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How SaaS Companies Adapt to Thrive with Michele Don Durbin 

How SaaS Companies Adapt to Thrive

Technology is constantly adapting, and that means that tech-based companies must adapt along with it. 

SaaS companies especially need to stay current, or else they’ll easily become stagnant. 

If a business isn’t on the cutting edge, its customers will look elsewhere. 

Michele Don Durbin has walked through the process of adaptation with the company Evernote, where she is the Senior Vice President of Marketing. 

In this episode, Michele shared how Evernote adapted to changing technology, why you have to prioritize your audience, and how to make the most of your market.

Show Topics

  • Readapt to stay current
  • Communicate with your customers
  • Think about your audience
  • Be considerate of existing users
  • Take advantage of opportunities
  • Tailor your product to your audience
  • Lead by example
  • Connect with your employees
  • Find good mentors

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Key Takeaways

Key Takeaways

32:30 – Readapt to stay current

SaaS companies must continually readapt their technology so that they can stay current and release quality products quickly.

“There are teams that absolutely need Evernote, but there are still millions upon millions of individuals like yourself who are using it and just haven’t seen innovation come out of it. And it’s gone beyond this note-taking original function, and people were really using it for knowledge management and then they were finding workarounds to really get into personal productivity. And the tool wasn’t necessarily helping them deliberately with things that would help them with productivity. They were developing their own workflows. They were developing their own systems, and that all came back to our technical debt. It just hadn’t kept pace. Every SaaS company needs to continually figure out how they’re going to readapt their technology and make sure that it’s staying current so that they can release things quickly and of quality. And that was the path that Ian said, ‘Absolutely teams are important. Absolutely our individual users are important. But first we need to take a pause and we need to re-platform this so that we can build things that you want and do it quickly and do it with quality.’”

35:07 – Communicate with your customers

The two most important things you can do with disgruntled customers are: listen to them, and tell them what’s going on.

“We’re always listening to our customers. Because as a product marketer and as a CEO, that’s the best thing that you can do is really put them front and center. I remember the very first one, Ian basically just got on screen and for maybe a minute talked about why he was gonna do this, what it was going to be, et cetera. And we had a disgruntled set of customers at the time. They, like you said, there hadn’t been a lot of innovation. They weren’t seeing, for individuals, they hadn’t been seeing a lot of changes that they wanted. And what have you. And I remember one of the first comments was something like, ‘Oh, he looks like a mid-level manager at Costco,’ or something like that. It’s rude. But in fact, we consistently put out these videos, we let people know, we showed them mockups that were still on printed pages. They weren’t even demos. They hadn’t been built into the app. We took them along from both infrastructure and what we were doing underneath the hood and also showing them some of the UI and how we were rebuilding things, and very, very quickly all of that sentiment changed.”

39:16 – Think about your audience

If you want to move customers from a free version of your products to a paid version, you must consider the types of audiences you’re appealing to.

“We had one single paid product, Evernote Premium. And I was thinking, if you use it at work, there’s an urgency. You have deadlines, you have a boss, you have quarterly reviews, you have meetings after meetings after meetings. And as a parent, I have a family at home, I am much more likely to just get by. Like, ‘Oh yeah, that’s right. Do I really need an app to track my kids’ doctor’s appointments or the school meetings? Yeah, maybe. Maybe not. I’m doing okay as it is.’ And so we really felt that there was a differentiation we could create between an individual user using Evernote for a home scenario and an individual user who really wants to use Evernote at work. And probably our roadmap would support differentiated features. And so when you undertake something like pricing and repackaging, the first thing you need to know is how are customers gonna react? What are the things that they really need? And so we started with so much audience work.”

42:32 – Be considerate of existing users

When you’re moving your company into a new phase or product, you don’t want that process to alienate current customers. So be considerate of your customers during the transition.

“We made the transition for our existing users really wonderful. And by this I mean tons of overcommunication. We absolutely had pre-comms. We were explaining exactly what was happening for you specifically and the type of customer you were for Evernote. We had public help and learning articles. You could see what was happening. We weren’t necessarily telling you exactly what was gonna be in the new plans or what the names of the new plans were. But we were clear enough that you could know what was gonna happen come launch day. And then the way we planned it is anyone who was paying us full price for Premium, we simply automatically converted them to the commensurate tier, which meant for no extra cost they got a whole suite of brand new functionality. They didn’t have to do anything. So what they’ve been waiting for for years and years, all this innovation and everything else, they just downloaded the new app, kept paying the same amount, and suddenly they had tasks. They had calendar integration. They had multiple widgets on their home dashboard, including the filtered notes widget and all of these really neat things. The people who were paying us, we’ll call legacy pricing, so some had different price increases of some of our legacy plans over the years, we just let them be. If they felt that they were paying a fair price for the set of functionality that they were getting for that price, we did not see a need to force them into a higher price tier. We made it easy for them to upgrade should they want that, but we didn’t force them into it at all. And then thirdly, we took nothing away from free customers.”

48:26 – Take advantage of opportunities

There’s lots of space in the market for different types of products to exist. You just have to find the right niche.

“The range and breadth of competitors that we could compare ourselves with is pretty big, from the Google suites and OneNote Microsoft suites of the world down to the smallest note-taking app. And so it really helps us, one, validate that there is absolutely a market here. There is a big opportunity here in this kind of space. And also, two, there are so many different types of people. I mean, we at Evernote have a distinct six personas that we’ve identified. Someone like Notion, they’re really looking to be an office tool for teams. And we are still focused on individuals. We have the team’s product. It’s sort of swapped for them and us. And so absolutely we want them to succeed, we want them to be able to be a good tool that people use, and we want to succeed as well. And I think there’s room at the moment for all of us.”

49:31 – Tailor your product to your audience

Different types of people will be drawn to different products depending on their needs. So make sure you’re catering to your main audience.

“Some of these personas are real productivity wonks. They just love it. They want to be organized, they want to do everything themselves. And some of these more complicated tools like Notion are really super flexible and let you do anything you could possibly want. You really have to put a lot of work into it. And then there are tools that we call them hopeful Hollys. And they’re the ones who really want to be more productive, really would love to feel a lot more organized, but maybe need a little extra help. And that’s where we want to sit. We want to help. We want to be your helper. We want to partner in whatever the process is that works best for you. So we’re very customizable. You can really do what you want with Evernote, but you also don’t have to do it. We can help you do it with the ways that we’re building our products today.”

57:25 – Lead by example

The pandemic has blurred the lines between work and home. As a leader, you have to show your people it’s okay to take time for family.

“I think the biggest change I made personally is I started to parent out loud, which is a term I had heard from the CEO of Grokker, whom I used to work with at eBay. And this idea that women historically have felt the need to apologize more and to explain why they might be away from the office, especially if it had to do with childcare or their families. And I make it known, ‘Oh yes, I’ll be out of the office from 3:00 to 4:30 today because I need to go see my son play his basketball game.’ That’s okay. If your leader is doing it, it’s probably more okay. We’ve become very, very flexible, very, very resilient around different schedules. We do ask that when you’re at the office and you are working that you give us a hundred percent as you can. And as you move away and take a little time here or there, do what you can. Great. It’s worked out very, very nicely. And I think that idea around just be more sensitive to how somebody else may be handling their day is always in the forefront for me.”

59:00 – Connect with your employees

Make sure you’re checking in with your employees on a regular basis. That way, no one slips through the cracks.

“One of the things that I did with my own leadership team is we pulled together a list of all of the people that work in marketing. And every week we have a swapping set and I reach out to about three to five people on the broader team every single week. It could be in Slack, it could be an email. It could be that I have a meeting with them already, and I just touched base with them. In fact, I did that with two people today. And so every week most of our people are getting at least an outreach. How you doing? Everything going all right? From one of the more senior people in the company. And so far it seems like it’s been well received. I certainly haven’t had anyone ask me to stop talking to them.”

1:01:07 – Find good mentors

For women especially, it’s important to have mentors who can push them toward their goals. If they know someone has their back, it’s easier to dream big.

“I think it’s really important that women have mentors in every one of their roles. So obviously having a female mentor would be fantastic, but in today’s age, especially in tech, you need to also have a male mentor. And when I was first being offered my first GM role, I had lunch with my male mentor and I said, ‘Oh my God, I am so not prepared for a GM role.’ And he was like, ‘It’s okay. Here’s how you can think about it, and here’s how you can grow.’ And talked me through it. And I think it’s much more of that male-female mindset that there’ve been a lot of studies on that women often think they’re underqualified and men often think they’re overqualified. And then I had lunch with my female mentor, who I actually work with now at Evernote. And she listened to everything that I had to say. And then she just looked at me and she said, ‘So that’s fine, but we don’t have enough women leaders. So you simply have to take this.’ And I just thought, wow, talk about boiling it down to rock bottom. And I was like, okay, that’s it. That was great. So that was it. Go out, ask your friends, but in the end you probably just need to do it.”

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David Khim

David is co-founder and CEO of Omniscient Digital. He previously served as head of growth at and Fishtown Analytics, and before that was growth product manager at HubSpot where he worked on new user acquisition initiatives to scale the product-led go-to-market.