Scaling Product from 0 to IPO with Kevin Wang, CPO of Braze

May 30, 2024
Scaling Product from 0 to IPO with Kevin Wang, CPO of Braze
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Our April NY Enterprise Tech Meetup (#NYETM) featured a fireside chat with Kevin Wang, Chief Product Officer at enterprise Saas customer engagement platform Braze. Kevin joined Braze 12+ years ago as a software engineer and employee #5, and dove into everything from the company’s initial road to product-market fit (PMF) to the biggest product inflection points as they scaled to a successful IPO in 2021 to now having 2,000+ customers and 1,500+ global employees.

Check out our tactical recap below and the full recording here

Creating The Idea 

Braze was born in 2011 amid the rising tide of mobile’s booming popularity. However, even then, the tech industry was haunted by a narrative deeply intertwined with the dot-com bubble’s upheaval, job losses and uncertainty. As the focus shifted to the mobile sector in 2011 and 2012, echoes of past anxieties resurfaced within the tech community, prompting questions about the future trajectory and the imperative to stay ahead of the curve. Braze entered the market to address this: What lies ahead, and how can we help safeguard companies from obsolescence?

Pre-Product Market Fit

One of the most important, yet challenging tasks on the road to PMF is finding and connecting with users. Even more important is to adopt an unapologetic attitude in getting in front of these users and actively seeking their opinion on what their goals are and what they need to achieve those goals.

“Tech media paints PMF as this magical thing that is bestowed upon you as products get born…but it's the complete opposite. You are often begging and bothering people, and then forcing things to happen.”
“It’s so hard to define PMF. It’s like finding a spouse. There's no playbook for it, but there are things to do to increase your chances.”

There are three important lessons Kevin learned navigating the early-stage PMF waters:

  1. Narrow in on an ICP. In the early days, many startups get overly excited to prove their worth to customers and go overboard in trying to meet their needs. Instead, make sure to take customer feedback seriously, but with a grain of salt. It’s always important to continue scaling toward your own product vision and be cognizant of which customers are using your product as intended and asking for improvements to the product’s core value vs. asking you to build a “frankenstein product.” 
  2. Get design partners. Signing on design partners is a great way to get product feedback without the pressure of a full, paying customer breathing down your neck. But Kevin advises finding multiple (not just one) design partner, knowing a few won’t end up being relevant fits or offering strategic feedback.
  3. Dig into buyer intent. You can do this by asking these questions:
    1. Would you pay for this product? Be very specific and try to get the dollar amount. Often times, if they’re able to give you a concrete number, this will give you an indication of what budget is to solve this problem and where you fall within that budget.
    2. What are three things that you’re going to do with this product? Product tourists won't have a good answer for this question.
  4. Don't play dress up or try to be a bigger startup than you are. At this early stage, being a small startup can be an advantage over incumbents – you're often more nimble, quick to innovate, and on the cutting edge of the latest technology.
“You want to be like the desperate, clingy boyfriend in a romantic comedy. Make it clear that you’re willing to go the extra mile and that you're a little desperate…but not so desperate that you freak people out.”

Knowing You Have Product-Market Fit

“PMF is extremely unambiguous when you have it. If you are asking if you have it, you don’t have it.”

When Braze found PMF, they had ~$500,000 in ARR. However, Kevin reflected that achieving PMF didn’t unfold exactly how he expected, with customers saying, “this is a great product and we want to spend money on this.” Instead, they found customers were a bit annoyed with them – their teams had become reliant on the product, yet its early-stage status meant it lacked some sophistications required for enterprise-level usage. This deficiency became evident as support tickets grew increasingly detailed, indicating customers' commitment to enhancing their utilization of the product.

Kevin gave us a general checklist to help indicate if an enterprise startup has PMF:

  • You have 10+ enterprise customers 
  • Each customer is a paying customer 
  • Each customer is using your product how you intended 
  • These customers are not family or friends

At this point, your team needs a cohesive perspective on what you want to build vs. darting in multiple directions to help customers’ one-off needs.

  • Don’t focus on 12 months from now (that's too short sighted) and don’t focus on 10 years from now (that's too far away to predict) 
  • You don't need to be really contrarian…simple and straightforward if often the best

Once You Have Product-Market Fit - *The Most Exciting Part of the Journey*

“Once you find PMF and start getting real traction, then immediately flip your posture and build straight to your vision on what you think the world will look like in three to five years. This is the transition most people falter with.”

Once you have PMF, there are two things that your team should be doing: 

  1. Build every single feature that is going to help you develop a moat against your competitors.
  2. Build a roadmap. To approve any product design, Kevin’s team had to say “yes” to these three questions:
    • Is a customer going to churn if we don't build this?
    • Are we going to close new business if we build this?
    • If we picture ourselves going public, does this make sense in our product suit?

Remember, it’s ok to be flexible in what and how to build towards your vision. Most startups tend to pivot 30 to 45 degrees along the journey. For example, Kevin mentioned that Braze flirted with different sales models throughout its growth trajectory, but ultimately committed to enterprise sales because that had the best strategic fit with the market and helped avoid customer confusion. This led to Kevin’s belief that, “you can do a lot of experimenting with your go-to-market motion until you hit $5M ARR, but then you need to lock in an approach.”

If you’re an early-stage enterprise founder or operator — connect with us directly to chat about anything GTM or check out our events page to stay in the loop on all things happening in the Work-Bench community.