Want to Use PLG for Your SaaS? Read This Before You Make the Decision

May 5, 2024
Product-Led Growth is often hailed as the silver bullet for SaaS businesses seeking rapid growth. It's a term that buzzes with promise. If you are a founder, some of the content you find out there will suggest that using PLG, your path to scaling will be both efficient and user-centric. and you just launch and boom, customers will be signing up.

However, the reality is that PLG is not a one-size-fits-all solution, and competing for traffic in an increasingly saturated market is a formidable challenge. Here, we'll dissect the nuances of PLG to help you determine if it's the right model for your SaaS company, if you should stick to high-touch sales, or if you should use both sales motions at the same time.

The Hype Around PLG: A Closer Look

Product-Led Growth (PLG) has become a buzzword in the SaaS industry. The allure of PLG lies in its promise to leverage the product itself as the primary driver of user acquisition, conversion, and expansion. However, the widespread enthusiasm for PLG can sometimes overshadow the complexities and challenges associated with this sales motion.
The Promise of PLG
PLG is attractive because it suggests a business model where your product does the heavy lifting. It's a strategy that capitalizes on the inherent value and usability of your product to attract and retain users. In theory, this approach leads to shorter sales cycles, as the need for traditional sales teams is reduced or even eliminated. It also promises lower customer acquisition costs since the product's features and user experience are designed to organically sell. The success stories of many PLG companies often highlight rapid user base growth, impressive conversion rates, and substantial financing rounds and exits. And yes, we agree, these narratives can be highly compelling.
Competing for Traffic
Despite the potential benefits, the reality is that PLG is not a silver bullet. Competing for traffic in a crowded SaaS marketplace is increasingly difficult. There's a SaaS product for almost every conceivable need, and new startups must compete against established companies with significant marketing budgets and brand recognition.

For early-stage startups, this competition means that simply having a pricing page on their website isn't enough. They must also invest in customer discovery, product (and signup) analytics, user experience design, and have to get create to find innovative marketing ideas to make their PLG motion work
PLG and Achieving PMF
Your main challenges as an early-stage startup is achieving product-market fit (PMF)—the stage where a product meets the market's needs and demands and all of the sudden you convert customers easily. PLG is not a substitute for the foundational work required to reach PMF. Before doubling down on a PLG strategy, you must ensure their product resonates with your target audience and address a genuine need. In other words: You will have to talk to your early customers and be close to them in order to find PMF. Don't think that PLG replaces the part where you gather customer input and feedback.
PLG as a Complex Discussion
All of that means that the decision to adopt a PLG strategy is far from straightforward. It requires a nuanced understanding of your market, your target customers, their needs and desires, some knowledge about your competitive landscape, and a clear definition of your unique value proposition. You should also consider your ability to execute a PLG strategy effectively, which includes not only developing a compelling product but also creating the infrastructure to support product-led user acquisition and growth.

The Reality: Many Startups Are Starting with Direct Sales

For many SaaS founders, the journey to building a successful company begins not with a wide net but with a targeted, hands-on approach. Direct sales, especially in the early stages of a SaaS business, can provide a solid foundation for understanding customers, refining the product, and establishing a foothold in the market. Let's explore why starting with direct sales can be a strategic move for SaaS startups and how it can complement your future PLG strategy.
The Personal Touch of Direct Sales
Direct sales involve personally reaching out to your potential customers, often within your network - friends, family, former colleagues, or connections made in accelerators. This approach allows for in-depth conversations about your SaaS product, gathering valuable customer feedback, and building relationships. It's a level of engagement that is difficult to achieve through product-led strategies alone.
Validating the Product
Great customer discovery is inherently high-touch and in the early days of your SaaS company, product validation is crucial. Direct sales provide an opportunity to test the product with real users in real scenarios. You can quickly identify any issues or gaps in the product experience and iterate accordingly. This immediate feedback loop is beneficial for achieving product-market fit.
Building Early Customer Relationships
The relationships built through direct sales or customer discovery can lead to early sales success too. If you demonstrate that you understand your customer and listen to them, they will become advocates for your product, providing word-of-mouth referrals that are invaluable for growth. Even early bugs will be forgiven.
Beyond Bringing a Pricing Page Live
Even if you succeed with customer discovery and find early fans, you will have to attract customers beyond your personal network too. So it's your pricing page has to be seen by the right eyes. Your marketing efforts must be effective to drive interested visitors to your site. Once there, the product experience must be compelling enough to encourage sign-ups for free trials or free accounts. This requires a deep understanding of user behavior, product analytics, and conversion funnel optimization.

When PLG Can Be an Excellent Way to Sell

Below, we explore the prerequisites and environments in which PLG not only thrives but also becomes a formidable growth engine.
Prerequisites for a Successful PLG Strategy
Intuitive Product Design
The product must be user-friendly and provide a seamless user experience from the first interaction. This design invites users to explore and discover the product's value on their own, fostering a sense of autonomy and satisfaction.
Clear Value Proposition
The product's value proposition should be immediately apparent to users. Whether it's through interactive demos or a freemium model, users must quickly understand how the product can solve their problems or improve their workflows.
Product Analytics
Implementing a robust product analytics tool is vital for tracking user interactions, product adoption, and user retention. These insights allow for data-driven decisions that continually refine the product experience.
Product Virality
Features that encourage sharing and collaboration can increase product virality, naturally expanding the user base through user interactions and word-of-mouth referrals.
Freemium Model
Offering a free version of the product can attract users and provide them with a risk-free way to experience the product's core capabilities. This model can be a powerful lever for conversion if the transition to paid features is smooth and the premium offerings are compelling.
Strong Customer Success and Support
A dedicated customer success team can guide users through the product experience, helping them to unlock value quickly and reducing customer churn.

The Ideal Environment for PLG

Users Expect Self-Service Options
As users become more accustomed to trying out products without sales intervention, PLG caters to this preference and can accelerate the buying experience.
Traditional Marketing Is Cost-Prohibitive
When competing against companies with larger marketing budgets, PLG allows you to leverage your product as the main growth driver, potentially lowering customer acquisition costs.
The Product Requires Little Customization
If your SaaS product works 'out of the box' with minimal setup, PLG can be an efficient way to onboard new users and demonstrate immediate value.

Potential Downsides of Implementing PLG

While PLG can be a powerful growth strategy for many SaaS companies, it's not without potential drawbacks. Here are several potential challenges and pitfalls to consider:
Over-Reliance on Product Virality
PLG often hinges on the assumption that the product will inherently encourage users to invite others, leading to organic growth. However, achieving true product virality is challenging, and not all products naturally lend themselves to this kind of growth. Besides, it has become more and more difficult to get virality without spending a lot of money on it. Overestimating the product's virality can lead to unrealistic growth expectations and a failure to invest in other necessary marketing efforts.
Difficulty in Qualifying Leads
With a PLG model, especially one that includes a freemium model, there's a risk of attracting many users who have no intention or ability to upgrade to paid plans. This can result in a large user base that contributes little to revenue, complicating efforts to qualify leads and focus resources on the most promising prospects.
Increased Customer Support Demands
A surge in user acquisition through PLG can place significant strain on customer support teams. As user numbers grow, so does the demand for assistance, which can overwhelm existing support structures and impact the quality of service provided. This can lead to higher churn rates if users feel their needs are not being met.
Challenges with Monetization
Finding the right balance between free and paid features is a delicate task in a PLG strategy. If too much value is given away for free, users may have little incentive to upgrade. Conversely, if the free version is too limited, it might fail to demonstrate enough value to convince users to pay for the full product.
Complex User Experience
PLG requires a seamless user experience to guide users from initial sign-up to full product adoption and conversion. Designing an intuitive and effective product experience is complex and requires continuous iteration based on user feedback. If the user journey is not carefully crafted, it can lead to user frustration and abandonment.
Underestimating the Need for a Sales Team
While PLG focuses on the product driving growth, there may still be a need for a sales team to manage relationships with larger accounts or to upsell and cross-sell within the existing customer base. Underestimating this need can result in missed opportunities for revenue growth and expansion.
Customer Acquisition Costs
Though PLG is often touted for its potential to lower customer acquisition costs, this is not always the case. The costs associated with developing, maintaining, and improving a product that can sell itself can be substantial. If the PLG strategy does not lead to the expected growth, these investments can become a financial burden.

The Evolving Role of Direct Sales in a PLG Strategy

The ubiquity of SaaS solutions has intensified competition, so early-stage startups are increasingly finding that a combination of sales motions is not just beneficial but necessary. Direct sales and Product-Led Growth (PLG) strategies are being used in tandem to navigate the complexities of finding product-market fit (PMF) and catering to the needs of a discerning customer base.
The Necessity of a Dual Sales Approach
The saturation of the SaaS market means you must understand your customers' needs with unprecedented detail to achieve PMF. This level of understanding often comes from the close, personal interactions that direct sales provide. As mentioned earlier, being in direct contact with customers allows you to gather these nuanced insights. Moreover, even enterprise companies, which traditionally relied on in-depth sales processes, are increasingly open to adopting solutions from smaller startups. This shift has forced many SaaS founders to become high-touch salespeople themselves, servicing these critical early adopters who can provide valuable feedback and advocacy.

At the same time, the nature of many SaaS products requires customers to experience the software firsthand before committing to a purchase, particularly when the ticket size is small. This necessitates a PLG approach where users can self-onboard, explore the product's features, and realize its value independently.
The Reality of Today's SaaS Sales Landscape
At Wingback, our view is that the future of successful startups lies in the ability to seamlessly integrate both direct sales and PLG strategies into one cohesive strategy that makes use of the benefits of both approaches. The future of SaaS sales is unmistakably hybrid. Startups that can skillfully navigate both direct sales and PLG will be better positioned to adapt to market changes, meet diverse customer needs, and drive sustainable growth. This reality is already upon us, as noted by Andreessen Horowitz in their article "Growth + Sales: The New Era of Enterprise Go-To-Market". They highlight the importance of combining growth tactics with sales motions to create a holistic go-to-market strategy.
Balancing High Touch with Self-Serve
For you as an early-stage startup founder, this means developing the finesse to balance high-touch sales efforts with self-serve PLG motions. High-touch interactions are crucial for landing larger accounts and understanding complex customer needs, while self-serve options cater to the broader market and facilitate scale. By employing both methods, you can ensure they are not missing out on any segment of the market and are meeting customers where they are.

Wingback: Launching Public Pricing in Record Time

For startups considering PLG, Wingback is a game-changer. It simplifies the process of launching public pricing, enabling you to implement  a pricing page, a best in-class self-signup flow, and a customer-facing billing portal with next to no engineering involvement. With Wingback, you can set up any pricing plan you can imagine and make sure that your customers are always billed correctly at the right time.

Examples of Successful Startups That Launched with PLG

Calendly, the scheduling automation platform, has become a staple tool for professionals looking to streamline their meeting organization. The company's PLG approach centered around its freemium model, which allowed users to experience the core functionality of easy scheduling without any initial investment. By simplifying a common pain point—coordinating meeting times—Calendly's product quickly gained traction. The intuitive design and immediate value offered by the free version led to widespread adoption, which was further bolstered by user referrals and organic growth.
Dropbox, though now a household name, was once an early-stage startup that leveraged PLG to grow its user base too. The company provided a cloud storage solution that was simple to use and easily integrated into users' daily workflows. Dropbox's referral program, which rewarded users with additional free storage for each new user they brought in, exemplified a successful PLG strategy that harnessed product virality to expand its market reach.
Typeform reimagined online forms and surveys by prioritizing user experience, making the process of collecting information engaging and conversational. Their PLG strategy was built around a user-friendly interface and the promise of higher engagement rates for surveys and forms. By offering a free version that showcased the platform's capabilities, Typeform was able to attract users who were tired of traditional, static forms. The company's focus on design and user interactions made it a standout choice for businesses and individuals alike, facilitating organic growth through user satisfaction and word-of-mouth marketing.
Asana, a web and mobile application designed to help teams organize, track, and manage their work, is another example of a startup that harnessed the power of PLG. The company's platform offered a visually intuitive way to manage projects and tasks, which resonated with teams seeking better collaboration tools. Asana's PLG approach was to provide a robust free version that many teams could start using without any financial commitment. This ease of adoption, combined with the product's collaborative features, encouraged users to invite colleagues and helped Asana grow its user base organically.
Figma, a browser-based interface design tool that emphasizes real-time collaboration, also found success with a PLG model. Figma offered a free tier that allowed designers to create and share their work with others. The tool's collaborative nature meant that as one designer used Figma, they would often bring others into the platform, creating a network effect. Figma's focus on community and sharing, along with its innovative features, made it a popular choice among design teams and contributed to its growth through product-led strategies.


PLG can be a powerful approach for SaaS companies, but it's not without its challenges. It requires a product that delivers immediate value, a strategy for driving traffic and user acquisition, and a clear understanding of PLG metrics. While PLG can lead to rapid growth and a significant user base, it's not the only path to success. Many successful SaaS companies start with more traditional sales approaches before transitioning to PLG or combine both strategies to leverage the best out of both worlds.

As you contemplate PLG for your SaaS business, remember that it's not just about having a great product; it's about having the right features, customer support, and growth strategies in place to make PLG work.
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