By Sean Ellis & Ethan Garr
Let’s face it, the rules of B2B growth have changed, and the companies that will win are the companies that will out-innovate their competitors. Where once lived long-cycled sales processes, today there are automated funnels nurturing prospects from a blog post to a demo, to an aha moment, to a sale. Where there once lived siloed organizations, now there are new collaborative, cross-functional teams built to power disruption. The world’s fastest-growing B2B companies are borrowing and adapting pages from the BC2 growth playbook and using new technologies and tools to build powerful engines of sustainable breakout growth.
We have been studying the fastest growing companies in the world, trying to understand what connects their success stories, and what challenges are unique to the sectors they serve. Our excitement for the opportunities that lay ahead in the world of B2B heightened when, in 2019, Sean led a growth workshop in Paris that was designed to help companies adopt the highly iterative, data-driven approach that led to the breakout growth at consumer-focused companies like Facebook, Airbnb, and Uber.
Sean became concerned when he realized that the companies signing up for the workshop were not the B2C companies he usually advised, but instead B2B companies looking to kickstart their growth. This program had helped dozens of companies improve their growth trajectories, but would B2B attendees find actionable learnings in approaches and processes derived from the B2C universe?
Practicing what he preaches about the value of data in driving growth, when the workshop concluded Sean ran a survey to measure the value he was delivering to attendees, and he was shocked when the results showed an NPS score of 70, far higher than any other workshop he had led. Why were B2B companies seeing so much potential value in these concepts?
When Sean shared this experience with Ethan, we both began to wonder why so many companies in the B2B arena were overlooking approaches that had led to unprecedented growth rates for their B2C counterparts. Were these worlds really so far apart?
This drove our interest in studying some of the fastest-growing B2B companies on the planet. If we could better understand how and why proven B2C growth approaches were driving breakout growth, where companies were struggling and succeeding in implementing these ideas, and understand what was proving challenging for these entities, we felt like we could help others on the cusp and in the midst of breakout growth to reach their full potential.
These studies each started with growth leader interviews on The Breakout Growth Podcast. From conversations with CEOs, heads of growth, marketing and product leads, and others we learned how a broad range of highly successful B2B companies are building the teams, processes, and mindsets to build and sustain rapid growth.
We will begin with a brief synopsis of who these companies are and some of our first impressions:
Breakout Growth B2B Leaders
Probably the fastest-growing company we interviewed, TripActions is the travel platform disrupting the $1.5 trillion corporate travel industry. Taking a traveler-first approach, the company helps 3000 enterprise clients control and manage travel expenses by creating business travel experiences that employees love. Their breakout growth boasts a $4B valuation in only four years and has led the company to expand its team size threefold to over 1000 employees in the 10 months prior to the pandemic.
TripActions’ founders did not have a travel management background, but they realized that to displace industry incumbents it would be necessary to build teams and structures that viewed the challenges of travel management through a different lens. They achieved incredible product-market fit not by viewing the travel experience at the expense of the administration experience, or vice versa, but by seeing these two experiences as uniquely coupled. Delivering on this value has become the shared mission of a team truly rowing in the same direction.
Lola is also a corporate travel management platform, but they began their journey as a B2C solution before realizing their real opportunity was in serving the SMB market. Bringing B2C experience to their growth process is clearly one of the driving factors in Lola’s success, but it is their leadership team’s innovative techniques for ensuring cross-functional collaboration that are connecting individuals and teams to the company’s shared mission.
Like TripActions, Lola saw the inherent value of building a travel platform that puts as much emphasis on the needs of the traveler as it does on those of corporate travel administrators, but they also understood that delivering value for these very different stakeholders could quickly lead to a siloed organization. With a clear goal to build sustainable growth, they have intentionality fought back against these silos, put a focus on driving strong unit economics, and sought to build the world’s best travel service for small and medium-sized businesses.
Templafy ensures that every document, email, and presentation created by an employee in a large-scale enterprise business automatically meets company brand guidelines while remaining legally compliant. Using intelligent automation, Templafy seamlessly operates within an employee’s natural workflow. This means that employees are able to work faster and with better results because their documents automatically meet organizational standards as they are created.
When you are selling into enterprise organizations, building a growth process based on testing and optimization can be daunting and difficult. However, Templafy is proving that the same principles of growth that have helped B2C companies can be adapted to overcome these challenges. Their growth mindset, along with an elegant solution to a clear enterprise pain point, has helped Templafy become one of the fastest-growing companies in Europe.
Over 3.5 million users now use Miro’s online collaborative whiteboard platform to help distributed teams get work done. Miro offers a free-form approach to communicating thoughts and ideas between team members, regardless of their location. Perfect for visual thinkers, adoption usually starts with a designer or product manager with a specific use case searching for a better way to share an idea. Creating a board is easy, and sharing that first board with colleagues or clients is the aha moment that drives both internal and external viral growth for Miro.
Well over 10,000 teams have seen the value of Miro’s premium solution and have upgraded from the free product to a paid subscription. Miro sees its mission as driving the collaborative culture that will help teams create their next big thing, and uses this as inspiration to drive their own culture of growth and innovation. Aligning around “Active Collaborative Boards” as their North Star Metric, Miro is leveraging a test/learn growth process where shared understanding and context make sustainable breakout growth possible.
Valuer is built on the belief that synergies emerge when large corporations connect with startups. While enterprises are increasingly seeing the importance of creating digital transformations, many struggle to harness innovation culture. The Valuer platform uses artificial intelligence to create a marketplace where corporations can build relationships with startups to accelerate their velocity of innovation, while startups can tap the traditionally out-of-reach resources and customer bases of large and established businesses to bolster their growth.
In just 15 months of operation, Valuer has attracted more than 30 large enterprises–many of which are Fortune 500 companies–to purchase their services. This relatively short sales cycle is unusual for B2B companies selling into enterprise, but Valuer’s marketing team has found creative methods for driving lead generation, and the sales team has been effective in closing these sales. Using this platform, corporate innovation departments are seeing real potential in working with startups to meet the challenges they face.
3D Hubs is an online manufacturing platform that connects companies with a global network of manufacturing partners. At the click of a button, engineers can easily upload a design, instantly receive a quote, and start production of parts and assemblies. With their mission to make manufacturing faster, more accessible and highly efficient, 3D Hubs is taking advantage of an increasingly digitized world to deliver a more level playing field for industry.
The global manufacturing market is now $15 Trillion and the 3D Hubs team thinks that it is ripe for disruption. Without 3D Hubs, it typically takes weeks to get a quote to manufacture a new design, but with their solution, it takes just seconds. This speed and transparency has helped them attract more than 120,000 engineers to the platform, and collectively this has led to the creation of over 4 million parts and products.
These B2B companies are changing the world, and their breakout growth is neither coincidence nor accident. Each of these companies understands that B2B growth is undergoing a major transformation. So let’s look at what is changing in B2B.
Changing Roles in B2B Growth
From how prospects make purchases, to the tools and data that can facilitate the selling process, a number of factors are changing the way B2B companies are growing today.
More than ever before, buyers are now much more qualified and informed by the time they engage with a salesperson. In the past, marketing teams would generally focus on generating customer awareness and interest and then work to convert that interest into sales leads. The sales team would then tailor information to the prospect based on additional needs qualification while building a relationship so they could eventually close the sale.
Today, prospects use the internet to drive most of their research, and marketing teams have many more tools to qualify and nurture prospects much deeper in the funnel before handing them off to the sales team as a “sales qualified lead.” For many products, a large part of the qualification can even be done analyzing usage data during a trial.
While SaaS has made it easier to get started with a product, it has also made it easier to switch to another provider if the product is not meeting the needs of the buyer. So long-term customer engagement and retention are now key success metrics in determining a customer’s lifetime value. To increase the likelihood that a customer is retained, B2B solutions providers are increasingly adding a customer success function to their teams. Most companies use the customer success function to help customers achieve success after they have purchased, but increasingly customer success teams are playing an important role in driving trial success.
Some B2B companies offering relatively low priced products have taken a product-led model, and have shifted a large percentage of their sales to a no-touch model. These companies increasingly look like B2C companies, which means they can take advantage of, and benefit from, many B2C growth tactics. Miro is an example of one of the companies we interviewed that has taken this approach. But even companies that are targeting larger enterprise sales are becoming more product-led in their efforts.
The companies we interviewed for this study have largely embraced these changes and are using them to fuel their growth.
6 Key Takeaways from the Fastest-Growing B2B Companies
While there are many differences between the companies we interviewed, there are six areas where we see significant overlap in their success drivers:
High-growth B2B companies nail product/market fit
It may not come as a shock that the fastest growing companies in B2B have all achieved incredible product/market fit, as this is a fundamental building block for all successful businesses. What may be less obvious, however, is how B2C approaches and strategies have been integral to finding and capitalizing on that fit.
Is it any surprise that two of the fastest-growing B2B companies in the world are both disrupting the same $1.5T corporate travel space? TripActions and Lola both saw a huge total addressable market with legacy solutions built on outdated travel models and realized a consumer-driven approach could better serve this market. While they focus on different market segments, both optimize for the consumer experience as their pathway to product-market fit.
Clearly identified target customers
The companies we interviewed have a deep understanding of who their target customers are and who they are not, and they are using this knowledge to power their growth. It is interesting to look at this through the lens of Lola and TripActions because as they are targeting different ends of the same corporate travel market they are using different approaches to speak to and sell to their respective audiences.
Lola’s SMB customers are at the lower end of the market, so the company overtly showcases its relatively low subscription pricing to prospects on its website. On the other side of the spectrum, TripActions, which is targeting larger enterprise customers employs a higher-touch relationship where sales representatives quote prices with prospects more personally so that they can showcase the value a potential client can expect from the platform.
Meagen Eisenberg, TripActions CMO, explains that on average TripActions saves customers in excess of 30% on their overall travel budget—one of the largest controllable expenses most large businesses incur—so any price their sales representatives quote when set in contrast to these projected savings is likely to excite the prospect.
Miro broadly defines its product as a B2C2B solution, so not surprisingly they are also very transparent with their pricing. But Miro gets even more specific in identifying their ideal target users; they not only define the types of companies which employ them, but also the ways in which they think and learn. Yuliya Malysh, Head of Self-Service and Growth, describes Miro’s target customers as “visual thinkers working on a distributed team.”
Templafy is also very deliberate in how they target their customers. As part of their online demo request process, Templafy uses a Drift chatbot to ask website visitors about their company size. If the visitor’s company is too small, the system will show a message that says “Templafy costs this much, are you sure you’re still interested?” This may seem counterintuitive to growth, but Templafy understands how they bring value to enterprise clients and realize that chasing the wrong customers is antithetical to building sustainable growth.
As a marketplace, the 3D Hubs platform connects two distinct types of customers: They broadly target engineers on one side of their platform while targeting a vast international network of manufacturers on the other. Director of Marketing & Growth, Ferdinand Goetzen, explains that “[3D Hubs] helps medium-sized companies compete with the biggest giants in the industry,” but is quick to point out some of the unique challenges they face as they target these customers. “If someone has a local manufacturing shop that they work with and hang out with those folks on weekends it’s going to be very hard to compete with that.” But Goetzen explains that for most engineers, access to diverse manufacturing facilities with varied capabilities is game-changing, as it creates new opportunities for them to bring ideas into production.
Obsess on value delivery for all stakeholders
Another commonality between these high growth companies is that they are now realizing that long-term growth requires them to go beyond the initial buyer, and to work harder than ever to thrill the end-users they serve. For companies targeting enterprise buyers, this is a critical change. In the past, the B2B ecosystem over-indexed on the buyer persona, but as more companies move to SaaS or transactional models, customer retention is increasing in importance. If end users do not have fantastic experiences with a product, they are unlikely to keep using it, and that generally will lead to high churn rates for the service.
As an example, Meagen Eisenberg explains that what most differentiates TripActions from the legacy corporate travel solutions they compete with is how well they serve the actual traveler. Travel management services like Egencia and Concur were built pre-iPhone, whereas TripActions was developed in today’s mobile-first world. This is especially meaningful for travelers in motion, where pulling out a laptop in the middle of an airport versus interacting with a mobile app can be the difference between catching a flight and a nightmare experience. Even though the decision-makers TripActions must reach are CFOs, procurement directors, or travel administrators, the company fundamentally understands that their B2B opportunity is driven by the traveler experience.
Templafy is another company serving fairly distinct stakeholders, but placing heavy emphasis on the end-user experience. The decision-makers, who will advocate for the purchase of the service are generally concerned with corporate compliance and branding consistency, but end-users care about their own convenience and productivity. By optimizing their solution so that it is automatically and seamlessly inserted in the user’s workflow, they have actually made it easier and more efficient for end-users to do their work while remaining compliant and on-brand. This approach has helped Templafy to achieve nearly 100% customer retention.
Growth mindset drives the test/learn process
While the rate of experimentation differs greatly between the companies we interviewed, they all demonstrate a strong growth mindset. For example, as a high-priced, enterprise-targeted solution many natural headwinds make it difficult for Templafy to run a high velocity of tests. What we found impressive, is that despite these challenges the team has been able to adapt a testing process to help them better execute on all parts of their business. They have even created an ad-hoc cross-functional group known as the “Crazy 5” that works on growth across the organization. The Crazy 5 identifies the pain points that teams within the organization are facing, then implements growth experiments to help find creative solutions to their challenges.
Teams at other companies we interviewed are more deliberate in applying their growth mindset to a high-velocity test/learn process. Both Miro and 3D Hubs run regular growth sprints where they define and implement growth experiments across the full customer journey.
The Lola team also understands the importance of applying this test/learn process, but they are still in the early days of building a regular and reliable testing cadence. CEO Mike Volpe explained this as he commented on ways the company could further optimize its referral loop, “There are a million things we can do in that area and about 100 we have done!”
Leverage data to qualify and nurture prospects
The companies we analyzed seem to understand and embrace the idea that data and understanding are prerequisites for building an effective test/learn program. It was particularly interesting to learn how enterprise-targeted companies look to leverage data to better qualify prospects, often even enriching lead forms with additional 3rd party data.
3D Hubs is particularly adept at this, as they use data to inform actions that nurture prospects through the conversion funnel. Ferdinand Goetzen further explains that his growth marketing team is tasked with “primarily acquisition and activation. So we really focus on how we can maximize these activations, and how we can maximize conversion with automated and segmented nurturing,” to drive this process from end to end.
Miro’s, Yuliya Malysh also showcased the power of deliberately applying data in efforts to understand and improve results. She explains, “data always inspires me for the best ideas and to see where we have the biggest opportunities for growth. It also helps me to see a bigger picture and understand how different metrics are connected.” She emphasizes that implementing powerful data systems was the right investment and a critical factor in the company’s success.
Work to drive cross-functional alignment
Finally, the companies we analyzed all have a strong desire to drive better alignment across their organizations. A recent Sirius Decisions study found that, “misalignment is to blame for companies missing out on 19% faster revenue growth and 15% higher profitability,” so it makes sense that the fastest growing B2B companies are putting their efforts into getting this alignment right to drive sustainable growth.
Of course, cross-functional alignment is important in all businesses, but because B2B companies usually have additional functions like sales and customer success added into their mix the importance of finding this alignment is amplified. Most businesses look to address these challenges by working to increase communications, and we saw an innovative approach to this at Lola, which has a monthly full-day cross-functional leadership meeting that looks to dig in well beyond the typical status updates of a weekly meeting to drive intense collaboration around business goals.
But we think these companies can be doing much better here. To really drive improvement in cross-functional alignment, these companies should look to their B2C counterparts who are aligning around tangible North Star Metrics to align and unite their teams towards a shared mission.
Keys to Further Accelerate and Sustain Growth
The North Star Metric concept is most often associated with the world of B2C where it found its roots, but the kind of alignment it fosters is actually more critical for B2B companies because their growth engines are more complex. B2C companies with no-touch sales processes usually have fewer teams to align, but B2B companies must ensure that product, marketing, sales, customer success, and other organizations more unique to the B2B world, are all rowing in the same direction. These challenges of capitalizing on a shared mission across a more disparate organization are evident at Valuer.
Valuer’s marketing team is focused on lead generation, but currently, marketing’s job appears to end when a potential lead completes an online lead generation form. The marketing team has masterfully used content creation to help potential clients discover that the idea of engaging a startup may be the key to achieving their digital transformation goals, but once an enterprise prospect shows interest the marketing team abruptly ends its connection with an automated response: “A sales representative will contact you shortly.” The marketing team does not provide the lead with additional content or use other tools to keep nurturing the prospect but instead passes off the lead to the sales team to make the human connection and close the deal.
Both sales and marketing may have a theoretical understanding that their mission is to connect corporates to startups, but they are essentially operating on two separate planes. If these teams were cross-functionally aligned around a shared mission, marketing would likely provide additional content based on funnel learning to support the sales team as they work with prospects to better address pain points. At the same time, the sales team could continuously feed information back to marketing to help them better identify leads based on the human interactions of the sales process. If there was a single unifying metric that served as a tangible articulation of this shared mission imagine how Valuer could improve value delivery for clients and accelerate growth.
The right North Star Metric can keep everyone focused on creating value for customers and can also help teams align around a common goal. Admittedly, however, the concept can be a bit confusing. Of the six companies we interviewed, only Miro had a clearly articulated North Star Metric: “active collaboration boards.” If this number is up and to the right, it is much more likely that revenue will maintain a strong positive trajectory. While the other companies did not identify specific North Star Metrics, we believe the following would work well to help them align teams around their shared missions:
- TripActions: Monthly trips managed
- Lola: Monthly trips managed
- Templafy: Monthly compliant employees (or perhaps just MAUs)
- Valuer: Monthly matches
- 3D Hubs: Monthly part uploads
Beyond developing and harnessing the power of a North Star Metric to drive cross-functional collaborations, the one other area where we think most of these companies could improve is in increasing their experimentation velocity and rigor. Miro and 3D Hubs were the only B2B companies we interviewed that indicated that they ran regular growth sprints. A consistent cadence of growth sprints is important for driving continuous improvement over time. Teams should use a regularly scheduled growth meeting to prioritize testing around high impact opportunities, hold themselves accountable for tests planned in previous weeks, ensure sufficient resources are available for the test/learn process and discuss key learnings from completed tests. Without regularly scheduled growth sprints it is very easy for testing velocity to slow down or stop completely.
What is preventing B2B companies from leveraging growth sprints in their processes? It may be that teams are stuck in a “doing mindset” as opposed to a “growth mindset,” focusing their efforts on simply keeping existing processes on track, or it may be that companies are worried that long sales cycles will prevent the quick feedback that powers high-velocity testing. What we have seen is that it is possible for B2B companies to find ways to push through testing inertia to overcome these challenges. Like their B2C counterparts, B2B companies that develop a growth sprint habit will out-innovate their competitors in developing effective growth programs.
Final Thoughts on Accelerating Your B2B Growth
As we studied the world’s fastest-growing B2B companies we wanted to find out:
- What key drivers are fueling their breakout growth?
- Which approaches borrowed from the B2C world are proving effective for B2B?
- What could other B2B companies learn from their successes to change their growth trajectories?
Our most important finding was that the standout success stories in B2B today are drawing inspiration from the world of B2C to power their growth, but to some degree, they are just scratching the surface. There are complexities in B2B that make adopting these concepts difficult, but great companies have met these challenges head-on. For example, Slack and Zoom used bottom-up Freemium approaches that drove strong viral loops to reach their valuations of $24B and $110B respectively.
Leveraging these techniques to power growth is an accelerating trend in the world of B2B as more companies are seeing the potential value. A few years after embracing Freemium, Hubspot’s CEO, Brian Halligan described how the change to this model defined his organization’s growth engine:
I stopped thinking about our business like a traditional sales and marketing firm. It’s more like a flywheel where the customers are the main driver that pulls new prospects in. That flywheel spins at the rate of our customers’ delight. I think it was a great way to think about our business 10 years ago when our sales and marketing was the loudest voice in the market, but in today’s market our customers’ voices, they are the loudest.”
While the companies we interviewed may not be using the entire toolkit that has proven valuable for consumer-targeted businesses, many of the key drivers behind their success stories still look remarkably similar. Without strong product/market fit, growth will be fleeting at best, but once product/market fit is validated, realizing its full potential requires deliberate and coordinated execution.
Fundamental to this execution is the idea that B2B teams must invest in strong data systems to be successful. A good data system allows a company to connect customer behavior with the path that led that user from consideration to activation and eventually through their journey of engagement and value. The ability to quantify and understand how a service is delivering value to the organizations it serves is critical for growth. The free version of Amplitude, as an example, supports up to 20 million user events per month and provides many of the powerful business insights that can help B2B companies grow.
In addition, to fully capitalize on product/market fit, teams must clearly understand the target customers that desperately need their solutions and the key benefits that those customers receive. For enterprise targeted businesses, different stakeholders are likely to have very different needs and will value the solutions offered for different reasons. Despite this complexity, companies should seek a single metric that best captures the expansion of value they deliver to customers over time.
We outlined the benefits of this “North Star Metric” concept and offered insights into how companies can identify their own NSM and use it to cross-functionally align teams. This is an incredibly effective tool for building a test-driven approach to learning that connects every individual and team to the shared mission of a business.
B2B companies that adopt these approaches will better understand how their products and services deliver value to customers, and their growth will accelerate as they capitalize on these learnings. The world of B2B is changing rapidly, and we expect many more breakout growth examples to emerge as these tools, techniques and processes power disruption and innovation in this exciting space.
Learn more on the Breakout Growth Podcast: What’s Driving Growth at Fastest Growing B2B Companies? Learnings from Last 6 Interviews