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Myth-busting 3 common product-led growth misconceptions that can hold you back

In talking to many Insight Partners portfolio companies about product-led growth (PLG), it is clear that there are a lot of misconceptions about the topic that lead some companies to shy away from PLG opportunities, or to think “this is not for us.”

Here, we will be focusing on clarifying some of these myths to help you through your PLG decision-making process.

Myth 1: Product-led growth is “giving product the keys” to strategy

One common misconception about PLG is that your PLG strategy starts and ends in the product organization. It doesn’t.

One common misconception about PLG is that your PLG strategy starts and ends in the product organization.

Product-led growth is a growth strategy driven by customer interaction with your product, and not a product strategy in itself. For PLG to be successful, it requires full alignment at all levels of your company, and across all GTM teams:

  • Product plays a key role in improving and optimizing the user experience so that your company can effectively execute on your PLG vision. By optimizing your product, you can significantly reduce customer pain points and friction, so you can convert and expand customers more effectively.
  • Marketing is typically in charge of making the top-of-the-funnel acquisition a success, gaining signups, and then tracking their performance through the conversion funnel to continually optimize advertising strategy and spend. Without marketing, PLG models wouldn’t have users that could be converted into customers. Marketing further engages with the community of free and paying users who become a significant source of product awareness, and strong advocates for your company.
  • Sales is instrumental in most PLG models (as demonstrated in the next two sections) because a sales team can offer advantages in value selling, revenue extraction, and customer relationship management that PLG alone cannot.
  • Customer success is key to ensure that customers are supported and will grow their usage of the product in a cost-effective way. Typically, in low-touch PLG environments (like freemium, free trial, and self-service), the successful organization needs to scale to support thousands of lower-revenue customers.
  • Finance input is typically needed to ensure that the complex self-service billing and provisioning systems in most product-led companies are managed correctly. The finance team will also take an instrumental role in tracking the margin of the PLG model as a whole (e.g., “free” offerings such as freemium and free trials will incur cost while providing no revenue until conversion).
  • Revenue strategy/pricing is very important to the success of a PLG motion, both in optimizing the price point of the initial conversion to keep customers in the funnel, and the pricing strategy to ensure that customers can continually expand their spending. If your pricing model is too complex, doesn’t scale with deployment size (this is where usage-based pricing shines brightest), or isn’t aligned with customer value, then your PLG strategy is unlikely to succeed.

Myth 2: Product-led growth is unsuitable for enterprise

Another common misconception about product-led growth is that it’s only suitable when selling small-ticket deals to consumers and SMBs.

The truth is that companies such as Atlassian, Twilio, Snowflake, AWS, and others wouldn’t be the successes they are without enterprise sales. These companies have perfected a motion where their product, pricing, and sales model work in tandem to convert leads to seven-figure deals through smart usage of product-led growth principles. There are a few important things to bear in mind when implementing PLG within an enterprise motion.

The role of freemium, free trials, and open-source changes significantly

Instead of being a direct link to real contracts, treat interest within these channels as a lead-generation engine to provide warm product-qualified leads who are familiar with your product. These can then be farmed by your sales team when they have reached a point of seeing value and wanting to expand. Ensure that you capture key demographic info such as a business email address, and then enrich this data with further information about the company (such as the number of employees, industry, ICP fit, etc.) to generate a list of potential sales targets.

Customer growth becomes key

All of the PLG companies above utilize a land-and-expand strategy. They start by winning initial contracts within a team or business unit of the enterprise company and then expand into further teams and business units as more people become interested in the product. This is often advantageous to the enterprise sale because you’ve already proven your ROI with the smaller deals by the time your company comes to sell the big-ticket global deal to that customer. Your track record supports the high contract value.

Customer success plays a vital role

Because the focus is shifted to land-and-expand, the key to winning large enterprise deals is not having a flashy sales pitch. It’s having real proven success from smaller deals. Your success team will be vital in ensuring that this happens, and then they (or expansion-focused salespeople) will have the task of suggesting other areas where the customer could use your product to ensure that that customer expands.

Myth 3: Product-led growth will replace your sales team

In several product-led companies we have worked with, there is a concern among sales teams that the PLG motions (particularly self-service sales) are there to “automate their job” and take deals that could have been theirs. However, in the majority of cases, the exact opposite is true.

Product-led growth often becomes the main lead generation engine for a company, delivering more leads – and more importantly, more high-quality leads –  to the sales team than the deals that it cannibalizes. Our portfolio companies have increasingly been describing this motion as a “sales acceleration tool.” We would recommend stepping away from the mindset of “PLG vs. Sales” and instead understand how you can interlink PLG and sales motions to deliver the best results.

  • When it comes to selling high-value deals at revenue-maximizing prices, a well-trained sales team still wins out over PLG. As such, most of the best PLG companies operate a hybrid model where small business and some team-level deals with larger companies are handled by the self-service motion, and any larger contracts (e.g., 5-figure deals and above) are handled by sales teams. Even Atlassian, a staunch champion of the “we don’t need a sales team” PLG movement of the 2010s has since adopted a sales motion at the enterprise level.
  • In our experience, one of the biggest constraints when scaling a company is the pace at which you can hire and ramp salespeople. By using their time most effectively, you not only get the best bang-for-your-buck, but you also unlock faster growth. Your salespeople will still have plenty to do even after refactoring their role towards selling higher-value deals.

Here is a practical split of roles and responsibilities under a hybrid PLG model. Without PLG, these would all need to be driven by marketing and/or sales (including customer success and sales engineering).


PLG misconceptions can hold you back

PLG is a wide-ranging business strategy and has emerged as a new growth motion in software go-to-market strategy. Misconceptions about PLG can hold companies back from adopting PLG and realizing the benefits. We hope these clarifications provide a new perspective, and we would encourage you to consider how you could leverage elements of the PLG toolkit to improve your go-to-market motion.

If you have any questions or would like our thoughts on any aspect of PLG, please email us at PLG@insightpartners.com.

Accelerating outcomes with customer value mapping

In our previous article introducing the S.C.A.L.E. model, we noted that the principle of accelerated value is primarily focused on reducing unnecessary friction in the customer experience as a means to improve an important leading process indicator: time to value. Shrinking the time it takes for customers to realize value is a universal challenge for SaaS ScaleUps.

Espirt de Corps

Putting the principle of accelerated value into practice can be thought of simply as aligning two constantly moving gears: value defined and value delivered. From our experience working with ScaleUps, we have realized a common issue that must be addressed: too much space between, indicating a value gap in need of closure to avoid loss. This is what AWS sales and marketing chief Matt Garman was referring to when he said at Amazon’s re:Invent conference that, “the biggest obstacle to growth is the failure to understand and align with customer-desired business outcomes.”


Let’s look at each gear before introducing a practical tool for closing the value gap.

Defining value: Jobs-to-be-done

One of the most difficult concepts for anyone in business to understand is that no customer really wants your product; they want to get their most important jobs done, and need a way to maximize their effectiveness in doing so, preferably in a manner faster, cheaper, and simpler than how they’re doing it now. To the extent your offering does that consistently, customers will stick around.

In the December 1942 edition of the Somerset American, the Provident Mutual Life Insurance Company ran the following advertisement:


The hole-not-drill concept of value stuck amazingly well over the years, so much so that in the December 2005 issue of Harvard Business Review, the late Clayton Christensen and Intuit founder Scott Cook published an article entitled Marketing Malpractice: The Cause and the Cure, crediting the idea to Christensen’s marketing professor, Theodore Levitt, writing: “The great Harvard marketing professor Theodore Levitt used to tell his students, ‘People don’t want to buy a quarter-inch drill. They want a quarter-inch hole!’ Every marketer we know agrees with Levitt’s insight. Yet these same people segment their markets by type of drill and by price point; they measure the market share of drills, not holes; and they benchmark the features and functions of their drill, not their hole, against those of rivals. When marketers do this, they often solve the wrong problems, improving their products in ways that are irrelevant to their customers’ needs.”

The article went on to introduce a new and better way to think about products and markets, one that looked at needs from the customer’s perspective. “The structure of a market, seen from the customers’ point of view, is very simple: They just need to get things done…When people find themselves needing to get a job done, they essentially hire products to do that job for them. The marketer’s task is, therefore, to understand what jobs periodically arise in customers’ lives for which they might hire products the company could make.”

Soon after the article came out, the notion of products being hired for a specific job became widely known as “Jobs Theory.”

The jobs framework

ThejJob that we hired jobs theory to do in this article is to define value from the customer’s perspective to maximize acceleration of value.

We have worded the above job carefully. It has two major components: the job-to-be-done (define value from the customer’s perspective) and a desired measurable outcome (maximize acceleration of value).

Note how closely this mirrors the structure of OKRs — objectives and key results, which most tech firms are familiar with. We suggest using the following guide to define value from the customer’s perspective:

Step 1: State the Job-to-be-Done

What is the customer’s main objective? A job-to-be-done can and should be stated very simply using a verb, an object of the verb, and a word or two about the circumstances, context, or situation. In the example below, the verb is protect, the object is important information, and the circumstances or context relates to exposure.

Step 2: State the Desired Outcome

What key result is the customer hoping to achieve? A desired outcome can and should be stated very simply using a change vector or delta, the measure itself, and a few words to add clarity and focus. In the example below, the delta is minimize, the measure is loss, and the focus is confidential company data.

(Main objective)
(Key result)
Verb + Object + Circumstances Delta + Measure + Focus
Example: Protect important information from exposure Example: Minimize loss of confidential company data


Notice that this structure does not mention or even suggest a solution. In the above example, a company might retain a security firm, subscribe to a SaaS security platform, build an internal security team, require special clearances, install physical identity measures, or employ sophisticated encryption.

It is imperative to understand that while solutions come and go, a customer’s Job-to-be-Done remains stable over time—past, present, or future, it remains essentially unchanged.

There are a few more things to keep in mind when defining value from the customer’s point of view using this framework:

  • Like an OKR, a clear start and stop are required; you should be able to at some point definitively answer the question “Was this achieved?” Steer clear of stating Jobs with words like maintain, support, help, manage, and the like, simply because it will be difficult to know when the Job-to-be-Done is, well, done.
  • The main job is not the customer’s job title or description, nor is it a simple to-do item or task. “Go to the grocery store” is not a main Job, “get groceries for the week” is.
  • Avoid conflating the job-to-be-done with the desired outcome; remember that the first is an objective, the second is a result. It may help to think of desired outcomes as needs…designers certainly do! Desired outcomes are not immediately obvious or well-articulated by customers, but they can be inferred from observation and confirmed through interviews, stories, and experiments.
  • Never forget that customers are far more loyal to the job than your product or service. If something better, faster, simpler, and/or cheaper comes along, they will shift over to that solution, assuming switching costs aren’t prohibitive or painful.

From proposition to promise

One additional note on defining value concerns the standard business practice of creating a value proposition. We suggest going a step further to create a “value promise” for each specific customer and their job-to-be-done. This helps break up a one-size-fits-all value proposition into something that is a bit more job-tailored. Using the example in the rubric above, we can simply mash up the job and desired outcome: “Anubis protects your important information from exposure so your chances of losing confidential company data are minimized.”

This format sounds and feels more like a personal promise to an individual and creates an expectation of a successful job completion and desired outcome achievement. And if we know anything about customer satisfaction, it is the delta between expectation and outcome.

Give the value promise a try. We find that instead of one universal value proposition, it helps to have several value promises, each tailored to a unique job performer, be they buyer, customer, or end-user.

Delivering value: The customer value map

In a short e-book by Gainsight called 10 New Laws of Customer Success, the authors advise that, “It is no longer enough to have a customer journey… you must simultaneously consider their most urgent needs and their long-term goals. The traditional, linear lifecycle doesn’t make sense for today’s customers. A linear engagement model or customer journey from marketing to sales to renewals fails quickly.”

We agree. In working together several years ago in an effort to optimize customer-experience improvement, we realized that the key artifact of the conventional customer journey, the customer journey map — usually a nicely designed menu of all the things a company wants a buyer, customer, or user to ideally do or consume throughout their relationship with a brand — was obsolete almost as soon as it was published. The actual experience customers were having did not reflect the pretty map, because customers and markets constantly change, meaning, the territory covered by the map had shifted and no longer looked the same.

We wanted something more useful. It had to be more dependable, more stable, and, paradoxically, more dynamic and easily updated in real-time. It had to point us toward areas in need of immediate attention, namely where we were missing the mark in providing value to customers on their terms.

Realizing that the customer’s main job is stable over time, we created what we now refer to as a customer value map, an overlay of jobs theory on the key inflection points in any customer experience that we constantly use to guide value-acceleration efforts. Instead of using traditional demand-generation phases, we anchored everything to key customer jobs. We then made sure to reflect current touchpoints, high points, points of friction, and gaps in value delivery. We also wanted to pinpoint our internal processes and activities that were linked to the specific customer’s Jobs. Finally, we also wanted to note any thoughts on how to improve those Jobs.

Armed with all of this, we could produce a solid list of fresh insights that provided a point of origin to begin closing the gaps and guide the effort to accelerate value. A good map shows you where you want to go and the various routes of getting there, but it only works when you first know exactly where you are.

A snapshot of our current basic customer value map framework is shown here.

customer value map

Touring the customer value map

Navigating the customer value map is simple, and completing it requires little in the way of special facilitation. As long as everyone understands the basic Jobs-to-be-Done framework described earlier, the rest is fairly self-explanatory.

Let’s take a quick tour.

The customer value map is basically a matrix that begins with the customer whose experience we want to map.  Personas and profiles, if they exist, are helpful, but we always recommend inviting actual customers to these kinds of sessions, because it is always illuminating, and it saves time having to validate the output with real customers in the future. We always recommend completing a customer value map for a certain customer with a team of people who know that customer best. If that’s not possible (and it often isn’t), we always recommend completing a customer value map for a certain customer type with a team of people who know that customer best.  

Either way, we always spend a few warmup minutes completing a basic empathy map for that customer, quickly sketching out their general characteristics, and answering several key questions: What is this customer seeing, saying, doing, feeling, hearing, and thinking? This gets people out of their own heads and into the head of the customer. Empathy map templates are widely available, and the one we use is shown below. 

customer empathy map

Once the empathy map is complete, we begin working horizontally across the top of the customer value map, left to right, mapping the key jobs-to-be-done and desired outcomes that this customer is hiring your solution to do. In most cases, there are one or two main jobs and a few supporting jobs. Once the top row is complete, we work vertically, completing all six left-hand categories before moving to the next job. Do not work by row — work by column — focusing entirely on one job at a time. This is critical to avoid falling back into old ways of thinking about an experience. Specificity breeds insights, but generalization doesn’t, at least in this case.

Moving down the left-side map coordinates, paying attention to the word key, focus on the top one-to-three responses in the six left-side categories:

  • Key touchpoints. Multiple points of interaction between the customer and your product undoubtedly exist for any Job. What are the primary ones? Which ones does the customer employ most at this point in their journey to getting the specific Job done?
  • Key high points. There are reasons you’re successful—moments of joy you and your product create for the customer, making getting their Job done easier and/or faster—what are they?
  • Points of friction. In the context of the Job, how are you slowing down the customer from achieving their Desired Outcome?
  • Value gap. In every Job, there comes a point of inflection, a critical moment or problem that can determine whether the customer leaves or stays with your solution. This is a value gap. From the customer’s point of view, these value gaps often sound like, “I can’t do X,” or “It’s really difficult for me to do Y.” These are solvable, but they must be documented.
  • Internal processes. The last two items are a lighter shade of gray, just to emphasize that these are from the perspective of your processes and activities that are linked to the Points of Friction and Value Gap. These act as locators and focal points for the final category.
  • Key opportunities. Using Points of Friction, Value Gaps, and Internal Processes output, what can be done to improve this Job for this customer? What can be built; what experiments can be run?

Get your copy of the customer value map

You can get a PDF copy of the customer value map here.

When you have completed customer value maps for all of your key customer personas, know that you’ve taken a huge step forward in the effort to accelerate outcomes.

Learn more about applying lean principles to scale by reading our book, out now: What A Unicorn Knows.

Gainsight is an Insight Partners portfolio company.

The 1-Day Strategy Sprint: Framework, Process, and Tools

As ScaleUp operating strategists, we spend a good bit of time working with senior executives and functional leaders facilitating sessions focused on answering five deceptively simple questions:

  1. What is our winning aspiration?
  2. Where will we play?
  3. How will we win?
  4. What capabilities do we need?
  5. What management systems are required?

This is the now well-known choice-making framework known as “Playing to Win” presented in the 2013 book of the same name, co-authored by Roger Martin and famed former Procter & Gamble CEO A.G. Lafley.


Martin and Lafley define strategy as “a cascade of tightly integrated choices that uniquely positions a player in its market to create sustainable advantage and superior value relative to the competition.” Those choices must all fit together and reinforce each other in a logical way, making strategy design a bit of an art.

Strategy drives success

Over the past decade, the framework has taken root in many of the world’s most-winning businesses because it is a better, simpler, and far more effective way to think about strategy than conventional strategic planning. The authors argue that having a plan can certainly be complementary to strategy, but the real point of strategy is to increase the odds of success by making difficult tradeoffs and explicit statements about what you are choosing to do and not do—and why or why not—to optimize the use of available resources, which are always finite.

Make choices, not plans

Thinking about strategy as integrated choice-making rather than comprehensive plan-making is an important distinction, because irrespective of size or scale, a company that doesn’t decisively focus its resources on doing some things and not others simply will not succeed.

In practice, a choice-making session is a fluid and dynamic method of strategy formulation blending logic and creativity to produce an intelligent hypothesis about the future. The fact that strategy is focused on the future, which is uncertain and unknown, drives the need for immediate need to reverse-engineer the logic behind your choices to surface key assumptions and leaps of faith. If you don’t, it will most certainly be done for you by customers and competitors once you go to market!

Ask what must be true

The simple but powerful technique for reverse-engineering any set of choices is asking what Lafley/Martin maintain is the most important question in strategy: What must be true? 

Asking this question about your choices allows you to tease out the preconditions for success. It’s important to note that the question is not concerned with what is true, or what could be true, but rather what would have to be true for the strategy to work as you envision it.

If a specific condition necessary for success may not be true, then it is a potential barrier to eventual success, and you must conduct a test to determine the validity and provide a higher level of confidence. Your new strategy is best thought of as a prototype, and like any prototype, it must be tested.

The perfect framework for scale

For a rapidly scaling, high-growth, time-crunched company, the advantages of developing a strategy using the Playing to Win (P2W) framework are several.

First, it makes the entire strategy design process significantly faster and lighter; multiple strategy prototypes ready for testing can be formulated in one day with multi-team strategy sprints (assuming in-person workshops), versus weeks or even months under the conventional model. Second, you can point the P2W framework at any strategic challenge you wish, even those faced by internal, non-revenue-generating functions. Strategy is not reserved for the C-Suite only! Finally, once a strategy has been designed and deployed throughout the company, it boosts operating speed significantly by providing a clear and powerful context for decision-making.

Let’s explore how the development process works using the method we employ in our strategy design workshops with our portfolio companies. There are three basic steps: choose, reverse-engineer, test.

Step 1: Choose

Strategic challenge (30 mins)

The only reason to craft a new strategy is if the current one isn’t sufficient to get you from where you are to where you want to be, and resources must be redeployed. (NOT because it’s planning season!)

Identify the strategic issue in question form, using the “How Might We” wording. This is the preferred language by designers, and you are designing a new strategy. “How can we” implies a current capability, and “how should we” implies a judgment, both of which limit thinking.

This is a short “framestorming” segment focused on properly framing—and gaining consensus on—the strategic problem you’re facing.


  • How might we move upmarket from SMB to mid-market?
  • How might we improve our innovation ROI?

Reframe the challenge (30 mins)

This is where the P2W process departs from tradition: Instead of immediately trying to solve the problem with the best solution, identify at least two different high-level options or alternatives that could solve the issue. There is always more than one way to “skin the strategy cat,” so to speak. That’s why you have competitors in the first place! Different options will require different choices, which is exactly what you want to explore.


  • Option 1—Enter a new geography.
  • Option 2—Develop new product.

Winning aspiration (30 mins)

Who are we winning with and for (customers)? Who are we winning against (competitors)?

The sine qua non of strategy is having a winning aspiration. There’s no safe spot in business, but the safest is at or very near the top. If you are not in podium position, or constantly angling to get there, not only will you not focus your resources effectively, but the current market leaders will use the assets that accrue to winners to ensure you never will.

Define your measurable strategic ambition, so that you will be able to determine when you are winning. Don’t be modest; don’t play to play, or play to not lose.


  • First to market with a cloud infrastructure-as-a-service solution for internal developers. (AWS)
  • Recognized leader in smart wireless audio systems for the connected home. (SONOS)
  • Premier advanced machine learning credit underwriting model for financial institutions, (Zest.ai)

Where to play + how to win (90 mins)

In what spaces or segments can we consistently sustain a podium position (1,2,3)?

What differentiated and defensible value will make us the superior player in each space? 

These two questions form the heart of your strategy. Both choices must be taken together, as they are inseparable. Choosing a space without a defensible value equation for how you’ll dominate it and differentiate your offerings is useless.

Consider all relevant resource focal points: geographies, segments, customers, channels, categories, stages of production, etc. Be explicit about where NOT to play or stop playing.

When it comes to your How to Win, be very specific about value elements (quality, cost, speed, experience, etc.). Avoid generic statements that are false choice such as “superior customer experience” or “operational excellence.” If you can’t imagine a competitor choosing a completely different or even opposite way to win in your chosen spaces, you have not made a choice. In other words, unless you can imagine winning with “inferior customer experience” or “operational dysfunction” in the examples here, superior customer experience and operational excellence are not choices; they are simply ante to the game.

Capabilities needed (45 mins)

What key skills and activities will produce our How to Win? 

Capabilities are the critical current and future skills and core activities that must be in place and performed at the highest level to achieve the advantage in each space.

Do not simply list your competencies. Just because you are good at something doesn’t necessarily mean it gives rise to your superior value equation. For example, Southwest Airlines would not list “pilot quality” as a capability, because their pilots don’t need to be better than any other airline’s.

Finally, do not limit your choices to the capabilities you currently have. Focus on what must be in place for your strategy to work, irrespective of whether you have those capabilities today. Capabilities can be bought, developed, borrowed, partnered, etc. The important characteristic that gives capability is critical to producing your How to Win.


  • Deep customer understanding
  • Go-to-market ability
  • New product innovation

Management Systems (45 mins)

How will we support and sustain your critical capabilities?

Management systems include key processes, structures, standards, rules, reviews, metrics, and dashboards that reinforce your critical capabilities and support your strategic choices. To be considered as a required management system, you should be able to draw a straight line to one or more of the capabilities you’ve listed as needed for your How to Win. The goal is to ensure that your capabilities remain at their highest level and find a way to communicate them.


  • Customer advisory board
  • Sales operations reviews
  • Innovation governance

Step 2: Reverse-engineer

What must be true? (45 mins)

  • What must be true about the openness, structure, and dynamics of your spaces?
  • What must be true about what your company, channels, and customers truly value?
  • What must be true about your critical capabilities and relative costs?
  • What must be true about how your competitors might react to your strategy?

Once you’ve listed a few pre-conditions for success, discuss whether any of your what-must-be-trues rise to the level of “worrisome,” meaning you’re not certain whether a given condition is in fact true, represents a risk, or has great potential impact on the success of your strategy. You may have a few that you consider leaps of faith that must be tested before thinking about deployment.

The goal here is to avoid experiencing the Mike Tyson quote: “Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.”
Select your most worrisome what-must-be-true for the final step: test design.

Step 3: Test

Design an experiment (45 mins)

  • What condition concerns you most?
  • What do you need to confirm?
  • What test would give you confidence?
  • What will be your measure of success?

This is basic hypothesis testing, and once you’ve constructed it, you’ve completed the strategy-design process.

Note that the Playing to Win strategy-design process essentially flips the conventional analyze-plan-execute method on its head with a choose-reverse-engineer model more relevant for rapidly changing market conditions representative of our current business climate.

The Playing-to-Win strategy canvas

In our strategy-design sessions, we often have multiple teams working simultaneously on the same strategic challenge, each taking a different high-level option. Our process utilizes a proprietary tool, a large wall canvas that not only helps guide strategic thinking but also provides a tangible artifact of the team’s work product. Basic visual canvas rule applies: Post-It notes and sharpies are the preferred utensils.

P2W Canvas

A printable version of this template can be found here: Playing to Win Canvas PDF.

To use the canvas with a remote collaboration tool, simply drop the PDF onto your whiteboard, resize it to your preference, then lock it so that it does not move.

When you finally land on a preferred strategy, you should be able to easily compose it on a single page, such as the one shown below.


Content adapted from What a Unicorn Knows: How Leading Entrepreneurs Use Lean Principles to Drive Sustainable Growth, by Matthew E. May and Pablo Dominguez. 

Tips for Modeling your Compensation Cost of Sales

As an organization scales and your coverage model begins to include AEs, AMs, BDRs, SEs, specialists, and leaders, it is more important than ever to understand if your sales team’s cost structure is financially sound.

Read more: Capacity Planning for Sales

A model to forecast your compensation cost of sales 

Insight Partners has developed a programmable model to easily forecast your compensation cost of sales. This model allows you to assess the financial impact of different organizational structures and performance scenarios. It also integrates hyper-relevant B2B SaaS benchmarks so you can sense-check your assumptions with what Insight Partners sees across its portfolio of over 250 B2B SaaS companies.

The main output is compensation cost of sales ($ compensation expenses / $ ARR bookings, expressed as a %) — i.e., how much the sales org earns for every $1 of ARR booked. With this measure, you can calibrate your coverage model, check that your incentive structure doesn’t break the P&L, and even use statistical simulations to project the range of cost outcomes.

Further, our model offers increasing levels of sophistication (level 1, level 2, level 3). You can use it regardless of company stage or GTM complexity. Ultimately, it will provide you with the tools and metrics needed to sign off on your organization’s design for the year.

Let’s start with the most basic of models, level 1

Inputs: what you need to plug into the compensation cost of sales model

You’ll need four simple inputs to model your compensation cost of sales.

1. On-Target Earnings, or base salary + target incentive, is what reps earn if they hit 100% of their target. OTE excludes payroll taxes, T&E, tools, stock-based comp, and other expenses. Our illustrative example will assume a sales org has the following roles and OTEs.


2. AE Headcount is the number of quota-carrying sales reps in that fiscal year. For simplicity, the model does not pro-rate for hire date, ramp, etc. In this example, we have 40 AEs.

3. Spans and Layers are the ratios you use to determine the Supporting Roles, such as SEs, BDRs, and first-line managers. By plugging in only the number of AEs, the model calculates all supporting roles accordingly. In our example, assume the following:


4. Quota: OTE is the ratio of AE quota to their on-target earnings. Benchmarks are 4.0-5.0x, meaning AEs should carry quotas that are four to five times what they earn if they achieve their quotas. (To contextualize, with a 50/50 pay mix, a 5x ratio implies a 10% base commission rate.) In our example, we’ll set quotas at 5x OTE, so an AE with a $260K OTE carries a $1.3M quota. Note that the quota OTE ratio will vary by selling motion and company stage. Companies with enterprise selling motions and higher ASPs might have ratios as high as 10x, and companies with nascent selling motion might have 3x ratios as they figure out their product-market fit.

How it works: the mechanics behind the model

Now that we have all our inputs, we can determine how much our org costs are relative to bookings.

  • Multiply the number of AEs by quota to get total estimated bookings. In our most accessible “Level 1” model, we assume 100% attainment for simplicity.


  • Multiply # of each role by OTE to get the total compensation cost of sales ($).

Comp Cost

  • Divide the total compensation cost of sales by total bookings to get compensation cost of sales (%), expressed as a % of ARR bookings.

This means that for every $1 of ARR booked, your sales organization costs 31 cents. The 31 cents-on-the-dollar-ratio scales as the team grow: every rep hired will book incremental ARR at the same rate that their OTE is added to the overall cost.

Level 1 is a great back-of-the-envelope exercise for organizations of any size but is especially useful for teams with <10 reps. As you scale, consider more sophisticated analyses.

Leveling up: advanced compensation cost of sales (levels 2 and 3)

Level 2 is best for organizations with 10-30 AEs and introduces important nuances like AE and BDR performance distribution: what happens to the cost of sales when overachieving reps earn accelerators, and other reps fall short of bookings quota?



In the example above, one-quarter of reps achieve 125% of quota, 35% of reps achieve 80% of quota, and the rest achieve 50% of quota. Assuming 2x accelerated commission rates above 100%, compensation cost of sales does not scale linearly with bookings. The level 2 model outputs the financial implications of these real-world assumptions. 

Level 3 builds on 1 and 2, is suited to organizations with 30+ AEs, and allows you to define average and standard deviation of quota attainment to simulate Compensation Cost of Sales. That way, you can anticipate the range of financial outcomes possible.


Comp Cost 2

In the example above, you plug in the average attainment of 85% and standard deviation of 50%. The first simulation yields bookings of $40.3M with $16.1M of estimated expenses, leading to a compensation cost of sales of 40%. You can run dozens of simulations to see the range of outcomes.

Why cost of sales is important

Whether you are optimizing for growth or EBIDTA, the sales cost structure represents a “ceiling” on your operating profit: it grows proportionally as the company grows. And sales expense is approximately one-third of total OpEx, so a compensation cost of sales that is high (e.g., 90%) or misaligned to financial objectives can have a big impact.

Compensation cost of sales changes based on your growth rate and as the company scales along its ScaleUp journey. For instance, mature companies growing at, say, 20%, should be more sensitive to compensation cost of sales as opposed to earlier-stage companies experiencing hyper-growth (e.g., 100%+). But regardless of stage and growth, financial discipline is key to investing your capital effectively.

A higher cost of sales may be acceptable in the following scenarios:

  • Customer lifetime value (LTV) is high – customers stay for a long period of time and thus the initial cost to acquire them is offset in future years.
  • The cost to renew is low – you can pay more to acquire because it’s cheap to renew them (e.g., auto-renewals).
  • Complex enterprise sales cycles – requires various overlay roles to help support the selling motion; however, average deal sizes are larger, and contract terms are multi-year.

Conversely, if your cost of sales is high, but you lack these indicators, it’s possible that the economics of your GTM engine are not scalable. There could be a myriad of issues to diagnose, such as poor incentive design, high OTEs, low sales productivity, or suboptimal resource allocation.

Download the model

Sales compensation and quota setting are hard, but by using accessible templates and techniques, it is easy to understand the financial implications of your plan. That way you can make the best use of your resources and hit the ground running next year.

What Unicorns Know: The Physics of Scaling for Growth

A ScaleUp company is a vehicle for rapid business growth, whose momentum can be likened to that of a professional NASCAR or Formula 1 race car – where speed is a key determinant of success.

There is a notion for SaaS companies that to get to $100M in 5 years and be valued at $1B (unicorn status), companies need to follow T2D3; that is, they need to triple their revenue growth two times and then double their growth three times. Not all companies will follow this trajectory of growth, and different industries also have varying growth rates. Growth is key for any company to scale effectively, whether it is a startup, ScaleUp, or mature public company.

However, any object moving at a high velocity faces physical forces of resistance that must be overcome to achieve the speed and agility required to win. These restraining forces have business corollaries that act as inhibitors to scale, the net effect of which, if not minimized, can determine whether a company realizes its market potential.

Watch: What a Unicorn Knows: 5 Principles for Growth in 2023

The following four physical forces work against any body in motion, including a fast-growing company: Drag, Inertia, Friction, and Waste.


Drag is the resistance of air against a moving object. Drag in the business context is often present at the strategic level, e.g., adverse indicators such as sluggish market moves, inability to change direction with agility, and company-wide misalignment of strategies and objectives.

A few key questions can help you assess whether your company may be vulnerable to drag:

  • Does your company have clarity on Where to Play and How to Win?
  • Do all business operations and functions have supporting strategies aligned to these choices?
  • Does your company have clearly defined and relevant strategic priorities?
  • Do all business operations and functions have contributing metrics?
  • Are cascading goals in place to deploy strategies and achieve metrics?


Inertia is the resistance to any change in the current state of motion. Corporate inertia is often responsible for waning product performance and competitiveness, feature fatigue, and a poor innovation pipeline.

The following questions can help you assess whether your company may be vulnerable to inertia:

  • Does senior leadership favor experiments over ideas?
  • Is constant experimentation a required core competency?
  • Are fresh opportunities and new insights consistently pursued through experimentation?
  • Do you have a common method for rapid experimentation with customers?
  • Do you have a standard approach for advancing early experiments toward innovations?


Friction occurs when moving parts rub against each other and is a common cause of slow adoption speed, poor customer experience, retention/renewal difficulty, and undelivered customer outcomes.

The following questions can help you assess whether your company may be vulnerable to friction:

  • Do customers realize value from your products quickly and effortlessly?
  • Do you have documented customer jobs-to-be-done for all key customer profiles?
  • Do you clearly understand the job(s) your customers are trying to do?
  • Are your products and services aligned to customer/user desired business outcomes?
  • Do you have a prioritized list of opportunities to improve the customer experience?


Waste is the motion of performing unneeded, unrequested, or unnecessary work or the byproduct of that activity, which restricts value flow.

Waste is perhaps the most prevalent impediment to value. It is present not so much because the work being performed is inefficient but rather because it is ineffective, defined simply as doing the wrong work. As business strategist Peter Drucker once noted, “There is surely nothing quite so useless as doing with great efficiency what should not be done at all.”

Companies in the ScaleUp stage are often fraught with waste simply because growth has outpaced development of the standardized operating processes needed to sustain the business into the future.

Insight Onsite’s work with dozens of ScaleUps reveals that waste most often takes the form of performing work that no one, especially a customer, is asking for or needs.

The following questions can help you assess whether your company may be vulnerable to waste:

  • Is high priority placed on eliminating all forms of value-destroying waste?
  • Do key customer value-adding activities optimize quality, cost, speed, and experience?
  • Do you have standard operating procedures for all key processes?
  • Is continuous process improvement a company-wide capability?
  • Do senior leaders actively champion and participate in process optimization?

Typically, most ScaleUps cannot answer the questions above with a resounding “yes!” A new and effective operating framework is often needed to address the unique way restraining forces manifest themselves in rapidly growing software companies. The framework centers on the concept of “lean.”

Lean should be a grand unifying concept encompassing a concerted effort to reduce the momentum-stealing effects of drag, inertia, friction, and waste. While lean methods are the benchmark in manufacturing settings and have been applied with some success to entrepreneurial startups, broad application of lean-based principles to software technology enterprises remains mostly a counterintuitive concept and rare practice.

Ask yourself the questions above, and if you find many apply to your business, read more for how to implement the lean principles of SCALE.

Learn more about applying lean principles to scale by reading What A Unicorn Knows, available now.

7 Things to Include in Every Board Deck

Why do many executive teams loathe board meetings?

At Insight, we work closely with executive teams to drive growth, scale operations, and achieve better and faster results through Onsite, our team of 130+ dedicated operators in sales/customer success, marketing, talent, and product/tech. As a result, we have attended and prepared for many board meetings.

Board meetings are invaluable. They are the ultimate time and place to evaluate strategic progress, refine or revise goals and timelines, and receive insight from experienced people who are invested in the company’s success. These meetings can be a time to reflect on progress and celebrate wins and milestones.

But often, executive teams dread the quarterly board meeting. They are a lot of work, they necessitate business scrutiny, and they might even reveal issues.

Compounding this dread is that founders and company leaders are rarely told what to include in the board agenda and materials, and what makes a presentation valuable for both management and the board. Crisp, open, thoughtful, and productive board meetings build positive relationships between the board and executive teams. However, board meetings that waste valuable time can undercut the board’s confidence in management. We summarize our best practices for productive board meetings here.

Board meetings are a CEO’s strategic weapon

Effective board meetings clarify priorities; they allow leaders to spotlight results, highlight challenges, and discuss key strategic issues. The best management teams and board members hold each other accountable and truly want to review company progress and improve where possible.

CEOs and management teams get the most out of board meetings when they arm directors with the information required to ask smart, pertinent questions. And the exceptional teams focus on the places where those questions — and the answers — will have the highest impact.

Seven must-haves for your board presentation

While every company is different, the software companies that run the best board meetings have common approaches and provide similar information in their presentations. At a minimum, include these seven things in your board presentation decks.

1. Establish and stick to stated objectives

Too many of the worst board meetings begin with an agenda, but not with objectives. That is a big point of difference. An agenda is merely the data that gets presented. Objectives are what you want to get out of the time together.

Before every board meeting, the CEO should complete this sentence, “This meeting will be a success if we…”  “…get through the agenda on time,” is not an ideal response.  “Agree on a budget,” or “Set baseline goals and metrics” are much better.

2. Include a “State of the Union” from the CEO

Board meetings are most effective when organized around top priorities and issues. An update from the CEO on key accomplishments, challenges, and how the company plans to address those challenges helps orient the board. With a 360-degree view of the business, the board can provide sound advice and guidance.

Avoid the temptation to speak in phrases. “Good” is not a number. Include data. Real measurable outcomes aligned with key performance indicators will help the board – and the management team – make good decisions. It’s also important, as part of the CEO report, to include and review action items, including any from the previous board or leadership meetings.

This is also the time for the CEO to ask for guidance on key decisions. Asking for the board’s point of view on challenging decisions ensures that the board agrees with the decision and is invested in the outcome.

3. Don’t shy away from non-financial numbers

Board members can add the most value when they have access to the rich data that informs management decisions, not just the requisite financial statements. So, while you may summarize, also provide the metrics you use to monitor progress. That way, board members can help you be sure you’re measuring the correct things, in the best way.

Board members can share how your measures stack up against other businesses and help provide greater context to the data. When in doubt, hand it out. If you don’t have data on something, it may be worth discussing that as well.

Data such as financial statements, HR metrics, sales and marketing data (e.g., bookings growth and customer success metrics), and product management and development metrics (such as product roadmap milestones) are all useful for board members.

Board meetings are more effective when the materials – especially data information – are sent 48 hours in advance. To assist with productive board meetings, Insight Onsite has developed a template board package that includes the metrics that are important for effective board discussions. Your investor should be able to provide this sort of guidance.

4. Functional summaries matter

A one-page summary by function with key highlights from the quarter, near-term priorities, and current challenges lets the board quickly see what’s happening by department.

The executive team leaders in a software company (product, engineering, marketing, sales, customer success, HR, and finance) should present a dashboard of key metrics, current priorities, and progress against previously discussed priorities. Good CEOs have leadership team meetings where functional heads know the constraints and priorities of their colleagues. Where this doesn’t occur, the board meeting is a good forum to disseminate information so everyone may understand the situation. When the team has a complete view, priorities can change, cooperation can grow, and teams can be more effective. By getting visibility into these functional priorities, your board may be able to help the process along.

5. Review strategy

A board’s role is governance, results, and strategy. Too often strategy gets lost amidst the approval of board minutes and the dissection of business metrics.

CEOs should discuss market dynamics, competitive moves, environmental factors, new relevant regulation, talent retention, M&A, and company direction. The board meeting is an opportunity to get a broader perspective and review industry dynamics that may impact the business. Discussing the probabilities of different scenarios is a core responsibility of the board.

6. Spotlight your team

People are the most important asset of any business. As any good manager knows, recruiting, hiring, training, and developing the best talent is what separates great teams from the rest.

Leadership and execution are hard work for company leaders. By giving functional leaders a chance to display their potential and be acknowledged by the board for their accomplishments, the CEO ensures that leaders are motivated and aligned.

Understanding and displaying their senior leaders’ potential and performance in a board deck calls out key team members and helps keep the organization focused on talent development.

7. Seek out direct feedback

Good board meetings include time alone with the CEO for the board to provide the CEO with confidential feedback, and for the group to collectively review executive team composition, highlight capability gaps, and discuss succession plans. The board is able to provide observations and proffer help.

The CEO job is lonely. The board meeting time represents an opportunity to discuss concerns behind closed doors and obtain input. The CEO should view this time as one of the key benefits of board meetings. The collective capability of the board is focused on improving the company. Take the chance to tap into this experience and knowledge.

Board meetings done right

When prepared and delivered well, board materials help leadership teams focus on what matters and allow board members to prove their value. As you prepare your presentation and run your board meetings, follow the rules. Be honest, support your plans and presentations with data, and most importantly, seek and solicit feedback from board members. Rather than dreading the work board meeting preparation can take and seeking perfunctory sign-off, view this time as an opportunity to get the advice and investment every company needs to deliver outstanding performance. Our list of seven must-haves will get you most of the way there; the quality of the dialog will do the rest. 

Analyst Relations 101: How to Successfully Engage and Brief Analyst Firms

Many ScaleUps think of analyst relations (AR) as a black box. They might know they need to engage with analysts, but they’re not sure how to effectively do it. Other companies ignore AR completely because they don’t understand it. Do this at your peril. Getting featured in an analyst report can unlock major opportunities for SaaS software companies selling into the enterprise.

What is analyst relations (AR)?

Analyst relations is the proactive engagement of analysts at research firms (e.g., Forrester, Gartner, IDC, and others) to develop a mutually beneficial relationship that results in advocacy and market impact. It’s important to note that you don’t need to be a paying customer to brief these firms. In addition to this blog, my colleague Charlene Chen authored our ScaleUp Guide to Analyst Relations which provides context and tactical tips.

After spending six years as a senior analyst at Forrester, I’m excited to share my AR knowledge with Insight’s portfolio and the broader community. While at Forrester, I authored dozens of research reports and conducted five Wave evaluations in the digital experience space, with my most recent Wave published earlier this year on Digital Asset Management (DAM). I saw firsthand what good and bad AR looked like and its rippling effects.

It’s never too early to consider analyst relations

AR is key to scaling a business. It’s never too early to start thinking about and planning an AR strategy. Even for early-stage companies (sub $5 million in revenue), AR can provide powerful benefits. For example, when you brief an analyst for the first time, you have 30 minutes to make this tough audience understand your point of view and make them care. The practice of AR and analyst interactions forces all companies to clearly articulate the market challenge, detail customer pain points, and succinctly describe how their company or product uniquely solves the challenge. To convince the analysts, you must supply evidence in the form of market data and customer case studies. In other words, analyst relations is a form of company branding and product messaging and positioning.

At Insight, I educate our portfolio on the importance of AR: what ScaleUps need to know about engaging with analyst firms, how you can build a briefing deck that catches the eye of the ever-busy analyst, and key insights and tactics to improve positioning. Here are some important key takeaways from these conversations that will help any company with its analyst relations strategy.

Read more: The ScaleUp Guide to Analyst Relations: A Fast Track to Enterprise Credibility

How to build your AR program

The hardest part of getting started is getting started. Many organizations start their AR practices with a marketing professional spending only some of their time on AR. Teams tend to be small. Most Insight portfolio companies have a product marketer carving out a few hours a week to focus on AR, while others may have one or two people dedicated to the practice. For early-stage companies, the founder or CEO owns the AR strategy. It’s only when you move into very large enterprises that full teams of AR professionals are present. Some best practices for developing an AR program include:

Understand the analyst firms and coverage

Gartner, Forrester, and IDC have the broadest coverage of the firms. Even non-clients can search these sites to see topics analysts are covering and some of their recent publication titles or summaries. Do your research to understand which analysts are covering your topic and create a prioritized list of primary and secondary analysts who are related to your space. There are also more specialized firms like Celent and AITE for financial services; KLAS for healthcare; Lux for oil, gas, chemicals, and utilities; and RedMonk for developer-focused companies. These can play an important role in your AR strategy if they’re the right fit.

Think beyond evaluative research

Getting in a Forrester Wave or Gartner Magic Quadrant (MQ) is at the top of most companies’ lists when it comes to analyst relations. But analysts write more than evaluative research. They also write reports on best practices, trends, and predictions. One key series is Gartner’s Cool Vendor reports. Gartner looks for companies that are innovative, intriguing, and impactful; they’re solving problems in new ways. If you catch the eye of Gartner analysts on a briefing, they may nominate you for a Cool Vendor report that publishes in the spring or fall. Your future as a Cool Vendor can be very bright.

Be an endless supply of “grit”

When I was an analyst, every paragraph I wrote needed grit — or evidence. I would often pull from our vast repository of data or look for customer case studies to illustrate a point or key trend. When I needed to dig up new case studies, one of my first stops would be our vendor clients. They had customers who were doing exactly what I was researching. I would conduct a 30-minute interview with them and then use quotes or data, often citing the technology company in the research.

How to brief analysts

The most important piece of information about briefing analysts is that you do not need to be a paying client of the firm to brief. All major firms will accept briefings from non-clients if there is alignment with analyst coverage and if you intrigue an analyst in your briefing submission. Each firm has a landing page on how to request a briefing; some may require you to create a free account to collect some basic information. Briefing analysts successfully requires you to:

Develop your outside-in view

The way an analyst sees the world is different from how you see it. That’s because they’re talking to a vast array of end-user customers (the buyers and users of technology) as well as most of your key competitors. There’s also an army of supporting research staff who are collecting survey data and market insights to inform research. To this end, avoid using your own jargon because this signals an inside-out approach. Use your customers to help drive how you talk about yourselves. You could use a formal or informal voice of the customer (VOC) program or a customer advisory board (CAB), which can help up-level your thinking and go-to-market strategy. To create your outside-in view, some questions might help you get started:

  • To customers: Why did you choose us, and why do you continue to do business with us?
  • To partners: What can we do to help you drive differentiation?
  • To employees: What is our biggest market challenge?
  • To sales: What are our competitors saying about us?

Create an interaction cadence

An AR program cannot be run on autopilot. When you engage analyst firms only during a Wave or MQ evaluation, it’s the sales equivalent of showing customer love only during a renewal. Instead, aim to brief your key analysts three to four times a year. When you speak with them, find out what is on their research agenda and offer connections to your experts (both internal employees and customers). Find out which other analyst colleagues might be interested in a briefing and follow-up. Additionally, if you are a client of the analyst firms, you should be engaging in more inquiries to uncover market insights and trends. When I was an analyst, most vendor-clients underutilized the inquiry process and missed opportunities to engage with both their primary and secondary analysts. Inquiries are 30-minute calls with analysts where paying clients can ask questions and gain market insights. Briefings tend to be more one-way interactions. If you have inquiry access, consider booking inquiries on either side of your briefings. If it’s before, it can help you align messaging; after can provide high-level feedback or validation of direction.

Deliver your briefing efficiently

Half-hour briefings are the standard and time goes by quickly. Dynamic senior leaders who are willing to go off-script to answer questions are the best briefing presenters. When setting up your presentation, use the section and timing guidance below.

proposed analyst relations briefing

How to prepare for your first Forrester Wave or Gartner Magic Quadrant

Many ScaleUps dream of being included in a Forrester Wave or Gartner MQ and unseating established players in the coveted leader category. This is no simple task. In fact, it will take hundreds of hours of dedication across product, sales, and marketing with no guarantee of success. Ranking reports like the Wave or MQ are important to establish your enterprise legitimacy. When enterprises buy technology, they often look to these reports, and if you’re not on it you can be seen as a risky bet. After running five successful Wave evaluations at Forrester, here are some insider best practices when engaging in this process:

Understanding the timeline and not ignoring the initial steps

You must be included in the corresponding landscape report to be considered for the Wave. Once the landscape progresses to a Wave (and it doesn’t always), the Wave process takes about three months from start to finish. Between vendor briefings, customer references, analysis, and writing, analysts alone easily spend 100 hours or more on the evaluation. It is critical that you meticulously project-manage your side of the Wave to make sure that key resources across the company are aligned to meet specific deadlines. Additionally, one often overlooked portion of the Wave is your chance to provide feedback on the draft questionnaire. At the beginning of the Wave process, you’ll receive the draft questionnaire on the criteria the analyst is considering evaluating you against. Now is your time to shape this process by suggesting the addition of criteria where you can differentiate, or the omission of capabilities that are commoditized in the market.

Nailing your briefing and demonstration

Every vendor in a Wave evaluation gets two to three hours to present their strategy and current capabilities. Dozens of hours of collective preparation time should go into this briefing because it is the most important chance to influence the analyst. The firm will provide you with guidance on the information and the scenarios you need to prepare. When you present, it’s best that you follow this guidance in the order listed because the analyst is often entering preliminary scores during your demo. Following the guidance helps them score as they go. If you don’t have a specific capability they’re asking for, show how you might solve the problem with a third-party integrated solution or where the capability sits on your future roadmap.

Being strategic and respectful during the fact-checking process

Once your analyst has scored all the vendors, you’ll receive your initial scorecard and your writeup. You’re receiving this to fact-check your scores. You (or others at your company) may bristle at the “1” scores that highlight you’re below par compared to other vendors in the evaluation, but unless you truly meet all of the capabilities of a “3” score, you should resist the futile act of arguing your position. Instead, target a few key scores where you may have truly not communicated your capabilities and create a fact-based case to have those scores adjusted; one or two may come through. Also, avoid red-line edits to your writeup to align it with your marketing materials. If there is something factually inaccurate or incomplete, suggest a correction, but otherwise hold back.

wave report analyst timeline

Summary and recommendations

Analyst relations is not about quick wins. ScaleUps that understand the long game of consistent AR effort will be rewarded with market visibility, revenue growth, and competitive differentiation. When ScaleUps approach analyst relations, remember to:

  • Educate your company on the value of AR. Many companies don’t have AR practices because they just don’t know that they should. This post can be a great starting point to educate founders and other team members on the value that strategic AR can drive for businesses, especially if your category is covered by the firms. It is critical to get buy-in from the highest levels of your organization to have a successful AR program. AR practices benefit companies by inclusion in more RFPs, sales teams that score more meetings with prospects, and higher website lead gen.
  • Approach the practice with adequate resources. In general, smaller companies will need fewer resources than larger companies that might be involved in multiple evaluative reports a year. At early-stage companies, the founder and/or CEO must drive and be involved in the AR effort. As the program progresses and the company grows, AR tends to be a function of product marketing. And as you gain traction with the firms, AR may get its own headcount or expand to include external partner resources to drive consistent wins.
  • Use experts and partners to guide your path. Insight Partners portfolio companies have access to analyst relations experts (me and my colleague Charlene Chen) through Onsite, just one of the offerings for our ScaleUps. Once you outline your goals for an AR program and get buy-in from the top levels of your organization, it’s time to forge ahead. Your investor should be ready to help advise along this process.

Break Through with These 5 Lean Principles from Unicorn Companies

In 1988, John Krafcik coined the term “lean” in his graduate work at MIT’s International Motor Vehicle Program. His paper, “Triumph of the Lean Production System,” challenged that it was not the location, the culture, or even the technology that determined car manufacturing plant performance. Indeed, the plants that operated with a “lean” production mindset were highly productive, while maintaining high quality. Lean was his way to express what he came to believe in his previous role as a Toyota manufacturing engineer to be the essence of the game-changing Toyota Production System: “an absence of slack in the system, aka waste.” Krafcik famously went on to become CEO of Waymo, the self-driving car company spinout of Google’s parent company, Alphabet.  

Watch: What a Unicorn Knows: 5 Principles for Growth in 2023

A key part of Insight Partners’ approach to helping portfolio companies scale has centered on helping leaders eliminate these kinds of organizational impediments, applying the principles of  lean thinking in a rather unconventional way: to the operations of software ScaleUps. That work with highly successful “unicorn” companies has led to the development of five foundational principles any company can use to create rapid and lasting growth. 

Five lean ScaleUp principles

The term “lean” became popularized as a management philosophy with the 1996 bestseller Lean Thinking by James Womack and Daniel Jones, who led the MIT study during John Krafcik’s graduate work in the late 80s. In 2011, lean gained a resurgence in the tech world with Eric Ries’ The Lean Startup, which focused on helping entrepreneurs test ideas and iterate quickly.

Over the years, lean has evolved and grown to become an organizing principle that engages people in adding the highest possible value for customers across all operations. What makes lean compelling and different as a management philosophy is how that value is created. The lean process is one of addition by subtraction — reducing or removing anything that impedes the free flow of customer-defined value. Amazon calls it “working backwards.”

We have discovered that applying a broader interpretation of lean can be a powerful stance for battling the momentum-stealing effects of drag, inertia, friction, and waste. By keeping Krafcik’s original idea of “zero slack” front and center in efforts to help tech firms scale for growth, we have seen certain themes repeat themselves across various successful scaling companies. Those patterns evolved into a set of guiding principles, which, when adopted, make success more likely. The handy mnemonic to remember is SCALE:

  1. Strategic Speed
  2. Constant Experimentation
  3. Accelerated Value
  4. Lean Process
  5. Espirit de Corps

Learn more about using these lean principles for rapid, lasting growth. What a Unicorn Knows is out now!

Principle 1: Strategic Speed

Fighter pilots, professional cyclists, and race car drivers know what geese flying in a V formation know: You can travel faster and farther with half the effort by “drafting” in the slipstreams created by those in front of you. The faster you go, the more energy you save. It’s a virtuous cycle. And the more people in alignment, the bigger the slipstream, so you go even faster. This is the simple physics of momentum, the equation for which is velocity (speed with direction) times mass.

You can apply the concept to your company’s strategies. We call it strategic speed, defined as the optimal speed for swift strategy deployment and decision-making.

To produce a similar effect and create the organizational equivalent of slipstreams requires strategies, priorities, and objectives to be simultaneously linked vertically and horizontally. Mechanisms like Japan’s Hoshin Kanri (“strategy deployment” or “policy management”) and the younger but more well-known Western version, OKRs (objectives and key results), implemented with tools and practices like the lean alignment practice of catchball — essentially the business equivalent of the children’s game of tossing a ball back and forth — help boost strategic speed.

We have observed that ScaleUps achieving company-wide alignment are able to accelerate their growth over 30% more than their peers.

Principle 2: Constant Experimentation

Continuous innovation is a survival need and a competitive must. Without that capability, inertia will act as a speed governor. But innovation cannot be relegated to department status or reserved for the next-level killer app that may never materialize. Doing so is an inertia-producing temptation, but one that can be avoided by making simple, fast, and frugal experimentation an operating norm.

One of the big misperceptions about lean is that it’s all about quality and cost. Those who have spent time embedded in the Toyota culture will delight in correcting you, letting you in on the little-known fact that the Toyota Production System was developed to shorten the time from order to delivery and create a “dash to cash” method without requiring the deep resources of the big U.S. automotive companies. The entire system was evolved through a series of desperate experiments to scale up and grow revenue faster with less.

For high-velocity ScaleUps, creating a steady stream of innovative new product and process concepts that consistently make it to market requires an equally fast, lightweight, high-impact method for carrying out constant experimentation, one that is, unfortunately, missing in most.

Experimentation also isn’t just about product development. Applying agile principles to rolling out a new sales process in one market allows you to test and improve before rolling out globally to your entire organization. As Netflix’s co-founder and first CEO Marc Randolph writes in his 2019 book, That Will Never Work:

I’ve realized that the key to being successful is not how good your ideas are, it’s how good you are at being able to find quick, cheap, and easy ways to try your ideas.

Principle 3: Accelerated Value

A failure to understand and align with customers on their desired business outcomes can produce enough downstream friction to produce what every recurring revenue business dreads: churn.

The tendency is to equate the concept of a customer journey with a sales funnel coupled with a monolithic view of the customer, which is wrong. In other words, customer = account is a key source of friction that can ultimately lead to head-scratching when seemingly satisfied customers churn.

At the root of the issue is the difficulty of thinking and operating horizontally in a structurally vertical world. Customers are organized vertically, as are most company support functions, but the customer experience is horizontal. Rather than think like a star quarterback leading a team with set plays being sent in from the sideline (vertical thinking), think like a Formula One pit crew. A horizontally-oriented Formula One team has over 20 people with specific roles so tightly synchronized that they can stabilize the car, change the tires, adjust the aerodynamics, and safely release the car to get back in the race in under two seconds.

Enabling customers to realize value quickly promotes product adoption and positively impacts community spread, customer retention, renewal, and expansion.  Ensuring that everyone in your company is aware of how to enable that value quickly, and in a unified fashion, only helps to accelerate your growth through improved customer satisfaction.

Principle 4: Lean Process

Lean as a concept encourages simplicity as the path to speed. It holds that less is best, and that to make more room for what truly matters, eliminate what doesn’t. It’s a subtractive approach to continuously improving and simplifying even the most complicated workflows. It starts with a clearly defined value, then systematically removing everything blocking the path to delivering it. It’s a relentless endeavor, a different way of thinking, and requires a mind shift.

Targeting waste involves using a methodology over 80 years old developed by the U.S. War Department in 1940, who coined the term continuous improvement. The concept was aimed at the effort to convert the American manufacturing base to the war effort. It was then utilized to stabilize war-torn Japan under the leadership of General Douglas MacArthur during the seven-year U.S. occupation. Japan, having scarce resources other than human creative capital, termed it kaizen, meaning “change for better.”

With fast-moving tech ScaleUps, we use an adapted method of traditional continuous improvement called a kaizen blitz, which works best, as it is both faster and more effective.

When applying lean principles within Insight’s portfolio companies, we have been able to achieve a 20-30% improvement in time to value.

Principle 5: Espirit de Corps

You can’t build a Formula One car by yourself, or for that matter, a company. It takes a team and leaders of and within that team to create the kind of environment that enables the first four principles to come to life.

Enter the notion of esprit de corps. French for “group spirit,” esprit de corps figures centrally in military and paramilitary organizations, which are notorious for favoring results-oriented leadership. Mission first, people always is the mantra. But social research suggests that for a high-velocity organization like a ScaleUp, a cohesive culture of “people first, mission always” may just be a better approach.

As UCLA social psychologist Matthew Lieberman reveals in his bestselling book, Social: Why Our Brains are Wired to Connect, those viewed as having predominantly strong results focus have only a one-in-seven chance of being viewed as a great leader, while those viewed as having a predominantly social or empathic focus have about the same or slightly less chance. But for those strong in both results and social skills, the likelihood of being seen as a great leader is five times greater.

Leaders of this ilk understand that a people/culture fit is every bit as important as a product/market fit when it comes to scaling for growth. Your star product requires a team of star players to advance it to market and capture maximum value…so much so that Netflix is happy to advertise to all job seekers that they will pay an ill-fitting employee an industry-leading severance of four months’ pay while they search for a star replacement.

What a unicorn knows

A cursory glance at each of the individual principles in the S.C.A.L.E. framework might lead you to ask whether there is anything really new here. That’s fair. What is unique is the lean interpretation of the principle: Well-worn terms like strategy and experimentation take on entirely new meanings when viewed through the lens of lean. What is unique is the synergy created from integrating any one of the individual principles with the other four and pointing the collective model toward the goal of scaling up by leveraging a lean, zero-slack mindset.

Learn more about applying lean principles to scale by reading our book, out now: What A Unicorn Knows.

Designing Your First President’s Club

Many senior revenue leaders have asked Insight Partners to help structure their President’s Club contests for the year. Based on these conversations, we’ve laid out some guidelines to make your President’s Club truly memorable, and more importantly, something that really motivates your sales team.

What is President’s Club?

Let’s start with the basics – President’s Club (as known as Achiever’s Club, Winner’s Circle, etc.) is an annual contest that is awarded to an elite group of sales reps, sales leaders, and sales technical resources for achieving specific goals — typically attainment of quota. This concept started way back in 1907 with NCR as a way to motivate and reward top-performing reps, and the reward mechanism has now spread throughout the corporate world. For sellers, the financial incentives for overperformance are significant and motivate many. A President’s Club award that comes with peer recognition and a unique prize is highly motivational for many people. When the contest stakes are meaningful, they can drive high-performing behavior and encourage reps to go above and beyond their normal performance expectations. When deployed well, the incentive can have a material impact on the overall performance of the company.

At what stage of my company’s growth should we introduce a President’s Club?

One question we get often is, am I too small to have a President’s Club? The short answer is that it depends on the culture of your company and the focus you want to place on driving and rewarding the sales team. If your sales team is smaller than 25, you can probably leverage other reward mechanisms (e.g., provide upgraded suites at Sales Kickoff for your top reps) versus having a Club event. Once you begin to scale above 25, the Head of Sales should determine, with the support of your CEO, Finance, HR, and Marketing whether a Club event makes sense for the team, and then jointly align on how to structure the program.

What are the criteria to attend President’s Club? Most organizations seem to pick 100% of quota attainment.

Although achieving 100% of quota is a significant accomplishment and should be recognized with an award and announcement, if you’ve designed your compensation plan and quotas well, 50-65% of your reps should be close to achieving or exceeding 100% of plan. That’s a significant percentage of your organization, and it reduces the exclusivity of President’s Club. Many companies send anywhere from 5% -20% of their top performers, and the percentage depends on how exclusive you want to make the event.  The number you send could increase in a year where the company significantly outperforms expectations and decrease when the company underperforms.

So, I should just make it a moving target where 20% win? Then at least I know how much I’ll spend.

There are pros and cons to the two main ways of setting criteria — fixed percentage of team members, and fixed target criteria.

Fixed Percentage of Team

This approach is the most predictable in terms of financial impact. The company determines a set percentage of the sales team that can attend and they use a stack ranking by role to determine the winners. Many companies require that winners achieve a minimum performance threshold (100% of plan) to avoid the risk of sending reps that have underperformed. This is simple to model and simple to explain to the organization.

The challenge with this approach is that it can demotivate some reps. If you’ve outperformed all year and are going to finish at 135% of plan, but would fall outside of the top 20% of reps, should you be left out of the fun? What happens if someone beats you out on the last day of the year for that final spot?  Not only would that impact you as a rep, but the story may flow through the organization and could demotivate others.

Fixed Target 

This approach sets performance criteria for the reps to win President’s Club. This is typically a percentage of plan and may include a minimum sales dollar/euro amount. For example, if you model out your expected performance for the year and expect 23% of people to achieve 135% or higher, then you should set your award criteria at 135%. Anyone who hits that target and meets any other criteria you stipulate should be able to win the award. The benefit of this approach is that you can recognize everyone that achieves those targets, motivating a broader portion of the organization.

One challenge to this approach is the financial modeling needed to budget appropriately and the risk that more than the expected percentage achieve the target. This could drive up costs but hopefully also comes with a commensurate performance improvement. The other risk is that high performers could relax a bit once they hit the criteria and save some deals for the following year.

What other criteria should be considered?

The most common criteria outside of quota achievement considered is tenure. It’s typical to exclude sales reps who have been on quota for less than 9 months of the year. The reason for this is that it’s difficult to set accurate ramp quotas for new reps, especially if they inherit active territories.

Other criteria can include things like a minimum revenue amount, a minimum amount for a specific product (if you’re trying to ensure balance across products), or a certain amount by region (if you have sales team distributed globally). Just don’t make the contest so complicated that your reps can’t understand it.

Who else besides quota-carrying sales reps should be eligible?

  • CRO/Head of Sales always attends. They’re the host of the event so even if the organization doesn’t achieve overall company goals, the Head of Sales needs to be there. If you have leaders that oversee an entire region (EMEA), it is also common to see them attend if members of their team are also attending.
  • Sales Leaders are typically included based on their team achieving 100% of plan. For player-coaches, it’s possible to include a personal performance requirement in addition to the team performance.
  • BDRs/SDRs/Sales Engineers, Sales Ops. Some companies exclude these support functions in an effort to keep the award exclusively to quota-carrying reps. Personally, I’ve always liked the idea of rewarding a small percentage of sales support functions. This type of recognition can have a material impact on the motivation of team members who typically don’t have a high variable component to their pay. However, given the roles these individuals have, they shouldn’t be eligible to have 20% of the organization win the award. Typically, this group is limited based on overall sales performance with a varying percentage of individuals being eligible based on how the organization performed; for example, if the organization hit 100% of its sales target, 5% of support personnel could be eligible with that number scaling to a higher percentage as the performance of the sales org increases. The selection is done by the head of sales with input from the team leaders and alignment from finance on budgeting.
  • Non-Sales Functions. In most companies, the President’s Club is a sales award only, and other groups are not eligible to participate. However, some companies may elect to allow a small number of non-sales people (customer success, product development, services, and marketing) to win the award as a motivational tool; in these cases, the number of non-sales people should be significantly smaller than the sales attendees. Remember, this contest is designed to motivate front-line sales reps and reward them for outperforming. Usually “wild card” non-sales slots are not used until your sales organization scales to a much larger size (e.g. +75).
  • Executives. This depends on the size of the sales organization and the number of individuals attending the President’s Club. The CEO should attend since this sends the signal that sales is important to the company — plus, it gives the sales team access to the CEO. For larger companies where there are 20-30 people attending, it may make sense for other direct reports of the CEO to attend. This further shows the company’s support for the sales organization and having the company’s top executives in attendance sends that message. This is also an opportunity for the executives to hear about what’s on the sales reps’ minds and understand the challenges they’re facing in the market.

So, we’ve figured out who should win and what the criteria is, but what exactly are the awards?

The most typical award is to participate in a group trip — an event where all the winners go together to celebrate their success with their peers and the executive team.  The trips are usually to beach resorts or to interesting tourist destinations in North America (Napa Valley, NYC or Cancun, Mexico) or Europe (London, Paris, Rome). The location of the trip depends on the size of your team, the budget you have and the location of your organization. If you’re just starting out with your first PClub, then we recommend that you keep it local to your region and expand the locations to international over time (as additional motivation as your company grows).

What’s included in the trip?

Most award trips are all-expenses paid for both the winner and their significant other. This includes coach airfare, standard hotel rooms, dinners and activities. If an individual wants to upgrade their airplane seats or hotel room, they can do this at their own expense.

Are the trips taxable?

Yes, award trips are taxable (even if you have a few hours of training included) and are not considered business trips. In the U.S., the attendees are responsible for the taxes on the trip amount. This is fairly common, although some companies may choose to gross up the paycheck of award winners to cover these taxes.

We’ve never had incentives like this before, what’s the best way to start?

It’s tempting to go straight to the amazing destinations and hope for the best. However, if you haven’t established a culture of contests, the impact that you get from the trip will be muted. We recommend a multi-year path to build up the hype and drive a culture of competition in your organization. If you’re not sure where to start or if it’s later in the year and you are just kicking this off, we recommend going with an award of some type rather than a trip. There are a few standard award categories that companies use.

  • Travel vouchers: These are simple and easy, but they don’t establish a way to show off to the winners’ peer group that they’re one of a select group of winners. If you go down this route, we’d suggest that you create an internal page for winners to share some photos from their award trip.
  • Cars: Some companies award one-year leases for high-end cars. The challenge with this is the insurance requirement — does the company cover or does the employee? Additionally, what do you do if the employee leaves the company before the lease is up? Our experience with these types of awards is that they’re difficult to administer and therefore we don’t recommend them.
  • Watches: Rolex or similar high-end watches are good contest prizes.  Not only are they motivating, but they can be worn as a badge of success for years to come. Personalize the watch by having the company logo engraved on the back.

Once you’ve started to build the culture of competition, then you can up the game by doing a moderate trip, and then bump it up again the following year with a trip to a more unique destination.

One thing to keep in mind is that your awards, destinations, and events should all take into consideration the diverse nature of your sales team members and the culture of your business.

At what stage should we do President’s Club?

As mentioned above, President’s Club awards can be given at any stage of a company’s development.  However, trips should probably not be considered until you have 30 or more sales reps. The reason for this is that if you only have 10 sales reps and only 20% can win the trip, you’ll have the executive team hanging out with only 2 reps.  We’d recommend that until you scale to 30 reps, you stick to vouchers, cash awards, or watches.

When and how do we announce this incentive?

To get the maximum value from the contest, we suggest a staged approach to the announcement.

At the sales kickoff, announce that this year, the contest prize will be a President’s Club trip with the location to be announced in Q2. Get the hype going at kickoff but keep the location a secret. In Q2, send out an email or print announcement to each sales rep’s home announcing the contest location. This gives maximum impact on the announcement and ups the excitement level. In Q3 you should be ready to email a video of the venue to further motivate the organization. Q3 is also when you should start a regular cadence of tracking and announcing the standings of those people who are eligible for incentive. In Q4, send out monthly notices counting down to the end of the year. And, shortly after year-end, send out the announcement of who won the award.

What kind of budget should I have for this type of event?

Watches, car leases, and travel vouchers offer the opportunity to spend $8-10,000 per winner. Trips will vary based on destination and the types of activities included, but a good rule of thumb is $15,000 per couple.

This is a significant expense. Sales operations should manage the structure, the program, and report on the results. We recommend you hire an event planner to manage the booking of the trip, flights, hotels, and activities, including a final dinner. Depending on the size of your team, you could manage this internally with Ops and the support of marketing, and an administrative assistant.


Done effectively, President’s Club trips and similar incentives can energize an organization and drive significant outperformance. They can also help retain and motivate top talent. So, while you’re thinking about your plans for the new year, give some thought to where you’d like to celebrate your success and start planning for President’s Club.


Disclaimer: Please note that this guidance is not legal or tax advice.

How to Plan a Virtual SKO that Educates, Motivates, and Entertains

November and December are always frantic times for sales leaders, as they are focused on closing out the current year while simultaneously preparing for the upcoming year. There are a hundred things to consider, from redesigning compensation plans to setting quotas, and capacity planning. And then there is the daunting challenge of hosting the sales kickoff (SKO). Each year, sales leaders develop multi-day, in-person events to train and update their sales teams on new techniques, processes, and tools, celebrate the successes of the past year, and energize the team for the year to come. With increasingly distributed teams, lingering concerns about the pandemic, and constrained budgets, more teams may be considering hosting sales kickoffs virtually.

Key Insights

  • With increasingly distributed teams, lingering pandemic concerns, and tighter budgets, teams are considering hosting virtual team events, including sales kickoffs (SKOs).
  • Planning a virtual SKO requires different planning and presentation than simply hosting your normal SKO over video conferencing.
  • Virtual SKOs can offer unexpected benefits from physical events, including opening the SKO to the entire company and offering guest speakers who may have previously been out of budget.

Making a sales kickoff virtual isn’t just doing last year’s event over video; it’s fundamentally different in both planning and presentation. And if you plan ahead and follow these tips, it can be even better than those in-person events. One of the biggest opportunities is the ability to extend the SKO into a full company kick-off. For a minimal additional cost and effort, everyone in the firm can hear the vision of the CEO and sales leaders, get insight into the sales strategy, and most importantly, understand precisely their role in helping sales achieve its goals. Another key benefit of the virtual event is the flexibility it offers when booking guest speakers: By avoiding the logistics of flying guest speakers to events, you can engage someone from anywhere in the world, or even engage someone previously outside of your budget range.

Virtual SKOs require a different approach than in-person events

To help you plan a successful virtual sales kickoff, here are 5 key considerations and a few useful tips from our portfolio and from Jacco van der Kooij, Managing Director of Winning by Design.

Drive impactful engagement

It’s easy to multitask during a virtual event, so you have to create something that is compelling and holds the audience’s attention.

  • Hype it up by leveraging short-burst videos to create breaks in the presentations and mix in music to change the mood.
  • Keep the sessions short and succinct — approximately 45 minutes.
  • Spread the sessions over a few days with no more than a 4-hour session block, rather than holding an 8-hour-long marathon event.
  • Leverage music, video, and interactive presentation tools to shake things up.

Plan and practice

We’ve all had those moments where the video platform doesn’t work right, or a presenter forgets that they’re on mute. In a normal meeting, it’s mildly annoying; in an SKO with 100+ people on the call, it’s disastrous.

  • Double the amount of time needed to create the event.
  • Test your technology with each speaker, and always have a backup plan.
  • Practice the transitions to create smooth and natural handoffs.
  • Record sessions in advance, and stick to the timing.
  • Have one dedicated moderator and one dedicated tech support person.

Teach them something new

This is true even in physical events, and in a virtual one, you can’t keep your audience captive.

  • Use breakout rooms to engage smaller groups.
  • Assign pre-work for attendees.
  • Train the trainers in advance. Make certain that they can drive impactful sessions.
  • Ask your reps in advance for feedback on what they want to hear or learn about. Also, at the end of a segment, ask one member of the audience to summarize their key takeaways. Then have them select the next person to do the same.

Let them catch up with their peers

One of the best parts of SKOs is being able to share best practices and war stories with peers. Make your virtual event memorable by giving them this capability when they weren’t expecting it.

  • Plan specific times for catch-up sessions.
  • Create coffee chats or happy hours with random assignments of attendees to breakout rooms.
  • Create “wedding table” assignments for breakout rooms to ensure teams socialize.

Keep it going after the event

Because a virtual event costs a fraction of a physical event, you can hold follow-on events throughout the year.

  • Create a reinforcement program to drive home key learnings from the SKO.
  • Host a mid-year event. Things change rapidly; a mid-year meeting allows you to course-correct.
  • Use Slack channels or Teams chats to collect ideas live during the sessions and to communicate with the attendees throughout the year.

The shift from physical events to virtual may seem daunting, but if you keep the above considerations in mind, you will create a game-changing event. Take advantage of technology and the reduced cost to expand the reach of your event and energize the whole organization, not just sales. But most importantly, remember that during your event, you should always aim to educate, motivate, and entertain.