Y’all know that I love to explore the playbooks of the best-known PLG startups, such as Hotjar (bootstrapped to $50 million+), Similarweb (IPO-ed in 2021), Webflow ($4 billion valuation) and Zapier ($5 billion valuation).
While these success stories are no-doubt fascinating, they’re aspirational rather than practical. Readers from earlier stage startups often wonder: how does this relate to my journey? How do I build a PLG company from the ground up?
It’s in that spirit that I reached out to Ken Babcock, co-founder of Tango, the Series A-funded PLG startup that empowers teams to make how-to guides in seconds. Some quick background on Tango:
Founded in January 2020 by three Harvard Business School dropouts
Launched publicly in September 2021 and was a finalist for Product of the Year (Golden Kitty) on Product Hunt
Grew to 35 employees and 200,000 users in only 14 months post-launch
Announced a $14 million Series A in June 2022
Ken and I discussed Tango’s founding story, why they adopted PLG from the beginning, and what’s next for the business as Tango expands into teams and enterprises. Stay tuned for special insights on how to win Product Hunt and why PLG startups might be sleeping on TikTok as an acquisition channel.
From HBS dropouts to PLG founders
Ken met co-founders Brian Shultz and Dan Giovacchini at Harvard Business School in the fall of 2019. The three of them quickly realized they were all at school for the same reason: to do something entrepreneurial. It wasn’t long before they started meeting every Friday to discuss ideas (spoiler: none of those original ideas really stuck).
The group did get excited around the topic of team performance and, in Ken’s words, “the idea that the highest-performing teams find ways to scale the performance of their best people.” They believed that if they could lower the barrier to creating documentation, they could accelerate and democratize the sharing of knowledge across organizations.
Ken and his co-founders started working in earnest on what would become Tango in January 2020. By Spring of 2020, COVID-19 had pushed knowledge workers to remote work essentially overnight and Tango’s product discovery conversations heated up. “Calls with design partners went from ‘this could be interesting’ to ‘we need this yesterday’,” Ken told me. That’s when the three co-founders dropped out of business school to pursue Tango full-time.
Early on Ken believed that a PLG strategy would be the best course for Tango. He and his co-founders reflected on the persona of who would be using Tango and who had the most acute need for the product.
The winner: end users.
“We said to ourselves: when it comes to marketing the value proposition, who’s this going to land with most effectively? Is it managers or the individual? With the manager, the product is a vitamin. For the end user spending a lot of their time documenting knowledge, Tango is a pain killer.” - Ken Babcock
As an end user focused product, PLG would be the best way forward for Tango.
Product discovery and pre-launch
The Tango team spent the next nine months – from January 2021 until September 2021 – working with design partners before launching publicly. Each of these design partners would be onboarded by the Tango team and would commit to a weekly check-in where they would share feedback and get a preview of Tango’s upcoming releases.
What was different about Tango’s pre-launch process? Purposefully including a broad swath of users rather than staying focused on one narrow ideal customer profile (ICP).
“Instead of focusing just on one specific role or persona or company size, we looked at bringing on pilot customers of all types, sizes, and roles so it could be a learning experience for us.” - Ken Babcock
Going through that process led Tango to realize that small teams could already share knowledge easily – their pain was surface-level at best. Meanwhile, super large teams had complex processes and requirements around security, privacy, and so on. Tango left the design partner phase having a clear understanding of the use cases, personas, and value prop for what they were building.
I was curious about how Ken knew Tango’s product wasn’t just ready for launch, but was ready for self-service onboarding and ongoing usage. He leaned on a strong advisor network with experience from successful PLG companies. A key focus ahead of launch day: near instant time-to-value.
“We realized we need to showcase our value very quickly. Time-to-value was a core KPI for us. We knew that value would be seen in our ‘aha’ moment – creating your first Tango.” - Ken Babcock
Time-to-value had two components at Tango. First was creating a Tango workflow, aka a how-to guide. Second was being able to publish and share that how-to guide with others (“time-to-publish”).
Even 14 months after the public launch, these metrics have persisted. In fact, Ken told me that they just had one of their best weeks ever as it relates to time-to-value; it only took 4.8 minutes for new users to go from creating an account to publishing a how-to guide.
Launching Tango to 10,000 users in 2 weeks
As Ken and team prepared for the public launch, they spent a lot of time building it up to be a ‘lightning strike’ moment (David Sacks talks about the topic here) creating as much buzz as possible on launch day.
Product Hunt was an important component of the lightning strike strategy and got Tango 10,000 users in the first two weeks. Here’s how Tango won Product Hunt:
Created publicity momentum. Tango timed the announcement of their $5.7 million seed round roughly two weeks before the launch in order to generate momentum ahead of the launch. They were sitting on this announcement for a while; Tango waited a year to announce its seed funding publicly.
Posted at midnight Pacific Time. Tango wanted to be above-the-fold on Product Hunt, one of the top two or three products of the day. A key piece of that was to post their launch at 12am Pacific Time and then immediately begin reaching out to folks in Europe to upvote it.
Shamelessly worked their network. Tango’s founding team texted anybody and everybody to give them an upvote (even, rumor has it, a dentist…). They geared the whole company to facilitate the launch and it was an around-the-clock affair. “You have to tap into your network in a way that feels embarrassing, but you have to be shameless about it,” confided Ken.
Tapped into 3rd party communities. As part of Tango’s around-the-clock push, they posted their product into as many different communities as possible.
Looking back, Ken still views the Product Hunt campaign as a success, but discloses that there are real downsides that emerge after the initial buzz dies down. His tips:
Don’t be discouraged by churn. Especially if you are a freemium product with a low barrier to entry, people will jump in to try it and probably churn out. Be ready for a lot of users who will try the product and then churn quickly.
Don’t set your baselines from these metrics. You’ll need a few months to understand your churn/retention baselines.
Continue to spend as much time as possible with customers. Tango went from having weekly conversations with every customer to having to find a way to support 10,000 people overnight. His team continued talking to users as consistently and frequently as possible rather than over-orienting toward forward-looking priorities like optimizing for reliability or quantitative data.
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Finding early traction on… TikTok?!
The first person that Tango hired for go-to-market was a BizOps generalist who got Tango’s house in order across a wide variety of functions.
Ultimately, they doubled down on an area that added tremendous value to the company: influencer marketing.
Tango’s first foray on TikTok wasn’t in their control. It was other people discovering Tango and deciding to feature the product. Showcasing Tango helped make them go viral, which encouraged other TikTok influencers to organically showcase Tango as well.
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At one point in time 40% of Tango’s traffic was coming from TikTok – and this wasn’t even driven by Tango in the early days. Seeing that led Tango to lean in across not just TikTok, but short-form video in general. YouTube, Instagram, and TikTok have all been powerful.
“When we spoke about the product, people didn’t get it right away. But when we showed the product, people got it instantly.” - Ken Babcock
Today Tango purposefully cultivates its influencer network. For the best chance of success, Ken urges founders to do their homework before reaching out to potential influencers. Acknowledge the influencers’ goals and how you can help them achieve those goals. Ask yourself:
Who is their audience?
What are they trying to communicate to that audience?
Why would their audience find this product compelling?
Beyond user-generated content, the Tango team is investing in its collaborative loop in order to fuel future growth. For Tango this means delivering value to both the creator persona (who creates documentation) and the viewer persona (who consumes the documentation).
“We want to meet people where they’re already consuming content,” Ken said. He cited partnerships with the likes of Salesforce and Atlassian as part of Tango’s strategy to be as compatible as possible with existing knowledge bases and tools rather than compete head-to-head.
Deciding to monetize two months after launch
Ken decided to start monetizing early, launching paid plans only two months after launch. He acknowledged that he viewed early monetization efforts as an ongoing experiment rather than being set in stone.
“Monetization for us is still a test bed: what is going to get people to convert, how much do we lean into usage-based pricing versus feature-based pricing, what are the right price points and discounting strategy?” - Ken Babcock
As part of Tango’s ongoing monetization journey, they’ve recently announced a new enterprise plan. He believed it was the right time for Tango because they were seeing a critical mass of teams using the product and a significant density of product qualified leads (PQLs), yet Tango still needed to understand whether folks were willing to pay for an enterprise plan. Tango’s “minimum viable enterprise plan” accelerates learnings across enterprise selling and the right way to navigate to the buyer inside of an account.
Advice to aspiring PLG founders
In wrapping up, Ken shared his top three learnings for aspiring PLG founders:
If you’re thinking about whether to go PLG or sales-led, focus on who in the organization is going to feel the pain that you’re solving the most.
Define your ‘aha’ moment so you can measure time to value. Measure that constantly.
Create a learning mindset with your team by treating everything like an experiment. “We don’t know exactly what we need to do here, but let’s get this out there so we can get feedback. The cost of the wrong decision is actually lower than the cost of indecision,” said Ken.
stumbled on your Substack for the 1st time, definitely gonna make more regular trips :)
btw, when i opened your profile, there were 3 sort of testimonials on display as well. and i've never seen such testimonials on anyone's profile. do you mind sharing how did you actually got those up?
Brilliant Post! Thanks Kyle.