fixie, a company that aims to connect text-generating models to an enterprise’s data, systems and workflows, has raised $17M. The round was led by Redpoint Ventures, with participation from Madrona, Zetta Venture Partners, SignalFire and Bloomberg Beta.
Macro, a cloud-based documentation software designed to manage all legal and financial documents, has raised $9.4M at a $39.4M valuation. The round was led by Andreessen Horowitz, with participation from Cooley, BoxGroup, Third Kind Venture Capital, The Legal Tech Fund, Craft Ventures and Basement Fund.
Videowise, a video review application designed to automate product reviews for online stores, has raised $3M. The round was led by Slack Fund, with participation from Ratio Ventures, Founder Collective, Mu Ventures and Underline Ventures.
Anvil, a paperwork automation platform designed to facilitate the digital document management process, has raised $10M. The round was funded by Gradient Ventures and Craft Ventures.
Perplexity, an artificial intelligence-based search engine platform designed to provide large language models and search engines, has raised $25.6M at a $125.6M valuation. The round was led by New Enterprise Associates, with participation from Databricks Ventures.
Hygraph, a Berlin-based "federated" content management startup, has raised $29.51M. One Peak led the round, with participation from OpenOcean and SquareOne.
DataDome, a provider of bot protection services for mobile apps, websites and APIs, has raised $42M. The round was led by InfraVia Growth, with participation from Elephant and ISAI.
Fetch.ai, an AI-focused crypto protocol, has raised $40M. The round was led by DWF Labs.