The rise of advocates in selling software
Pinecone, Figma, Palantir and the role of advocates in nascent markets
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There was a palpable tension in the room during OpenAI’s first DevDay on Monday as Sam Altman announced a slate of new features that surpassed most people’s expectations and underlined the scope of OpenAI’s ambitions.
It may have been akin to a Red Wedding for a number of LLMOps categories, but the undercurrent of most of the 45 minute keynote was OpenAI’s singular focus on developers. They listened closely to developer priorities and ultimately overdelivered on expectations.
The importance of developer relations for technical products is increasing and well evidenced. Developers rely heavily on social proof to discover products, and ahead of that early adopters rely on discovery through relevant channels.
The value generated by developer advocates is instructive for a number of software vendors seeking to efficiently allocate marketing dollars and build durable credibility with their buyers.
The traditional journey for companies as they search for product-market fit is to start with founder-led sales before transitioning to AEs/SDRs once they’ve found it.
‘Conversations about contracts & pricing are kicked down the road until the customer sees value & the path to capture it.
Said another way, founder-led sales are sales engineering sales, not account executive sales.’
The humbling learning curve founders climb when working with design partners is immensely rewarding in the search for PMF; sustaining this mentality in nascent markets is even more paramount.
‘But for those startups still needing to prove the value or with more patient strategies, sales engineering-led sales extend the successful pattern of founder-led sales until the startup establishes a brand & social proof in the market.’ Tomasz Tunguz
The design market alone was clearly not large enough when Danny Rimer invested in Figma, even if the supply and demand dynamics of designers and the increasing importance of collaboration were powerful tailwinds to underwrite.
Figma’s annealing of the design market was a tall order despite these tailwinds and was possible in no small part due to the role of the Design Advocate.
Figma’s first GTM hire and 10th employee Claire Butler explained the importance of Design Advocates in an interview with Lenny Rachitsky, outlining how they became part of landing teams in new markets and were deeply woven into Figma’s sales and marketing functions. Claire recites how Tom Lowry, now the Director of Advocacy at Figma, was a passionate Figma user who brought the tool into his prior company OpenText before he joined Figma in 2018.
Sales reps would bring Tom along for sales calls and of course Tom didn’t have a quota like them. He wasn’t on the sales team.
Tom was there because he was himself a passionate designer that used the product and could evangelise the product’s virtues to other designers.
And it goes back to that same theme that I talked about earlier with marketing, where I realized that I would never have the credibility with designers that a designer has. Same is true with sales. They're never going to know the product as well as a designer will.
As we’ve discussed before with Pierre Berlin, the Design Advocate became one of Figma’s first hires in every new market. The Design Advocate role scaled as Figma scaled, permeating the Product and GTM orgs.
But then they called him the Tom Factor because he was so powerful, and their deals were so much more likely to close if he joined the calls. But it wasn't his full-time job either. He also is connected to the products. Because he's this special person who was a designer, was a user of the product, and then talks to hundreds of customers. So, he has the best way of synthesizing product feedback, and then bringing it back to the product team because he has all of that context.
So, I think that that role is just so special, and it's something that we've actually chosen to scale because it's just so valuable. In the same way it's valuable for marketing, it's valuable for sales.
Specialised vector databases like Pinecone recognised the nascency of their their market by hiring developer advocates instead of traditional marketers where traditional paid marketing would have been ineffective.
VP of Marketing Greg Kogan stressed the merits of hiring your users as marketers to Kyle Poyar:
‘At the time, people weren’t searching for Pinecone in Google, but they were searching for certain topics around vector search. The developer advocates would write about those topics and then push it to Hacker News. They’d engage with people on Twitter and elsewhere to get them to read about the topic. And at the same time, the team did a lot of user interviews, diving deep into the niche communities and the people who were active in them.’ Greg Kogan
Consistently high quality content and documentation, and focusing on the channels where developer attention was pronounced (Hacker News, StackOverflow), removed blockers to developers adopting Pinecone as their vector database of choice for RAG workloads.
In doing so, Pinecone gave developers what they wanted.
At a critical mass of developer mindshare the flywheel of discovery that we touched on earlier kicks in.
‘So I think on the credibility side, I think that those advocates and scaling those advocates are the magic dust that, I always call them the magic dust, that make sure that we are able to build those relationships and stay authentic around everything we do.’
‘And I think when you have a technical IC audience, I don't see how else you could build any credibility or get anywhere with people if you don't have someone who deeply understands it, integrated in marketing and in sales.’ Claire Butler
'Technical companies, especially open-source, have achieved some of this with developer advocacy or developer relations teams. Devrel educates the market, assists them in solving their problems, then sales engages.’ Tomasz Tunguz
Palantir was another organisation that elevated sales engineering to the forefront and relegated pure sales professionals.
Adam Judelson spent 7 years at Palantir and headed up the Gotham product. Speaking about the value of putting engineers in front of prospects, Adam highlighted how prospects appreciated the authenticity of this approach.
Instead of forcing our government customers into opportunistic pitches from professional relationship brokers, we could put former operators and engineers in the room instead. As a result, we could speak intelligently about the mission and our product from firsthand experience. We didn’t try to hide the skeletons or answer questions “the right way.” Rather, we spoke to our clients like normal people would.
Instead of golf, steak dinners, and boxes at sporting events (which aren’t allowed in government contracting anyway), I would ask questions to partners like, “How will you make your money on this?” and to prospects, “How fast can you get us integrated into your mission so we can have an impact?” It’s exceedingly difficult to get that sort of authentic motivation and customer connection out of traditional sales teams that are incentivized by commissions and who come from backgrounds in sales rather than the work itself.
Developer advocacy for technical products is well established, but advocates in other categories of software are still few and far between. Figma has extolled the virtues of design advocates and Palantir has practiced this philosophy since its inception.
There are some questions I’m mulling over:
Where are the other marketing budgets out of which new classes of advocates will emerge? Said differently, which categories of buyers even require advocates to attain credibility and pull the market forward?
Is the efficacy of advocates limited to technical products?
What is the optimal ratio of advocates to other GTM roles, as we’d see in SDR/AE ratios?
I’d love to hear your thoughts. Please comment below or shoot me an email at email@example.com!
The OpenAI Keynote Ben Thompson
Quote of the week
‘In fact, though, consumer expectations are not static: they are, as Bezos’ memorably states, “divinely discontent”. What is amazing today is table stakes tomorrow, and, perhaps surprisingly, that makes for a tremendous business opportunity: if your company is predicated on delivering the best possible experience for consumers, then your company will never achieve its goal.’ Ben Thompson