The devtools sales playbook
The devtools sales playbook
Tim Geisenheimer
Tim Geisenheimer
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The devtools sales playbook

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One of the reasons we started Correlated was based on our experience building and selling products to developers. PLG is a natural GTM motion for devtools because developers often like to self-onboard and tinker before making a decision on adopting a product and ultimately buying it. 

The best approach for selling software to developers is quite a bit different than with other categories. As a salesperson, you sort of need to rewire your brain when prospecting and working on opportunities for devtools products. 

In this guide we walk through some of our lessons learned in an effort to help founders and salespeople at devtools companies more effectively go-to-market. This post is based on experience at Timescale, one of the leading open source database companies that's raised >$150m, early in their scaling journey. 

We also collected feedback based on conversations with GTM leaders and practitioners at customers and community members across companies like Tailscale, MongoDB, RainforestQA, Prefect and more. In the spirit of open source, we want this post to be a living document so please add edits to the Google Doc here and we’ll regularly accept edits and update the post.

Who is this guide for?

This playbook is primarily for founders, GTM execs and individual salespeople at growing devtools startups from Series A-D. If you are earlier stage, you may not get as much mileage out of this advice. If you’re at a later stage company, many of these principles apply based on the specific segment you’re selling to.

This guide will help you figure out GTM for your devtools product including:

  1. Why selling to developers is unique
  2. How to target who to sell to and where to prioritize your time
  3. Outbound approaches that work better with developers
  4. Tools to consider as part of your stack

This guide is less applicable to people in Product, Marketing or other functions as we’re mainly thinking through the best approach to identify monetizable opportunities once they’re in the product/funnel.

With that out of the way, let’s dive in!


Why is selling devtools products different?

Devtools products are different primarily because they’re built for engineers. Engineers often adopt products because they are trying to solve a specific problem related to building products or managing their team. Shomik Ghosh, Partner at Boldstart, also wrote a great article about how developers discover products. Here are survey results from 68k respondents. Only 5.4% indicate it’s due to a cold email!

But why buy a product or even adopt a free tool as a developer? Aren’t engineers able to build their own solutions to problems? As Correlated’s CTO/Co-Founder John Pena puts it: “I’m lazy so if a tool sounds like it’ll do a tedious job for me then I’m usually keen to try it.”

The trick for salespeople tasked with selling to developers is understanding that curiosity about a specific product is almost always self-directed and related to a problem an engineer or her team is facing. This can be contrasted with centrally purchased software like CRM, marketing automation, payroll and other categories which are often driven by multiple stakeholders to solve a business problem.

If you channel that curiosity around solving an individual pain point and use it to assist the right prospects at the right time, you’re onto a winning approach. Let’s dig into how to do that.

How to identify who to target

At Correlated, we’ve spent a lot of time thinking about how to identify customers ready to convert from free to paid or ready to expand revenue.

When it comes to devtools products, it’s critical to take into account the fact that most of these products are self-serve. If you’re on the sales team it’s imperative to include product usage as a key factor in identifying who to target.

Devtools usage can be quite a bit different than traditional SaaS products so sellers need to be enabled by their product and/or data team to know which metrics are key for their particular products.

For example, at Timescale we sold database software. “Seats” were a meaningless measure as you could have a single admin of the database who would be willing to pay >$50k. What we looked at instead were metrics like data stored in the database and the size/cost of the cloud infrastructure the database was installed on. 

Another point from Shomik at Boldstart is that looking at the type of engineer (frontend or backend) can help with messaging and to determine the type of use cases. Identifying the use case can make a huge difference in determining budget/buyer.

Continuing the example of Timescale, looking at factors like “this customer is using AWS” are also important when crafting your outreach strategy. We’ll get to that later.

For devtools products that look more like traditional SaaS, think products like Linear, seats can be an important usage metric. It really depends on your specific product.

One helpful rubric for sellers is to recognize that how you price your product is often determined by feature usage. Aligning around pricing can be a powerful targeting strategy. For example, Tailscale looks at access control rules (ACLs) or total devices tracked as well as users. The sales team often triangulates across usage to identify gaps where there’s room for upsell to higher plans.

So now you’re starting to identify developers that are using a free version of your product or even starting to pay via a credit card. Some of them appear ready to upgrade. How do you get in touch with them effectively?

How can you do effective outbound for a devtools product?

In this section, we’re going to discuss tactics for effective outreach to developers. This assumes you’ve identified the right opportunities based on intent signals leveraging product usage. There are certainly situations where you’ll find “hand raisers” even with low or no product usage, but this guide is designed to help with outreach vs. pure inbound intent.

Identify activation metrics

Often a sign up alone is not sufficient cause to do outbound. In fact, it’s our view that reaching out to every product sign up is a losing strategy.

At Snyk, the product team made it as easy as possible for developers to sign up via Github and then did outreach following activation.

Using activation metrics as triggers for outreach is a core tactic that can unlock effective “warm” outbound to developers. It’s also important to pair activation with tech stack and you can do that in a way that’s customized to engineers using tools like Stackshare. For example, you can mention that you noticed they used WebAssembly and that your product integrates with it and then include a link to your documentation. Taking the extra time to pair post-sign up activation triggers with thoughtful outreach can be really powerful.

Go to where the developers are

One of the best ways to prospect into developers is meeting them where they spend time with your product: in support channels and communities like Slack or Discord.

This approach is delicate though because you can easily burn goodwill from developers if you do pure cold outreach. The best approach is to have a dedicated dev rel and/or support team monitoring those channels and triangulating questions that come up with product-based intent signals like the ones we discussed earlier.

You can then use the support questions as warm openers in emails to developers alongside triggers like hitting usage or feature gates to prompt an upsell.

It’s worth noting that there are some great community monitoring tools like Common Room and Orbit that could be worth investing in if you have a large Slack or Discord.

One last tactic we did was offer community office hours with solutions engineering and track which accounts show up. This is another way to enable a less “sales-y” environment to understand which free or self-serve users are seriously using your product and might be ready to have an upsell conversation.

Using scores for prioritization

Leveraging product usage as a trigger for sales conversations is a winning approach. Once you’re tracking proper usage, you can build out a scoring system and use that for targeted outreach.

Many devtools startups have hundreds or even thousands of sign ups every month. This is on top of potentially thousands of existing customers using the self-serve free or paid products.

To help cut through the noise, it’s often helpful to build out a scoring system around a concept called Product Qualified Accounts. This takes into behavioral factors such as product usage and website visits as well as firmographic or technographic data from providers like Apollo, Clearbit or ZoomInfo.

You can use Correlated to build out these scores, but you can also do it yourself. Watch this episode of our Product Led Community calls to see how Chris Reuter build out his own scoring system at Prefect.

Use intent triggers or feature gates/usage threshold

We often find that leveraging intent triggers based on website page views or product signals on top of scores is successful as well. 

One of the top intent signals for a developer that is deep into free product usage is triggering off of page views against documentation about premium features. You can also pair that with pricing page visits to then trigger outreach that is: personalized based on product usage and timely because you know who you’re targeting is actively researching premium features they may not be currently paying for at the moment.

One of the other trigger conditions that can work well is attainment towards a pricing threshold. Often we recommend reaching out to the account admin with this type of message even if they aren’t the most active user. If you see an account that’s hitting 80% of API calls for example, reaching out the admin to proactively offer a deal on the next usage tier up in exchange for moving to an annual contract vs. month-to-month can be effective.

Crafting the right message to book meetings

So you have the right targets lined up and you’re starting to identify helpful triggers that relate to how your product works and how you price/package the product. Now it’s time to craft great outbound messages. We wrote a post with some examples from leading devtools products which is worth checking out.

Here are some other ideas we recommend:

Offer assistance

When writing emails to developers, it’s often advantageous to offer engineering resources in exchange for a meeting. This is especially true for pure infrastructure products like databases. This is especially true if you’ve noticed a particular account is active in Slack or support forums.

Offering assistance to a high scoring account can help get that meeting where you can then run a discovery process in parallel with offering support from a solutions engineer.

Use product data in the email

Personalization in general is a great way to drive up reply rates and get anyone onto a call. With devtools companies, leveraging your knowledge of your customers’ use of the product can go a long way. 

In the blog post I mentioned above, Datadog’s sales team will proactively reach out about potential overages as a way to generate goodwill and also understand use cases to cross-sell their large multi-product portfolio.

Ask a champion for help

Another approach that can work well is to identify power users that clearly love the product and ask them to help map out their organization so you can more effectively sell an enterprise plan.

To use Tailscale again, they have a product that many developers install at home and fall in love with as individuals. They are then excited to bring Tailscale to their company. Finding those power users and using an email that asks for help in deploying your product more broadly can be an effective approach.

Enabling effective devtools sales playbooks

A lot of these tactics are hard to pull off without enablement from your product and data teams. This is core to why we’re building Correlated because with a few integrations into your product and data infrastructure, we can help you build scores and intent triggers to help sales teams find expansion opportunities. 

We work with a number of leading devtools companies and we’re always happy to talk about what we see working, so drop us a line if you’re interested in learning more or join our community calls to learn from the experts!

Interested in learning about how Correlated can help your PLG company uncover expansion and upsell opportunities?

Sales and revenue leaders at PLG companies, like yourself, are faced with unique challenges. Using tools like Correlated can help sales and marketing teams identify new accounts that are ready to convert, or can help to notify your team for expansion and upsell opportunities.

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