This week on Product Love, I talked to Jason VandeBoom, CEO and founder of ActiveCampaign. ActiveCampaign is an email marketing, marketing automation, sales automation, and CRM software platform for small- to mid-sized businesses. 

Growing up, Jason always had a passion for building things. His entrepreneurial career in tech began when he found odd jobs online and started providing services like web design, customer solutions, or intranets. He even had a consulting job at a local internet agency. However, he ended up pursuing fine arts in college. He admits it’s a weird blend, but the mix of science and art often leads to product. 

This week on Product Love, Jason and I discussed the freedoms and limitations of bootstrapping and talked about making champions out of your customers. 

Bootstrapped Product Management

ActiveCampaign was bootstrapped for thirteen years. In many ways, it was the perfect fit for ActiveCampaign’s business model. To Jason, bootstrapping meant the freedom to control the company’s destiny. Jason didn’t subscribe to the normal playbook of immediately moving upmarket to chase additional growth. Instead, he discovered another way of operating. Without crazy external pressure from stakeholders or stress from raising funding, they were able to function at their own pace. 

He also discovered that bootstrapping hugely affects product management. Funded companies have more money and resources, so they’re able to take on larger product-related projects. Bootstrapped companies like ActiveCampaigns couldn’t invest as heavily in their product because they still had to prioritize making some kind of money. 

Eventually, ActiveCampaign’s product garnered lots of inbound interest and achieved product-market fit. It was the perfect time to take on funding. Jason admitted that he also wanted external feedback to see how the company could progress and grow.

A Different Take on Feedback

Ninety-five percent of ActiveCampaign’s new clients come organically from word-of-mouth referrals. That’s an amazing feat! So how did Jason do it? For one, he reads notes from ex-clients every day. He doesn’t recommend this method to everyone, but it works for him. But his dedication to listening to his customers doesn’t stop there, Jason also routinely reads cancellation notes, support tickets, and NPS scores. He is extremely dedicated to feedback. 

But Jason isn’t reading all these pieces of feedback to be reactionary. Not every piece of feedback warrants adding a feature to a roadmap. Instead, he’s looking for overall themes. What stuck out to me was how Jason described his understanding of feedback. “If you’re going to drive actual innovation, it’s unlikely that people tell you what that is actually.” 

Customer Advocacy Is Everywhere

Customers do a great job of explaining their problems, but not so much what they want the solutions to be. Instead, Jason has to look for commonalities and narratives through all the feedback channels to see if he can piece customer sentiment and themes. 

 Jason identifies champions simply by talking to them. He doesn’t think of advocacy as a tool, nor does he think it should be difficult to find these early adopters. They exist everywhere: on social media, on Slack groups, or in your support tickets. 

The people who routinely give you feedback are probably the best-suited to be your product’s champions. 

This got me thinking about how product people have so many channels for feedback. Whether it’s readily available in-app, or through customer calls, or by scouring social media — it’s definitely out there. Reading ex-client tickets might not be for the faint of heart, but maybe product managers should be venturing to that side more frequently. Rather than taking negative feedback personally or becoming so reactive to it, reel it back. Look for common themes from all feedback sources, and then act. Customers, even the ones who say negative things, help you create a stronger product. 

Want to learn more about how Jason interacts with customer feedback, or what happened when ActiveCampaign was no longer bootstrapped? Listen to the episode above. 

About the Author

Eric Boduch is the Chief Evangelist for Pendo. Previously, he served as the CEO of Brainstorm SMS Technologies LLC (dba SMaSh, Inc.) and was the co-founder and CEO of several other companies. Eric holds a Bachelor of Science from The School of Computer Engineering at Carnegie Mellon University in Electrical and Computer Engineering and is a graduate of its Executive Management Program.