Seattle-based Coffee achieved something every entrepreneur dreams of — establishing a new culture and becoming the leading provider in their own industry. According to CSIMarket Starbucks market share is whopping 10.5% in Restaurant category.
Starbucks boasts impressive stats:
- Owns 39.8% share of US Coffee Market
- Earns $24,72 billion worldwide
- Has 29,324 stores worldwide in 72 countries
- Over 14,000 cafes in United States / over 27,000 worldwide
- Conducts over 90 million transactions per week
- So popular in China, a new store opens every 15 hours
- Following McDonald’s as the most valuable fast food brands worldwide (valued at $44.5 billion)
Table of Contents
It will be very hard to achieve something Starbucks did since 1971 when the company started. There’s a lot of firsts when it comes to the company. First to introduce the new coffee culture, the first privately owned company which offered all their employees health insurance AND the share of the company.
The CEO, Howard Schultz, who might even run for president at some point, achieved something that is almost impossible — appeal to shareholders, employees, and customers at the same time.
THE BACKSTORY: Prologue
The coffee culture in the United States before the 80s was nonexistent. Americans were used to huge cans of pre-grinded coffee and they couldn’t care less about the flavor. Even if you’d go outside your household to a dinner you would be met with a generic drip coffee or styrofoam cups of foul tasting joe at the workplace. No-one even thought about the flavor, the origin or anything more sophisticated tied to the drink.
The 70s coffee culture didn’t exist at all.
Coffee Brands in the 1960s | Source
In 1970 three college friends: Gordon Bowker, Jerry Baldwin, Zev Siegl went into the coffee business together. They set up a shop and sold roasted bean. They received the knowledge from a man named Alfred Peet (if that rings a bell, yes he is the owner of Peet’s Coffee). Alfred was one of the most knowledgeable people in the country about coffee. He knew where to source it, how to roast it. He was the first to introduce dark roasted and french roasted beans.
“He knew the coffee industry inside-out, especially the gourmet end. He was the most educated guy in the country at that time.” — Zev Siegl Click To Tweet
The name Starbucks stuck because it’s easy to say, impossible to misspell, and has a vaguely British overtone to it. Really, we picked it because our lawyer called and told us we had to submit papers and needed a name. We didn’t know at the time, but Starbuck is the name of the first mate on the Pequod in Moby Dick. That might explain the siren logo. Some might even say it comes from Mount Rainier’s Mining company Starbo. According to Gordon Bowker, they were initially going for the name Cargo House Coffee.
In 1971, the three friends opened the roastery and bean shop in Pike’s Place, Seattle’s famous tourist destination known for the Pike’s Public Market Center. Peet helped the young entrepreneurs by providing them with beans and connecting them with reliable bean providers.
The business was successful enough for the trio so they opened 4 more shops in Seattle. However, no coffee drinks were being served. This was still a roasted bean retail shop intended for home use.
At that time Starbucks was competing against instant coffee cans. The quality was stark and thus the business went well. Things were about to change when the founders hired the head of marketing and sales, Howard Schultz in 1982.
CHAPTER 1: The Inclination for Grit and Determination Fix Social Injustice
Howard Schultz was a child raised in poverty. After seeing his father injuring himself doing grueling manual labor, he decided he wanted to get rid of the injustice of the working class. An idea of creating and striving for an environment where employees are fairly compensated and taken care of has been set in.
In Masters of Scale interview with Reid Hoffman, Schultz described seeing his father stretched out on the sofa after suffering an injury. Howard Schultz swore to himself to make a company his father had never worked for.
“I saw my father losing his sense of dignity and self-respect. I am sure that this was caused mostly by the fact that he has been treated as an ordinary working man.” – Howard Schultz, AstrumPeople article
Schultz started working at the age of 12 selling newspapers. Since he was being athletic, Howard earned an athletic scholarship at Northern Michigan University where he received his Bachelor’s degree in Communications in 1975.
After his graduation, Howard Schultz spent three years as a sales manager at Xerox, and then he started working at a Swedish company Hammarplast, where he was selling home appliances, including coffee grinders to businesses like Starbucks.
The Starbucks founder trio took him amidst to grow the company.
In 1983, Howard Schultz gets an epiphany. He travels to Milan, Italy for some sort of conference and what he sees there changes his perception of coffee forever. In certain European countries, especially Italy, coffee was one of the more important things in life. It served as a social lubricant and the third place of dwelling between home and work. Schultz discovered what it means to have a high-quality espresso served in a proper way in a relaxed environment.
Howard Schultz in Sweden, 1984 | Source
He was determined to bring this piece of coffee culture back to the United States. The founders gave in after continuous pressure from Schultz to open an espresso bar. Eventually, they gave him an opportunity to open up a coffee bar inside a store. It was incredibly popular. But the owners didn’t want to turn the coffee retail business into a cafe.
From the archives of Fortune Magazine | Source
“After Milan I flew back to the United States, excited to share what I experienced. But my bosses, the first founders of Starbucks, for whom I had tremendous respect, did not share my dream of re-creating the coffee bar experience in Seattle. I was crushed, but my belief was so powerful that, in April 1986, I left Starbucks and raised money from local investors to found my own retail coffee company. I named it Il Giornale after Milan’s daily newspaper.
In 1985 Howard Schultz opened his own cafe chain – Il Giornale. He wanted to pursue the dream and went back to Starbucks owners and offered to buy all 6 stores that were operational at that time. With the help of raised venture capital he succeeded and became the CEO after the successful acquisition with $3.6M.
The hyper growth began.
Key Takeaway #1 The determination and unrelenting belief to change the current situation is not just a helpful attribute but a prerequisite for cultural change. Staying true to the “one thing” without flinching will be the cause and the driver of change.
CHAPTER 2: “An Old Product in the New Market”
I’ll go a little on a limb here, but you can see examples of this everywhere. Whenever something works out in incredible scale in one market, there’s a potential of seeing it succeed in a new one. This is called introducing an old product to a new market.
For example, Uber and Lyft built an incredible business about ride-sharing. Because they have to contain the growth before they are spread too thin, that gives the opportunity to copy-cats in different markets. In the United Arab Emirates, you have Careem (just recently acquired by Uber), in Slovenia and Croatia you’ve got have Cammeo and in India, you’ve got sRide.
After something experiences great success, there is only a matter of time before someone else sees the potential and brings it back to the new market and starts eating out the market share
Coffee was a big opportunity in the United States at that time. Howard Schultz saw it with his own eyes how effective and important it is in Italy and he knew he could do something similar in the United States. To perform a similar innovative (for the new market) service you would need to take the entire concept and localize it to the new market.
Even the trends from 2004 to this day shows an upward trend of coffee:
This go-to-market product strategy was first introduced In 1957 by Russian American mathematician and business manager Igor Ansoff. The Ansoff Matrix was published in Harvard Business Review in the article “Strategies for Diversification”. In his opinion, there are only two ways to develop a growth strategy — varying what is sold (product growth) and to whom it is sold to (market growth).
The Ansoff Matrix | Source
Market Development — New Market, Existing Product
The Starbucks go-to strategy was to bring the already established product in different cultural and geographical space into the new market — the coffee-culture deprived United States.
Howard Schultz’s task was to closely observe how Italians treat the product and figure out a way to bring it home with minor changes. It was impossible to expect that the new market is going to slurp macchiatos from tiny espresso cups but everyone could understand comfort and better quality. That was going to be Starbucks’s trump card.
Market Penetration — Old Market, Old Product
The most obvious strategy is to sell the existing product to the existing market. With this concept there’s a little risk since the companies don’t have to educate the market with the new product, however, the growth is inhibited by competition or the decreasing trends.
Diversification – New Market, New Product
By far the riskiest approach is introducing a new product in new markets. Not only the product needs to provide clear values, but it also has to educate its use in the new market.
Imagine bringing augmented reality technology in a country where there’s no practical use for it yet. Since there’s a great risk, it can also result in amazing success where you’re the only provider in the blue ocean market.
Most of the startups are banking on this strategy.
Product Development – Old Market, New Product
This strategy is most often used by established brands who are already known as leaders in their field. If a washing machine company introduces a new technology that also folds your clothes after washing and drying, that would be much easier to understand and adapt to their existing users.
Key Takeaway #2: When developing the new market, learn as much as possible about the product itself in the location where it’s mostly used and established. Identify all the major benefits and think of the most significant values that would succeed in the new market.
CHAPTER 3: Eco-Conscious, People Friendly, and Bringing In the Money — Starbucks’ Triple balancing act
Howard Schultz had an idea to build something that is almost impossible to imagine and can exist only in Utopia. From the start, he wanted to serve with equal importance towards customers and employees.
This is almost impossible to achieve since on one end the business investors want to see money coming in, which in most cases means lean running staff with lower wages and higher priced products. The staff, or “partners” as Howard Schultz calls its employees, are not only compensated a fair wage (between $10 to $15/hour according to Glassdoor) but also have healthcare insurance and discounted stock options for company shares.
Howard went even further, offering full tuition coverage through Arizona State University’s online degree program.
This idea was most likely outrages to shareholders. Everyone will get a piece of the company’s pie?
“The management isn’t about being more efficient all the time, but it’s also being more humane at the same time” — Peter Drucker
Striving for workplace quality for the employees was thus one of the main values the CEO implemented in the company.
The interesting analogy is the Jordan Peterson’s theory of order and chaos (yin and yang) where one side represents the profit that company must achieve by ruthlessly cutting back the cost in the workforce and the other side where the conscience of doing the right thing for your people brings satisfaction and peace to the workplace which is a proven necessity for customer-facing businesses.
Key Takeaway #3: Treat your people well. When you’re in the service industry the customer satisfaction and treatment is at times more important than the actual product. And happy employees make happy clients.
CHAPTER 4: The Product
To coffee drinkers, there are not a lot of things more important than a good coffee in the morning or during the day. While in today’s standards Starbucks drinks aren’t at the level of barista artisans and coffee aficionados. On the contrary, many smug noses scrape the ceiling even when someone mentions Starbucks. But when the shops started opening in the early 70s, 80s and 90s, the espressos and lattes were vastly different than all the other stuff people were drinking.
Coffee is generally roasted in three ways: light, medium or dark, depending on the time dedicated to the coffee beans’ roasting.
In a light roast, you would notice a fruity and acidic taste. Coffee beans are actually considered fruit and are sometimes called cherries. That is the reason you taste light roast as acidic with fruit notes.
In Medium roast, the coffee tastes the sweetest. The glucose levels reach the point where the glucose starts to break. Coffee roasters would say the medium roast is the most balanced since it’s not bitter nor acidic but something in between.
In dark roast, you can taste the bitterness due to burned beans.
Coffee Quality Comparison
Starbucks predominantly uses dark roast coffee which also represents the majority of the coffee that is being consumed in North America. As mentioned, the coffee quality was much better than instant abominations in the early 80s; however, it definitely cannot measure up to artisan roasters.
There are two main reasons:
1— Dark roast is cheaper and can be produced in mass quantities. Similarly to green tea, the light roast-worthy beans are grown in shady, high-altitudes where it produces the most sweetness. High-quality matcha (powdered green tea leaves) is intentionally kept in the shade so it produces more photosynthesis and better taste. Since Starbucks has to supply tens of thousands of shops, they have to bring the mass supply to the cafes. Brian Stoffel from El Toledo roastery in Costa Rica says: “It would be financially stupid for a large chain to buy high-quality coffee beans and use them for dark roast coffee.”
Which brings us to…
2— The coffee has to taste the same across the cafes to guarantee uniformity. With dark roast, the flavors of the beans are getting covered up in the same way as overseasoning a dish or overcooking a steak.
But it wasn’t just about the coffee alone. The branding kicks in and people pay for something they want to eventually become. Drinking Starbucks drinks meant they are sophisticated, culturally progressive individuals who enjoyed the premium experience of coffee-drinking culture from fashionable Milano streets.
The slim and elegant takeaway cups proudly wore the green siren logo so the passers-by noticed the person drinking that exact coffee. These cups were different than styrofoam cups in the office or fast food joints.
The similar tactic was used by Apple with the launch of iPods and white earbuds. The iPod was a cool new gadget you had to wear to be relevant in modern society. Apple made it in such a way that people noticed which users had iPods — because they plugged white earbuds into them.
This was a genius idea because the users were immediately differentiated from other less-cool mp3 gadget-using people. Secondly, this was a perfect silent word-of-mouth strategy. If local influencers were seen using white earbuds, everyone else wanted to get on that trend. This strategy is viral in concept and is used by many companies; however, it’s harder to implement it on a distinctive level.
Later on, Starbucks adapted to the marketing with something called “horizontal offer”. It wasn’t just about the dark roast and espresso shots. Young budding students wanted something sweet and mocha just hit the note between coffee and rich chocolate fudge. Why not having both in one product?
Later on, Starbucks started offering teas and snacks. Snack is bringing in a substantial amount of revenue. The shops are using the display of sweet pastry or savory egg sandwiches like any expert pastry shop in Europe. And there are not many people who can resist a croissant or a blueberry muffin with their americano or latte.
Blueberry muffin (life hack – offer to split the muffin with your date) | Source
The food is bringing in more than 20% of all revenue. The pasty was the start, but the company followed up with offering breakfast sandwiches. By 2021, they want to introduce whole meals which will be available “to go”. The adaptation to the market goes even further.
With the recent diet trends in health and fitness, Starbucks has you covered with gluten-free, protein-rich snacks so even your most obnoxious Californian friend has something to show down the throat without having a smirk reaction.
With all the addition and expansions to serve a larger audience, it’s inevitable to create resistance groups who blame Starbucks as a commodity coffee provider. And they would be right, it has become that because their system of sourcing beans has to ensure the stock supplies for thousands of shops. But by becoming the main coffee dealer to the masses all the micro-roasters and man-bun wearing, tattoo-sleeved barista artists can fall on their knees and thank the mighty green Siren for creating a market for them.
The need for coffee has increased substantially with the introduction of better coffee, so it created another pocket of niche providers of premium roasted bean roasters.
The Price of a Cup
Most of the coffee shops live well because they can afford hefty margins. An 80% markup is a standard in the coffee business, especially on the higher-end brews. According to the Small Business Development Center’s 2012 report, food costs take up about 15 percent of revenues on average. The average coffee shop then has a gross margin of 85 percent.
Starbucks margins must be pretty loaded then since they buy tons of coffee from a few sources. According to Coffee Makers USA, the actual coffee in a grande Starbucks cappuccino costs about 31 cents.
Breakdown of the profit per latte sold. | Source
For a commodity product such as coffee, Starbucks drinks are quite up there on the more expensive tier ranging from $2.15 for a tall drip to $5.95 for a seasonal frappuccino concoction. But taking into consideration the physical positioning (Chapter 5 — Coffee Locations), paying off employees and staff the actual margin per coffee sold are 7%.
Historically, Starbucks has been raising the prices per cup over the years. Since it has poured a lot of equity into maintaining the brand image, they can afford to have a steeper price than their competitors (McDonald’s and Dunkin Donuts). Instead of losing the price-sensitive customers, Starbucks differentiates itself from before-mentioned companies and thus keeping the brand image of a premium java provider.
However, as Tucker Dawson from PriceIntelligently mentions, the prices aren’t increased across the whole product offering. The high-margin items have stayed the same.
Diversification of Revenue
By having a strong and recognizable brand, the company can afford to put out merchandise. Starbucks holiday-themed mugs and localized artwork on them are a big part of the exposure. The merch cabinets and tables are usually near the counters or areas where there’s a longer dwelling time.
The revenue isn’t coming just from the beverages alone. Starbucks did an amazing job of offering non-caffeinated beverages including kids drinks and teas which were introduced after partnerships or acquisitions of Tazo and Teavana.
Once the market is established you switch from market development to market innovation role. Starbucks started to diversify its products and pushed them in retail space and also added teas. | Source
The big drivers are also snack, wholesale beans, before-mentioned merch, and coffee equipment.
Key Takeaway #4: While the product is one of the key components of a successful business think about the potential upgrades of it. Keeping the core you can diversify the offering (and acquire new revenue channels) by expanding into different verticals but staying inside your core company values.
CHAPTER 5 – Experience is More Important That The Product Itself
With a distinctive brand identity, Starbucks shops are easily recognizable anywhere in the World. For a global brand, this is one of the mandatory element. As seen by Trader Joe’s, each franchise is slightly different than the other — Starbucks in the posh downtown area will have a different feel than the one on Student campus or at an airport.
The typical Starbucks Experience | Source
But each store follows certain guidelines which are prescribed. In tech and startups, product development follows a concept called minimal acceptance criteria. In other words, what are the lowest common denominators the dev team need to do before it can be rolled out as a published version.
For Starbucks Cafes, even though the store managers have a certain freedom to run and maintain the facility, they have to ensure to deliver the core Starbucks qualities.
- Indie playing music
- Comfortable (community) tables for remote work
- Reliable wireless connection
- Charging Outlets
These shouldn’t just be taken for granted. People love some sense of predictability in their lives. How many times have you been on a lookout for Starbucks when visiting a new country just to take advantage of their wi-fi connection and use of restroom? From that perspective, Starbucks serves as a transactional facility offering other services which don’t have much to do with coffee (besides the fact that coffee gets your bowels moving).
The main idea is, coffee is not the product that is being sold at Starbucks cafes — the whole thing is a social experiment of creating a meeting place between people. It serves as some sort of oasis for meeting up with friends, having a snack and a cup of coffee in a comfy chair while listening to the latest Indie playlists. These little sensory rewards coupled with personalized customer service re-confirm the Trader’s Joe mantra: “we’re in the people’s business.” Starbucks is less in the coffee business as is in people’s business as well.
“It’s not Starbucks coffee you are getting, it’s the Starbucks experience. “
By calling your name and writing it on the cup, it doesn’t just inform the customer that their drink is ready. It allows a more personalized service since we love hearing and seeing our name (even though it’s never spelled correctly).
SMELLS AND SOUNDS
Chances are when you go to Starbucks you don’t ever hear the music. But it plays an important role nevertheless. Starbucks playlists are carefully curated to help create that ambiance of a neighborhood coffee shop.
It has been a piece of the Starbucks experience for over 40 years already. The songs and tracks are carefully curated way ahead of the time. These handcrafted playlists usually consist of indie, feel-good songs, pop, alt-country to season-themed or even classical playlists during holidays.
In 1999, Starbucks even acquired a Bay Area music store to launch its own branded coffeehouse and later on, even a record label. In the early 2000s, Starbucks sold CDs in the store until the format decline. In 2016, Starbucks partnered with Spotify. Through the mobile app integration, Spotify plays music as part of the app. In-store listeners can take a look inside to identify the artists and save the tracks to their playlists.
Holly Hinton and David Legry, the in-house music curators, are responsible for what gets played. What sounds like the best job in the world, it actually is. Their sole work is searching for the right tracks and artists that they can see are fit to be played in the coffee shop.
In an interview with Fast Company, Holy Hinton said:
“We want our customers to walk in and have a ‘What’s that song?’ moment. We want them to hear interesting, cool music that they might not hear when they turn the radio on. It’s music that we think is cool and would sound beautiful in the coffee shop. It’s the music that we’d want to hear on Sunday morning when we’re reading the paper and drinking coffee. It’s a friend-to-friend personal. And we’re lucky to be able to be a part of that.”
To localize the experience, every region is slightly customized regarding the music, while still carrying the same vibe Starbucks customers are used to. This way, whenever a customer comes to the cafe, within the first few seconds, they feel accustomed based on the music alone.
The Interior Design
The design of the shop confirms the neighborhood areas. Similarly, as Trader Joe’s, the Starbucks cafe’s become neighborhood go to places.
But it goes beyond that. Every piece of furniture and interior is carefully planned to conform to the standards of the homey coffee place.
To get their store right, Starbucks interviewed hundreds of coffee drinkers to get as much information which they could use to build a perfect coffee shop. The overwhelming consensus actually had nothing to do with coffee; what consumers sought was a place of relaxation, a place of belonging.
If we go back to Howard Schultz’s deciding moment from the Milanese coffee shops, it shows he managed to do just that. Create a community space as a second home. It’s somewhere where people meet, it’s where you can take someone for a first date or even get some work done at the large community table.
In the book Starbucked, freelance journalist Taylor Clark claims, that “The round tables in a Starbucks store were strategically created in an effort to protect self-esteem for those coffee-drinkers flying solo. After all, there are no “empty” seats at a round table.”
If we looked at the interior, the counters, chairs, and wardrobes are built out of natural materials like warm woods and stone. In some stores, you would find cozy armchairs as well. With Shared Planet initiative they doubled down with environmental sustainability in mind and employing local craftsmen to do the job. The stores are built from reused and recycled materials wherever possible.
Most of the new stores that are being built are a part of the LEED Certification program (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design).
Starbucks differentiates from three general looks with the addition of concept designs:
- Heritage coffee houses reflect the history of the place where the store is located. At the Pike Place, the coffee shop reflects the merchant trading roots with worn wood, stained concrete or tiled floors, metal stools and factory-inspired lighting. Even more sophisticated is the New Orleans inspired coffeehouse showing the rich music history.
- A “Louisian merchant in the early 1900s” inspired heritage coffeehouse with vintage trombones light fixtures. Located in French Quarter, New Orleans. | Source
- Artisan stores echo the industrial past of urban markets, taking inspiration from the Modernism of the 1930s. This motif celebrates simple materials like exposed steel beams, masonry walls, factory casement glass, and hand-polished woodwork in a creative gathering place for culture and the arts.
Starbucks Artisan store in University Village, Seattle | Source
- Regional Modern are localized stylized coffee shops. The interior is spacious. comfortable and welcoming. The bright, loft-like, light-filled spaces punctuated with regionally inspired furniture and culturally relevant fabrics to create a calm and contemporary respite from the clamor of the fast-paced world.
Regional-inspired Starbucks store in Copenhagen, Denmark | Source
- Experimental — with growth and a plethora of locations comes more daring and innovative designs. Unique designs such as the reimagined drive-thru in Colorado, the Swiss Train contemporary mobile coffee space from Geneva Airport to St. Gallen or one of the beautiful Shinto shrine-inspired coffee shops in Japan
To combat the upscale coffee market which ironically has to thank Starbucks for creating a fertile grounds of demand for premium coffee, Starbucks started opening up so-called Starbucks Reserve stores. These are luxurious, beautiful and magnificent stores where they roast premium, rare beans and experiment with different brewing techniques.
Source: unsplash.com by RR Abrot
CNN Money described the store concept as “an open, marketplace-style” with a Princi bakery counter, a full liquor bar, and a Reserve coffee bar, with tables, lounge areas and two fireplaces.
“Our Reserve store takes the best of coffee craft as well as artisan baking and layers in a marketplace-style customer experience creating a space that has both energy and moments of intimacy,” — Liz Muller, VP of Creative, Global Design & Innovation at Starbucks
Coffee Shop Locations
In any high-traffic area in the city where Starbucks is located, you almost have a feeling their shops are everywhere. You would be partially right — Starbucks are strategically located in areas with high appeal. In big cities, you almost have a feeling someone carpet-bombed the stores in the downtown area. Similarly, as Walgreens chose the concept of the convenience store, always located in an area of larger foot-traffic
Source | A snapshot of Starbucks shops in Seattle, 3/2019
Arthur Rubinfeld who is responsible for Starbucks’ location selection, explained there are about 20 or so analytic experts around the world who are assessing different factors of the appropriate area for the new Starbucks shop.
KEY Takeaway #5 Think beyond the product and identify what else can you do for the customer to add you in their daily, weekly routine. Customer support excellence is mandatory, so think further and in the direction of the place’s ambiance including smells and sounds.
CHAPTER 6: Breaking down the Brand and Messaging
Bill Macaitis, former CMO of Slack said it best – “The brand is the sum of all customer touchpoints your customers have with you at any point”. With the food and beverage category, this is even more important.
By introducing and creating a culture of coffee drinking, Starbucks had a major opportunity to create intimacy with the customer. In Italy, coffee culture is a part of every day and the same culture was slowly getting familiar to the new audience (just like Borgs slowly assimilate Captain Kirk).
Because of the personal nature of coffee and frequency of visits, this relationship-bonding happened much faster than in other fast-food joints, especially since in the early years of Starbucks there was no competition.
Brand and Product
The bright white cups with the green siren is the first noticeable brand. But it goes beyond that. You will notice that Starbucks never offers any sort of discounts or actions like buy-one-get-one-free. That’s sort of action dilutes the premium feel of the brand. You can get a free coffee drink for your birthday, but the underlying reason for that is for a customer to develop a positive connection with the brand and company.
The MVP of the regular Starbucks coffee shop can be broken down:
☕Free reliable Wifi – besides oxygen, water, and sleep, the online connection has become a necessity in modern civilization. If you think about it, the coffee shop without wifi is like a local watering hole without beer. Whenever you’re in a new place and you need to connect, one of the first options would be a Starbucks shop.
☕Comfortable seats and community tables – whether you’re there to take a breather or putting some hours of online work or organizing an impromptu study group, there’s a Starbucks location that can provide those demands. Most of the Starbucks are generously equipped with charging outlets as well, so you can get another drink after your focus is starting to drop… and then another… And another…
☕Friendly baristas – customer service is ingrained in the retail work description yet rarely done the right way. With L.A.T.T.E. method (Chapter 8 – Discipline Action) and general training of Starbucks partners, each interaction with the customer is there to provide a positive experience. Calling people by their name, timely service and the patience of crafting ridiculously complex/obnoxious drink orders (“half caramel, half vanilla latte, decaf espresso heated only to 100° with nonfat milk and caramel drizzle on top” anyone?)
☕Brand colors and materials — the nature-influenced interior with dark colors and wood finishes are giving a feel of hominess. Sometimes a Starbuck visit is just a pause you take in a day to relax your eyes.
☕Music and smells — coffee and snacks just smell amazing. Let’s take that for granted. The music serves a purpose as well as bringing an ambiance that is great for having a conversation or focusing on work (or your date).
Key Takeaway #6 The brand is the sum of all touchpoints the customer has with the company. This goes beyond the product and customer service. Think about every single interaction customers have with you and make them positive.
CHAPTER 7: Starbucks Master Example of Mobile Retention and App Rewards
Starbucks mastered the mobile game at the right time. Dabbling with mobile technology since 2007, Adam Brotman spearheaded the platform to maximize the effect. The big challenge was to align it with the brand.
“We don’t look at mobile in a vacuum. We have an overall digital strategy that’s all about building relationships with our customers, and that strategy runs across a number of digital touch points. We’re looking at mobile, Web and social to think more holistically about how we engage with our customers and tell our story.” — Adam Brotman, Chief Digital Officer
In the Manifest survey in 2018, 500 smartphone owners rated their satisfaction using food apps. Starbucks had the most popular and regularly used loyalty rewards app — 48% of users used it on a daily basis.
The mobile switch paid dividends with time. Instead of support and enhancing physical visits to the store, the channel began bringing in 23% of all the revenue.
Ordering ahead of time and User Experience
For a food mobile app to be successful, it must bring value to the user, be easy or even fun to use and it should have an entertaining, dynamic content.
User-friendly – This is the most minimal and easiest thing to leverage on. With a strong brand, it should not be hard to create an appealing visual interface and create logic flow and transitions or continuation to the desired action.
When it comes to designing for a major brand who literally sees millions of eyes every day, there’s no room for mistakes. The design has to adhere to rules of the brand, achieve a consistent visual look and continuity across all touchpoints.
The mobile app design is no different than the rest of the materials Starbucks uses.
Chase Bratton, the product designer at Starbucks, explained the Android redesign functionality.
Out of this world Personalized experience
When the Starbucks app is down so I gotta order at the counter like it’s the dark ages 🙄
— Braedi Zielinski (@braedi) February 28, 2019
Ordering and paying ahead of time
User experience (This is a must, it must be easy to use and appealing to look at)
Digital Engagement paid tremendous dividends for the company
Starbucks CFO Scott Maw said almost all of the company’s same-store sales growth has come from customers that have digital relationships with the company and those that are in the Starbucks Rewards program.
This is the minimal and easiest thing to leverage on. With a strong brand, it should not be hard to create an appealing visual interface and create logic flow and transitions or continuation to the desired action.
Engaging Loyalty Program
Retention is the name of the game. If a customer trusts you well enough to download your app, you have a unique opportunity to convert him or her to be a regular user.
Starbucks has a similar strategy with the reward system. Every day there’s a slight reward, whether it’s collecting points or showing the current mouth-watering warm drink inside the app. It’s sticky and you can’t help but wish for a warm beverage.
Mobile pay and ordering
North American market is known for heavy mobile use. By prepaying and using the device to quickly go through the ordering process, the customers feel more efficient and slightly more an advantage than the other poor souls who still buy their coffee with credit cards or cash (losers!!!!).
Integration with other platforms and services
Partnerships are ways to get tons of new users with one big swoop. Spotify acquired one million users a few days after partnering with Facebook (Source) and Facebook had one sexy product update from it as well. For similar reasons, Starbucks used Spotify to enrich the experience of the mobile app.
Now playing highlight in Starbucks stores (Music is a big part of the brand and having perennial “Shazam” embedded brings seemingly insignificant, yet positive experience.
UX/UI — Breaking Down the Mobile App Design
Out of this world Personalized experience
The app remembers your favorite order (This is ingenious. We’ve mentioned how coffee for Java bean drinkers represent a daily habit – if Starbucks manages to infiltrate itself into your habit loop, they’ve won. They have become a part of your daily routine. Stacy always stops at the same drive-through Starbucks, orders her Grande Latte with Soy Milk at 6:15 am before she checks-in at her job. When that’s her daily or even only a few time per week routine, the LTV for that kind of customer is absolutely amazing!)
Every little detail counts. For instance, here’s the customized greeting each time a user opens the app’s Home tab.
Now playing highlight in Starbucks stores (Music is a big part of the brand and having perennial “Shazam” embedded
Most addictive phone games always give you something to do if you’re not using it for a while. From Candy Crush Saga to Supercell’s engineered mobile drugs like Clash of Clans and Boom Beach, the mechanics of engagement are carefully predicted for maximum time and cash spend. These games start with low difficulty. They are fun, colorful and offer an entertaining introduction to its mechanics. But you can play all day, and after a while (on a free tier) you’re locked out of the game.
To continue playing, you can either (literally) buy your time or increase your chances of success with extra loot, power levels or something similar.
Starbucks uses a similar principle of gamifying their mobile apps. There’s a lot of value up front (pay with a card, skip the line, earn credits for free drinks) but it serves the company’s profit. You get hooked to those stars (credits) which are stacking in your beautifully designed mobile app.
Yes, there are levels on Starbucks app. | Source
There are also challenges for extra Starbucks points (who can say no to double credit days?)
Through the app, Starbucks gets you to try new products (and thus incentivize a range of products you are consuming AND it gives the company an opportunity to increase the average order revenue per customer.
There’s a thin line between being overbearing and being just enough engaging. And at the same time, they have to be very strategic on the number of features offered. Sean Ellis, the OG Growth hacker said the product is ready to ship once all the unnecessary features are taken away (kind of the same mentality as per good design). Luckily with MILLIONS of users, Starbucks can apply some Data Science magic and figure those timings for every type of person.
Personalization goes even further – it tries to give a similar experience as to visiting the store (source)
STARBUCKS LOYALTY PROGRAM on triple-caffeine nitro power
The Starbucks Rewards are dead simple – the more you spend the more stars you get. The mo’ money, mo’ honey approach quickly identifies a segment of customers that are willing to spend more for their coffee/Starbucks addiction.
The Rewards program besides the stars, offers birthday rewards, phone payments, paying ahead, free in-store refills (I WANT MOAR KOFFEE) and special offers and events for members. As expected the experience is personalized for each user.
The Rewards work like gangbusters! More than 14.2 million active members in the U.S. are invested in the loyalty program and the mobile strategy has seen an 11% growth in users in Q2 2018. The gamification of the program and “spend more, earn more” in some cases represent 39% sales of the entire chain.
Here’s what’s ingenious about the mobile program. Even though there are people (like myself) who prefer to have the minimum number of apps on their phone and think thrice before opening the doors for the elite club on their smartphone storage, the Starbucks app is a trojan horse of benefits – even if you don’t care about collecting stars, it’s tough to say no to the free birthday drink or the convenient mobile pay.
Online Ordering and easy payments flatten the friction of getting the product. Just like the Amazon 1-click purchase or Slacks dope-sauce onboarding sequence, the same goes for picking up your mocha and Petite Vanilla Bean Scone. At first, Starbucks had some issues, since the mobile members had to wait in line just like regular chumps, but Starbucks responded by adding dedicated stations for mobile order-ahead customers.
Members can skip the waiting line and enjoy the jealous looks from the regular mortals while feeling elite of themselves.
The beauty of the app isn’t giving one big benefit of quicker caffeine shot to the member, but it serves as an ingenious upsell marketing tool. Just like Trader Joe’s introduces new products in their email newsletter and unique brochures (Fearless Flyers), Starbucks app is a delivery method for presenting new items ahead of time. These generate interest ahead of time and coupled with email notifications, it gives their customers something to look forward to.
Taking advantage of location-based triggers | Source
To keep the retention flat, the Rewards program has a “punishment” traits tied into it. If you’re not using the stars for visiting the cafes (and thus building your own routine) you start losing them. This psychological trick, known as The Endowment Effect, helps to nudge those people who are affected more about losing something they already have (uhmmm like all of us :)).
The Mobile part is one of the main drivers of customer retention and has proven to raise the average order size per customer. Since the frequency of orders and visits is so high, the LTV per customer contributes to that impressive double-digit growth in the first years.
Key Takeaway #7 Mobile app for a product that is being used on a daily basis and is in the lifestyle category is not a nice to have, but almost mandatory. If you want to stay a part of your customer’s daily lives, bring the entertainment, rewards, and gamification to keep the retention and customer satisfaction high. You will be rewarded with increased LTV.
Chapter 8: The Success Flywheel of Starbucks
The easiest way to figure out and identify the success of a company is to apply the try-and-true framework. Jim Collins, the author of Good to Great, Built to Last claims all mega-successful companies have to figure out the Flywheel principle.
To become an unstoppable juggernaut in its own field, Starbucks had to align 5-6 different elements in three categories:
- Disciplined People
- Level 5 Leadership
- First Who… Then What
- Disciplined Thought
- Face the Reality
- Hedgehog Concept
- Disciplined Action
- Culture of Discipline
- Leveraging the Technology
Imagine the concepts as drivers of one giant flywheel. Let’s say you’d want to move a giant stone wheel that sits on an axle. It would take a lot of effort to get it moving at first. After gaining speed it would need less and less power to keep it going. After gaining momentum, the same wheel would run on its own with little interaction. Just like the extremely simplified quote says; “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”
The Buildup phase
Disciplined People – Starbucks Level 5 Leadership
Excerpt from Good to Great -> “Level 5 leaders display a powerful mixture of personal humility and indomitable will. They’re incredibly ambitious, but their ambition is first and foremost for the cause, for the organization and its purpose, not themselves. While Level 5 leaders can come in many personality packages, they are often self-effacing, quiet, reserved, and even shy. Every good-to-great transition in our research began with a Level 5 leader who motivated the enterprise more with inspired standards than inspiring personality.”
There’s no doubt, Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz possesses the characteristics and personality traits of a Level 5 leader. The ambition alone to introduce a new cultural concept in a new market sounds incredibly daunting, but to play it right with the shareholders, customers and their own people sounds impossible.
But that was the initial idea, a moral standard. The mission statement of Starbucks is:
“to inspire and nurture the human spirit – one person, one cup and one neighborhood at a time.”
Let’s break this down into two pieces.
Inspire and nurture the human spirit.
The people, customers and the partners (staff) are the most important assets of any company. The first part of the mission statement explains that in a split-second. The relationships within the company have to be nurtured and supported while exuding warmth and friendliness.
Howard Schultz has shown respect for the mission by developing programs for their own people, which include free education, health insurance and even a share in the Starbucks company.
“One person, one cup and one neighborhood at a time.”
The second part stresses the importance of gradual improvement. Each interaction with a customer, each cup of coffee made hold a large amount of responsibility to deliver the right experience. The neighborhood part reminds the staff and the customers that the stores pay special respect and attention to the place where they are located.
Face the Reality — When stuff gets hard, leaders don’t turn away from the problem or worse, get busy with mundane tasks, deceiving themselves they are working. Closing your eyes to the reality means you’re on a great way to a downward spiral.
In 2008, Howard Schultz got reinstated by the board as CEO. The sales and shares were dropping. The brand and the culture of Starbucks were deteriorating rapidly. The magical experience was a shadow of its former self.
Schultz decided on a radical idea to close all the stores and retrain in order to inflict the importance of the Starbucks vision and mission. Tied into this transition was closing numerous shops and letting go of hundreds of employees. The ordeal cost the company 6 to 7 millions dollars.
In 2018, Starbucks closed the doors again in order to put the staff through racial anti-bias training. The temporary closure cost the company between $15 – $20 million dollars
But it was necessary and long needed. The company picked up from the bottom just like in Drake’s song and has been rapidly growing in the world’s map as well as on index stock charts.
The Hedgehog Concept
The term Hedgehog concept introduced by Collins is some sort of a marriage consisting of a Venn diagram and three major ideas. Jim Collins thinks that in order to have a chance to be the best in the world you have to possess all three:
- The Elite Skill – You will have to be the best in your area of expertise. Constant learning, innovating and moving the boundaries are expected from the movers and shakers of the world.
- Deep Passion – Someone who grows a business will eventually (and continuously) encounter major obstacles where the skill isn’t going to be enough. The grit, powered with a deep passion and a reason why is arguably even more important than the knowledge alone.
- Ability to generate revenue – Understanding of what drives the economic engine is the third piece of the puzzle that completes the concept. No business can survive without sustaining itself and its people financially.
Schultz possesses all three: the Stanford education armed him to become shrewd and dangerous in the business world with a deep understanding of the economic machine while he stayed in love with the company and continued to deeply care for its people and the customers.
The second part of the hedgehog concept is the sheer simplicity of your objective. When it comes to specializing and becoming the best in the world, you need one clear statement which completely prevails over all the others.
The hedgehog is the exact opposite of the fox concept. Foxes are cunning, smart and resourceful animals who take any opportunity to get ahead using any tactic they can think off. Yet when they encounter and attack the hedgehog, the hedgehog simply rolls up into a ball and protects itself with its spiky hide.
The hedgehog companies have one major driving goal that is ingrained as the cornerstone of its business. In Starbucks, it’s not the coffee quality, but it’s the deep desire to create an experience for their customers. Everything is tied into this.
Sometimes, achieving massive rapid growth for the growth sake reveals cracks in the system if it’s not solid. In 2008, when the company was on the decline, Schulz looked at the strategy of the past few years and, in a letter penned company-wide, explained that Starbucks had “invested in infrastructure ahead of the growth curve” and it was time to “shift our emphasis back onto customer-facing initiatives.”
Imagine, the Starbucks insane growth pace required to hire 1,500 new employees a week.
Culture of Discipline
The success of anything in our lives is in the hands of people. It always is the #1 element in any company.
“In determining the right people, the good-to-great companies placed greater weight on character attributes than on specific educational background, practical skills, specialized knowledge, or work experience.”
When the quality of the work started slipping. Schultz had to close down hundreds of shops for training day. It was a necessary decision to refocus, restructure and boost Starbucks employees to work and deliver on the right things and to deliver the experience as it was intended in the first place.
When faced with a difficult customer or a problem, the Starbucks partners (employees) are taught the customer service by using a L.A.T.T.E. system. The acronym helps baristas deal with any situation in the store.
- Listen to the customer
- Acknowledge the problem/situation
- Take actions and solve the problem
- Thank the customer
- Explain what you did
The simple system isn’t there just to provide clear guidelines but it also boosts motivation and willpower among employers. In the book, The Power of Habit, Charles Duhigg wrote that the LATTE system prevented the customer service meltdown, and sustained willpower throughout the day.
In the end, customer service is there to deliver and exceed the experience which is tied to the brand. Nothing is as important as to deliver the service. Trader Joe’s hires his crew with ingrained traits such as warm personality and friendliness, Lululemon trains their educators to be personable and serve more as personal assistants than sales reps, and Starbucks
“[Employees] are the true ambassadors of our brand, the real merchants of romance and theater, and as such the primary catalysts for delighting customers. Give them reasons to believe in their work and that they’re part of a larger mission, the theory goes, and they’ll in turn personally elevate the experience for each customer–something you can hardly accomplish with a billboard or a 30-second spot.” — Excerpt from book Onward, Howard Schultz
For a globally recognizable brand like Starbucks technology plays a major role in the expansion. The Starbucks app and the emails alone played a significant role in the company’s growth.
With 17 million daily active users (DAU) In the US, mobile orders and pay alone make up an astounding 27% of all transactions (3). Starbucks Rewards has 13 million active members (3). This extraordinary level of engagement on the mobile app and rewards program greatly increases Starbucks’s ability to collect data, and test and roll out targeted data-driven initiatives.
According to Collins, technology accelerators have to be carefully selected. Companies had to sift through the emerging technology, identify and select the right ones and gradually introduce them in the business model.
The Hedgehog Concept would drive the use of technology, not the other way around — Jim Collins
Companies that jumped the gun burned badly.
In fact, Jim Collins discovered that more than 80% of great companies didn’t rank technology as one of the top five ranking factors for success.
“Those that stay true to these fundamentals and maintain their balance, even in times of great change and disruption, will accumulate the momentum that creates breakthrough momentum. — Jim Collins
Down to the core, Starbucks has one secret ingredient to thank for — knowing their customers. Data analytics. According to Starbucks, this function uses “methodologies ranging from ethnography to big data analytics… that helps support Starbucks pricing strategy, real estate development planning, product development, trade promotion optimization, and marketing strategy.”
Starbucks contracts with a location-analytics company called Esri to use its technology platform that helps analyze maps and retail locations. It uses data like population density, average incomes, and traffic patterns to identify target areas for a new store.
The Crawl, Walk, Run Concept
The gradual introduction of technology is a part of the hedgehog concept. Technology is a major proponent to business growth however if it doesn’t tie into the one simple concept, the company has to be disciplined enough to say no to new opportunities.
Eventually, they can adapt the technology in their concept which turns the massive flywheel forward.
In Starbucks sense, they seem like they embrace technology. They started out with gift cards and pay-ahead mobile purchases. Next step was adding the Starbucks Rewards program to cultivate upsells and raise the LTV per customer. And today with big data, AI and predictable algorithms they maximize the relationship with the customers.
See what happens to the SBUX stock, when Starbucks introduces mobile app and rewards program that today brings 23% of the total revenue.
Key Takeaway #8 Successful companies that persevered and thrived with time have found and adopted the Flywheel concept. Focusing on essentials of the business, working with the right people on the right places and maintaining the discipline is the only way for continued sustainable growth.
CHAPTER 9: Starbucks Vs the World
Just as Lululemon Athletica carved its own niche in the marketplace as the premium athleisure retailer, so did Starbucks enjoy the blue ocean marketplace as premium coffee culture experience-provider. Not facing the competition while enjoying filling out the gap shoots you at the front immediately.
But as soon as competitors noticed Starbucks discovering a new opportunity they had to react quickly. McDonald’s and Dunkin’ Donuts were the big ones that introduced their own versions of coffee-to-go. Better than instant coffee and convenient while on the go, the two competitors did enjoy new revenue stream of introducing coffee; however, as companies, they had to keep the focus on what they are good at — McDonald’s with their fast food burgers and fries and Dunkin’ Donuts with well… donuts. DD does serve coffee but had no intention to put more emphasis on it until the late 1990s.
Starbucks kept the lead in coffee concept because of its focus on the coffee culture and holistic concept of their brand, especially customer service. This point can be seen as soon as you look at international markets. Dunkin’ Donuts’ international revenue in 2018 contributed less than 4% of total sales, while roughly 30% of Starbucks’ consolidated net revenues in the same period were attributed to markets outside America.
When International Expansion Goes Right
When you get it right and you know you have the brand, processes, and culture down, you can move outside. When Starbucks expanded its adopted “Coffee culture” to new markets they could follow its own tracks again. In many countries, especially Asian nations the idea of a coffee culture was new, fresh and exciting.
To overcome the culture gap, Starbucks sought partnership through direct investments and joint ventures instead of direct franchising. This solved two major problems.
First, they relied on local retailers who already had experience and experience in the local markets. They married the coffee culture idea with market research of the new areas to discover regional customers’ tastes and preferences. After that, they just had to deliver the employee training, workflows and the product itself.
Secondly, they acquired and absorbed the entire pieces of coffee markets, such as Coffee Partners in Thailand and Bonstar in Singapore. All in one big swoop.
But even today a Starbucks café is opened every 15th hour in China. It already operates more than 3,000 stores in China and plans to add 2,000 more by 2021. Seoul has the most Starbucks cafes in any city (284).
Starbucks is present in 6 continents and in more than 72 countries and territories. But it wasn’t always smooth sailing for the old Starbuck.
And when it doesn’t go so well
While Starbucks had amazing success in Asian countries, they hit a snag in Australia.
In 2008, they closed two-thirds of all stores.
Australia is already known as one of the hardest markets to get into in the first place and they are very proud of their coffee culture. The flat whites, coffee art in ceramic lattes have been served for dozens of years at beloved local cafes and from baristas who knew what they are doing.
What Starbucks was doing in the United States was introducing the coffee culture in the new market because it was non-existent before. But in Australia, this model didn’t fit in at all.
In 2008, Starbucks closed two-thirds of all the stores. The prices of Starbucks’ relatively common-tasting coffee (compared to established coffee shops) was pricier than the local solutions and managed by young students who didn’t have the level of appreciation of either the coffee culture and/or Starbucks as a brand.
Key Takeaway #9 Follow the winning formula of developing the markets first and turning into a product innovator after you have established yourself. Forcing the innovation where it’s not perceived as such, is waging a losing battle.
Bonus Chapter 10: Starbucks on Social Media
The website is simply designed with an intention to present the latest seasonal product in the Starbucks shops in the first fold. The focus of the homepage is also on advertising Starbucks Rewards program.
According to SimilarWeb, it attracts 15.8M visits per month, with an average of 2 minutes and 3.7 page views per session. Starbucks site is the 11th top ranked site for Food and Drink category in the world
The Youtube channel was established at the end of 2005. After 14 years it managed to acquire 211,000 subscribers, which isn’t’ that much if we take the size of the company into consideration.
The most successful videos are close to 10 million views; however, they are short, 15-seconds clips of the product. The channel moderators are not participating in the comment sections.
Luckily there’s not much competition on YouTube; however, as a highly visual channel, Starbucks could advertise their mobile app and Starbucks reward program using socially-conscious values, product innovation or sustainability programs.
On the other hand, Instagram is doing absolutely amazing. Naturally, since the best Starbucks customers are the ones who have been using their mobile devices for ordering and participating in the Starbucks Rewards program
Starbucks Instagram uses a mix of images and video clips mostly displaying their well-designed cups. The posts are mostly re-shared (“regrams”) of other Instagram users. With this tactic, Starbucks incentivizes UGC (user-generated content), since Instagram users have the chance to be regrammed and have their Starbucks shot seen by 17.4 million followers.
Pinterest is another great visual platform where images are split different categories: from coffee recipes, coffee photography to store designs and world recognized Starbucks cups.
Pinterest receives 5.9 million monthly views and has 369,000 followers.
Even though their daily support is dropping, Facebook is still being used as one of the channels where Starbucks shows its videos and posts.
On Facebook, Starbucks pays for mobile app downloads in the United States.
On Twitter, Starbucks shares its globally conscious ideas, news and stories about the company and the products. Twitter also serves as a chance to (as in Instagram) retweet other users’ posts.
Similarly as Slack used its “Wall of Love”, Starbucks likes to reshare the positive messages of happy users who had a positive experience at one of their stores
Since Starbucks success mainly lies in their visual branding, they use social media for their brand awareness and in a Facebook sense, pushing the mobile app downloads.
Key Takeaway #10 When using social media, identify which social media platform brings the best results. If your users are primarily on mobile devices, Instagram would be a smart choice. Delegate your resources to the best performing channel.
Starbucks has become a worldwide success by sticking to its hedgehog concept. The realization of being customer-centric in the practical, not just theoretical sense laid the foundation of expansion in North American markets as well as international ones.
When all of the decisions are catered into the concept of serving their customers, including using technology as accelerators, there’s nothing to worry about their future.
Your Mission and Main Objective
Hello, comrade. Your mission — should you choose to accept it — is to find out where and why our biggest competitor is pulling all that extra traffic. With competitor analysis, we want to know why it is so effective for them and how you can gain the upper hand. Good luck!
Alright, with the power of the internet and the competitive intelligence tools that come with it, there’s no excuse to thoroughly research our biggest competitors. The best thing about the online clandestine method is the fact that no-one will ever notice we’ve paid a visit.
Here you will find out 90% of the process I use before making a content strategy plan. First, you have to know who your competitors are before you meet them on the battlegrounds.
With Ghost Recon Competitor Analysis you will find out:
- The organizational structure of your competitors
- See what keywords, landing pages, and even creative assets your arch nemesis is using to advertise itself
- (legally) spy their real-time web analytics whenever you want
- Discover the most popular messages your evil overlord is using to connect with its audience
- Find opportunities to exploit in your own business to discover quick wins and intel for long-term planning
iSpionage (Paid Acquisition) — see what your competitor is spending on Google Ads (Link)
AdBeat (Paid Acquisition) — see exactly what kind of creatives your nemesis are using to advertise their brand (Link)
Buzzsumo (most popular content) — check what’s the most popular content in your industry (Link)
Vicinitas (Twitter) — scrapes the last 3,200 tweets from any Twitter handle (Link)
GrowthBot (Slack) — a nifty, light-weight Slack app by Dharmesh Shah. Ask it questions and you get an answer (Link)
SocialBlade (social) — Social media stats and analytics (Link)
CrunchBase — A bunch of public data such as acquisitions, press releases, and investments in one place. (Link)
SimilarWeb — web traffic, marketing channels and demographics. Your first tool before Nacho Analytics. (Link)
Ahrefs (SEO, Traffic) — The Swiss Army tool for SEO and Content. (Link)
Social Media Channels — doesn’t hurt to see what’s going on Social. Check the most popular content and look at organizational structure with LinkedIn Insights
GTmetrix — check the loading performance between you and your competitor. (Link)
Clearbit — Basic company data and a place to verify and enrich employee emails (Link)
PREP WORK – List your Competition
Insert top 5 companies which are direct competitors to your business. Pick one that is your arch nemesis a.k.a. your biggest rival (The Galaxy to your iPhone, the Burger King to your McDonalds, the Pepsi to your Coca-Cola, the Trojan to your Durex,..)
Your Company Website:
The Arch Nemesis Website
Don’t know who your competitors are? Please, close down your shop and get a 9-5 job… Click To Tweet
OK, seriously now… If you have trouble finding your direct competitors use the keywords for your main value proposition in Google search. This should show you the top results for that problem. Chances are your competitors are listed among them.
Check each competitor with SimilarWeb and Ahrefs to list them in order of mischievousness, I mean, traffic and domain strength. The Ahrefs’ quick batch analysis can do this in a few seconds
One of the tools you can use to monitor all 4-5 beside Ahrefs is SEranking.
1. Traffic and SEO of your Arch Nemesis
First things first. Let’s prepare and layout the players on the board.
1) Put your arch nemesis website into Nacho Analytics website.
2) Check the top Content of your main nemesis and copy it down (Buzzsumo)
3) Get the basic traffic, referrals and other marketing data using SimilarWeb
b) Geographic Data?
c) Main Channels
d) Top Referring Websites
4) Use CrunchBase to see what are the main PR statements and partnerships and/or acquisitions. Did they raise any money recently or have they partnered with a strong brand?
5) Ahrefs website analysis — one of the best tools for content research. We will be looking for the top pages, strong backlinks, traffic data to those pages. There are a bunch of others like Moz, SEMRush and Majestic, but I;m focusing on Ahrefs reports the most.
What are we looking for?
Were there any traffic spikes? Find out what those occasions are. Which are the top articles? Why are they so popular? Analyze the content.
Settle down, we will answer all of those questions 🙂
2. SOCIAL MEDIA OVERVIEW
- Use your Nemesis website and check the numbers on Social Blade.
- Check into LinkedIn (you will need Premium Account)
- How does the Organizational structure look like?
- What’s the employee distribution and who are the main hires? (L
Look for the video which is the most popular (All Videos > Sort By: Most Popular). What kind of video is it (Product, Tutorial, Ad?)
Going deeper into the data by using Social Blade will uncover even more nuggets.
When I was researching Jordan Peterson’s rise to the cultural icon I’ve noticed significant bumps in his YouTube channel subscriber growth.
If you look at those big fins in YouTube history, those are all either controversial appearances or guest appearances on big influencers podcasts.
How to find the most successful videos?
Look at the dates of those daily subscribers’ growth and manually find the corresponding videos on company-owned YouTube account.
Twitter isn’t dead and some companies which invested time building a follower base can enjoy extra exposure on this social media channel that doesn’t require a lot of resources.
To see exactly what kind of messaging worked the most, I do the following:
Scrape the last 3200 tweets using Vicinitas
Glance the analytics and note if anything pops out (usually it’s not important)
Export the tweets and order time by the number of favorites and number favorites.
Record the top 10 results
Do the same by the Top 10 Retweets (if different)
Neato burrito! Now you have top 10/top 100/top 3200 tweets that have been most shared or most retweeted.
3. CONTENT ANALYSIS
When it comes to content, Ahrefs is absolutely amazing. In a few clicks, you will find out the most popular content, their whole backlink profile (who is linking to them) and keywords they are ranking for.
For a free alternative, try Neil Patels’ recently acquired Ubersuggest web software.
The Main Overview
Content — Top Pages
Tells you how many pages are showing up for certain keywords on Google at this time. You can export them so you have the list. |
Analyze the best-performing sites on the webpage.
Keep in mind that the homepage will always have the most traffic. The second will probably be the product page. To analyze exactly what are their best content pieces make sure to enter the URL of their blog in the search bar i.e.: https://www.domo.com/blog/
Top Referring Domains
Referring domains tells you which website sources are linking to your nemesis website.
Export the top 1000 results and play around to see which ones you could potentially acquire.
It’s always interesting to see which are the most dominant sources that link to your competitor site. Why the heck can’t we get those juicy links as well?
Choose Group Similar and filter by DoFollow links. If there are more than 1,000 rows to export, introduce the traffic filter to get rid of the bulk of irrelevant backlinks (let’s say to cut off all the pages where the traffic is less than 100).
Export the whole thing and check it out.
Once you filter out the data, you should clearly which are the main sources that point into your nemesis website, where they are pointing to and what that content is.
Bonus: Link Intersect
Link Intersect allows you to see the backlinks your competitors are already having but you don’t.
For example, if all local pizza joints you are competing against have backlinks from a local magazine online website or gastro review aggregator page and you’re not on it, this serves as a great opportunity for you to reach out to those websites and introduce your place.
Since they are already linking to similar websites, there’s a high probability to include you as well. (Not only they will include you, but your entry will be better than Mario’s and Mamma Mia’s since you already noticed the mistakes they did on their entries.
The content gap is another super useful information which tells you which keywords your competitors are ranking for already but you aren’t.
These keywords serve as an opportunity to get ranked for exact keywords which are already searched for but aren’t being leveraged by your competitors.
4. PAID ACQUISITIONS – What is my competitor spending money on?
Sometimes the biggest change in traffic is the fact that it’s accelerated by paid marketing channels.
SimilarWeb isn’t the most reliable source, so double-check with iSpionage and Slack’s extension GrowthBot (made by Dharmesh Shah, CEO of Hubspot).
Check the Landing Pages report to see which keywords lead to which landing pages. Analyze the landing pages for main value propositions, creatives, and call-to-actions.
Needless to say, opt-in for their CTA and see how the onboarding/nurturing phase looks like.
Keyword report in GrowthBot
One quick look for keywords is also Slack’s app GrowthBot (made by Dharmesh Shah, Hubspot).
Check creatives with AdBeat
Check the creatives of your main competitors and study the Call-To-Actions and Ad Copy. Companies have spent thousands to get down to these creatives. We can learn a lot from it.
4. OFFLINE RESOURCES
Where do you go if a company has a big price tag attached to their product and its target are enterprises and B2B companies? Usually to events
CrunchBase allows you to see which events did your competitor visit as an exhibitor or as a sponsor.
5. THE UNDERLYING TECH
Sometimes the piece of their secret is their technology hidden under the hood. The clever combination of marketing and sales automation stacks are the norm, and any company which values optimized workflows uses those tools.
These tools change with times however apart from copy, the tools that are being used by the company now, are a good indication about the quality.
Here’s just a portion of tech Lululemon Athletica is having under the hood.
My first trip is a website BuiltWith. With the free registration, you can look at the detailed technology profile for 5 websites.
I’d double check and fish for additional information on Siftery as well, however, they usually offer less info than BuiltWith.
For lightweight informational view WhatRuns Chrome Extension might be enough.
Speed Performance Lookup – ARE THEY FAST-er?
Google has been warning that UX is one of the most important features of websites. That and the best content and you will enjoy more traffic than you can manage. One of the bigger parts of decent UX is also the page speed.
There are two tools that tell us what’s going on.
First, Google’s own Lighthouse PageSpeed Insights. Don’t cry crocodile tears if you’re seeing red. Only the biggest companies can boast with results like GetDrift below.
However, Insights are great checkup if you look at one site. My preferred go-to is the GTmetrix web app.
With the free account you can compare two or more websites. Check how slow of a website Adidas is rocking.
But that’s not that important as getting a closer look at what is going on during the load time.
That’s why I love the waterfall report:
And of course you can zoom in and look them up even closer:
Advice: It’s a good idea to execute the page speed analysis on your site and download the PDF report. GTmetrix has a bunch of recommendations on how to accelerate your website.
6. THE SECRET SAUCE: Nacho Analytics
Update: Nacho has recenlty been suspending and unfortunately there’s no alternative service/product which could provide similar results. R.I.P. my sweet prince.
Nacho Analytics is one of the best tools I’ve ever encountered. Apart from the awesome name it allows you to leech to almost any website and monitor their Google Analytics.
It sounds too good to be true? Well, is it?
How is it possible for this to be legal? I don’t know but they claim that it is.
The data collection starts from the day you sign-up for the service. For example, after 7 days of website subscription, you will have 7 days worth of data.
What are you looking for in Nacho Analytics?
Basically, everything that you look for in your own Google Analytics.
I’m interested in a few things:
I’m dying to know what portion of traffic individuals channels are getting and what makes them so successful.
Referrals — big websites get traffic based on their brand power itself. I’ll go down specifically on referral sections of the acquisition part and see which sources are bringing the majority of the traffic as well.
Filter by the “Most Visited Content on Website” — With one click I can see exactly which domains are visited the most.
At any given time, I can log in and check what is happening on my competitor’s site.
Yes, the entire pathways of my competitor’s interaction displayed in front of me!
Best of all, leave the Nacho Analytics running for as long as you want. For a thorough analysis, I’m double checking the reports after 30/60 days to get even better statistical data.
Since it gives you almost identical control of your own Google Analytics, this means you can export data in Google Sheets and manipulate until you get interesting info.
If I download all organic traffic that visited the rival page (Google Analytics -> Behavior -> Site Content -> All Pages), I can segment them all based on the traffic. Then you export the whole thing in Google Sheets. What you’ll end up is the neatly laid down content report coming from Search marketing channel. For more detail check Chris Von Wilperts’ Facebook post.
7. Connecting the Dots
Until now we have the raw data which is already valuable by itself. But that’s the machine work. All that data paints a picture and it’s up to the researcher to connect the dots.
If most of the traffic is coming from Facebook and paid channels, then you have to break down the strategy behind that channel itself.
If they are big in content marketing, then it’s up to us to sketch out the content marketing funnel and analyze the stages of it. For example, high-level content is usually on Top of the Funnel (TOFU). What are they saying in that article, where do referrals come from for that page? What’s the CTA of that specific content.
Mid to Bottom of the Funnel (MOFU/BOFU) are usually trust-building pieces like case studies or testimonials. I’m going to be looking at what exactly is highlighted in those case studies, how do they represent the most valuable results and what’s the next step?
Here’s the breakdown case study from Rancher Labs
If you look closely the case studies have thought out structure.
You can recognize the company and industry vertical on the left. The content immediately shows the highlights (2), which invites the interested reader to read further.
On top of the page, they have a video testimonial which is great — it offers the reader to watch the video instead and gives Rancher another marketing channel to bring people in.
And lastly, there’s an appropriate call-to-action — the guide on Rancher, which collects an email of the prospect. The reader will be faced with the number of sequenced emails which, if everything goes right, will lead to a sales call.
Things like that cannot be discovered with business intelligence tools. It demands marketing experience. With the proper knowledge of content marketing, you can shell out the content marketing funnel by yourself.
Know when to form your hypothesis
It’s always enticing to jump to conclusions. But refrain from doing so until you have a good amount of information that supports your hypothesis.
A good example is looking at your arch nemesis’ landing page copy. Depending on the growth stage they are, I am willing to bet my functional liver and half of my premium tea collection that the head title and call-to-actions have changed throughout the years.
When a brand is relatively unknown, in many cases it is not recommended to be too creative in their offer. It’s better to be clear at the start. You can afford to more playful after the brand is already known.
How do you know when the brand earned its place? When they have enough traffic and a good portion is coming from the direct marketing channel.
It’s best to see it on the example.
Here’s the landing page of Shopify on June 6, 2019:
Here’s the Shopify’s landing page on December 12th, 2013:
You can see that the earlier version of the page is much clearer. Shopify specifically talks about the online shop (and not building a business), the subheadline mentions they have today’s’ tools and not “the way”.
If made our decisions about the page’s copy today, we might give the client the wrong perception about Shopify. Shopify didn’t start getting traffic because of clever copy but probably because they had a clear benefit for users who landed on their site in the past.
Similar thinking might go with martech stack. Big companies might use Marketo and Salesforce today, but those tools are clumsy, hard to integrate and more expensive than a 1st class seat on a plane overseas. In the early phases, those companies had to hustle it out just like startups and small companies are doing it right now.
What’s most important may be hidden from plain sight. That’s why you should be more curious than a hyper-hormonal teenager on a spring break.
What does the onboarding for demo call look like? Click on schedule the demo call.
How do they talk to you in their email drip sequence? What happens in the nurturing phase?
Use Caution: What Works For Them May Not Work For You
Here’s the thing. This playbook is absolutely fantastic to see and reverse-engineer your biggest rivals and found out what made them great.
Don’t deceive yourself and blatantly copy-paste your competitors’ tactics/strategy. What works for them may not work for you.
a) Your competitor used a marketing channel which was working amazingly well at that time.
b) They have grown in the time when the market was ripe.
c) They had other important factors that are hard to replicate i.e.: partnership connections, hardware technology advantage, a favor from the national supreme warlord who got them into the government space…
Use competitor research for inspiration, not to dictate your strategy. Form hypotheses, and run tests to see what works for you and what doesn’t.
Also take into account the required investments and resources. Use the growth framework and principles to prioritize and execute experiments according to the ICE Score Test (Impact, Confidence, Ease).
Experiment 1: Bribe the local militia to hand out flyers and brutalize villagers to accept their POS system for selling vegetables? Might work for your nemesis, but the experiment would completely fail.
Experiment 2: Find customers who have used the same or similar underlying marketing tech and pitch them a “better solution” than your rival. Maybe not the best, but a certainly better tactic than pillaging the town.
How Can You Use Competitor Research Analysis?
If you’re in the company already…
This is a crucial activity to check where your competitors are, what they’re doing great, and what are they missing out on. Picking the #1 contender in the space (which may also be your arch nemesis) is especially revealing and eye-opening.
Think about it, they’ve already spent enormous resources (time and money) to get to where they are today. They have walked the path before, made the a/b tests and aligned the copy to fit their audience needs. So if you look at their ad copy on Facebook ads, you can estimate that those value props are working pretty well.
Now, I’m not saying you should copy their message (don’t be that guy) because they have carved their own niche and are banking on their own unique selling point.
If you’re looking to get into the company…
When you’re trying to get your foot in the door and work for your dream company, chances are there are hundreds if not thousands of other candidates trying to get that position. It’s common knowledge that online resumes just aren’t cutting it anymore.
You have to show initiative. You need to do something else to show you are proactive, you can deliver value and you’re willing to do more than well… your personal competitors.
Delivering this detailed 30+ page report on their competitor will show a couple of things:
- You are showing how bad you want the job and you’re not waiting and praying to be called for an interview.
- You’ve demonstrated knowledge about the industry, it’s market and specific competitors in the space
- You already gave the valuable takeaways and learnings up front. Guess who is the best person to execute on those learnings? Ummmmm…… you perhaps?
In the end, you’re not competing against hundreds of people for that position, but only a handful of finalists. Even if you don’t get in, you’ve got the training in and the company will remember your name.
You’re building your marketing knowledge
If this isn’t just fun and interesting you might be in the wrong industry already.
Finding out the points of victory and putting the pieces together to see the competitor’s strategy is one of the key roles a marketer does. Researching a company is something anyone can do with (almost) zero budget. If these kinds of exercises don’t move the needle in your marketer’s serotonin levels, then seriously think if you’ve chosen the right vocation.
These researches will not only get you better in thinking strategically but it will help you to translate the knowledge of one industry to another.
Can you apply Slack’s word-of-mouth marketing to your product?
Is it possible to think of Trader Joe’s ingenious copy to your (boring) industry?
How about lifting the whole category (paired with traveling adventure) with amazing video materials like Landyachtz Longboards?
Want me to ghost recon your nemesis? Email me
This is a syndicated article which I wrote for Single Grain.
“As hard as it was to convince people to start using it, once they started they almost never stopped” – Stewart Butterfield, CEO and Founder of Slack
Slack has already entered Silicon Valley’s hall of fame as the fastest growing business app.
From its public launch in February of 2014, Slack’s accomplishments include:
- Accumulating 8 Million Daily Active Users (DAU)
- 3 Million of those are paid users
- The highest conversion rate among Freemium Software products – 30%
- The app is used by 43% of Fortune 100 companies
- Their latest valuation in August 2018 showed that Slack stands at $7.1 Billion Dollars
These numbers are just mind-boggling; Slack went from $0 to $7 billion… in less than five years.
It’s even more impressive considering that the Slack app was born out of previously failed businesses.
- Prologue – Slack’s Backstory
- Chapter 1: Brotherhood and Perfect Timing
- Chapter 2: Execute the Perfect Launch
- Chapter 3: Brand is Everything
- Chapter 4: Customer Experience as the North Star
- Chapter 5: An Offer You Can’t Refuse
- Chapter 6: The Blueprint for Multi-Billion Dollar Company
- Chapter 7: Slack’s Friends and Family – Integrations and Partnerships
- Chapter 8: Future-proofing the Company and the Product
Every success story has done three things in their lifetime:
Product-market fit. “Right idea, right time”
Rapid growth. Scaling with hyperspeed.
Reinforcement. A built-to-last model.
In this growth study, we’ll look at the story of Slack, its beginning and underlying strategy for world domination, and how they built a platform that’s transforming office communication.
Founder and CEO Stewart Butterfield is no stranger to fast-growing apps; he built Flickr about 10 years before starting Slack. But let’s dig deeper…
Butterfield, born and raised in rural area in British Columbia, hadn’t been exposed to technology until he went to university the late 1990’s, he became fascinated by the school’s Unix machine, and how it could build something out of lines of code.
After escaping the dot-com bubble in 2000 with $35,000 severance pay from his ecommerce job, he started building a web-based massively multiplayer game called Neverending. With rudimentary graphics and a small but passionate community, Stewart fueled his passion for design and communication.
The game was impossible to fund and thus difficult to scale; however, the side effect of building the game was that the small team built a technology that let users tag images with other users, far before Facebook and Instagram offered that ability.
Meanwhile, Stewart’s $35K was dwindling,and the game was was approaching its inevitable decline. Pressured by depleting finances, Stewart and his fellow tech-obsessed friends iterated to utilize the core technology that made the game unique — image sharing and tagging capabilities.
He then started Flickr , and help from Google, they started getting users with a rapid pace. At the time Google had just bought Blogger – a CMS platform that allowed anyone create a website. However, you because you couldn’t store images on Blogger, Google redirected users to save their images on Flickr.
The Flickr team wasn’t profitable — it had astronomical server storage costs — however it attracted the attention the Silicon Valley giants: Yahoo and Google.
Yahoo! offered Flickr team $20M. The team of eight became millionaires overnight, but instead of maintaining their culture rapid iteration and agile workplace, the 11,000-employee Yahoo! slowed down the startup-style decision-making process.
After three years, they were fully vested, and Stewart took his core employees and returned to his initial project — another web-based multiplayer game called Glitch.
As they were now known for Flickr’s success, the team had an easier time finding investment, They raised $17M which was used for new hires, mostly for graphic animators. Flickr’s success meant that he game attracted a lot of users.
But there was one major problem. The problem that kills the most startups — a leaky bucket.
Even though users found the game and tried it out, 99% of them didn’t return because it was too obscure and abstract. Much to Stewart’s dismay, this project was nearing its end.
Stewart made the hard decision to pull the plug in 2012. Devastated, Butterfield helped every one of 37 employees get a new job.
But he’d find success soon…
Chapter 1: Brotherhood and Perfect Timing
Objectively speaking from a business perspective, Glitch was a disaster. However, the team had developed an internal communication system that made them incredibly productive.
The platform was built on a concept of channels which allowed team members to chat directly or within the channel. It stored all communication. It was an inversion of the typical inter-office communication: email.
The thinking was that in email, team members don’t have the context from the stored communication; 99% of messages aren’t visible unless you’re cc-ed.
The Glitch team didn’t realize how useful the communication system they built was until they shut down the company. It was much better than the typical email-based communication, and they never wanted to work without a system like that again.
Maybe, just maybe, other people would like it too.
After Glitch shut down, Stewart was left with his core people, the same people who were with him from the Flickr and game development days. By now, they had been working together for close to 10 years, and loved making products together.
The hard times had connected the team even further.
Weeks after Glitch closed, Stewart and his team started working on the Slack app. They rebuilt the entire internal communication system within a couple of months.
Solving the Dreaded Inbox Problem
Internal communication was a problem for most companies, even though they weren’t necessarily aware of it.
With more and more software startups rapidly scaling, they realized that internal communication encountered problems when a single-digit team grew to 20, 50, 100+ people in a year.joining the startup, they inevitably encounter problem where a single-digit team turned into 20, 50 or 100+ people company in a year.
Slack was at the right place at the right time.
They weren’t the first new communication system:apps like Yammer, Campfire, and HipChat already had small but loyal user bases.
Seeing a trend, copycats were popping up left and right.
In order to succeed, Slack needed to solve the communication problem better than the others.
Working in their favor was the ridiculously huge Total Addressable Market (TAM) — companies from tiny startups to massive enterprise businesses needed a tool like this.
The core features and capabilities of Slack were: :
- Contextually relevant and segmented communications, including persistent chat, direct messaging, as well as voice and video calls within and between teams.
- Synchronized communication and collaboration across multiple devices and platforms.
- Integration with third-party apps, legacy enterprise software, and custom-built apps and chatbots for Slack.
- Customizable notifications and advanced search across Slack’s real estate.
While the TAM is virtually the same for all existing rivals, Slack differentiated itself through their fun brand, ease of use, customer-centricity… Combining that with a brilliant product launch, Slack had the edge in market share.
Why Yammer Failed
Microsoft’s Yammer was essentially solving the same problems as Slack, but their approach was off. While 80% of the client’s team got on board to use it, senior employees weren’t quick to try it out.
You also had to use Microsoft Office 365 to access Yammer. Many potential users utilized Google Docs (especially for collaborative use). Microsoft Office 365 requires users to pay and commit, while Slack and Google Drive are free.
Slack was able to move past reluctance avoided the problem with aby having a fun interface (Chapter 4), generous freemium model (Chapter 5) and an easy-to-use platform simplicity use, so everyone from more flexible team members to senior employees could see the benefit in the same day (Chapter 6).
The Importance of Emerging Market
Slack’s initial team consisted of four core members: Stewart Butterfield, Eric Costello, Cal Henderson and Serguei Mourachov.
The team communication system developed during their tenures at Flickr and Glitch made them far more productive. They noticed the productivity with the rest of the company members.
Everyone working with the core team realized how effective their system was, and when teams moved on to other companies, they quickly realized how much inefficiency the proto-Slack was solving.
The core team knew they were onto something; they had the market validation they needed from their own team.
Slack Question: One of the Slack reasons for success was the tight-knit community of 4 founders? Does this example of trust and love for work translate to all employees and in what way?
KEY TAKEAWAY #1 Emerging markets are a great place to launch a new product, especially when you already have market validation. Partner with the people who are the best at what they do and able to handle the pressure of a rapidly-changing startup. Competition is a good sign that you’re on the right track, but launching a product in a competitive market means that you have to build a super product and serve your consumer base better.
Chapter 2: Execute the Perfect Launch
If you’re running a startup, the odds are against you.
You need to find a pain point, actually solve the issue, and gain clients who trust you.
If your product hypothesis isn’t right, you have to iterate while you still have a financial runway.
Slack knew they had the solution to a major business pain point. Because of their prior success, the team was able to get venture capital so they could focus on a strategic and exceptional product launch.
Instead of ‘growth hacks,’ the Slack team combined the efforts of product design agency MetaLab, the reputation they had built from Flickr’s success, and PR agencies that came up with Slack’s unique hook: “The Email Killer”.
They launched a ‘preview version’ of Slack so the team could:
- Fix major bugs and errors
- Determine and identify the features and benefits that resonated with the market
- Galvanized the initial user-base to advocate Slack by word-of-mouth
Once they fixed any issues, they were ready to bring Slack out with a strong product launch. Imagine how it would be if Tesla or Apple revealed a semi-tested product.
The Slack’s hook – Killer of Email in Time’s article | Source: Time.com
Slack’s intention wasn’t to replace email.
As Butterfield says: “Email has many benefits, it’s the lowest common denominator for official communications. But it’s a terrible way to manage internal communications.”
“Email will be the cockroach of the Internet, I think we’ve got another 30 or 40 years of email left” — Stewart Butterfield
Preview version gave Slack a chance to test core features at the same time as building the relationship with the select few. Note that Slack intentionally haven’t named the pre-public version “beta” version. There is a massive difference in dynamic and perception from the user standpoint; in beta, they’re there to test out things so they can help the company. But if the users are in “preview” camp, they are one of the elite few who get to use the product before anyone else and enjoy its privileges of being first.
Hiring an outside company to build a brand might be unique to Slack. Slack’s first marketing hire, Bill Macaitis step into the role of CMO in November 2014, which means Slack completely relied on the third party agency to deliver the whole look and feel of the brand. Outsourcing the whole department and relying on someone else delivering the whole look is a journey of trust and belief. Luckily for Slack, it paid of in the best possible way.
Slack’s preview release, August 2013 | Source: web.archive.org
They were confident to release it to the public.
These took months of careful planning and synchronizing across the channels.
As soon as the product hit the market, it went viral.
Here are some assets Slack acquired before they launched:
- Collected testimonials from known companies and displayed them on the landing page
- Use Twitter to show off the “Wall of Love” – tweets of users who sang praise to Slack’s
- Use the PR firm to connect with most of the relevant tech online (and offline) publishers:
- Fast Company – Flick Co-founders Launch Slack, An Email Killer
- TechCrunch – Slack, Flickr Co-Founder Butterfield’s Business Collaboration App, Exits Beta & Goes Freemium (February 12, 2014)
- The Verge – Slack is killing email (August 12, 2014)
- VentureBeat – Flickr co-founder launches ’email killer’ Slack to the world (February 12, 2014)
- Inc.com — Why Slack is Killing Email Once And For All (November 11, 2015)
Slack tested out the product-market fit and figure out what is their way to attract new users with one giant swoop. They used multiple Pr agencies with a hook that immediately attracts the user. PR agencies are usually expensive, but Slack thought it’s the perfect way to get as much exposure in a short time. You can do this manually by pitching to reporters manually. This would take a long time since you have to build a relationship but it will support your launch greatly.
The building of social proof created a cluster of social credit. Using the “email killer” headline hook from the industry-recognized publishers such as Verge, TechCrunch and VentureBeat brought in new unique traffic while the Twitter’s Wall of Love shoved the trust of peers.
|Slack’s Wall of Love|
Whenever a Twitter account post or retweets someone else tweets it appears on their timeline. Slack created some sort of repository of all positive tweets whenever they were mentioned. This created one giant wall of positivity and love. Slack named it “Wall of Love” — it’s a separate Twitter account that stands on its containing everything nice that is being said about it.
Slack combined it with a traditional marketing channel — a print ad in Wall Street Journal.
Slack’s whole page ad in WSJ magazine. | Source: blog.onging.com
Why it works:
Keep in mind that most of the audience were companies from Silicon Valley — from software industries where there’s a lot of conversation happening on Twitter.
Deeper into the Brand Core
Great brands are built on top of solid foundations. Solid team with proven track record – check. Clear value proposition and demonstrated product/market fit – check. Company culture with customer centrism and solid brand – let’s unpack this. If we borrow the term MVB (Minimal Viable Branding) we can deconstruct Slack’s brand to individual elements.
MVB is the concept adopted by Scott Kraft, Denise Lee Yon, Tino Chow, and Madeline Gerber to construct an image of the brand that’s both recognizable to the public and sets the homestead for company culture and how they communicate in-house and outbound.
According to Kraft the MVB of consists of:
- Brand Pillars — one to three one-word adjectives that represent your company
- Audience needs — what are the audience takeaways
- Functional needs — materialized benefits
- Emotional needs — how the audience perceive the brand on an emotional level
- Personality of the brand
- The promise
- The company’s vision
It serves as an immediate blueprint for the product that conveys the future promise the company will be delivering.
Source: “own source adapted by Scott Kraft’s MVB talk at 500 Distro”
SlackAccording to Kraft, brand’s personality consists of brand pillars + Top customer audience + their top 3 needs + top 3 emotional benefits;
- Brand Pillars: Fun, Inclusive, Connected
- Customer Audience: Employees having issues communicating within the company
- Top needs: More effective system to reach out to the rest of the team, faster feedback loop, just-in-time information
- Emotional benefits: Makes the employees feel part of the team, relevant by closely following the evolving project, productive
= Slack – The fun and productive team chat
- Audience: people inside the company
- Functional Needs: one universal system for communicating above and across to the rest of the team
- Emotional Benefits: social inclusion, light-hearted working environment
When you use slack you will feel more connected because of the freedom to reach your colleague
If we try to describe Slack as a brand by the other three elements of the MVB:
- Personality: fun, connected, diverse
- Promise: to connect people in-house with a simple yet powerful system for team communication
- Vision: Make work happen
Whenever you see Slack content, you will be able to connect these values and elements to their brand. As you are going to discover further – this mindset is ingrained to every member of the company across the board.
Slack Question: The launch of Slack back in February 2014 was a carefully planned marketing campaign with the use of PR agencies. Now that Slack employs 1,000+ workers, how much marketing is planned in-house vs hired work?
KEY TAKEAWAY #2 Don’t neglect the power of traditional marketing. Build the hype and use the “hook” message to promote article re-sharing. Slack’s is the Email Killer – a controversial statement which addresses the burning pain at the same time. What will be yours?
Chapter 3 – Brand is Everything
This is the holy grail of success. Slack hired a mega-successful design firm MetaLab to turn their early prototype into a polished product.
Design and UX
Enterprise software is notorious for being big, boring and lifeless. If you compare HipChat (Slack’s main competitor), you’ll have an easy time picking the one that looks more fun to use.
Andrew Wilkinson from MetaLab said “We gave it the color scheme of a video game,
not an enterprise collaboration product.”
Early design iterations for Slack | Source: @awilkinson
With an easily recognizable design that was equally fun and easy to use, Slack created a stark contrast against the competition.
In 2018, 133 million visitors to the website per month
Different kind of marketing:
There’s content that still fills each role in Top, Middle and Bottom phase of the customer’s journey, however instead of just written. Slack opted in with visual and audio content.
Their Animals product video has been insanely popular.
|The “Animals!” project cost the company $1 million. The directors Alan Smith and Adam Foulkes experience the smooth onboarding process as Slack users did. They were able to translate and deliver the correct brand message in the video.|
The animals in the video or as diverse they could be (lion, dolphin, rabbit, sloth, owl, beaver,..) but they are able to complete a complex project with effective communication.
Don’t forget to watch the blooper reel with the beatboxing prawn.
Slack’s first podcast — The Variety Pack, published by Pacific Content launched in May 2015. By the end of the year, there were 17 episodes and more than 3 million listens. The Pacific Content team worked with Slack to produce 28 episodes of Slack Variety Pack. The bi-weekly format with half-hour episodes appeals to the Slack audience.
The themes of the podcast were not specific to Slack as a product however they reflected the interests of Slack users: career change, lifestyle at work, future of jobs etc… The podcasts were also light-hearted reflecting Slack’s commitment to fun.
“Although podcasts are becoming more mainstream, if you’re a die-hard listener of podcasts, there’s a good chance you’re also an early adopter, so it was a way for us to help spread the word about Slack.” — Bill Macaitis, former CMO of Slack
Slack worked closely with Pacific Content broadcaster Steve Pratt, giving feedback for each episode. The focus was on telling engaging stories with small intertwined slogans like “Slack: Love what you do” and “Slack: Making work less work-y”. The podcast reached the wider audience with a very soft sell.
“A brand is the sum total of all experiences a customer has with the company” and Slack relies heavily to keep the word-of-mouth going.
Stewart Butterfield adds: “Every customer interaction is a marketing opportunity. If you go above and beyond on the customer service side, people are much more likely to recommend you.”
Their famous Wall of Love twitter account collects and displays all the complimentary things people Tweet about them https://twitter.com/SlackLoveTweets
Localization over Translation
Personalization is not a nice-to-have any more; it’s mandatory in today’s hyper-segmented marketplace to communicate with users.
On top of customer satisfaction metric NPS (Net Promoter Score) data, Slack’s Global Team marketers look at the growth and activation rates of new customers teams. It’s important that they get a sense of whether people signing up for Slack continue to use it.
With such a wide addressable market, segmenting your approach and creating a solid plan to conquer new customer lands efficiently.
For that reason, Slack chooses a localized approach instead of one broad message for the majority of the markets.
KEY TAKEAWAY #3
Don’t overestimate the power of the brand. If you ever plan to grow your company then make sure your name, colors exhudes your core values.
Chapter 4 – Customer Experience as the North Star
“At the end of the day, that’s what fuels our organic growth rates – Slack does what it says, is delightful to use, and in return, people tell others about it.” – Kelly Watkins, Global Marketing at Slack
Slack was able to enjoy hyper-growth without marketing staff.
“Its growth rate is unheard of. Both Slack’s daily user count and its paid seat count are up 3.5X in just a year.” — Josh Constine, Techcrunch
As mentioned before, Bill Macaitis – formerly the CMO at Zendesk and Senior VP at Salesforce was brought on in November 2014. That was 9 months after the public release. Macaitis was an employee number 50 which tells that Slack did most of the branding and marketing heavy reps before. Slack had grown big even without a marketing team — Macaitis was the first hire as an employee #50 and they already had the hockey stick curve of new users.
Instead of relying on growth hacks, paid marketing channels and short term tactics, Bill Macaitis focused on only one thing — creating the customer experience people love.
Andrew Chen, former VP of Growth at Uber and a marketing leader, talks about the law of shitty click-throughs – it’s the inescapable point every company arrives to. A marketing channel that worked like gangbusters in the past will stop bringing the same positive ROI over time. Or if we say it differently – every marketing channel has an expiration date.
James Currier’s slide about marketing channel rises and decay of effectiveness.
However, there is an exception — word-of-mouth will never stop being an effective marketing tactic
If you can achieve a point where people are consistently recommending you to friends and colleagues,, you’re in the path of real growth.
Once people tried Slack, they had to tell everyone else. An software engineer in the company who adopted the product had to tell his friend how amazing Slack is, while they were fetching Starbucks coffee.
“Unlike almost any enterprise software ever, people would talk about it. Like, they would be in line at the coffee shop, and they would say, oh, my God, you’ve got to start using Slack. It’s amazing. It changed my life. And they would post to Twitter and say, like, I – you know, I recommend it. And that – you know, no one ever says that about the software that they have to use at work.” — Stewart Butterfield on Slack’s word-of-mouth effectiveness
YCombinator CEO Sam Altman’s mantra is ‘customer love is all you need. A hundred people who love your product is better than a million people who kind of like it.’
Hubspot Founder Dharmesh Shah would never trade short-term gratification over the long-term benefit. He says: “Manically chasing growth at the expense of customer goodwill mortgages the future.”
Slack embraced that philosophy:
- The onboarding is fast and frictionless: It takes just three clicks to start using Slack.
- Fair pricing: If you stop using Slack, they will return the credits back to you
- The legal, support and customer success. Every new employee goes through a 9 week training process so they settle in, adapt the company culture and learn how to communicate in Slack’s way.
Slack Questions (branding): User experience and focus on brand made Slack stand out? How does Slack train a new hire to embody the brand values and communicates the product properly?
KEY TAKEAWAY #4 Dare to be different, but never over the cost of functionality and the best customer experience. Word of mouth = growth.
Chapter 5: An Offer You Can’t Refuse
Once a product hits a hot market growth is contingent on continuing to stoke the fire..
Becoming a viral product depends on:
- Your product becoming a part of users’ daily or regular routine
- Making it easy to share and get more people on the platform.
Slack has an amazing freemium option and easy-to-understand (read: transparent) pricing.
Right from the start, you can use all the available features Slack has to offer, such as integration, document sharing, built-in features and more.
The limitations of a free account don’t affect the user as they start using it; it’s only once Slack becomes an integral part of their workflow does it make sense to upgrade. By then you’re already hooked!
The limitations of a free account:
- The number of searchable messages are locked at 10K
- You’re only able to connect 10 third-party or custom integrations
- A modest file storage: 5 GB total
This is done intentionally: Slack wants you to use their products until the ease of communication and functionality is a daily part of your life. and,
Once you hit a point where you want more storage, or more integrations, you upgrade to a paid model. By then the product is integrated into your workflow and life.
Slack’s conversion from free trial to paid version is 30%, showing that giving away value pays off in the long run. Slack is an absolute outlier with this conversion percentage. According to Jason Cohen from The Fader: “A really good conversion rate for free-to-paid is 4%, like Dropbox. Awesome for them, but normal rates are more like 1%, and that’s if users are reasonably active.”
The only that comes close is Spotify at 26.6% conversion rate, while Dropbox and Evernote are far below at 4.1% and 4%.
An important notion is also the fact that Slack is a tool for connecting teams. As soon as you enter the desktop app you’re prompted to invite your team members.
Inviting team members is one of the steps of the onboarding journey | Source: Slack.com
Even inside the app, the invitation CTA is highlighted above everything else. | Source: Slack’s Desktop App
- Slack asks you to invite team members right of the bat.
- It makes it easy to share the invitation link.
- You can invite users through unique URL that can be shared through email, social media or on any website.
In the words of Bill Macaitis – “optimize everything for word of mouth”.
Move the Bar of Success from Activation to Referral
The whole Slack brand was built upon the notion of a product people love. And if people love something they will tell their friends, colleagues and peers about it.
CMO Bill Macaitis moved the bar of success from converting a user to a paid account to convincing a user to recommend Slack further. This is much harder to achieve. The paid conversation is more of a short term goal — it’s important but it pales to a comparison of achieving a massive network effect.
Network effect is a condition when every new user who joins makes the product stronger for everyone. Each one who hears about it or uses it to organize outside of work becomes more likely to infect their whole company with the Slack infection.
It does explain why insisting on NPS and CSAT (Customer Satisfaction) scores as the main metric broad the biggest success. It’s the perfect optimization for word-of-mouth.
The perfect example is Slack’s pricing model.
If you were using Slack on a paid account and one of your team members hasn’t logged in within a 10-day active window, Slack refunded the money and credits back to an account.
This is unusual for any company to do.
But Slack had to ask itself what is the best for themselves as a brand and the customer.
Does the pricing model align with brand customer centricity?
Does it surprise the user in positive way? It does since the user doesn’t to get unused funds sent back to them.
Is it more likely that a customer will recommend the product further. Unusual things are often shared more.
Or let’s think about the frictionless trial. All features are unlocked from the start. You can have a team of 200 users on a freemium tier model.
If you ask yourself those three questions you’ll have the same answer to each one of them.
Deeper in the Customer Success
In the book From Impossible to Inevitable Aaron Ross wrote that customer success is the core growth driver and is worth 5x more important than sales.
It’s for the same reason that Macaitis, coming from Zendesk, where he focused on CSAT scores made customer success a top priority.
In Power of Habit, author Charles Duhigg explains the concept of Keystone habits — they’re beliefs and routines that someone, or in this case company, holds in the highest regards. Achieving the number on most important goal percolates to all the other good stuff.
Just like keeping a daily exercise helps individuals become more organized, having more energy to be more productive and start watching your diet, customer success directly affects retention, drives referrals, and help capture positive case studies.
Slack Question (NPS): How does Slack maintain the customer-centric strategy and the quality of support besides iterating due to CSAT survey test scores?
KEY TAKEAWAY #5 Give out so much value that your users can’t live without you. Make a product and experience amazing enough that they’ll want to tell all their friends about you. Make it easy for people to begin using your product AND get friends and colleagues on it. Competitors might be able to clone basic features, but they can’t clone the community.
Chapter 6: The Recipe for a Multi-Billion Dollar Company
When Great Product Isn’t Enough
Having an amazing problem is not a ticket to riches. Actually, it’s a prerequisite for growth. But there are two ways you can grow – slow, hard growth where you feel like pushing a boulder uphill.
Or the easy way, where you just feel like you’re guiding the rolling cart downhill.
But there are terrible products as well which achieved amazing growth. Brian Balfour (former VP of Growth at Hubspot) explains you need 4 pieces of the puzzle for growing to $100 million and beyond Annual Recurring Revenue (ARR).
- Market/Product Fit (already covered)
- Product/Channel Fit
- Channel/Model Fit
- Model/Market Fit
The companies who can make these 4 frameworks to align are the ones where the growth happens naturally – like a snowball.
The Market/Product Fit
While the great product is necessary you still need to find the market. Finding a solution before fixing a problem is just like putting a cart in front of the horse.
We should be thinking market first, then the product.
[How about Steve Blanks – get out of the building idea]
For instance, in 2016 and 2017 there was a big hype about virtual reality. It sounded new and exciting and numerous startups and companies tried to build something around it.
Or in the last couple of years, cryptocurrencies and blockchain has been popping out in every inline publishing magazine. Yet, we still don’t have a sticky solution – a tangible clear way those technologies are fixing the problem.
It’s because it doesn’t solve any major burning pain.
Slack’s team communication has a very clear value proposition – it reduces the time effort for team communication so everyone can get the info just-in-time. Thus working feels more smooth and productive.
Let’s look at ti in a visual representation
|Category:||Project Management, Team Communication||Core Value Prop:||Get the information from your coworkers right when you need it|
|Who:||Department heads and everyone else||Hook:||The Email Killer|
|Problems:||Digging through archives, ineffective email, slow communication||Time to Value:||Create Account -> Invite team members -> Send message|
|Motivations:||Productivity, connectedness||Stickiness:||Growing archive of all communications, integrated tools, fun UI/UX, social connectedness to the team|
The product market fit has to be proven with a combination of qualitative and quantitative measurements.
Slack’s Northstar Metric has always been NPS which is one of the best qualitative predictors. If your product solves the problem and it’s made in a way people love using it, then they should recommend it further.
At the same time on the quantitative side you have to pay attention to two things: direct traffic and flat retention.
Flat Retention Curve is the key to growth| Source: Medium.com
Slack figured both things out. The product is a quicksand, the more you use it the more you depend on it. Every new person that joins the company has to use it as well.
QUESTION: Can Slack share their retention information?
Product Channel Fit
What most startups fail to understand is that the product and channel are connected. We shouldn’t treat them as silos. They are not separate entities but connected pieces that correspond with each other.
But product are built to take advantage of a specific channel.
Channels do not mold to products.
We can’t define the rules of the channels. Google defines what gets ranked in SEO and shown as search results. Facebook defines what gets shown in the feed. Gmail defines what gets in the spam and what into the promo tab.
What you need to do, you have to mold it into one of these channels as seamlessly as possible.
How Slack did it.
Slack’s product has an amazingly quick time to value which doesn’t only target an individual but a whole team.
Secondly, it’s got a broad value proposition – everyone in the team gets the the same similar benefit of increased productivity and shorter times of getting information.
However, Slack managed to get all of those channels to percolate down to the holy grail of channels – word of mouth.
Peter Thiel, one of Silicon Valley’s most known venture capitalist’s said:
The Power Law of Distribution tells us that 70% or more of all acquisitions will come from one source (or one marketing channel).
One quick look Slack traffic sources will tell you what this is.
It’s not just virality but the combination of brand and WOM. It’s the Direct channel. This means that Slack brand is so well known, most of the users are coming on the website by directly typing s-l-a-c-k dotcom in the browser. Every company wishes for this kind of channel distribution.
You probably heard of Pareto’s Law (also known as 20/80 rule). 20% of effort gets 80% of results.
The Power Law is something similar however Peter Thiel used it in a quote:
“We Don’t Live In A Normal World; We Live Under A Power Law.”
This is explained by the Product Channel fit. Any business use one or several channels to get users or revenue. In the book “Traction” by Gabriel Weinberg and Justin Mares you will find 19 marketing channels you can explore.
But it’s unusual to expect the traffic or users are going to be distributed evenly across different channels. The companies that really makes it work find one channel that brings in 70% or more users from ONE channel.
Some examples of companies that made it work:
Virality – DropBox storage referral program and Harry’s shaving waiting list
SEO – HubSpot and Neil Patel who covered almost every piece of marketing with content
User Generated Content (UGC) – Reddit, TripAdvisor, Twitter, Instagram
Sponsored Podcasts – Website builder Squarespace and Casper mattresses are known to sponsor podcast hosts who plug their plug their products
Channel-Model fitness defines the relation of your pricing model and your channel. It should answer how you charge your customers and how much are Average Annual Revenue Per User (AARPU) are you receiving.
To determine a good business we need to look at the relation between the ARPU revenue and Customer Acquisition Cost (CAC).
On one end you have low ARPU and low CAC sections – these are channels that monetize quickly but in lower amounts. Think of Facebook or Mailchimp.
On the other side, you have high ARPU and higher CACs. These are companies like Palantir (Palantir sells software to government agencies and corporations).
These companies pricing model has to be congruent with the channel. According to Brian Balfour, the worst thing to be is somewhere in the middle. This doesn’t mean it won’t work but it might be harder to execute.
How about Product Tiering? Bigger product with a variety of services can exists across the ARPU <> CAC Spectrum? If you look at LinkedIn, they have a product offers on low and high end of the spectrum.
What about Slack?
We defined the Slack as a product that uses virality to grow. It’s freemium model allows it to onboard and value-lock the whole team quickly.
But most of the users convert to paid ones in the first 3 months. This places Slack near left of the middle of the Spectrum
On the Product tier level, Slack has benefitted from clear pricing. But they also have a solution on the Higher end of the Spectrum — Slack Enterprise Grid. At SEG companies manage multiple workspaces with increased security features.
Model Market Fit
For some companies, growth can feel like slow lumbering mammoth, where you need to put a ton of effort to get it moving. For others, growth is a smooth natural process — it feels like growth just happens itself. Slack is definitely one of the latter companies.
Why is that?
Because the road to the 100M+ annual revenu is different depending on the pricing model and the market. Venture capital investor, Christoph Janz from Point Nine Capital developed the pricing matrix and named the different product by animals they represent:
- Elephants – are large enterprise products worth 6 or more figures. You need 10 client to have your first million
- Moose – are upper market B2B products where an account is worth around 10k. You would need to get a hundred of these customers to get to the first million. Example: Hubspot
- Rabbits – the majority of SaaS tools and software priced between $49 to $249 per month. Example: Most of the email managers like Mailchimp.
- Mice – A small B2C tools worth a couple of dollars per year. Think of Shopify subscription or New Yorker paid content.
- Flies – Small B2C tools only worth a about $100 per year. These are companies that get a tiny fraction of revenue. Example: Buzzfeed.
Depending where you place in the Animal Pricing Matrix dedicates the market. Are you going to hunt the big corporate/enterprise deals? You only need a couple of them.
Slack default product is hunting rabbits and deer elks – small (2-20) to medium sized teams (up to 150) where they can quickly earn a decent revenue. Since they earn per user the price stack up quite fast depending on the size.
For that reason, Slack held a record of earning one million ARR (annual recurring revenue) every 11 days. That’s impressive especially, because it was in the first year of the launch.
If we’d drawn a line across the animals we’d get a Model Market Fit Threshold. On the the line and on the right we’d still have a Model Market Fit, while everything below we’d be failing the algorithm for high-revenue company.
How do you calculate your Threshold. Write this down.
Start with the total customer in the market which you’ve already done at the Market Product Fit stage. If the customer size feels to small, you can cast a wider net, however you’d need to check the Market Product Fit to see you’re still covering the customers according to your criteria.
Then calculate how much your customers are willing to pay. You have to be above the Market Fit Threshold. If your product sits below you can raise the prices but make sure the Product Model Fit supports positive ROI.
Lastly think about how much % of the market you can capture. This is the hardest metric to calculate since it’s tough to predict. Brian Balfour suggest 10% as a rule of thumb as a starting point.
Summary of the all 4 frameworks and how it applies to Slack
Let’s put Slack in the table and review the frameworks to see if the hypothesis holds true.
|Wide (SMBs and MidMarket), Enterprise||Low (Freemium) to Med ACV||Virality|
Slack is valuated at $5.1 Billion.
During the years it has evolved to cover a larger piece of the market with different pricing models but for the sake of this equation let’s look at the most common one.
Product – Slack is a team communication tool that solves an internal communication within the team. It has a clear value proposition and solves a major pain. It’s simple to use, however with a plethora of apps and integrations it becomes a valuable piece in the company’s stack.
Market – Their most common client is a software company which starts in small numbers of emplyees (between 5 to 20) and quickly swells up to a hundred or more if it’s successful.
Model – Pricing is straightforward. It’s based per active members. If a company of 20 takes a standard package, it costs them $1,920 per year. For every new member that joins the company, Slack earns another $96 towards their ARPU. This puts them in medium ARR (annual recurring revenue).
Channel is viral. Word-of-mouth is accelerated by strong brand high customer satisfaction scores. Every user that joins Slack has the ability to pull another person as well. Since the product is simple and doesn’t require much setup, the viral channel works amazingly well.
There are roughly 20k tech startups in the Bay Area. 10% of 20k is 2000.
2000 companies with 20 members gets Slack an Annual Contract Value (ACV) of $4M.
But Slack is not just targeting software companies, it caters to regular brick and mortar business, offices, government companies and more. The Total Addressable Market (TAM) is absolutely enormous since it’s growing with the size of internet users.
Slack expanded the Model with enterprise option where they don’t hunt the rabbits and mice but bigger beast. The virality and word of mouth is the most scalable channel they can ask for. They figure out the pains and desires of their users which gives Slack an incentive to approach new international markets. In fact, more than half of Slack users are in more than 100 countries outside United States
These markets have localized support and offerings.
Every channel is constantly evolving and moving, which demands that every company stay on their toes and manage all four frameworks.
KEY TAKEAWAY #6
Sustainable Hyper Growth works only if all the magical pieces work together. Don’t neglext them.
Chapter 7: Slack’s Friends and Family – Partnership Moves & integrations
Successful companies often acquire another company to get rid of competition (i.e. travel and restaurant TripAdvisor buying a plethora of local travel apps), acquire another customer base (Amazon with Whole Foods and Zappos) or gain access to the proprietary technology that will help them grow (Facebook with the acquisition of Instagram).
Most of the big companies wait for the disruptor to reach a certain stage: The acquirer eliminates the threat, prevent other competitors from swooping and stealing the technology, and instantly reaches new audiences. Sometimes, acquisitions happen just because a company needs high-tier development talent and knows that a startup has the top minds in the business.
A merger is a different strategy. When Facebook acquired Instagram for one billion, most of the public thought it was way too much for a simple mobile photo app run by twelve people with no revenue model.
But six years after the merger, Instagram has a billion monthly active users which are exposed to Facebook Ad campaigns. Instagram already makes up 28 percent of Facebook’s mobile ad revenue. And the channel is growing year-over-year.
Since Slack’s product idea isn’t hard to replicate — internal chat technology isn’t much different than IRC. Keep in mind Slack’s competitors CampFire, Yammer and HipChat tackled team communication years Slack’s solution. For Slack to stay ahead of the pack, they had to grow fast. They decided to use mergers and acquisitions to strategically fill in their success gaps.
Companies like Yammer, Microsoft, and others looked to remake internal communications in ways that looked more like consumer tools in the Web 2.0 era, but Slack came out with an approach that was initially just a slick chat and team communications tool. — Matthew Lynley, Techcrunch
Sep 26, 2014 – Slack acquires Spaces – Spaces had a document collaboration technology that greatly increased Slack’s capabilities
Jan 28, 2015 – Slack acquires Screenhero – What’s a messaging app without screen-sharing and voice chat? All six employees who worked for Screenhero joined Slack.
July 17, 2018 – Slack acquire Missions – Robots and Pencils’ app Missions allower Slack users to build tools to automate simple routines without much technical knowledge. It’s a lot like Zapier for Slack users.
Slack’s integrations are key to its success: Slack has more than 1000 apps available in their app directory. According to TechCrunch, 94% of paid business users use apps and integrations while 65% of teams have built their own.
With Mission’s, visual flow the creation of new integration is easy, and allows for the customization Slack users want.
Jul 27, 2018 – Partnership with Atlassian
Slack announced the acquisition of the Stride and HipChat products from Atlassian. Slack and Atlassian had a previous relationship, with Atlassian tools like Trello, Bitbucket and Jira already integrated with Slack – adding project management to the already robust communication tool.
However, Slack’s acquisition of Stride and HipChat allows it to upgrade the workflow capabilities of the product, especially large enterprise businesses. The Stride collaboration tool enables video, voice and chat at the same time, while HipChat has been one of Slack’s largest competitors. As a predecessor (HipChat launched in 2010), they acquired significant user base over the years before losing out to Slack’s accelerated user acquisition
Both HipChat and Stride will migrate their users to their once rival’s platform, and cease all support by February 2019. About 2,600 employees from Stride and HipChat will begin using Slack. [http://fortune.com/2018/07/26/hipchat-slack-atlassian-chat-software/]
KEY TAKEAWAY #7 Acquisitions are more than just getting rid of competition. Consider what else you can win by purchasing a competitor or complimentary product…. Customer base, new talent, new technology?
Chapter 8 – Future Proofing the Company and the Product
We’ve seen multiple high-growth companies ‘rest on their laurels’ rather than continuing to iterate and optimize.
Slack’s initial intention was building a solid customer-centric product that isn’t just functional, but adored.
The majority of their marketing efforts were poured into making their brand fun, lighthearted, and accessible.
People who use it have the same perception of the brand. It’s ingrained in their brains because Slack put all the effort in conveying that core message.
This is something Google or Microsoft cannot achieve. At least not in the short run.
While they can offer the best integrations, tools, and technical perfection it will still be the product of Google/Microsoft. It’s the product of a big corporate company who owns everything.
When someone looks at Slack they see Animals! Video with bright colors and quirky loading messages. If they look at Microsoft, the see a different brand message – a more corporate oriented machine with a serious tone.
It’s the same reason why HipChat which is arguably the same product and was launched 4 years before Slack, couldn’t grow.
“Slack won the branding game because they invested in emotional capital. “
Integrations and technical flexibility keeps the team at the forefront of the team-communication industry. Strategic acquisitions of companies allows them to have the best-in-class talent and even an instant surge of new users.
Stewart Butterfield talks about the importance of inclusion and diversity. And it’s not just empty virtue-signalling.
- Globally, 43.5% of the workforce is comprised of women (48.1% of managers are women)
- 11.5% of the workforce is comprised of people from one or more underrepresented racial and/or ethnic group
This is significantly better than Microsoft or Google who haven’t made any improvements from the baseline at 30%.
This tells the public that Slack cares for its employees and they love the company.
Source: Diversity at Slack | https://slackhq.com/diversity-at-slack-2
Because their care of safe environment and appreciation the reviews on Glassdoor are glowing.
- “The NICEST, most thoughtful company culture I’ve ever experienced”
- “genuinely cares about you and your life inside & outside the company “
The core Slack team – the original founders love working with each-other. They have been through thick and thin, ran the gauntlet and stepped over the charred corpses of failed products. They are connected with a common goal to keep their customers happy.
When you look at the military history, the battle-hardened and seasoned soldiers who were a part of the same company fared much better in the field than fresh recruits. It’s only natural. Every individual in the tight-knit group knows each other and rely on them because they know their capabilities.
In the book, From Impossible to Inevitable, author Aaron Ross talks about defining your destiny — in every moment of growing your business you have two options:
- You give up in the face of challenges or
- Use them to motivate yourself and others and push forward.
During BUD/S (Basic Underwater Demolition/ SEAL) – notoriously hard training phase of becoming a Navy Seal, the training officers figured out who will make it through the training. It’s those individuals who find a buddy — a brother to rely on during the most grueling, mentally and physically challenging conditions.
You go through a trauma with a group of people, and you really get bound to them. You know, like, it’s a really – it’s a – makes you very close. And so I think we all wanted to continue working together. — Stewart Butterfield, Interview on How I Built This with Guy Raz
Key Takeaway: Brand is everything your company does with your customers. Tie everything into that mantra – the happiness of your employees, the love of the product and most importantly – your customers’ satisfaction.
Slack has established itself as an idol of a business company — they are loved by small startup teams and large enterprises. Their panacea for internal communication was not only effective but also packaged in a way it’s easy and fun to use. The extreme focus on customer satisfaction only made it better through the years and minds of new users. And on top of that, the employees love working for it, believing they are making a positive change.
“Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.” ― Søren Kierkegaard
This was the year I’ve finally put my thoughts (weekly newsletter) and studies online. I’ve realized there’s no value hoarding the knowledge you’re getting from books, courses, movies without taking an action. I’ve heard somewhere the knowledge is not power but potential power (“I think it was on one of Joe Rogan’s podcast episodes).
1. What went well this year?
2. What didn’t go so well this year?
3. What did I learn?
1. What went well
Systems – As someone who spent years wasting time on video games and watching mindless movies, the introduction of systems was one of the best things to keep me accountable. I (was) am of the self-proclaimed laziest persons and if you live in an environment where most of the people are just fine with “living with the flow”, it didn’t help at all.
I’ve started the personal scoreboard where I track daily routines. It didn’t matter if I was way at the times. I wanted to feel that sting of failures if I wasn’t on track with my daily habits. Not only I have an outside view on how I’m performing I’ve also used it as a minimal journal of my actions.
Writing tracker — this was godsend and I’ll tell more about it in the next paragraph.
Writing – I’m very happy with my writing. During the process, I’ve beat myself up and told myself how shitty the grammar and structure is. However, the value of growth studies was there. At least according to email signups.
The writing course was one of the best investments I’ve made this year.
Business/Career — At the end of August 2017 I’ve parted ways with virtual reality startup and joined the digital out-of-home marketplace company. My salary increased by 180% during the first 6 months. I received another raise and brought the income to 248%.
This allowed me to spend more money on personal development and tools. The best courses I’ve taken this year were Tiago Forte’s Build Your Second Brain and Getting Things Done, Primoz Bozic’ Writing More Every Day and Chris Von Wilperts’ Content Maverick.
The result of writing growth studies:
- I’ve received one paid contract for growth study (coming out in January 2019)
- The personal walkthrough of Landyachtz Longboards HQ by Ryan Theobald (VP of Marketing and Sales)
- ~1000 unique visitors per month
- I’ve written and published 4 growth studies, three of them were on top weekly posts on GrowthHackers.
- I’ve done a couple of side jobs that resulted in healthy income from commission. At the end that income was about 15% of my total revenue.
- Finally did LASIK surgery – I’m still in recovery and my sight isn’t 100% there yet, but it feels amazing waking up or going to sleep without lenses.
- I’ve re-started longboarding. It was my childhood dream to skateboard but living in a rural countryside that wasn’t a realistic nor rational wish. But this year I’ve started longboarding again. Right now I have 3 different longboards in my trunk and I go cruise around the city with two of my co-workers at least once a week. If it’s not cold/rainy I also longboard to work daily.
- Took the trip to Vancouver for 16 days. I’ve loved spending time longboarding around Stanley Park, living out of the rural house in Upper Squamish Valley and tasting expensive hipster coffee on a daily basis. The trip put a lot of things into perspective.
- I’ve visited 6 countries this year (Croatia, Austria, Netherlands, Canada, United Arab Emirates, and Germany). One of the dopest things was longboarding the downtown cities in three different continents within 45 days. Cool!
- I stopped playing video games entirely. Switch from PC to Macbook was one of the best career movies since there’s not a lot of options in terms of games for Apple users. But I still played Hearthstone (Blizzard’s card game) about every other day. This stopped early this year.
- I’ve bombed the Half-Nelson in BC on a downhill bike. Pure Adrenaline! (Not my video!)
Listening to incredible music has been a necessity and constant companion since the early teens (thanks to an older brother who introduced me to the Zepps, Pearl Jam and Hendrix). Contrary to the popular belief there’s more good music than ever. You just need to dig for it (or follow trusted sources).
I live for moments for discoveries such as Elder’s Lore, Jon Hopkins’ Open Eye Signal, Grimes’ Genesis or even Godspeed You!Black Emperors’ Storm — those ones that give you a dose of something new and amazing.
These are my favorite discoveries in 2018 (in no particular order):
- Khruangbin – Oh my goodness. If there’s something I love is finding something completely new. This trio is a perfect slow funk groove that will make your head bob for daysssssssss
- Matthew Chaim – Homemade — just chillin’ back and enjoying some vocals
- Georgia Ann Muldrow – Overload — dayuuuuuummm, I’m a sucker for those vocals and beats.
- Against All Logic (A.A.L) – 1997 – 2002 — Nicolas Jaar is a prodigy in the electronic world. Everything he touches is pure gold and this collection that was released this year is mind-bogglingly good. Perfect intro to some melodic house stuff.
- Jon Hopkins – Singularity — I’m envious to people who haven’t heard the Open Eye Signal track. You can expect something similar on Singularity as well (Emerald Rush is ridonculous). The second full-length album carries the epic soundscapes of a majestic universal flick as well.
- Chrome Sparks – S/T — Still Think clip will blow your mind.
- Bishop Gunn – Natchez — the feel-good country rock. What’s not to love?
2. What didn’t go so well
Health/Fitness – the year 2018 was the year of injuries.
- I’ve torn a hamstring playing squash.
- Sprained my right wrist during heavy clean.
- Sprained my hammy couple more times with unintentional splits after falling from a longboard.
- Problems with my left shoulder
- I’ve had a couple of problems with my skin, one resulted in a hospital visit.
- The eye surgery requires me to rest and abstain of exercise for the whole month. Since I value my eyesight I grudgingly have to concur with doctor’s orders
Because of that, my training was inconsistent and I haven’t seen progress in strength. I’ve recorded a PR lift at merely 84 kg snatch, while I haven’t maxed up my clean and jerk. Same goes with squat, deadlift and bench.
The total strict pull-ups went down from 11 in 2017 to 6.
The cardio portion was even worse. I never was a good runner and when I started training for it, the injury happened and pushed me back to the blank page.
Personal — I work a lot and tend to neglect other important things like relationships with my family, friends and love life. On one end I’m ok with it since I’m (still) far away from my personal goals that will require a lot more focus, but on the other, I’m tired of having my life “on hold”.
The schedule doesn’t allow much time to pursue endeavors that aren’t directly tied to my Northstar goal. Maybe I should put more things into “balance” but as soon as I saw this word I puked a little in my mouth.
“Whatever dude, cry me a river, right?”
Yeah, I know.
Investing — after reading Money, Master the Game and talking to my US friends I realized the importance of saving and investing money. I have a small investment in crypto (which is tanking). I also started participating in lending clubs (Mintos is my choice) which is great, however, the portfolio is too diversified to bring those sweet compounding gains.
I’m trying to find a European version of Roth IRA/401k or reliable index funds like 500 S & P. If anyone knows about a financial game in Europe, please let me know.
What I’ve learned
More money gives you access to more opportunity and potential power — in 2016/17 I’ve slept on the ground, ate one chipotle meal per day and saved wherever I could. In 2018, I’ve spent more around 30 – 40% of my income on learning.
The classes don’t just allow you some sort of shortcut to distilled and proven strategies, but access to people who are levels above you and have similar mentality towards personal growth. When you’re buying a course you’re also investing in a relationship channel between the course host. It may sound cheesy, but this connection is invaluable if you respect them.
By respect I mean sticking to the program, giving the best possible feedback and being a good student in general. The course program hosts aren’t just there to earn, but they genuinely want for their students to succeed.
Change — My happiness is correlated with the number of options I have in life and one thing I hate more than anything in my life is being stuck. Mostly is being stuck in one place for too long, or being stuck on a business problem, work. A friend of mine noticed that I don’t even park my car in the same spot. I like diversity and I like change (for the better). In my regular business, there wasn’t much progress in the first part. It drove me insane. I’ve produced countless documents, spreadsheets, experiments explaining the process and expected results, but they never reached the key person to receive the green light.
I felt this as a personal defeat (and I still do). As a consequence, this drove me to start the blog and put free time into different challenges than work-related ones. I’m happy with the blog and I’ve started being more demanding at work about the priorities. After some internal reorganization and better communication, we’ve seen more positive changes in the last two months than the entire year. Change is good.
- Getting my health and fitness back on track. Start swimming once a week, yoga 2/w, lifts 2/w and cardio in daily walk/runs or longboarding sessions.
- Pull-up goal: 15.
- Snatch goal: 90 kg
- Clean & Jerk: 115 kg
- B. Squat: 155 kg
- Deadlift: 220 kg
- Body fat under 13%
- Redesign my website (Q1) – it’s uglier and slower than Frankenstein’s grandma. I’m switching to Webflow in January 2019.
- Keep the daily writing habit going. I’m planning to write 6 growth studies and land at least 5 guest posting gigs.
- Launch a personal productivity course. If there’s something I’m good at is that I can finish a lot of simple tasks quickly. As a “one-man-growth-team” I’ve learned to be efficient. After telling a couple of friends about the hints and tricks, they were amazed. So this year I’m testing and opening up a course. Let me know if you would like to take a peak.
- Attend a wedding in Taiwan. One of my dear friends is getting married in June. I’m already excited as this is going to be my first trip to “real” Asia (East Turkey doesn’t count).
- Move with the company to N. American market.
Btw… I’ve made this useful Trello board. Feel free to use it if you feel it will help.
Can you imagine a grocery store today that doesn’t even use social media, yet they have one of the most engaging and loyal fan base than anyone else. No facebook, no twitter, even the website looks like it was made in the late 1990s. There’s no data collections, discounts, screaming in-store LED signs or online shop.
Not only that, people are going bananas and are literally begging to open up a new store in their neighborhood. The parking lots are infamously crowded and whenever they open up a new shop, there’s a high probability of something called “the trader tow line” — the store is so popular that people park just about anywhere to get into it. The waiting lines can wrap around the building and towing trucks are having a field day removing the vehicles off the street because there’s nowhere else to park.
There’s a franchise of grocery store that is so popular their biggest marketing expense is a sampling station inside the store. This store is Trader Joe’s.
Established in 1967 by the “original Joe” — Joe Coulombe, the franchise is absolutely adored by their customers.
Situated in Monrovia California, Trader Joe’s
- Employs more than 40,000 happy employees
- Has 474 stores nationwide in 43 states (October 2017)
- Had only 3 different CEOs in the last 60 years (in 1958 the stores were called Pronto Markets)
- Brings in $13.3 billion of revenue (2015)
- Was acquired by Aldi Nord (Fortune 500 company) in 1979 (although it’s completely independent)
- Offer more than 80% of their private label products to their customers
- Intentionally doesn’t sell outside US and grows slowly rather than fast
In this growth study, I’m finding out the distinct elements of the Trader Joe brand and what made it successful from the marketing and product standpoint. We are going to identify the success factors that contributed the outstanding loyalty and almost religious popularity among their customers. Every chapter includes a takeaway which you can use and think about how to apply it towards your business (if relevant).
Table of Contents:
- Chapter 1: Trader Joe’s Brand Second to None
- Chapter 2: Product that screams Value and Love
- Chapter 3: In People’s Business, not Retail Business
- Chapter 4: The Value Manifesto
- Chapter 5: TJ’s Secret Ingredient – Copywriting
- Chapter 6: Leadership and Decentralized Command
- Chapter 7: Happy Crew – Happy Company
- Chapter 8: Built to Grow… slowly
“We are not in the retail business — we are in the people’s business”
The story of Trader Joe’s starts even before the year 1968 when it was officially renamed to today’s know Trader Joe’s (TJ). The founder, Stanford-educated Joe Coulombe bought up a couple of convenience stores in California – back then these stores were called Pronto stores and they carried miscellaneous items – chewing gum, pantyhose or ammunition box.
Pronto stores actually didn’t take off as you’d expect to judge by today’s success. Early hires remember dressing up in a gorilla costume and nudging people in through the doors. However, they did have great products and they were stocked by a category of products they are most known today: cheese, wine, and nuts. But none of those products were the inflection point that turned the boat towards the wind. It was one product that everyone loved, and Trader Joe’s had it on stock.
The almighty granola.
California always had a sizeable population of dietary weirdos. In the early 1970s, Jim Matson observed what products were moving in the local health food stores of St. Louis. Obscure flours and sea salts stayed on the shelf while cereals filled the shopping carts. In 1971, he helped open up a granola factory in Chico, CA.
In 1972, Heartland Natural Cereal started pumping out granola cereals. Just a short time after it was picked up by Quaker’s, Kellog’s and General Mill’s.
But having the initial traction is only one part of the product/market fit. What Trader Joe’s did in the years to come are the proper thought out sustainable strategies for growth.
The Market State in the 1950s
Joe Coulombe also deducted a couple of main points when starting a business. Trader Joe’s actually wasn’t the green, friendly store tight from the start. Back in May 1958, when Coulombe opened up a chain of Pronto stores he realized that there is a change happening in the education in America.
In the Entrepreneur interview, he said that in 1932, only 2% of all the people were qualified to go to college, while in 1965 that percentage raised to 60%. This meant the mass market is going to change.
The second element was the cost of travel. In 1970, Boeing 747 went into service and radically decreased the cost of flying. This fact also contributed to the name Trader Joe’s and the maritime look. It would show the customers a sense of adventure at the southern seas.
They made the necessary steps to think ahead. At first, it was all about getting some money in. Since the headquarters were located in California, Joe had a smart start offering alcohol. Because in the state of California they had Fair Trade policy, which meant no-one would be able to drop prices of alcohol lower than the ones set by the state regulations. The margins and revenue were therefore guaranteed.
“Trader Joe’s was first a liquor shop, before anything else” — Joe Coulombe
Let’s break every element down and identify the growth factors.
CHAPTER 1: Trader Joe’s Brand – Different than anyone else. Why so serious?
I remember when I first stepped into the Trader Joe’s in Seattle’s University District. I was blown away by how it makes you feel welcome. The staff wore these crazy Hawaiian shirts and were goody and talkative. I’ve always loved this kind of bubbly personality with an informal yet helpful approach.
It all falls into the picture of the original Joe’s — the first CEO who said the people are the brand (more on that on company’s values in Chapter 4).
The store itself has a unique look – it looks like a hipster version of Whole Foods with the focus on creativity, homeless and acceptance. The staff who usually wears Hawaiian shirts or Trader Joe’s hoodies are individuals who are happy to be there.
Similar to the shirts there’s also the bell which adds to a maritime feel. But it’s not there just for show. It’s a secret message — one ring means there’s a crowd at the register and someone should come and help out, two rings means that a customer has an important question while three rings summons the store captain a.k.a store manager.
“Sale” is a four-letter word to us. We have low prices, every day. NO coupons. NO membership cards. NO discounts. NO glitzy promotions or couponing wars at our stores. We offer the best everyday values, every day. — Excerpt from TraderJoe’s website
You won’t find any flat screens or screaming billboards for discounts and special offers. Everything is chilled down to offer customers an amazing shopping experience. In every Trader Joe’s store, you’ll find unique art on the walls which are creations from local artists.
The store isn’t just a copy/paste franchise of one base example model but is unique to the neighborhood they are situated in.
All this combined makes them different from any other store out there. It’s not so much about the product (which are of high quality and amazing value), or accessibility (actually they are notorious about too small parking lots and absence of online store) but about the shopping experience.
When you shop at Trader Joe’s you’re not there to get butter, milk and few dozens of eggs and gallon of peanut butter, but you’re there to relax, chat up with friendly crew members and try something new.
This stark contrast to anything else that’s out there gives them a competitive edge in their niche and shines a bright spotlight on their brand and values. Apart from a printed brochure (which is a story on its own – chapter 5), sporadic email newsletter and tasting station (which is the highest marketing expense) Trader Joe’s doesn’t do much else.
Apart from Instagram and Pinterest, they don’t have Facebook, Twitter or other social media. They don’t use paid campaigns online or offline and for sure they don’t put much focus on website design which looks like it’s stuck in time.
|Trader Joe’s Tasting Station – The Biggest Marketing Expense |
Who would have thought a simple daily sampling would be the biggest marketing channel. And that it has its place in the customer “journey”. Since there’s always an influx of new products in the store, the station represents a mini public keynote about the star of the day product.
And who doesn’t like to receive free food right? f the dish of the day doesn’t appeal to you, there’s always coffee with milk (vegan options too, of course) or tea.
With their brand, they’ve done what every company wants – create relationships and develop thousands of raving fans who can’t shut up about how amazing there are. Just like crossfitters can’t stop gushing about how sick their workouts are and vegans how well they feel on a steady diet of ginger kale smoothies and quinoa burgers.
Since the people are the brand, Trader Joe’s doesn’t use online shops or deliver products. In a way, they are intentionally cutting back down and turning down huge amounts of revenue. But in return, they are keeping true to their main mission and values. Every interaction is genuine and is aimed to benefit the customer.
KEY TAKEAWAY #1 — Dare to be different. Don’t imitate, innovate. Read 1,000 true fans from Kevin Kelly. Your job is to create a brand people love and become memorable. Retail is one of the industries where genuine human customer service and knowledge of the product is top-notch.
CHAPTER 2 – The Hot Products that Screams Value
For a small store that would almost qualify as a boutique (the average size of a Trader Joe’s store is around 15,000 sq ft, roughly a third of the size of your typical grocery store). TJ’s had to take a different approach to stocking the interior with products. Rather to cramming as much variety into the small space, they focused on a selection of unique products. They couldn’t compete with large stores that had everything.
The products have to be tasty, nutritious and without GMOs, coloring or preservatives. You also won’t find products with high-fructose corn syrup or MSG. This serves as a guarantee towards customers to shop with confidence.
Trader Joe’s products are sourced, tested and checked before they reach the shelves of your neighborhood TJ. As a grocery store, they don’t carry everything — The average grocery store sells around 50,000 items, but Trader Joe’s sells around 4,000 items on average. They have to find value somewhere else than sheer volume.
Trader Joe’s has a special position in their job categories that is probably the coolest assignment you could ever have: the product innovation position.
The job of product innovators is to travel the world and find tasty new foods that are a good fit for the next product that is going to be included in the stores. Yes, this literally means traveling around and eating a bunch of delicious food. It’s a food treasure hunt that might take you tasting cheese and wine in France, chorizo sausages in Spain or cured meats in a South Korea’s farmers’ market.
Once they find their loot in different sections of the world the product innovators bring the concepts to Trader Joe’s headquarters — either the one in Monrovia, California or Boston, Massachusetts. The tasting shing dings are three times a week.
The products are prepared and presented in front of the Trader Joe’s Food inspection lab. It’s basically a table with crew members who taste different foods and discuss whether this will be included in the stores or not. The tasting happens after lunch, so there’s no biased physiological circumstances or biased opinions because the tasters are hungry (that means they must eat the protein chocolate chip cookies even if they’re not hungry). It’s hard work but someone has to do it.
Being at the front is completely different then trailing the trends. But this can only happen if the brand is strong enough. Trader Joe’s has earned that right and products they put out tell the story.
The innovators bring new ideas from all over the world and sometimes they are even ahead of the curve.
Coconut oil was first introduced at TJ’s way before it has been recognized as a healthy food. Back then, saturated fats were the culprit of growing muffin tops and absence of thigh gaps. The sales records were abysmal. No one bought it.
TJ’s coconut oil before it was cool
But the trend turned and someone decided coconut oil is the top sh*t again. The customers were begging to get it back to the shelves. It has been one of the most popular items ever since.
Quality and Pricing
Once a product is chosen for inclusion in the stores, Trader Joe’s orders it in bulk. This means giant 40 – 50 lbs wheels of cheese at a time. The products are being sent to the TJ kitchen or warehouse where it’s being processed.
Some of the products are going to be cooked or processed before being packaged, while others such as cheese and nuts are being segmented, portioned or cut into smaller sizes. This way Trader Joe’s keep the costs down and also guarantees fresh and quality ingredients. Naturally, they are subject to all the necessary safety and contamination regulations, so the kitchen and processing space sometimes look like a quarantine safe-house or Dexter’s killing room.
The products are bought directly from manufacturers and growers – there are no middlemen which is another reason why they can keep the costs low.
The tasting is one of the most important aspects of Trader Joe’s. It is happening in all sections of the companies. The product innovation and management decide what gets included in the stores, the crew members and captains of each neighborhood store taste it twice a week to learn about the new product, and lastly, the customer has a chance to try one “dish of the day” in-store or back in their house. They can comment and share their opinion with the customer center via phone or email.
Since Trader Joe’s sells more than 80% of products under private label, they can keep the cost lower while still providing good quality.
Secret weapon — Scarcity
Scarcity is an ingenious way to keep customers engaged and keep them coming back. As mentioned in the book Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion (by Robert Cialdini), it’s one of the six principles that “tricks” people into spending more.
TJ might do it to keep the stock fresh, include seasonal products or rotate products that either don’t sell that well so it gives space for newcomers.
But on a bigger level it creates three absolutely genius incentives:
Larger Orders — Customers who find a product they like, they are buying them in bulk since they don’t know if it’s going to be discontinued or not. This is also true for the TJ staff as well.
Encouraged purchase of new products — Every trip to Trader Joe’s is a treat. You already know and expect fundamental elements such as where you’re going to park, what the customer service is going to be (non-fake friendly, upbeat) but best of all, you know there’s going to be a couple of new products to try out. Since they passed the taste test, you as a customer can be confident it’s going to be a good or at least interesting meal.
People will talk about it — It generates word-of-mouth and discussion over social media (and over the coffee break in the office). We’ve mentioned that Trader Joe’s doesn’t use social media.
But their fans do!
And there are hundreds of blogger type websites, Twitter mentions and especially YouTube videos where customers are showing off their TJ hauls (similar to Lululemon’s clients), share recipes or just fanboying/fangirling about how awesome and amazing Trader Joe’s is.
Halloween and Christmas are the retail versions of Super Bowl. Christmas was a $3.2 Trillion business in the USA in 2015 ($6B only on Christmas decoration), and according to Fox Business Halloween is stacking up at recording $9 Billion this year.
TJ is prepared for the holidays by preparing season-specific products. There’s even a rumor that they were the one that started all the pumpkin spice craze for the fall (you’ll find pumpkin spice coffee, pumpkin biscotti, pumpkin spice tea, almond beverage, pancake waffle mix and if that’s not enough, why don’t you put some pumpkin spice body butter on your majestic corpus corporis.
For Christmas, you might find peppermint candy and cute ornaments, for thanksgiving tons of different turkey gravies and sides and for Halloween ghost-themed snacks.
At one point they might carry 80 season-specific products. This strategy plays into the customer curiosity and exploration. During Christmas and Halloween Trader Joe’s is enjoying triple traffic. One thing might be a higher consumption of food in general but there’s also a special selection of sourced products.
“Value is the name of the game of Trader Joe’s product and it doesn’t just mean quality products for a lower price, but every other touchpoint a customer has with it — from entering to the store, talking to the crew members and completing the purchase.”
Whole Foods is trying to encroach the lower-price, higher quality market with 365-line stores. The story looks similar to Spotify vs Apple music streaming services. Spotify, like TJ’s build the brand as a quirky and unique newcomer with focus on customer service one side and on the other, there’s super-rich giants like Apple and Whole Foods (which is under Amazon now) with supreme partnerships and undisputed distribution advantages.
KEY TAKEAWAY #2 — Products only tell part of the story. Build an entire shopping experience around it and create a memorable service to turn clients into fans.
CHAPTER 3: Top Class Genuine Customer Service
“Every feedback given is a like a gift” — TJ’s Customer Support
By now it’s glaringly obvious everything is focused towards customer satisfaction. This has turned into an amazing main metric for software companies as well. Team communication software company Slack, which is the fastest growing business app, used customer satisfaction scores (and NPS) as a sole focus of their business.
How much money you bring in is important (but it’s not #1), knowing your audience in TJ is not. They don’t keep any data about you. US chain Target (and probably many other) has been known to gather tons of customer data which is able to predict when you or your significant other is going to get pregnant. Based on that knowledge they ramp up their paid marketing and retargeting channels to lure you into their stores.
It’s statistically proven, couples will spend a lot more money while pregnant and after birth than normal.
Target’s Predictable Big Data Computer Model
Target created a computer model that was able to figure out which shoppers were pregnant just by studying their shopping habits. Identifying pregnant women is the holy grail of retail. People with new babies are so tired that if you can get them inside your doors to buy bottles and formula they’ll end up buying everything else they need as well. If the new parents start shopping at Target they will be coming back for years to come.
How did they predict it?
Lots of people buy lotion but Target analyst noticed that women at Target’s baby registry started buying large quantities of lotion in about their second trimester. Someone else noticed that in about their 20th-week pregnant women started loading up with vitamins.
By crawling through the data, Target was able to identify 25 different items that, when analyzed together, allowed them to predict whether someone was pregnant. The program was so accurate that it could assign any Target shopper a pregnancy score. WILD!
After some time shoppers were getting upset by being analyzed and Target got together with their data scientists team. To be fair, it is kind of creepy how retailers and unmentioned social media channels serve you ads and searches about your last night’s dreams.
So Target started mixing in ads for bottles and formula with other products that have nothing to do with pregnancy in their catalog. The pattern looked random and it worked.
The example is taken from Charles Duhigg’s amazing book: The Power of Habit
The NY Times suggests that “Target’s gangbusters revenue growth — $44 billion in 2002 to $67 billion in 2010” can be attributed to their better understanding of consumers with predictable Big Data.
If you as a retail company can find a way to become a part of young parents’ grocery habit the LTV (lifetime value) will skyrocket.
They have none of that at Trader Joe’s.
Customer service is another bright point and they take it extremely seriously. Almost every product a customer buys can be returned without a problem and exchanged for cash (with an exemption of cheese). Yes, even the half melted mochi ice-cream.
This serves as an encouragement towards buyers to buy and experiment with new products. Get into my belly Chilli Lime Burgers and Butternut Squash Zig-Zags.
Even though crew members rotate through positions (TJ store are purposely overstaffed – chapter 7), all of them are knowledgeable about what is being kept in the store. Category Managers, for such products as spirits, beer, and wine or cheese, get acquainted with the buyers personally and over time connect with them to a level, where they completely trust them with their next purchase.
If Sarah who works the wine section likes a certain kind of dry red wine, they will go with her suggestion. This level of personal service is rarely seen but it goes a long way (similar to Lululemon Athletica’s educators).
KEY TAKEAWAY #3 — For Pete’s sakes, treat your customers like they’re the ones that bring money to the company. Because they are! Establish a system where everyone in the organization realizes the importance of stellar service.
CHAPTER 4 – Company Values
The brand and vision would be hard to achieve without underlying company values each employee – from crew member, captain to product innovators and upper management – embodies.
There are 7 if them. One of the employees even created flashcards.
How to get hired as a Trader Joe’s Crew Member – the cheatsheet
- Integrity — In the way we operate stores and the way Trader Joe’s deal with people. Act as if the customer was looking over your shoulder all the time. Respect the Golden Rule.
- Product-driven — Our strategy emphasizes product, customer experience, and value. We want to excel at one, be very good at another, and meet customer expectations on the other. Trader Joe’s buying/merchandising group search the world for great products that are carefully screened for acceptance through rigorous parameters of their unique “Buying Philosophy”. This philosophy is the cornerstone of our product focus and guides the buyers in their challenge to find the amazing new product that our customers love.
- Produce customer wow experiences — We celebrate the special way we treat and relate to our customers. We think retailing is all about customer experience, and that is what really differentiates us.We are committed to make every customer shopping experience:
- 1. Rewarding
- 2. Eventful
- 3. Fun
There are internal and external experiences. Internal experience represents the way a customer “feels” about the store experience, or how they feel about themselves while shopping in Trader Joe’s stores.
The external experience may come from great signage that passes along the information, wonderful demo program, engaging interaction with crew members and store features that entertain or inform customers.
- We hate bureaucracy — We give everyone a license to kill bureaucracy. All officers are in cubicles. The CEO is in a conference room. We have very few layers—a very simple organization.
- Kaizen — There are no KPIs to hit but we do expect each one of the employees is trying to do just a little better every day. This is infused into our training programs. We really stress teamwork and working together, while we do not do elaborate budgeting at the store level.
- Treat the store as the brand — Individual products are not the brand. The store is. The brand is really the covenant between the company and the customer, and the real key is day-to-day consistency in meeting and satisfying needs.
- We are a “national/neighborhood” company — Our customers benefit from our national buying ability, but we want each store to be close to the customer and really a part of their neighborhood.
KEY TAKEAWAY #4 — Vision, company statement and “boring” blubber talk that goes under a company presentation binder isn’t just there to be cute, but establishes the personality and direction to the people. It’s the manifesto on which everyone turns to ensure whatever they’re doing is in compliance with the company and organization.
CHAPTER 5 – Copywriting – The Secret Sauce
Trader Joe’s isn’t just a different store, with brand and people in it. It’s different with their ways of advertising as well. The marketing department isn’t big. It’s because there isn’t much to do anyway — take care of the packaging, set up tasting stations and send email newsletters and physical brochures of products.
But that’s the trick, whatever is being put out there is unique and their own. Nothing represents them better than The Fearless Flyers – the companies’ physical brochure.
Most of the flyers you’re getting in your mailbox show big colorful pictures of fresh produce, heavily discounted prices and exclusive time-sensitive deals.
TJ’s produce pamphlet is the opposite. It’s almost all text, almost no pictures except unique Victorian images. The most important point is the copy itself.
Trader Joe’s’ copywriters tell the story about the product, where it was sourced, how it tastes like and what are its ingredients. There’s always a funny pun, hidden joke or some other version of wordplay involved.
This produces intrigue, curiosity, and anticipation among their readers in addition to letting them know about new products they have to come in and try.
Instead of selling the product they sell the experience of it. It’s not just the Fearless Flyer but you can notice the copywriting techniques on the products as well.
An average product has a headline and a subtitle.
What’s with the Victorian images?
The Victorian images were used because they were royalty-free stock creatives which looked a bit funny. TJ doesn’t take itself too seriously and they were also saving money. Since customers got used to them they stuck. It all goes great with quirky, funny copywriting.
KEY TAKEAWAY #5 — Include the story into your products and try good old proven copywriting methods to attract people through the store. Is there any other differentiation factor from your competitors? Test it out.
CHAPTER 6 – Leadership and Decentralized Command
Since 1958, Trader Joe’s had only 3 CEOs in its entire history. The original Joe — Joe Coulombe was a Stanford-educated business who spent 10 years in proper markets before buying up the chain of Pronto stores I’ve mentioned in the intro.
Coulombe led the store organization for the first 30 years and is responsible for introducing private-labeled Trader Joe’s product which shot the brand into the stratosphere (yes, that was the granola everyone loved).
Even to this day, Coulombe claims the most important part of success is the people who represent the brand. Even though the employees of TJ don’t need specific skills they have to respect the company’s values and genuinely be helpful, kind and eager to help.
“We are not a conventional grocery store. We’re closer to the fashion business than the supermarket business.” — Joe Coulombe, founder of Trader Joe’s
In 1989, Trader Joe’s had 27 stores, all located in California. Coulombe passed the leadership to John V. Shields who orchestrated the growth of the stores. In 12 years he expanded the base of 27 stores to 158.
While Coulombe was intuitive, Shields was more systematic. The most important feature he introduced is decentralized decision-making management. Just like Jocko Willink (former Navy Seal commander and currently best-selling author) states in his book, a decentralized command is absolutely necessary for effective work and leadership.
At Trader Joe’s that meant the store managers (captains of the store) are responsible for decisions, management and eventual success of the stores. This makes complete sense since every store has basic fundamentals in values, but are far away from cookie-cutter copy and paste franchise. Trader Joe’s is a neighborhood store with its own neighborhood feel.
The store has its own artists and own people. The relationships between customers and staff get built faster because the nature of customer service and frequency of households and denizens leaving nearby. Shop captains have the cultural knowledge and have free hands in organizing bespoke events based on where they live.
Mr. Shields also standardizes the layout of stores and brought in market analysts into the decision-making process.
In 2001, Dan Bane takes over and formulizes the strategy that took 150 stores to today’s 474 and it’s growing. Ethical Leadership
“What’s really great is that it was sort of the right CEO at the right time throughout history. I think that’s really what’s happened.” — Jon Basalone, President Of Stores @ Trader Joe’s
KEY TAKEAWAY #6 — The secret of great companies is hiring amazing talent and letting them do their job. Trust your managers to run their departments without you micromanaging them and being the bottleneck of success.
CHAPTER 7 – HAPPY EMPLOYEES and COMMUNITY
One thing is being kind to customers, but something completely different is creating a community. The company and neighborhood stores actively participate in charity, cultural and other events.
A tremendous THANK YOU to Trader Joe’s Napa for their generous donation to NapaValleyBFF. Captain Jeff and his Magical Staff, we are beyond grateful! pic.twitter.com/NV7tViQxTd
— NapaValleyBFF (@NapaValleyBFF) November 21, 2018
The Neighbourhood Shares program is unique to TJ’s. The staff takes blemished and imperfect products and share them with people who just happen to need assistance. Trader Joe’s has donated over $350 million of product and fed over 58 million meals through the program. They eliminate food waste and help the local people in need at the same time.
Happy employees = Successful Company
It’s impossible to have a successful business that relies on human resources and the quality of customer service without satisfied and happy employees. Trader Joe’s “jolly roger crew” are the actual brand.
Unlike working history and GPA, Trader Joe’s is hiring based on personality. If you don’t like people you have nothing to bring to the table.
“Applicants who did not smile in the first 30 seconds were crossed off the list.” John V. Shields about hiring store managers at Trader Joe’s
In the 2002 interview, John Shields famously said to new hires at TJ: ‘Look, at the end of 30 days, if you are not having fun, please quit.’ ”
To keep crew members on their toes and engaged, Trader Joe’s deliberately overstaffs the stores so the crew can rotate positions. That way they are not just filling the shelves or managing the register which could lower their spirits.
Similarly to Lululemon’s educators’, Trader Joe’s new hires are paid above retail average and have 24 days off per year which they can spend however they want. This is called Accrued Reserve which is earned by the amount of time a crew member is working.
“For full-time crew (mates, merchants, captains) the benefit is 9.4 percent of your wages in an absence reserve fund you can use for any time off you may need or want to take. After ten years with the company, it goes up to 10.4 percent. Part-time crew members get 3% the first couple of years and then it goes up to 5%.”
The hourly pay is about $15 while the captains can earn six figures annually.
What distinguishes TJ’s employees from other retailers is the work environment.
“We wear Hawaiian shirts because we’re traders on the culinary seas, searching the world over for cool items to bring home to our customers. And when we return home, we think grocery shopping should be fun, not another chore.” — From TraderJoes.com FAQ
I found a crew member from Twitter to get some first-hand testimonial how is it like working for Trader Joe.
- Why did you decide to start working with TJ?
- How was the interview process like?
- How do you like working with TJ?
- What’s the most enjoyable part of the job?
- Do you feel the compensation is sufficient?
- Do you see yourself working longer with Trader Joe? Why not?
- What are your biggest takeaways and lessons while working at TJ?
My name is Michael Barfknecht, I work at Trader Joe’s in Temecula, CA.
Dejan: Why did you decide to start working with TJ?
Michael: First I was interested in working for Trader Joe’s because my cousin works there and she always talked about how great of an environment it was.
Dejan: What’s the interview process like?
Michael: The interview process is about the same for everyone, you drop off an application and the mates (managers) ask you some questions right on the spot, basically of why here, favorite products, what are your future plans, and so forth…
If you’re lucky enough to get in for an interview, they range from 1 – 3 interviews. We are a very popular place to work at and get applications literally almost every day, not exaggerating.
Dejan: How do you like working with TJ?
I’ve been with Trader Joe’s for almost 4 years now. I started at age 16, about JR. year of high school. I absolutely LOVE the company. We hire high schoolers, as well as college students and are pretty flexible with schedules as I also played sports in high school. Trader Joe’s taught me and still teaches me, how to be personable, outgoing, kind towards others. The most enjoyable part for me, not to be cliche, but is all aspects. My coworkers are awesome and fun, they are part of the reason I do like coming to work. Also the customers, yes we do have our occasional rude or unhappy customers, but for the most part our customers we have the most fun with and they always leave with a smile on their face even if they came in unhappy. Another part I love is the fast pace, we have to be on our toes helping several customers at once along with filling the shelf.
Dejan: Do you feel the compensation is sufficient?
Michael: The compensation I feel is very fair for us. We get benefits, we have to have averaged a certain amount of hours and we get medical, dental, and vision at a very reasonable price. Our company helps pay for it to keep a low cost for us.
Also, our pay rate is very good, working in California, I am able to enjoy life comfortably while still paying all my bills.
Dejan: Do you see yourself working longer with Trader Joe? Why not?
Michael: Trader Joe’s long-term is not a bad gig at all. Getting promoted and going higher into the company, by either becoming a manager or working in the office (food buyer, regional manager) are all great jobs.
For me personally, I am studying to becoming a foreign English teacher. But Trader Joe’s is flexible with my time off and allowing me to peruse this dream of mine. The company has been a great stepping stone and I would recommend the job to anyone and everyone.
Dejan: What are your biggest takeaways and lessons while working at TJ?
Michael: The biggest lesson and takeaways I will take away is growing so much personally with people. The job teaches you so much about ordering, and shipments, stocking rotating food, but that anyone can learn. We are all about the Customer Experience, each customer should feel welcomed and can ask any question and be helped by a happy a ‘ready to go’ crew member. Each crew member works in every part of the store and so we can answer any question.
For me personally, I really love helping people with everything I do, and this job lets me do that. If I was unsure of my dream job, or didn’t know what to pursue in my life then I would work my way up in Trader Joe’s.
KEY TAKEAWAY #7 — A company with happy employees is a happy company which keeps on giving in the long run. Give your staff free hands to figure out ways to give back to the community and lift the local brand in the neighborhood’s eyes and hearts.
Chapter 8 – How Trader Joe’s Expands its Stores
Instead of fast expansion, TJ’s takes a similar philosophy as it does with their products — making sure they have all the necessary ingredients first and find a good spot with high appeal rather than speed.
The brand already has enough strength to attract new people through the doors immediately. According to the customer support center, people even beg them to open the store in their areas by writing petitions and applications.
Trader Joe’s picks their location by first looking at the demographics and buying power. Are there enough households in the area with sufficient population?
Next, they look at the distance from their warehouse centers. If the stores are along the way of the supply routes it makes the decision much easier.
The last one is finding the right people. “The only thing that holds us back are the number of captains and crew members who can run it the right way. We won’t open the new stores if there are not the right Trader Joe’s people.”
In May 2018, there were 475 stores. At the current growth plan, they plan to open 30 to 35 stores per year across 48 states. Previously they added an average of 23 stores per year (but only 14 in 2017 according to Retail Leader).
They have the playbook, and they have the brand. The only missing piece to find in the “People, Process, Product” (Marcus Lemonis from The Profit anyone?) is the local crew.
KEY TAKEAWAY #8 — Sometimes hyper-speed growth could be detrimental to a company’s success. A slow, method expansion on pre-vetted areas with the right deployment of trade routes, talent and infrastructure is a risk-free guarantee.