This article is based on a presentation from Future of SaaS Festival 2022. Jessica is now Senior Director of Growth at Linktree. Get the full talk OnDemand right here.
Hi there! I'm Jessica Box, Head of Growth at Linktree, and I’m really excited to share how Linktree has grown from zero to 12 million users in less than four years and the incredible learnings I've had along the way.
Let’s start with the basics. What is Linktree? Linktree is the only link you'll ever need. And no, it's not an actual tree. It’s a market-leading linking platform that was the first of its kind, creating an entirely new category in tech.
With over half a billion visitors per month and 30,000 signups per day, we're allowing users to curate a singular destination with what's most important to them in real time.
The world's biggest influencers and creators, from Selena Gomez to Arnie (I encourage you to check out his Linktree – it's pretty epic), as well as big brands like HBO and TikTok, are using Linktree to connect their followers to their entire online ecosystem.
So how did we get here? I'll be covering lessons and failures to avoid at each stage of the growth journey, including…
- Zero to 2 million users – the seed years
- 2 to 5 million users – the seedling years
- 5 to 12 million users – the sapling years
- 12-plus million users – the mature years
Zero to 2 million users: Build the right thing
Build the right thing. Sounds simple, doesn't it? So why isn't everyone doing it? As I'm sure you’re aware, this is the foundational building block of design thinking that feeds into creating your product strategy.
I cannot stress enough that if you don't focus your product strategy on solving customer problems early on, you won't have a later on.
Google Glass is a great example of this. Wearable technology was cool when they were launched in 2013.
Their principle of “We think technology should work for you – to be there when you need it and get out of your way when you don’t” should have been red flag enough for Google Glass’ eventual discontinuation in 2015 – it did not live up to the hype.
When starting your journey from zero, there are three critical principles you need to follow to make sure you’re building the right product. We've seen all of them work beautifully at Linktree. Let’s take a closer look.
Get the product in the right hands
This is directly linked to the problem you solve. If you haven't found the right hands, you may not be solving a problem yet.
Linktree was born from a digital agency managing large-scale music clients that were finding it incredibly frustrating to update their links online for every new launch, festival, or merch sale.
Turns out that the fragmentation of online content was a problem for every industry, not just the music industry. In other words, the “right hands” for Linktree was a global audience in every country and industry around the world.
Listen and iterate
This principle should stay with you as you grow, but it's absolutely critical at the zero to 2 million stage.
Linktree was originally built in six hours, shipped to market quickly, then iterated on once real data came through from customers. The original code has only recently been replaced by infrastructure for scale.
This is why it's so important to build the right thing in the early days – so you can iterate on it once you have product-market fit.
To help with this, the Linktree team spent hours every day in customer support to ensure they remained in touch and really connected to how people were using Linktree in those early days.
Active listening and providing customers with support at that stage lead to new opportunities, like expanding from just being for Instagram to being for every channel that our users’ audiences live in.
Find your flywheel early
In case you’re unfamiliar with what a flywheel is, it’s your customer engine for growth. Rather than a funnel, which puts your customer at the bottom, the flywheel has your customer in the center.
It is a fundamental part of growing from the outside in, and it needs to be right there from the very beginning. Like a modern-day word of mouth, it allows your customer to act as your referral channel.
Here's an example of a flywheel framework so you can see it in action. Each company will have different actions and behaviors that drive the flywheel and its speed, so I'd suggest asking yourself the following questions:
- What are the core assets of your business?
- What are the core actions your users take?
- What are the core needs of your users?
- What are the natural outputs of your business?
- What are the biggest optimizations you need to make to your business model?
To give you an example of how this plays out in the wild, Amazon's flywheel is driven by lowering cost structures, which means prices can be lower, providing a better customer experience that then increases both traffic and sellers.
The secret sauce here is in each action increasing the speed of the flywheel and building momentum.
What fails at this point?
The most common failure at this stage of the growth journey is thinking marketing will solve the product’s problems. I experienced this not too long ago; throwing our marketing budget at the problem didn't fix the fact the product wasn't working.
If you feel tempted by this path, stop and look long and hard at the problem you're solving. It's easy to lean into your ego and struggle to let go of the epic work (which I'm sure you’ve put in at this point). Trust me, the quicker you iterate, the faster you’ll find your flywheel and scale.
2 million to 5 million users: The next hard part
Let’s move on to the seedling years. I like to think of this stage as the end of the first hard part – and the beginning of the next hard part.
At this stage, you’ll have around 20 to 30 people in your company, and it will be pretty easy to get new customers through the door, thanks to solid brand awareness in your market. So what's next?
Activation is going to be your best friend here. So how do you get customers to activate faster? Let me share my top four tips.
Work cross-functionally as a team.
It's easy to see activation as only one function and not realize that the best way to get diverse ideas for this stage of your growth is to work with diverse minds.
At this stage in our growth, we created a growth squad, which encompassed engineering, product, design, brand, customer success, data, and more, depending on the initiatives we were feeding through into the team.
Find your activation metric
It's equally important to measure activation. We use Appcues, which we're big fans of, and I was shocked when I saw a report from them mentioning that 44% of SaaS businesses don't measure activation at all.
At Linktree we know that if someone adds a Linktree to their social profile, they’re activated and the likelihood of them leaving is significantly lower. Find your activation metric and go hard after it.
Launch a paid version
The next key thing to focus on at this stage is launching a paid version. It's an obvious move – you need to monetize at some point – but it can so easily be done wrong or too early.
Given that Linktree is a freemium product, launching a paid version with pro features was the logical next step to activate those users that wanted a little bit more from a product.
Our users range in digital literacy, from those who are brand-new to marketing and using Linktree to start their journey to those who have a fully-fledged marketing team. We needed to support both of those types of users by adding new features to the product.
If you find the right way to monetize – and we're big fans of doing it ethically and in the right way – you'll go all the way to 5 million quickly.
Spend money in the right areas
“Spend money in the right areas” should be your mantra at any size, but it's particularly important here to lay the groundwork for success.
Designing tests per market has proved very successful in helping us understand where user growth can emerge from, outside of organic growth from the product.
If you have the right attribution tool in place to see if the users you’re attracting are quality users, then go big. Without proper attribution, you're throwing money at the wall and hoping it'll stick – not a good strategy, though I'm sure it’s lots of fun.
What fails at this point?
Perfection kills progress. Don't add too much process too early – you want your team to be free to experiment. Bringing in too much structure too early hinders their progress and creativity and decreases your speed to market.
A very public example of a failure here is Magic Leap. The AR startup raised $2.6 billion but only had 6000 sales recorded.
The product was beautiful, of course, but by the time it got to market, too much time had been spent in the product-building phase, rather than shipping and testing early to find the right market fit.
5 million to 12 million users: Onwards and upwards
Onto the sapling years. You've got your monetization model working, you've found a flywheel through experimentation, and you’ve built a squad of people around the growth function, and now it’s onwards and upwards!
This is the fun part. You're refreshing your metrics every day, wondering how much you've grown overnight, and seeing which country has leaped to the top of your user distribution leaderboard.
Your team size is likely now sitting between 20 to 60 people, and processes are forming to help you scale faster. Let’s look at what you need to focus on to maintain this momentum.
Build target metrics
Though it's super important to use data to make decisions throughout your journey, when you hit 5 million users, you'll be leaning in more than ever to your datasets and dashboards.
Intuition and gut might have helped you get to this stage (particularly if you’re in a product-led company) but for the next stage and beyond, data will be how you find your focus.
I'd recommend investing in a business intelligence tool that will empower the team and the broader business to use data to explore insights. We currently use Heap as it allows you to retrospectively track events; this was particularly important as we entered our sapling stage because we were running so fast.
When it comes to the target metrics themselves, Google's OKR (objectives and key results) framework has been incredibly successful for us. It helps our growth squad and the broader business to break down things like MRR, subscriber targets, and total Linktrees. Crucially, it also provides the team with a clear direction each quarter for where our focus should be.
It's easy to get distracted at this stage because you have so many opportunities. OKRs and key metrics keep you aligned, accountable, and focused. More importantly, they allow you to say no to things, rather than having to say yes all the time.
Hire the right people
I can't stress how easy it is to get hiring wrong. When you're up to your ears in release deadlines and go-lives, it's easy to say yes because you need someone.
However, that doesn't mean they're the right fit, and making a decision like that could mean bringing on a serious culture detractor. Trust your gut and don't compromise. My new motto here is “If it's not a hell yes, it's a no.”
At Linktree, we have a methodical approach to our hires. For each interview process, we design tests that allow us to see the candidate’s skills in action. From our most junior to our most senior hires, the process is the same.
We're looking for value alignment between the business and their personal values, plus a lack of ego. All of that shows us if they're the right cultural addition to the team.
Find your North Star
While I'm not a huge fan of having one metric to work towards, I find the exercise of distilling metrics down into leading indicators versus lagging indicators of success critical at this stage.
For me, the key value in the North Star framework is discussing what metrics are important and getting alignment among your teams on where your focus should be.
Spotify’s experience with the North Star is very public. They focus on time spent by subscribers listening to music as a proxy for activation, which then increases revenue and produces business value.
12 million users and above
I'll be honest: nothing is ever perfect and we're always learning. Every day, we add more and more users to the platform and get more data to learn more about their behaviors in the product.
You need to be okay with making mistakes and being aware of what you don't know. As leaders, you also need to make your team feel comfortable in that environment.
As long as you remain true to your company values, you'll have a clear path forward that you can take together.
At Linktree, we have a clear purpose that we rally around. Having just hired our head of people and culture (much earlier than companies typically do), we know how important it is to keep this purpose embedded in our culture as we scale across time zones and countries around the world.
We’ve covered a lot in this article, but if you take away just a handful of key learnings, make it these:
- Build the right thing
- Find your flywheel
- Work cross-functionally as a team
- Stay connected to your purpose
Thanks so much for reading. I really appreciate it.