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Jonathan is the co-founder & CEO of Appcues, a product for effective user onboarding. Hundreds of today's fastest growing software companies use Appcues to improve new user activation and encourage feature discovery within their products, all without having to write code. If you're in tech, odds are you've already seen Appcues in the applications you use.

Appcues was born from Jonathan's experience working at Performable and HubSpot. Frustrated by HubSpot's poor user onboarding, he sought to improve it by giving customer-facing employees the power to run onboarding experiments without having to depend on developers. As a result, teams are able to learn faster and provide a better user experience at scale.

Jonathan is from a small town in Hawaii, doesn't know Obama and has a degree in journalism. He has a hard time writing in the third person. AMA!

You can follow him on Twitter: @hijonathan

He will be live on June 20 starting at 930 AM PT for one and a half hours during which he will answer as many questions as possible.

  • GB

    German Baryshnikov

    4 months ago #

    Hi, Jonathan.

    What marketing channels do you think are worth experimenting with (or under exploited) in 2017? Why?

    • JK

      Jonathan Kim

      4 months ago #

      Hey German, thanks for the top question!

      I've been thinking a lot about how Sean Ellis created the "Growth Hacker" title, or how Gainsight championed the "Customer Success Manager." Each of these movements found a stale or overlooked role, put a new name on it and then made them feel special.

      The Growth Hackers of 5 years ago were called CRO/SEM/SEO Specialists. The CSMs of 5 years ago were called Account Managers. The activities aren't terribly different, but damn do we talk about them a lot.

      When I think about massive opportunities to exploit, I think about stale job titles or under-appreciated people who deserve a rebrand.

      • AA

        Anuj Adhiya

        4 months ago #

        I like this - not the answer I expected but its a great angle to think about where growth can from next.

  • BJ

    Ben Jacobson

    4 months ago #

    Hi Jonathan. Thanks for doing the AMA!

    I've seen a lot of blog posts from SaaS thought leaders in recent months talking about the importance of creating optimized onboarding experiences, and I've been thinking a lot about these issues. Three questions for you....

    1. Why do you think it is that SaaS company executives so often overlook this aspect of their businesses? Is it simply that they're mostly fixated on the products themselves? Or is there more to it than that?

    2. What is it about onboarding that makes it such a critical element to get right? Aren't great UIs by definition going to be so welcoming and intuitively utilitarian that people will want to dive in on their own? Why do even "expert" users need so much hand-holding?

    3. Have you seen any examples recently of super unconventional or counter-intuitive onboarding experiences that work especially well?

    • JK

      Jonathan Kim

      4 months ago #

      Whew! These are pretty deep. I'll break these up into a few parts in case I can't get to every point.

      The first one about onboarding getting overlooked frustrated me a lot early on, and we've spent a bunch of time to understand it. Here's where my heads at so far:

      - It's really time-consuming and requires help from dev, design and marketing, all of which are already in short supply.
      - You need to keep updating it as your product changes, so it feels like wasted effort.
      - There's a lot of emotion tied to the onboarding experience. Everyone wants something magical.
      - Most people don't know how to measure it effectively.
      - When looking at all those problems, its easier to decide to just add more features.

      I've found the best way to get people to see the value in good onboarding is to start measuring activation, which is where you lose 70-80% of your leads. A simple funnel of "Signup" -> "Activated" -> "Converts" will often illuminate the impact.

      5 Share
  • GB

    German Baryshnikov

    4 months ago #

    Hi, Jonathan.

    Can you tell us what's your biggest learning from growing Appcues?

    Thank you.

    • JK

      Jonathan Kim

      4 months ago #

      Personally, it's working with people. I've never managed anyone nor have I really had to work collaboratively, so Appcues at scale continues to be a huge adjustment for me.

      On the business side, I'd say I've been impressed at the effects of just focusing on making one really happy customer at a time. Appcues has over 400 customers, and I'm amazed that people who signed up years ago are still happy customers of ours. We sunk TONS of time into making them successful, but once they were good, they stayed good and often got even better. So many founders (including myself) try to scale/automate too early. Just focus on one at a time until the flywheel starts going.

      3 Share
  • JV

    Jeff Vincent

    4 months ago #

    Hey Jonathan, always love hearing your take on this. Looking forward to the AMA!

    1. You've had a very clear perspective about not just the product you want to build, but the company you want to build as well. Can you talk about your core tenets for building Appcues?

    2. As a small company, you can't do it all. How do you think about prioritization and choosing what to focus on?

    thanks!

    • JK

      Jonathan Kim

      4 months ago #

      I'm glad you think the perspective has been clear. In my head, it's often far less so :)

      I'll say that one of the things that I've held on to the most is that I want to build a company that helps a large number of people and improves the world in a way I can feel good about.

      Working at HubSpot was awesome, but I didn't wake up every morning excited to help people acquire more leads. While Appcues isn't solving global warming, we have the chance to improve the friction experienced by billions of people who use software every single day. Sometimes that friction prevents them from generating more leads, but other times, the cost really could come down to saving lives or improving the environment.

      We have a chance to improve lives at scale, and that's the kind of impact I wanted to have when I left the orange sprocketship.

      On prioritization, we try to just find the thing that makes us unique and do that, even if it doesn't create a complete story. One could argue that Appcues could be a better product if it offered analytics, but there are already tons of great analytics companies out there. No company helps you actually create and launch UX improvements to your product, so that's where we're going to focus. If that premise is valuable, people will find ways to connect their analytics provider to it. If it's not valuable, adding analytics wouldn't have changed that.

      4 Share
  • AA

    Anuj Adhiya

    4 months ago #

    Hey Jonathan - so cool to finally have you on!

    Two questions for you

    a. First, a bit of a contrarian one - Can you think of an app/website that was so intuitive that it needed no activation/onboarding cues to undestand how to use it?

    b. Can you think of an example that had the most unique user activation experience you've ever come across? What makes it stand out to you so much?
    What lessons can the rest of us take away from this?

    • JK

      Jonathan Kim

      4 months ago #

      Thanks for helping put this all together Anuj :)

      I can't find the quote, but I think it was @destraynor from Intercom who said that every product has at least two types of users. By creating that simple division, you realize there are ways to optimize the experience for each segment.

      At the end of the day, something is "intuitive" when it matches a context you already have. Just watch a teen vs a grandparent use Snapchat for the first time, or give a child a rotary phone. When the context for software is different, a single product can never be optimially intuitive to both groups.

  • HQ

    Hila Qu

    4 months ago #

    Jonathan,

    I am fascinated about onboarding, and love Appcue's blog, so super cool to have you here:)

    1) Which products in your mind have the most brilliant user onboarding experience?

    2) I feel companies begin to pay more attention to new user onboarding, but still not enough on existing user onboarding to additional features/changes, what do you think the best strategy is?

    3) If you keep adding stuff to your new user registration & onboarding experience, people still take actions, at which point, your should know that your onboarding is too long and stop?

    Thank you!

    • JK

      Jonathan Kim

      4 months ago #

      Thanks for the question @hilaqu!

      The recent ones I've been impressed by are Headspace, Zenefits and Mistobox.

      Headspace is just seamless and really well curated. Zenefits is interesting because they have to onboard two types of users (HR managers and employees) and they treat them differently. HR managers get a smooth and friction-free experience while the employees get a really friction-heavy one. It shows incredible case study on adjusting your friction levels based on user incentive.

      Mistobox recently impressed me with the holistic experience. In-app, email and even the delivery were all great, and they have infused a human touch to every single piece of it in a way that feels genuine (even though I know it's automated). It's a great example of how to do onboarding while creating a strong personal connection with to your people and brand.

      Lemme answer a few other folks' questions and circle back!

      4 Share
  • JF

    Justin Fyles

    4 months ago #

    Hey Jonathan!

    I've noticed that a lot of people actually do take onboarding into consideration, but approach it by trying to get the user to understand the full breadth of the product on first use. What do you think of using discovery as an approach to onboarding a user (Slack, and to a crazier extent, Snapchat)? When is explicitly telling the user what to do more applicable?

    • JK

      Jonathan Kim

      4 months ago #

      An early version of Appcues' hotspots/tooltip feature had an arbitrary cap of 5 hotspots/tooltips per page. You literally couldn't add more than that.

      We had a couple of customers complain, and when we lifted the cap we found that their users actually *loved* the longer flows. They were an older generation and not natives of the web, so being told exactly what to do was perfect for them.

      Now I'm a fan of trying to match the learning style of the user, and most companies can get pretty far by offering two options:

      A. Discover on your own
      B. Let us teach you

      Then taking them down the separate paths (with an option to change their mind).

      4 Share
  • NS

    Neelabh Singh

    4 months ago #

    Hi Jonathan,

    You were a developer earlier and now a founder at Appcues. As a founder you have to also wear different hats of marketing, sales, operations, etc. apart from product development.

    1. How did you make the transition?
    2. Any advice for other developers out there looking to build their own startups?

    • JK

      Jonathan Kim

      4 months ago #

      I'll caveat that I'm probably not a great model since I was only an engineer for 3.5 years before starting Appcues. I've been a founder for as long as I was an engineer.

      Still, one of the biggest adjustments early on was not having anything you can point to at the end of the day/week and say, "This is what I accomplished." As a founder, your efforts may not pay off for weeks or months, if at all. It's tempting to fall back to what's comfortable (writing code), but it's often against what the business really needs. Fight that.

    • JK

      Jonathan Kim

      4 months ago #

      There are many advantages to having a technical background. Do marketing like an engineer. Do sales like an engineer. Early on I wrote a little script to help me follow up with sales emails. I wrote a blog post on it and open sourced the code. That post got picked up by Lifehacker, HackerNews, etc. and ended up driving me a lot of traffic and connections that later became helpful.

      Here are a couple of examples on how to go to market like an engineer:

      http://jonathan-kim.com/2013/gmail-no-response/
      https://medium.com/@hijonathan/does-my-startup-need-a-blog-75bd3417daf5

  • KD

    Karina Dorantes

    4 months ago #

    Hi Jonathan,

    Thanks so much for your valuable insight. What is your opinion on leveraging no-code AI or intelligent chat bots to improve user on-boarding. Can you reference specific use cases? My company is in the Deals, Promotions, and Loyalty industry. Keep up your grind!

    • JK

      Jonathan Kim

      4 months ago #

      I love intelligence in onboarding, but I'd caution using chat as the ideal.

      If you're familiar with the practice of "user testing" software, it's a test of whether an interface can be understood/used by someone. Chatting with a human (or bot) is like taking the test and being able to ask the proctor for the answer at any time. While it gets to the right solution, it doesn't help either party.

      Chat is a great stop-gap, but how great would it be if they were just able to find the solution on their own?

  • JP

    John Phamvan

    4 months ago #

    Hey Jonathan
    What do you think about using video as part of onboarding (I notice you'll use GIFs on your home page but not a video)?
    When does it make sense to use it and why?

    • JK

      Jonathan Kim

      4 months ago #

      Great question! I love video and have a soft spot in my heart for the Wistia folks (great product and team btw).

      I'm a fan of video, but the GIFs are a great forcing function to drive focus. Video offers more time, so its a waste if you don't take at least 30-60 seconds. When onboarding someone, sometimes you just need them to get 5 seconds of information, so a GIF is more appropriate.

      One place video is really good is for a team welcome. Litmus (another great Boston company) had a really great one right after you sign up for their product https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BwZdzluBJtQ

  • TM

    Ty Magnin

    4 months ago #

    Hi Jonathan - thanks for doing this.

    You've made friends with some pretty awesome SaaS companies - FullStory, HubSpot, Wistia, etc.

    What have you taken from then in building the company/culture at Appcues?

    Thanks :)

    • JK

      Jonathan Kim

      4 months ago #

      The list of things I didn't take is probably shorter, but here are my top three:

      1. Grit matters
      David Cancel and Christopher O'Donnell really beat this into me when I was at Performable. I still remember getting questioned for expensing $10 worth of red pens that I bought for annotating mockups. We had perfectly fine black pens, why do we need red ones?

      While it seemed silly at the time, I get it now. I spent $20,000 of my own money to get Appcues off the ground and learned that $10 went a long way. Chris and Brendan of Wistia had a similar story of their early 3-year-grind, and their resilience is what carried them through.

      2. "Keep no Secrets"
      Transparency is a huge part of the Appcues culture, and it's largely inspired by HubSpot and Help Scout. Both companies believe in hiring smart people, arming them with the best information possible, then setting them loose.

      3. No ego
      I'm a huge FullStory fan, and one of the things I love about them is that they focus on their customers, not themselves. They have fun titles, they collaboratively build product and they're just wonderful people. Many companies strive for that but it often falls apart. I'm rooting for FullStory to be a huge company that suffers no assholes.

  • TN

    Tri Nguyen

    4 months ago #

    1. What do you think is the most overlooked part of onboarding?
    2. What is one area where companies most often (knowingly or unknowingly) insert friction in the process?

    • JK

      Jonathan Kim

      4 months ago #

      Hey Tri, great questions!

      The two biggest missed opportunities I usually see are in building a human connection and the email drip. Use pictures of your people and address things from humans. It can go a long way.

      Email is a great follow up to a strong product experience, but many people don't do it at all or do it really poorly. There's lots of opportunity here, but it's also really hard considering how much noise there is in email already. In a way, I'd say this is also a large piece of unnecessary friction—sending emails that people don't want.

      4 Share
  • JT

    Jessica Treeman

    4 months ago #

    Do you have any examples of SaaS software that do onboarding particularly well?

    • JK

      Jonathan Kim

      4 months ago #

      Really great question. Beyond the ones I mentioned in my response to @Hila, I think ProdPad and Expensify are worth checking out. Both of them are using a gamified trial experience that starts out very short and extends as you take actions.

      So rather than having a 14-day trial, you have a 2-day trial that lets you get more days by doing things like inviting a colleague. It's really nifty and the preliminary results they've seen are really promising.

      While it's not 100% pure UI, the motivation they build feeds into the onboarding and displaces some of the guidance you'd typically need in complex products like that.

  • PC

    Patrick Campbell

    4 months ago #

    JKim! Big fan of what you've been doing with Appcues, so two questions I'm always curious about with companies (apologies if these were already asked):

    1. I heard that Appcues has salary and equity transparency, just like Buffer, but internal. What drove that decision and how has it scaled? We've done this, but have had some "comparison" issues that may just be unavoidable.

    2. The early story of Appcues is pretty scrappy. What were some of the more interesting things you did to find success early on? Any mention of pricing obviously appreciated. ;)

    • JK

      Jonathan Kim

      4 months ago #

      Patrick! Thanks for the questions.

      We implemented compensation transparency because we believe strongly in fairness. We didn't want to look around 5 years from now and realize that marginalized groups are underpaid for the same work like they are at every other tech company we read about these days. So we use "bands" for salary and a formula for equity.

      It's been amazing. It's been a great filter for culture and also keeps hiring conversations focused on impact and the role itself. We do our homework to make sure the formula is competitive, and once candidates see that they start to relax and really open up.

      It's certainly not without its share of eyebrow raising and scale issues. We're already finding places where we need to adjust the numbers, but the concept will stay the same.

      On early success, I think I've told the story elsewhere, but I got Appcues to several hundred users before we paid anything for third-party services. I used every free plan I could find and even swapped between multiple accounts to take advantage of newbie discounts. Firebase, Keen and Wercker should really talk to you about their pricing models. There's your pricing mention ;).

  • GH

    Glen Harper

    4 months ago #

    Thank you for being here with us today, Jonathan.

    This is a highly general question but have you seen any significant differences or similarities in effective onboarding flows for B2B vs B2C products?

    • JK

      Jonathan Kim

      4 months ago #

      100%. The bar for great B2B onboarding is currently really low, so it's actually a huge area of opportunity. If you can offer someone a consumer-level experience getting corporate insurance, finding office space or anything else businesses deal with, you have a massive advantage over the competition who still rely on sales, huge demo forms, etc. to get customers activated.

  • DH

    Dani Hart

    4 months ago #

    Hey Jonathan
    What are some offline examples that you study and believe others should think about when designing their onboarding and why?

    • JK

      Jonathan Kim

      4 months ago #

      Wow, incredible question. I should probably do more of this myself in fact.

      I've learned a lot about onboarding from volunteer experiences. An established non-profit will have a really strong operations, and they're able to take a group of under-caffeinated, unskilled humans and get them to build houses. Spending 30m watching how they set things up and get people to flow through the system is pretty incredible.

  • MD

    Mark Anthony de Jesus

    4 months ago #

    Hey Jonathan

    Can you talk about any recent experiments you'll have tried at Appcues that led to a big win or some big insight?

    • JK

      Jonathan Kim

      4 months ago #

      Growth hacks! Love this.

      From an onboarding perspective, we experimented with the ability for people to use Appcues before ever signing up. It was a super slick experience where we pulled in their colors, guided them through creating something cool, and then asked them to sign up at the end. Super sexy.

      It performed worse than our regular sign up.

      Our theories are that people were actually more confused when they didn't start the creation process from scratch themselves. There was too much magic. They also did research outside of the product (reading our blog, our website, etc) that influenced their decision to sign up or not more than actually using the app.

      Big insight: sometimes the edgy way isn't better.

  • TM

    Thierry Maout

    4 months ago #

    Hello Jonathan and thank you for this AMA!

    I have two questions:
    - How do you establish long-term value for Appcues? Isn't onboarding considered "done" at some stage for many companies?
    - What has been the biggest management challenge for you as a founder, related in particular to the growth of your company and its management consequences?

    Thank you! I am looking forward to reading your answers!

    • JK

      Jonathan Kim

      4 months ago #

      Great question Thierry.

      To some degree, you're right that new user onboarding does get "done" when you reach the target results you want. However, we've found that people who use Appcues to help customers discover new features or augment the user experience in a richer way find even deeper value out of our product. It's something we'll be investing more in very soon :)

      One thing I still trip over is communication. As a founder, your words can carry more meaning than you intend. If I say, "I think we should do X," or ask, "Why did we decide to do Y?" it can come off as a demand or attack, respectively. That can cause a lot of unintended frustration, so I've had to do a lot of trust building, both individually and as an entire team, in order for everyone to understand my intentions. I imagine seasoned founders know this very well, but it's something I'm still learning.

  • GM

    Guru Mahendran

    4 months ago #

    Jonathan,

    What unpopular opinion do you hold? Specifically about onboarding or startups or SaaS.

    • JK

      Jonathan Kim

      4 months ago #

      That product managers wield too much power. If your business is rides on the success or failure of your product, why trust that to just one person's best guess?

      Hire great people, give them the best information possible, minimize the cost of failure and then let them do stuff.

  • KD

    Karina Dorantes

    4 months ago #

    Jonathan, to add to my previous question: What are some examples you can reference where gamification played a key role in further driving / incentivizing user behavior?

    Thank you so much!

  • AL

    A L Lacey

    4 months ago #

    Hi, Jonathan. When providing customized & relevant content, what is your thought process to give your content a cohesive flow for your tribe's "A-ha!" moments? THX

  • CS

    Christoph Schachner

    4 months ago #

    Hey Jonathan and thanks for doing this AMA.

    We are currently trying to get our onboarding set up from scratch with an already existing user base. I find it hard to really capture every single aspect of a potential sign for sending an email e.g. a user used feature X after day Y but didn't use feature Z.

    My question:
    Is it a good idea to first focus on getting the most important metrics that indicate a user is engaged in the product and then go more granular from there?

  • AL

    A L Lacey

    4 months ago #

    ** I should have prefaced my question w/ the disclaimer I'm a huge fan of the Appcue blog. ** apologies

  • JK

    Jonathan Kim

    4 months ago #

    Thanks again for having me, and huge shoutout to @anujadhiya for putting it all together! Cheers to more growth in 2017 🚀

  • JG

    Jennifer Geraghty Burner

    4 months ago #

    Hi Jonathan,

    Thanks for all the conversation! I wanted to ask if you have a favorite "one-pager" that you like to use to introduce a new problem / project? A la https://strategyzer.com/canvas or https://leanstack.com/is-one-page-business-model

    Thanks!

    Jennifer

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