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How Autopilot Grew from 0-3,500 Customers in 2 Years

Video Summary

In March 2015, Autopilot re-launched with a brand new product and zero customers. Despite entering a crowded marketing automation scene, Autopilot rapidly grew to 3,500 paying customers over the next 2 years. In this case study, learn the playbook behind Autopilot's journey including the community and content strategies, nurturing tactics, and partner integrations that have driven growth – and how you can do the same.


Guy Marion is Chief Marketing Officer & Growth at Autopilot, the visual platform for automating the customer journey. Guy spearheads Autopilot’s go­to­market strategy and operations, including marketing, growth, and revenue. Prior to joining Autopilot, Guy was Senior Director of Online Sales at Zendesk, VP & General Manager of CollabNet, and CEO of Codesion (acq. by CollabNet in 2010). Guy is a frequent contributor or source for outlets including Forbes, CMO.com, MarketingDive, and VentureBeat, and has led main­stage presentations at industry events including Dreamforce and Zuora Subscribed.

What you will learn?

  • Learn what tactics Autopilot used to grow their user base from 0 to 3500
  • Apply these tactics to your own business
  • See what Autopilot’s organizational structure looks like and see how different or similar it is to your own
  • Figure out what changes you can make within your organization to mimic the kind of growth that Autopilot has displayed over the past few years

Good morning. I hope everyone’s going well. I’ve been loving the talks today and hope everyone else has as well. I’ve been taking notes away and tweeting all morning.

So anyway, I’m delighted today to share a little bit about autopilot, how we’ve been growing and really dive into some of the tactics and strategies we’ve taken the last two and a half years to get to 3,500 customers very quickly.

So as I go along I also would like to call out a big part of that is, you know having a great team. We’ve got Andy Fleishman here who built some of these beautiful slide, who built these beautiful slides today, as well as Josh Fechter who spoke yesterday on building a successful growth marketing community. He started a community called Badass Marketing and Founders. People in here probably are, know it or part of it. He’s an evangelist at autopilot as well. And then there’s Clay who’s out front and a guru.

So. It’d be great if I can advance the slide. Let me just go ahead and get started. So as we’re working through that I will start off here with a, yeah, thanks. All right, so, my name is Guy Marion again. I am currently CMO and Head of Growth at Autopilot. I’ve been here since zero revenue zero customers. I previously was in zendesk where I was the head of online acquisition, the head of online sales as it was called, which was really a growth role essentially spanning the online and the direct portions of the company. And before that, I was a co-founder of a first company called CVS dude that I sold to CollabNet. And there was a VP and GM of Cloud Services for two years. And a big part of what I’ve done over the last sort of 10 years of doing these different things is integrating our products into our engagement platforms, building out a stock to be able to be personalized and contextual and in doing so, create really strong online results. So I started come at the SaaS world from the self-service online portion, but then how to move that into larger organizations as well.

So how do you grow from 0 to 3 500 customers? I’m gonna take you through quickly the growth engine we’ve built, seven of those strategies and how I restructured our team. And it really obviously starts and this has been spoken a lot today, by solving a key problem. What is the pain you’re trying to address and very clearly defining who the personas are that you’re targeting within the organization. I didn’t put those up today because I feel like everyone in the room is probably quite focused and aware of exactly who your audience is. The speakers earlier today made a really good point of knowing that if you’re engaging your audience the right way at the right time over and over again, then that’s how you know, that’s how people have been successfully succeeding.

In the case of autopilot, you know we exist because the fact that only about 7% of the world’s companies use automation, actually marketing animation. And when I first met the CEO, he told me that, I said that’s impossible.
But it turns out that if you get outside of us in the tech world, very few companies do. It’s much more common to be using MailChimp for newsletters or batch to blast. So we’re really, and the reason why is you know for too long, a lot of the automation systems have been just too complicated and too expensive. So, you know, we’ve really focused around empowering marketers to create remarkable journeys. That means making it easy to learn and do online. And so a lot of energy has gone into creating a buying experience that you can sign up for online by the credit card.
But ultimately, we believe that marketers, growth managers can and will learn how to build effective journeys, onboard customers, to reactivate old leads, to assign leads to sales, to send segmented sense. So we’ve done a lot to enable that over time.

So ultimately, Autopilot’s visual software for automated customer journeys, it integrates with over 700 marketing tools and it provides the insights and intelligence to help you do better marketing. Pretty simple.

Oops, I forgot to click here. So it shows a little visual.

You know, we take a visual approach and so Autopilot sort of the way we win is through the visual experience, which is a relatively new concept and really sort of demystifies and makes it much more intuitive to build out what we call journeys automations. And also it’s an API-first platform that integrates many different services.

But I say that because you know coming into this, the idea is there’s a well-established need to be able to automate, build through an accelerated growth through automation. How do we make that is available and accessible to the broader community as possible.

So we’ve been successful so far averaging 18% month-over-month MRR revenue growth. You know sign up over 40,000 trials last two years and over 3,500 customers. This has largely been driven, it’s 100% inbound through content, referral, paid acquisition, channel integration, and then some fairly novel sort of acquisition and sales strategies as well on the inbound side spanning online to more of a scaled velocity in a direct approach.

So I’m going to show you how we do that. So one of the first things we did is we build out and go through this life cycle journey map. So back in Zendesk, one of the things we did is we had basically a, we called a conversion committee, which essentially became the growth organization at Zendesk and we brought together stakeholders from around the company. When I say stakeholders, I mean hands on doers who work directly either building product or working with customers and identified opportunities for growth. And one of the outputs was a customer journey map and it’s something that has resonated with me for years now, which is, and it’s something that we actually evangelize as a company is this acquire, nurture, grow framework.

It starts out with mapping up all the different sources by which we’re driving interest and awareness to our company including paid channels, search, paid, social, webinars we host, trade shows that where we work with, organic sources. So our number one source of traffic is organic search. We have a lot of emphasis on SEO and developing content that meet the needs that people are searching for as well as we’re very active on social, heavy on content as well as referral based approaches. We do work in, we’re influencers and press, as well as with a lot of our partners. So Slack, Segment, Salesforce, Zapier all integrate with Autopilot, which makes it easy to be able to leverage best-of-breed tools into your marketing and your, into your journey.

So, with, in doing so, we’ve also launched integrations with them and become members of their app stores. All of these drive anonymous traffic to our site. From there, we capture and convert them to known leads using either forms that we’ve captured directly with Autopilot or syncing Eventbrite or go to webinar registrations using on-site lead capture and also syncing it from CRM. And then from there, we’ve used Infer very very success- very effectively to, this is one of my growth strategies I’ll come to later. But essentially use a demographic fit score based on prior conversion history for the last two years to initially grade and we use that as part of our initial routing.

From there, we take customers through a different buying experience based on a combination of frankly their fit with the size of their database which we ask on the form question. And I’ve come as, I’ll show in a couple minutes how that’s a great strategy as well. We also have non-trials which we take through nurture program with the goal of getting them to trial.

Now each of these boxes is essentially an area that we either have focused and built nurture journeys into, or are in the process of doing so but kind of like, Steli, the close.io speaker earlier said growth is about finding areas that you’re not focused on today, new opportunities for growth. I was like how Jessica from NVISION said that the channel she could never live without his her existing customer base.

We all know it’s a lot cheaper and easier to increase retention or reactivate 20% of leads and generate 20% net new, and going through a life cycle mapping graph like this will help you identify those latent areas of opportunity, like those who didn’t convert from a trial but showed certain got to a certain level of engagement during the trial and maybe have gone silent for 90 days, putting them into an automated specific nurture track there is a terrific way to surface leads that convert at 3x the rate of trade off your site. It’s also a great exercise to get the team together and really think through in a growth-oriented manner where are the opportunities for growth.

And the second thing is building out a stock that you know on the one hand we experiment with and try a lot of tools. On the other hand, you should have your core engagement platform that you know, that covers obviously content and CRO. So we use WordPress, Instapage and Optimizely for landing pages, for a/b testing and for blog, flight school, and various other content as well as be able to capture leads and forms of various types. You know, we use a subscription billing platform, Salesforce’s CRM, and then as I mentioned earlier predictive scoring and then attribution, which we’ve you know, multi-touch attribution, obviously, if you know, you can use Google within Google analytics, there’s a multi-touch attribution module that’s free. If you go in there and find that certain last touch sources are off by 40% or more as we did, then it’s definitely time to start measuring multi-touch attribution which with the right setup and planning for is actually a pretty straightforward process and provide some sort of head twisting results once you start to recognize the multiplicative effects, for example of some of your content or actually the degraded effects of some of your sort of thirsty last touch sources like some of the social paid ads and so on.

We also sync all of our data. So all the usage data and autopilot we pump into Autopilot and use that to reengage. And then we do a lot of our cohort and funnel analysis using both via the insights tool within Autopilot and Heap.
So all of this plays into this stack and I’ve shown something like this for years now with different tools at different times, but all the comes down to the idea of having a good profile of your customers, understanding what they’re doing with the trying to accomplish so you can engage in a contextual and personalized fashion.
So from that, I’m gonna go jump into sort of seven great strategies.

One was, before we launched, we launched in March of 2015, again zero customer zero revenue. We did have a database we’ve been building over time from content and various sources of the company’s history, nurturing that database early so understanding who our customer was. An email marketer, a growth marketing director, and then a VP or a technical founder of a company. And then from there developing industry attention with controversial research is the easiest hack that I’m surprised that isn’t used more. But with a Survey Monkey account and $1500 with something like sent.com you can go out and drive, you know 500 people to complete a survey form that in turn you can turn into a significant industry study that in turn focus on a controversial area. We’re at the time we’re trying to understand why only 5% of the world was automating and we learned some really fantastic stats.

You know, we did one last year in November, a state of industry report for customer journey marketing that has required 2500 trials and 36 so far just from that one content that we developed using industry research. Host interactive Q&A, you know get the founders or product owners of key areas of partners you work with for example. Riff with them, bring a customer in, promote it, share it on Twitter and generate a fair amount of buzz and last was getting sign ups on Twitter.

So before we launched beta we went through a typical sort of closed beta process and ultimately started opening up by asking people to tweet about it. That generated a ton of industry and buzz online long before we actually made it publicly available.

The second is a, you know, SEO throughout the customer life cycle. So that means both on-site. We’ve built out a number of inner interlocking properties, our website, our blog drives top of funnel. We optimize your own key search terms and we generate a ton of content and just invested heavily in that channel for three years now such that now when we actually do some paid promotion around some of those areas, like our landing page builder review for example, or how to onboard customers most effectively, or reactivate customers through a shopping cart, you know, if we do any paid, it starts to multiply the effect of our content that we’ve got out there. We also do flight school. So really contributing back to our view is drive best practices around how to become effective in these different areas. Initially the content sort of exercise for top of funnel. But what actually we saw is that it’s been more effective at enabling the middle of funnel and deeper into our customer base, who visited our site and on-site retention is really high, time on sites can often be over 10 minutes, the average is like 8 minutes. And bounce rate’s are extremely low. So it plays a really important role sort of deeper in the life cycle there. And then a lot of off-site strategies spanning from press to app directories to contributed content influencer and so on.
Obviously, we, it’s you know, a, we generate content that is either controversial or high impact or data-intensive and then secondly emphasize a lot that could distribution side of that obviously, so I’m not sure if the latest isn’t how much time you should spend producing versus distributing content. It’s something that Josh Fechter, our growth event just often ask people when he’s interviewing but we put a lot of time into both. That’s probably something like a 50/50 on our bigger pieces, but you know, that CGM report we did in November, which is really about how our top performers marketing and we analyzed everything based on those who are hitting their numbers versus those who are not, and then draw in our strategies and tactics from there. But again that’s had over 2,500 downloads and 36k of revenue. We build out a nurture track that comes directly from the author, myself, if you download that. And then from there enters you into relevant content that pulls key facts from that study and continues to take you into an area that shows you of interest and best practices from a strategic perspective.

Which leads to the third point which is to grow nurture your database. It’s one of the great things about being at Autopilot is being able to test it using something that we actually care about and love and believe in, which is appropriate lifecycle nurturing is easy to do, you know, you can, if you develop blog content and you can very easily basically syndicate or digest those those blog posts in a three-line email, drive people there and that’s your email copy done and start testing out different approaches. I mean, I often find when I go to events a lot of people I’m already, people I already have a relationship with them because we’ve taken them through a top middle and bottom of funnel from just educating and interesting and entertaining them through to developing more targeted best practices and ultimately providing some calls to action including requesting demos or signing up for trials that are only engaged if people are continuously in engaging with our nurtured funnel.

So one thing we did in the last year was test it out on two totally different nurture structures. It’s really easy to do. This is a view of inside Autopilot. One was a curated approach where we kind of did what I just said, if you engage certain tracks of content, like if you liked landing page builder reviews, you might like other stack type areas of interest or review articles and from there, we would give an appropriate call to action based on prior interests. The other is we just front-loaded all the most popular posts we’ve ever had, the most shared, the most viewed, and just front-loaded so that you know, the first in your set of nurture emails is just those most popularly viewed. And we did find that the curator approach interestingly was actually more effective in terms of both conversion rates as well as a win rates. Interestingly on average about like I mentioned earlier, nurtured lead converts at 3x our standard conversion rate and about 1.4 X asps which is actually less than one of our customers Instapage who did something like this. We did a webinar with them and they reported six X increases. So it really is true. I mean, obviously the volume’s a lot lower but as you start to build your base over time and put in place effective nurturing qualified, you can expect to see much qualified leads coming out.

Four, growth strategy is developing swim lanes that align your CAC and ASP. So I mentioned a few minutes ago. We blatantly asked on our signup form how many contacts your database. Our pricing is, you know monthly or annual. You can sign up online. You don’t have to talk to somebody if you don’t want to. And then we use the criteria they’re coupled with our Infer fit scores to route leads to either online where you’ll receive 100% usage-based onboarding experience and a follow-up experience that’s consistent with that, or velocity if you’re in a certain band, so. You know, I’ll just 2500, or 50,000 right there, you go to our velocity team, which is more like the Genius Bar approach of you schedule time with our team, they’ll take you through it and they’ll call you in the beginning of your trial and check in at the end of the trial. Always the goal is you know, we do extensive training with our teams as more of a pre-sale sort of a consultative approach focused on how to build journeys. And then mid-market is where we assign the largest leads and those are more of a direct sales experience, still with sort of a consultative approach focused through a land and expand model, but it’s more of a traditional approach. This whole method is you know, at Zendesk we did something very similar. We asked how many agents on your team. Other companies have asked number of employees in your organization. That little question couples some predictive fit can have a huge impact in overall ability to drive qualified leads to the right channel and provide a better experience for customers.

Fifth thing is, fifth key growth strategy we’ve taken is predictive lead scoring using Infer. Basically you run a model based of every touch point. And every signal then first scrapes from across the web which includes like company hiring history or what tools are running on their site or you know, specific IP-based look up around where that particular person is from. And then it returns a score based on your likelihood to convert that demographic over time.

So for us, for example, an A league converts it to point 1 XR average base conversion rate whereas a D converts at 0.1%. So capture this information up front does two things for us. One, it immediately cuts about 25% of our trial flow out of the sales channels in doing so, I mean the goal in this model is qualified leads and a steady supply that meets the needs of the organization. And so this immediately reduced the time-wasting leads that are going to result in a revolt from the sales team. On the flip side, on the on our marketing teams, it also enables us to review on a monthly basis. We do monthly D analysis, look at sources of D and work to drive those out of our funnel. So it’s been it’s you know, finally predictive is an independent third party. It’s a tremendous terrific way to bring in a streamlined approach to the organization.

So 6 is activate trials based on usage. My first experience doing this was I mean, I’ve seen this over and over at Zendesk. Again, we looked at literally how many tickets are being created during the course of the trial and in doing so it really focused on you know early on engaging through a number of in product and an email-based approach is getting less active customers up and moving more quickly. At Autopilot we’ve been looking at you know, if they’ve published their first journey and if you’ve added a tracking code to your site, which is critically important to be able to engage onsite and be able to capture data about the users visiting all your properties. We know that if you go to, if you add a tracking code, the likelihood that you go on to purchase on in aggregate is 35%. So a lot of what we do is activate trials based on usage classified a level of usage through the course of the journey and then engage across channels, email, in app, occasionally calls, different approaches to do novel things and surprise people in a way that will in turn drive conversion over time. So this right here is our CEO popping up in app with our heads up channel saying I see you have an out of the tracking code and to track visited send messages like this and that takes you to an article that describes the benefits of adding a tracking code. Other things could be scheduling time with somebody or just taking elsewhere within the app as well.

Seven is achieving step function growth of integrations. So, you know, if you have an application that’s built for integrating with third parties, in our case, what we’ve done is integrated with Slack and Segment and Salesforce, the tools that we typically use if you’re trying to build out an engagement engine and did the integrations but in doing so, we also did a co-webinar with the team. How can Slack be most effectively used for marketing and growth team? You know, we worked with VentureBeat and shared how you know, if Slack’s your cockpit then Autopilot your sort of back in and engine control room that enables you to push the Slack channels. We worked to get within their app directory and in doing so started generating referrals straight from their site as well.

So really put a lot of energy into a, identifying key integrations that provide a better product experience, obviously. And then secondly making the most of how to tailor that specific integration and key use cases for your audience. We regularly work with customers on this. If you go to our flight school, you can see many many past webinars with down the very customers always on look out for really interesting exciting new use cases. So if you have any or if anyone the room is using it then please feel free to ping me. I’d love to chat with you afterwards.

And then finally growth events themselves as I mentioned earlier, a lot of what we do is identify new areas of need and use cases and then get together and build out approaches to those. So whether it’s you know expert talks where we bring in like the co-founder of Zapier or the founders of partner service apps that we’re working with or customers we’re working with, you know, we do exclusive events. Like we I do a growth executive breakfast in San Francisco that I do sort of every three to six months or so. I bring together some people in this room have come in the past as well. We talked about areas that are really important and interesting whether that’s you know, personalization or automation or attribution.

And then primarily we’re really focused on enabling the end-user. Autopilot’s, you know, really about not selling to the VP but enabling an end-user to be successful and very quickly get up and running and getting some results and that’s really where we put a bulk of our energy in most of what we do. It’s why we take a lot of the organic and online approaches and we do events for the most part there, sort of practitioner oriented and sort of best practices oriented. Again, it helps that building out automated journeys and driving growth is a pretty fun thing to do. So it does make that a whole lot easier.

But again, what we’ve more recently been doing is loading all of our event activities into with visible now we can start to recognize the direct revenue attribution that come out of our events as well as each of the other channels that we do. And finally events provide a great basis for developing rich content downstream that we can share and redistribute across all of our channels.

So finally, how are we structured and how we built out a team? It’s really very cross-functional. We have a marketing acquisition team focus on demand and content including events, product marketing ecosystem, ops and analytics as well as brand and design. Completely agree with Zac prior point that design is a key element that’s differentiating companies today.

We also have a sale, we have sales and success teams are two separate organizations. But each of those are aligned around their online customer experience, their velocity customer experience and their mid-market experience. We always think long tail first and then large companies second. It’s a way in which we try and scale our best practices and enable customers en mass.

And then third is we are regularly pooling insights gained from either customer facing teams or online analytics and content teams and think about how can we work that better into our onboarding and into our product. So, you know, it is a growth team that really does span between customer-facing marking acquisition and product engagement. We do take a pretty flat structure and we are constantly measuring against data and taking a framework based approach to what we do.

So how do you go from zero to 3 500 customers in two years? First of all, it is design a growth marketing engine with the best technologies. I do think that you build up to that over time. We didn’t start with everything at once. But having the basics in place to capture data about your users, know what they’re doing online and in your product, and being able to sync that with the other systems that your customer facing teams are using at a basic level, having that in place gives you a huge amount of opportunity to grow much more quickly.

You know secondly, once you have the ability to target very specifically and trigger and segment then being able to do things like speaking in a one-to-one manner that you would struggle with otherwise. And then third is a build contextual and acquire nurture go journeys.

And I’m available here. We have a team outside and if anyone does want to check out Autopilot than we do a little special promo code for GMC this week. So I have to throw that plug in there, but thanks for your time.

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