In this episode of Product Stories, Victor Purolnik talks to Aggelos Mouzakitis, Growth Product Manager and Customer Researcher at Growth Sandwich, about how a SaaS company’s growth problems – whether it’s customer acquisition, conversion, or retention – might be coming from a weak product vision. How can you improve it to impact your product and marketing?
- Customer Research: why it’s the best way to build the best products
- Psychotherapy: Why it is relevant and how it enhances customer research
- What symptoms do SaaS companies want treated? Marketing/sales performance issues
- What is the average founder’s solution? Treats the symptom, not the underlying problem
- Decision Framework: When a product is good, people find and buy it, even if problematic
- Product Vision Problem: Clues to consider if there is a big or small underlying problem
- Opportunity Algorithm: Survey to compare your product with alternative solutions
- Customer Research: Define what’s good, define what’s bad, and find opportunities
- Market Research: Evaluate trends and external environments in the market
- Gut Feeling: What you know and what you believe in – follow your passion
- What are you building and for whom? How to a create and communicate product vision
- Value Gap: Tool that fixes product visions and marketing, sales, and churn issues
- Power Users Interview: Conduct research, use an icebreaker, and avoid researcher bias
Read the transcript:
Victor [00:15]: Welcome back, everyone. Today’s guest is Aggelos Mouzakitis. Together, we’ll dive into how your SaaS company’s growth problems, whether it’s customer acquisition, conversion, or retention, might be coming from a weak product vision. We’ll then dive into how you can improve it, and how that will impact both your product and marketing. Aggelos. Welcome to the show.
Aggelos [00:36]: Nice to meet you, Victor. Great to be here. Actually am very surprised that you managed to pronounce my surname. Thank you for that.
Victor [00:45]: I actually normally ask people. I forgot. I’m double proud that this worked out somehow. It’s Greek right?
Aggelos [00:51]: Yes, exactly it’s Greek. That’s why I’m very surprised. Typically people are struggling to pronounce my first name and you pronounce my surname, which is like that high.
Victor [01:07]: I did not ask my Greek friends about that. I did not cheat. In any case, why don’t you tell us a little bit more about you, your background, what would you do? That’d be super nice for our listeners.
Aggelos [01:19]: I started as a marketer, like 15 years ago. I was a marketer for quite a few years, about six to seven years, I reached a senior level, headed departments, big departments, startup departments, little departments. But then at some point, marketing didn’t really satisfy me anymore. It didn’t really work as it used to work in the past. The same things, the same person wouldn’t be able to achieve the same results. That was me. I started digging into product, and I pivoted my career to product. Then I dig a little bit further, and I [inaudible 01:56] my career to customer research. Because in my view, it’s the best way to build the best product. I’m still around product. But as a customer researcher. That is pretty much a very quick overview of my background.
At the moment, I’m also doing my master’s degree in psychotherapy to enhance my customer research background. People will understand why psychotherapy is very relevant with customer research in this conversation. But yeah, that’s pretty much me.
Victor [02:25]: That is super interesting. Also, I didn’t know about your studies, that’s really relevant at some point, because for customer research especially, it’s hard to get the questions right. Can lead you down to very wrong paths, so to speak. But you consult to other companies, right? What symptoms do most people come to you with? Right? Because you consider that symptoms?
Aggelos [02:49]: Exactly, exactly. That’s a very good question. Because most of the customers of the clients or prospective clients that reach out, they come with symptoms. They don’t really realize what is the deeper problem, what is the underlying problem. In literally nine out of 10 cases, Saas companies have marketing performance issues, or sales performance issues. Or they have a high turn, and an average founder tries to treat the symptom. Tries to treat the low marketing performance by firing the marketer and hiring another one or by hiring an agent, or by hiring customer success to be closer to their customers so that the churn will reduce.
But this approach while it’s okay, sometimes it just covers the underlying problem. A high churn means that people don’t really find what they’re looking for or what they expected. A marketing performance issue means that the way that you’re communicating stuff, or the actual thing that you’re communicating doesn’t really take home people’s attention, or you haven’t found the right audience that will do that. There is an underlying problem that everybody can empathize. But most of the times we treat the symptom, and that’s that’s very sad, because it just prolongs the problem.
Victor [04:17]: Especially since most people including myself, I would treat the symptom as the problem just as you said, we think we are figuring out the problem, but we’re just trying to put I don’t know vitamin C at it in a way or painkiller, but without curing the actual cause of the disease. Now, how can I then step back and ask myself, how do I know that I have an under lying problem with the product vision? What’s a decision framework here?
Aggelos [04:47]: Just to add up on your previous question, when a product is good, people find it and buy it, even if it’s problematic. The tolerance level of users and of people when a product is good is very high. If your product doesn’t really sell, it doesn’t mean that your marketing tactics are not good enough, it means something else. The very first clue that you have to look for to understand that there is an underlying problem is a problem that you’re having. Big or small. I know that’s pretty vague. But is it a matter of optimization, or a matter of a problem, that actually impacts your growth? Because if it’s a matter of an optimization, making the 1% 2%, then you might be fine. But if it’s a problem that actually creates issues to your funnel, then there is an underlying problem.
Other things that might give you clues that you have underlying problems, you don’t know very accurately who you are, you don’t know for whom are you existing in the market, and therefore, you don’t know which are the audiences that you are speaking at. But most importantly, you don’t know, which are the audiences that you are building for, which directly goes back to your product. When we talk about product vision, automatically, our mind translates that as the future. It’s the vision, it’s something that comes into the future. I would say, we don’t know for whom are we existing, but also, we don’t know how to advance that, how to build more of the things that the audience wants, because we don’t know what’s the audience, we don’t know who we are, we don’t know what the audience we’re speaking with. We don’t know where we will be in two years. That’s a product vision issue.
Victor [06:37]: When you’re saying this, it almost sounds like given that I have a clear product vision, and that I don’t have a product vision problem. Hiring a decent enough marketer, specialists in any of these fields should bring us the right improvements. If it’s the third fourth marketer and they’re not solving the issue, then probably this is not the marketing problem. But the input material that I am actually giving to them. Is that what you’re saying?
Aggelos [07:10]: That’s very, very smart. It’s exactly that. When you hire a marketer, and he or she cannot solve the problem, you have to do two things as a founder. The first thing check the tactical. Are they doing tactically the right thing? If they’re doing almost the right thing, not even absolutely the right thing. If they’re not doing any big mistakes, such as trying to sell bubblegum with inbound marketing, which is a very big mistake, that doesn’t make sense, then, most probably there is an underlying problem. What you just said, Victor, is one of the biggest problems that I see in the industry, startups or bigger companies have a marketing problem, or a churn problem or a sales problem. They blame the marketer, or they blame the sales, or they blame the customer success, which is a very big misunderstanding.
Victor [08:04]: Yeah, absolutely. I think that’s very spot on. How do I fix my product vision? You know, a lot of people would now say, this dives into the entire positioning framework, right? There’s kind of two things that I would personally differentiate, which is the vision or how would I put it, for who missed this, and what is it solving? Right? Like, precisely, but also the other maybe personal vision. Maybe I have a personal vision that I’m bringing into this, that I’m trying to do and that is not completely agnostic from the customer. How bad is it if somebody’s vision is just that I just want to make money. I’m not here to save the world or anything like that.
Aggelos [08:56]: There are ways for you to support yourself, or help yourself, decide what will be the future, or the vision of a product, but there is no recipe to that. As a customer researcher, my job isn’t to give you the answer, is to give you all the necessary information that you need to take this decision yourself in a very low risk, or no risk. Actually, no risk is almost impossible. Let’s say low risk. For a founder to actually be able to decide such a thing. To take such a critical decision, we need a lot of data, qualitative data, quantitative data, all sorts of data, internal data, external data. If I would give like a very short guide on how to decide your product vision, you first need to start from yourself, from inside, from the company and start doing some customer research.
Check, which are your best users. What is the common thing between your best users? Are there any patterns? Do you see any common things in the way that they describe stuff? Do you see any common problems, any common unmet needs, which is a jobs to be done terminology. Any desires, any fears, any jobs that they do. Any outcomes that they expect that are quite common. Then do the same for your failed users. Were there any common things that they failed to do, any common expectations that you failed to deliver. Try to find four commonalities. This is the very first thing that will help you understand what is good, and what is bad. Set a benchmark, then another very cool thing that you can do is do the opportunity algorithm.
For anybody that doesn’t know that, Google opportunity algorithm, and this is pretty much a survey. Here’s the quantitative part, it’s a survey where you need about two to 300 answers, where you basically try to compare your product with the alternative solutions in the market, I don’t want to go deeper into that, because we’ll need easily 10 minutes to describe it. But pretty much what it gives you is, which are the products in the market that provide the high level of satisfaction for the jobs that you’re also doing, versus which are the jobs and the outcomes that are unmet, that are not yet satisfied. It kind of gives you a quarter where your product can actually find a few opportunities. Customer research, define what’s good, define what’s bad, and then find the couple of opportunities that you can go.
Second step, market research. It’s not all about what we are doing. It’s also about trends and about the external environment. We need to evaluate the market, how the market is moving, where is it going, what are the trends, what big firms are saying about the future of the market, what do we know about the future of the market? That’s the second thing. I’m not really professional into conducting market research, but pretty much everyone can do that. The third thing is what you just said, Victor, is your gut feeling, is your passion, what you know and what you believe in, so having all the available data you need to check them. Then you need to make a decision. In most cases, that decision isn’t straightforward. You have to believe your gut feeling and follow your path. Follow your passion.
Victor [12:29]: Yeah, cuz most of the time, there’s no clear answer, like crystal clear. Maybe sometimes there is, but often times enough, there isn’t. That’s where I guess the real like vision and insight that you already have, which might also blind you a bit, you might be too much believe it. You have the data, but then you have your vision, you combine that and that should really now help you make a good decision and kind of put that into a framework of sorts, I suppose. Exactly. Wonderful. I have done that. Is there any frameworks or canvases or something that you have to define a product vision like, because once we go through that complex process, I guess one of the biggest challenges now is to communicate that to all stakeholders. Is there a way to put that simply that you like, because I know there’s a lot of positioning frameworks and messaging frameworks and tools out there, something that you really like that communicates that well?
Aggelos [13:34]: There are, as you said, there are quite a few. I’m not a big fan of any of them. I’ve made my own canvases for other things. But when it comes to the product vision, I haven’t used any Canvas. They aren’t visually pleasing, at least in my eyes. I haven’t used any of them. But I’m sure there are plenty. But if people are looking for let’s say, a framework, or a set of steps on how to actually come up with a product vision, or come up with things that you are going to build, and how the future of your product is going to look like, I strongly recommend reading the spring book, which isn’t really a tool for you to communicate your product vision. But it’s a very good tool to actually work on your product and work on the future of your product and work on the innovation and the change that you are wanting to bring in the market. I find it very useful.
Victor [14:35]: Thank you that makes perfect sense. Now how does that information help my vision and my positioning then trickle into both marketing and product at the same time?
Aggelos [14:49]: If you remember the questions that we mentioned before, I mentioned you don’t accurately know who you are. You don’t know for whom are you existing in the market. You don’t know, what is the audience that you build for, that you are building for. These questions are basically marketing questions. You don’t know the audiences, we spoke about audiences, we spoke about target users. These are marketing questions. But ultimately, it’s your go to market, which is a combination of what you’re building, and for whom. This is what you are bringing into the market. If you really don’t know the answer to these questions, then you don’t know, which are the people that you’re building for, and which are the problems that you are building for.
You have a product issue, but also you have a marketing issue. One connects with the other, you cannot really solve one and have the other one, unsolved. They go together. Technically you do not have a product issue, but you have a marketing issue, then you have a product market fit issue. You see how it connects, it’s quite inevitable that you will not have one and you will have the other only. There might be a case actually, you might communicate something that you cannot really build. In that case, you are a scammer.
Victor [16:19]: That is a different problem to have.
Aggelos [16:20]: Exactly, exactly. That would be the only case where you wouldn’t have a marketing issue. But you will have a product issue.
Victor [16:26]: Maybe something similar, and correct me if I’m wrong, but maybe you’re not a scammer, but maybe you have a value gap. Is that correct? That was another term that you threw out there.
Aggelos [16:38]: The value gap is the tool that I’m using to fix product divisions. The tool that I use to fix marketing issues, and the tool that I use to fix high churns. You might be wondering, how is it possible that one thing explains all this? It is because the the value gap pretty much is a term that describes the discrepancy between the expected value that people expect from you and the actual value that they’re getting from you. If there is a discrepancy between those two expectation and reality, then we have a value gap, which actually creates marketing problems, and churn problems. You have a product vision problem, and you have a broken funnel. You have all sorts of problems that we have discussed today. But you have to understand that it’s not only about churn or about marketing, it’s an underlying problem, which most probably is the value gap.
Victor [17:39]: I think we should stress out again, that even if people think they know exactly who they’re building for, for example, through their gut feeling or scratching their own itch, or even in depth, industry Insight, that might still be a problem that results in all of these issues, right?
Aggelos [17:59]: The value gap expresses itself in three different ways. You either oversell and under deliver, which means that you don’t really have a marketing problem, but you seem to have a churn problem. You either undersell and over deliver, in which case, you have some power users, you have some people that you that love you and are quite loyal. But you seem to struggle to find more of them, which is very difficult, by the way. The third is the confused version. You don’t oversell or undersell, you just sell in a way that nobody gets it, or you sell in a way that nobody gets excited. It’s very vanilla. It’s fuzzy, vanilla, or complex. An example of that is engineers that found startups seem to explain their products in very technical terms. In most cases, when there is a lead, and the founder is an engineer, I’m like, okay, they have a positioning problem.
I know that before actually browsing their homepage, or the vanilla positioning, very, very difficult building something and communicating it in a way that nobody really cares. You’re building something that not a lot of people care. You have to go back to your power users to see actually, which are the people that care. There is a problem here. There are some people that care, but we don’t seem to find more of them. What’s the problem here? These are all examples of the value gap.
Victor [19:35 ]: That’s very, very powerful. When we go back to our power users, and we interviewed them, and we try to find out what are the biggest mistakes people are making, and don’t get the right answer while doing it. In short, because I know you could write an entire book about this and there are in fact books being written about this, but maybe just one or two biggest that you’ve seen.
Aggelos [19:57]: It’s true. I don’t know which one to pick. I’ll pick the most exciting ones. For the people that are listening guys and gals, you’re not doing an icebreaker, you have to do an icebreaker. If you don’t do an icebreaker and you are shy, the interviewee is shy as well. They will feed you with either lies or the surface or things that will not hurt your feelings. Good icebreaker it’s very fundamental. Second thing, bias. It’s called the researcher’s bias. You actually ask things that provide the answer. It’s like Victor, I asked you, Victor, do you find me handsome? Most probably Victor won’t hurt my feelings. He won’t tell me no, you’re terribly not handsome man. He will probably tell me you’re fine, man, you’re okay, I would buy you a drink.
In that case, if I take Victor’s feedback at its face value that I’m fine, that he would buy me a drink, then I practically feed myself with the wrong information. You provide the answer with your question. That’s the second thing. Your questions need to be open-ended and curious, not providing the answer. Not being very shy, just being a warm person that is actually honestly looking to listen. Then there are hundreds others problems. But these are the two that I have identified in most product teams that are trying to do the research. Oh, actually, there is a third one, you don’t really do the research. That’s the third thing. A lot of pro product people say that, oh, I have to do this research. But I always postpone it, I always snooze the customer research.
If you treat the research, like the vegetables that you want to avoid from your plate, then you’re not really benefiting out of that. Research needs to be something that you do almost on a weekly basis on a bi weekly basis. Do the research. When you do it, start with a good icebreaker. Third, don’t provide the answers, make open ended questions and ask why. Lots of whys and then the conversation will lead you.
Victor [22:13]: Yeah, that’s a good point. Everybody out there, do your research, eat your veggies and workout? Do you have any examples from your projects that you can share publicly like something that you saw that you improve that, that was particularly interesting to mention?
Aggelos [22:32]: A very good example. It’s a project that I worked with Whereby it’s a Series B, B2b SaaS that is building is working on a video conferencing solution that is browser based and very nice.
Victor [22:47]: We use it ourselves that’s our go to tool. They’re awesome.
Aggelos [22:50]: Exactly they’re awesome. I love them as well and before working with Whereby I was a big fan of the solution, since the days that it was called appeared.in.
Victor [23:00]: Yeah, they had some sort of branding issue I think.
Aggelos [23:04]: Exactly exactly. Exactly there was there was some drama with a name. So Whereby asked me for help to solve to fix to reduce their churn. The churn wasn’t high because Whereby is [inaudible 23:21] in fact Whereby is insanely good solution. I love it. A lot of people love it. The problem was that during the Coronavirus, lockdowns, a lot of people that wouldn’t use video conferencing tools, they started looking for solutions. They were testing lots of solutions. They were switching. They were testing they were switching, They would start with a solution, then they would switch after six months to something else. All of these solutions experienced an insane explosion. Growth explosion, but also very high churn. Lots of people were passing by, as you can understand. When Whereby approached me they had a pretty high churn rate, and we had to do something with it, we had to reduce it. I didn’t already know that there was an underlying problem. I started treating churn. But I was suspicious about that. I treated it as a value gap issue. I started interviewing power users, then I interviewed failed users, churned users.
Then I interviewed a few fresh users. What I tried to do was highlight the differences. What differentiates the power user, from the failed user and from the fresh user. Practically, what is the expectation that we create that leads a user to succeed or to fail? That’s exactly what I wanted to understand. Show that we guide the product accordingly. But most importantly, we create the right expectations that leads people to succeed and not fail. When I did this research, it was qualitative. I paired it with some quantitative research. The tools that I used for that was the solutions onboarding, and the solutions cancellation experience. I asked pretty much the same question, what is it that you expect, vs what was it that you expected, vs versus what is it that you are getting to those three segments of users that I mentioned.
The only difference I didn’t do it with the interviews, I did it with enough questions during the flow during the onboarding, during the consolation experience, or during their product engagement. Why I did that? I did that because the interviews are for depth. The inept questions are for scale. They also validate. The one validates the other. We had the depth of the problem, and scale, and also validation that what my qualitative research brings, is actually true. It gets validated by quantitative. I don’t want to geek out more about research stuff. This is what we did. We actually realized that churn wasn’t the big problem. The big problem was that a lot of users were coming in to find an easier Zoom.
After six months of using Whereby they would go back to Zoom, because Zoom had more features. Zoom is a mass solution built for everybody, and builds everything. Ultimately, what is that? Is it a product issue? It’s a positioning issue. Whereby had to decide, because they wouldn’t go head to head with Zoom of course, that would be unreasonable. They have to decide, what are they? What are they building? Who are they building for, and the research showed them decide that. It also gave them a couple of marketing tips, marketing opportunities, such as go head to head with them, one of the insights that I gave back to wherever I was, don’t be afraid of them. There is Zoom fatigue, people are tired of Zoom of the UI and UX of Zoom, and a lot of features, and the bureaucratic looks
So go aggressive towards that. Whereby launched a campaign about that, which was directed exactly towards Zoom, and other very cool insider of that I stopped was that Whereby was driving a lot of users in that actually wanted to go to Zoom. What was the problem with that? A lot of these users which were wrong users, were asking for stuff. They were submitting feature requests. Most of the feature requests that they would submit, were trying to drag Whereby towards becoming another Zoom. Just discouraging the wrong users from coming in, actually cleared the view for the whole Whereby team. Because they thought that they had to build everything. Because users were asking. This is a very typical example of wrong feedback that actually might destroy you – that it might backfire – of a company that was very customer-led.
But until the time that we did things, right, this customer-led approach could actually have confused them. It could result into them building something that wasn’t the right thing and investing in the wrong direction. Does that make sense?
Victor [28:33]: It makes a lot of sense. This is very interesting stuff. Thank you for sharing that with so much detail. I guess if anybody wants to learn more about you and what you do and how you work, where should we point them?
Aggelos [28:48]: You can find me on growthsandwich.com. But if you want us to geek out a little bit more about customer research, as you can see, I’m very fond of doing that, you can find me on LinkedIn, and that’s it. My LinkedIn and through my website, you can find me in both places.
Victor [29:08]: Perfect. We’ll of course link all of these in our show notes. As you see Aggelos is always happy to chat. Thank you so much for being on the show. This was super insightful. I’ll see you in the next episode.
Aggelos [29:23]: See ya Victor, thank you very much.