The Hidden Advantage of Self-Serve

A Self-Serve company isn’t just a Sales-Led company without a Sales team. Leaning into the differences between Self-Serve and Sales-Led can turn them into serious advantages.

The Hidden Advantage of Self-Serve
Do not index
Do not index
Many Self-Serve companies operate much like their Sales-Led counterparts, minus a Sales team. In this episode, your hosts discuss how leaning into Self-Serve's differences can turn them into advantages, and how the Self-Serve model opens up opportunities that Sales-Led companies can only dream about.
Video preview


(00:27) Self-Serve Companies Still Rely on the Sales Playbook

The "Business of Software Playbook" has been written around a Sales-dominated model.
Most Sales-Led companies look at their revenue-driving activities as:
  • Marketing for acquisition
  • Sales for conversion
  • Product for retention and expansion
Self-Serve companies, executing this kind of model without Sales teams, find themselves at a disadvantage — like they’re playing the game with a major lever (out of three) missing.

(06:49) Turning Differences Into Strengths (Leaning Into the Self-Serve Model)

A Self-Serve company isn’t just a Sales-Led company without the Sales team, though. There are two big advantages of not having a Sales team:
  • Lower ARPA goes hand in hand with higher volumes. There are ways to approach selling to thousands or tens of thousands of customers that are just not worth investigating looking into if you're selling to hundreds of customers at a 10x or a 100x price point.
  • Visibility into the entire user timeline. In a Sales-Led company, there are parts to the user timeline (particularly the ones leading up to conversion) that are opaque because it’s difficult to account for every single thing that a human does to make a successful sale. But for Self-Serve companies, with the entire user timeline being automated, there are no “gaps in the data” between a user signing up and converting to a customer.

(14:47) Building a Faster Feedback Loop; Asking Better Questions

The upshot of the volume that comes with a Self-Serve model: the robust amount of subscription and user behavior data that can be sliced and diced to create quick conversion feedback loops. Feedback loops that wouldn’t get off the ground in a low-volume environment.
For example, if you offer three different payment plans and you're a high-touch, Sales-driven organization, it probably isn’t worth looking into which plans have the highest retention rates. Especially if the company is locking in customers for year-long contracts or larger ones.
But if you're talking about converting 8,000 or 10,000 new subscribers a month across three plans that are $20, $60, and $200/month each, which of those plans has the best retention is suddenly a much more reasonable and responsible question to ask.
Tying user behavior to revenue rather than activation or engagement isn’t all that relevant in a Sales-driven company, but can make or break a Self-Serve one.

(21:12) Managing the Self-Serve Sales Process

Self-Serve companies don’t have Sales teams but they do have sales processes — automated ones. And there’s a tremendous amount of pressure on how this sales process is designed because there are no humans to step in when it fails.
The Self-Serve approach, therefore, has to be more thoughtful than: get signups > hope they stay engaged > profit. The sales process must be intentionally designed and iteratively optimized in the same way that a human-driven sales process would be at a Sales-led company.


Want to read along?
Toggle Transcript
Yohann: Hi, I'm Yohann.
Samuel: And I'm Samuel, and you are listening to the Value Paths Podcast. We have a very special topic today titled "The Hidden Advantage of Self-Serve," where we explore the possibilities that Self-Serve unlocks that other business models don't. Specifically Self-Serve SaaS, not like a laundromat or an arcade.

Self-Serve Companies Still Rely on the Sales Playbook

Samuel: But in the Software world, I think that a lot of the "Business of Software Playbook" has been written around a sales-dominated model.
That's definitely more of a parallel to physical goods companies and, you know, how people have conducted business for ages before the internet even started opening up these new business models. But, I think that at the same time, Self-Serve SaaS companies, which are more digital-native and more internet-y, I want to say, are regarded as maybe being a little bit more limited in their approach because they don't have a Sales team in place to help usher people through the buying process.
Yohann: When you say that the Sales Playbook is the given playbook for every software company at the moment, I think that's a huge reason why Self-Serve companies are kind of shoehorned into growing their revenue with a sales team. Because when you are playing by the Sales Playbook and you don't have a sales team, at some point, you are going to hit a plateau or you're going to hit a wall, and the only way over that wall is to bring in this missing piece of the playbook that you've been following so far. I think an important piece that we are trying to lay out in this episode is that the self-Serve model has to work a little differently: you have to see the sides of Self-Serve that are not possible in a sales model and take advantage of them in order to not have to rely on the Sales Playbook when you hit that wall.
Samuel: Right, that there are benefits and constraints of any given business model and Self-Serve has its own benefits unto itself, and I think that those are under-discussed and underrepresented even within the processes and operations of Self-Serve SaaS companies.
Yohann: Right.
Samuel: And so, generically speaking, I would say that if we're looking at ways to drive revenue at any kind of software company...
Let's say that you do have a sales function. The three main categories you'll probably be thinking about are, do we invest more in marketing and get top-of-funnel leads and signups, trials, or whatever that might be that we can convert into customers. Do we invest more in sales where we're converting those signups into customers, or do we invest more in product where we're creating a more compelling feature set for sales to sell the signups on and to generate signups to begin with? Those three categories, does that resonate? Any other major considerations, would you say there?
Yohann: No, I think you covered them all. Just to put labels on all of the things that you mentioned just now you can increase new business, you can increase expansion, you can increase reactivation, or you can decrease contraction and churn.
Samuel: Which would all be primarily done through your sales force, and only have a loose connection with your Marketing and your Product efforts.
Yohann: Right, right. An indirect connection rather than a loose one.
Samuel: Sure. I'm just saying the people who are facilitating the expansion functions are usually sales reps, for example-
Yohann: -yeah, Customer Success is just an extension of Sales...
Samuel: Yeah, human intervention.
Yohann: Right.
Samuel: And so when we talk about Self-Serve — and I mean it can be different, you know, if you have usage-based pricing, lines can get blurry — I'm not trying to go down that road. Painting in broad strokes here, if you're working in a Self-Serve context, you don't have that sales function of your company to be filling in all the cracks and the blanks in the process of turning Marketing's signups into Products' power users. And instead, you just have to have the automated experience that you currently have in place. Literally, the screens and steps that people have to go through to create an account, work their way through the setup process, find value in your offering, decide to become customers, complete the billing flow, continue being customers in the form of subscribers usually. That's a whole set of processes and individual screen states that have been designed the same way that your features have been designed and what we're ultimately advocating for here is that a little more TLC for those kind of overlooked slip-through-the-cracks but critically important screen states and steps that users have to take... a little design love could go a long way there.
Yohann: Right, because you don't have a human to step in and compensate for the lack of it.
Samuel: Exactly, and when I meet with Self-Serve SaaS founders, a lot of times we hear that they either want to try to make their product better, if they want to triple revenue they have to make three times as good of a product, or that they need to get three times as many signups.
But there's a lot that's happening in between. And if you're taking a page from the Sales-driven SaaS playbook, then you are approaching marketing and product in a less hardcore way than you might otherwise because I think that there are just a lot of pervasive practices in our industry that have been established by companies who have a Marketing and Product function that's largely influenced by riding alongside a sales function that's filling in the blanks, as we keep saying.
Yohann: Right, and when we talk about coming up with a Self-Serve playbook, what we are saying is taking the lack of a sales team from a disadvantage to an advantage. There are things that a sales team can't do that you can.
Samuel: At an automated level, at scale. Leveraging the power of the internet and software to sell software.
Imagine that.

Turning Differences Into Strengths (Leaning Into the Self-Serve Model)

Yohann: So we know what a Sales team can bring to the table, we know when they can step into the process and we know that they've got their own internal optimization to make more revenue happen. In a Self-Serve context, when you don't have a sales team in place, what kind of advantages do you have?
Samuel: What do you get to leverage? Yeah, that's a phenomenal question. To me, it all comes back to the, almost the essence that defines the business model of Self-Serve SaaS, which is that you charge a low amount, in a subscription model. So, instead of having big contracts, large Annual Contract Value, ACV, where you're closing people for a hundred thousand dollars, a million dollars a year, you're selling $20 a month subscriptions, $80 a month subscriptions, things along those lines.
And even though the price is so much lower, the ARPA, Average Revenue Per Account, you're making up for it in volume. To put it simply, there are ways to approach selling to thousands or tens of thousands of customers that are just not reasonable or worth investigating if you're selling to hundreds of customers at a 10x, 100x price point.
Yohann: So, what happens in a sales context is you'll have low volumes. And the data will stop at some point whenever the human element comes into the equation and the sales teams take over. Like, documentation in a sales team is very difficult.
In Self-Serve, you have those big volumes and you can see how those volumes move all the way through to revenue being created. Sales is kind of a black box that... you know, if you have a really good sales team that's documenting everything that they're doing and a really good CRM that's filling in all the blanks, it gives you some visibility into what's going on in that black box, but it never removes the opaqueness entirely and in a Self-Serve system, you are getting not just the volume, but volume all the way to the end where revenue is being created.
Samuel: I like where you're headed, but I'm not a hundred percent sure I understand. On the one hand when we're talking about volume and your point, which I definitely agree with as far as having the volume of customers and subscriptions to be able to go in and slice and dice that revenue information six ways to Sunday is extremely helpful. But on the other hand, when you're talking about how a sales team's approach might be kind of a black box, I guess I just don't see how those two relate.
Yohann: Let's consider a hybrid company, and that is a company that has both Self-Serve and Sales in the mix in order to make conversion happen. A lot of companies, as they're adopting a PLG motion, are hybrid companies at the moment. So we talk about the user timeline a lot, a timeline that begins at signup and ends at the customer paying you for the first time. That's not where the timeline ends, but let's just consider that an end at the moment. So, if you consider this user timeline, there's part of it that's self-serve, and there's part of it that is governed, so to speak, by the Sales team. All of the data that you're collecting from the Self-Serve part of the equation, it ends at the point where a salesperson gets involved in the process and takes it from there in order to actually make the sales happen. What I'm trying to say is that part of the user timeline is a black box because you're depending on either the CRM or the salesperson to tell you how a particular user is moving through the stages of the timeline to the end of the sale. But in a Self-Serve situation, with the entire user timeline being automated, there is no Sales black box where you don't know how someone is moving through the pipeline to a sale. It's all just... your entire user timeline is pipeline. Does that make sense?
Samuel: Every action that a new signup takes that influences them toward becoming a customer or churning or whatever is fully laid out in the user table based off of their behavior. Nothing's happening "off the record," so to speak. Is that correct?
Yohann: Exactly. That's an advantage that you have that hybrid companies and sales-driven companies don't have. You have the entire process laid out in front of you so you can see the step drop-off of every necessary step to conversion, whereas some of those steps are in a black box at a sales-driven company, and that's a disadvantage. Point: Self-Serve.
Samuel: Well, I might still disagree a little bit, in the sense of the black box because I do think some sales processes are more transparent and cross-pollinated throughout companies. But where I would agree with you would be that in a sales-dominated context, the quality of the leads that marketing generates and the quality of the Self-Serve user experience, to use that term very broadly, that Product creates, have significantly less weight to have to carry individually. There's always an account executive, whoever, that can come in, you know, even sometimes negotiate the future feature roadmap for your company, if the client's big enough. And also at any point you might land a whale that's worth 30 times the rest of your customers put together for some reason. And, like, they're gonna get special considerations. So there are a lot of of thumbs on the scale in determining how well your Marketing and Product levers are performing when you've got Sales muddying your analytics to some degree between the two especially.
Yohann: Right. We talked to Craig Hewitt, the CEO of Castos recently, and he experimented with Enterprise Sales within Self-Serve, and he said, introducing enterprise sales was like selling a different product within his product because enterprise needs were so different. And so yeah, that's a very real example about how an Enterprise can just muddy the waters of what you're trying to build with your Self-Serve product meeting B2B and prosumer needs rather than Enterprise needs.
Samuel: Well, or even, I mean, just to put a little finer point on that point it's not just the needs of your Self-Serve product or your ambition to build a Self-Serve product, it's your Self-Serve revenue stream. In Craig's case, Castos' bread was ultimately getting buttered by a high volume, low ARPA Self-Serve subscriber base.
And unless if you can just jump into Enterprise with both feet, you're going to have to make some concessions for one or another. And it sounded like ultimately he determined that the more robust business model for him was to lean into the Self-Serve revenue base, not just deciding that he wanted to have a Self-Serve product.
Yohann: Right, right.

Building a Faster Feedback Loop; Asking Better Questions

Samuel: And so going back to the original premise where we were saying that most companies look at their main revenue driving activities as Marketing for acquisition, Sales for conversion and Product for retention. Really what we're saying is that Self-Serve companies don't just have to do the same thing except without sales.
That when you have the volume in place to give you a robust amount of subscription data and user behavior data that preceded them even converting into subscribers, that there are a lot of really interesting ways to slice and dice that data and turn it into a very fast feedback loop to let you know how your marketing and product efforts are performing in terms of fulfilling that crucial business function of converting people into paying customers.
Yohann: Yeah, I think that makes sense. There is a common Marketing and Sales scuffle that happens at a lot of companies, where Marketing will say, we brought in so many leads and Sales will say, but they were terrible quality and we couldn't convert any of them.
They're almost like separate flows, the Marketing flow and the Sales flow and separate teams managing them. But in a Self-Serve company, it's kind of one flow all the way up to conversion, and that's a huge advantage.
Samuel: And I would say an overlooked one, hence the term hidden advantage. I mean from a lot of the Self-Serve founders that we've already spoken to, a common theme is that they are either trying to either make a more compelling feature set with their product or just fill the top of their funnel with more and more acquisition and cross their fingers and hope for the best. And what we're saying is that when you're getting thousands of signups and possibly thousands of customers in a given month, that you can look at that performance data that it's worth investigating and experimenting with and learning from different questions that are stupid to ask in a sales-driven, low volume kind of environment. So, for example, if you offer three different payment plans and you're a high-touch sales type organization with big sticker amounts for each plan, and we ask what's the retention rate for these three plans, and how different is it? It's kind of an academic question. I mean, especially if this company is working in terms of year-long, two, three-year long contracts or things along those lines. But if you're talking about converting 8,000, 10,000 new subscribers in a given month or a given quarter, and you are doing that across three plans that are $20, $60, $200 each per month, and you wanna know which of those has the best retention, that's suddenly a much more reasonable, and I would argue, responsible question to get to the bottom of. And there are just so many different considerations there that I feel like our industry is just beginning to scratch the surface of. There is a whole scientific high-volume growth hacker kind of, framework in place, but it's not super connected to revenue. It's usually connected to activation, engagement, retention.
I think because a lot of that comes from the practices that were forged at Twitter, LinkedIn, Facebook, et cetera. But between that and the Enterprise or heavily sales-driven model, there isn't a lot in between to say, "Hey, we've got enough data to be able to tell a bunch of different subscriptions apart. How can we slice and dice this to figure out which our best performing segments are, how to support them better, and also to use this as a really fast feedback loop to learn what kind of changes we're making to our automated sales process are actually having the most impact and things that we should take as lessons and try to figure out how to double down on."
Yohann: It's funny, you talked about questions that are kind of academic in a sales context, and as you were giving examples, I was trying to think of a few too. And they're all revenue questions, you know? It's tying user value to revenue or tying your plans back to revenue or tying weekly cohorts to retention revenue. And when you have a sales team, it's not really-
Samuel: How about volume? When it's low volume-
Yohann: Yeah, yeah.
Samuel: When it's low volume, you can't really attribute a lot of your Marketing or Product efforts to revenue. And with Self-Serve, you can.
Yohann: Right, that's a good point. But I also wanna say with a sales team taking care of revenue, you just focus on all of the engagement that qualifies them to talk to sales rather than revenue. Revenue becomes a sales problem and not your problem.
Samuel: I mean, I think if you launch a new feature at a Self-Serve company or in a sales-driven company, it's gonna be hard to tell if that new feature moved the needle in terms of revenue.
Yohann: Okay. Sorry, I derailed us a bit, but I'll get us back on track.
Samuel: I believe in you Yohann.
Yohann: They're all revenue questions, which at low volumes, don't matter that much because at those kind of volumes, It's not that actionable.
Samuel: What do you mean by actionable?
Yohann: I mean, you can't work backward from revenue to make decisions.
Samuel: In the same way?
Yohann: In any way, really. Because you can't see the connection between what you're doing and revenue being produced, and you don't have the data to make robust connections between the two even if you wanted to.
Samuel: Well, yeah, I mean, I would say that I think that the connections are much more anecdotal.
Yohann: Right.

Managing the Self-Serve Sales Process

Samuel: I think there are a lot of companies that have a sales function out there that would strongly object to your claim that you just made. I'm not saying I, I agree with them, but I wouldn't just put it out of hand. But in terms of having enough volume to have something be worth looking into...
Let's draw an illustration from the real world. Let's say that this is a sales-driven company and at some point the user needs to have an account and enter their credit card so that they start to be billed and let's say the company charges $800 a month. So Sales is involved, they do demos, they have meetings. "Hey, all right, let's make this happen. Do you want to give me your credit card number over the phone and I will do it for you? Or do you want me to walk you through the screens that you have to go through?" And at that point, the salesperson can say, all right, click on the signup button, enter your first, and actually you'll, you only have to do your first name. They're just gonna walk 'em, speed run, through the whole onboarding. Okay, click next a hundred times to get through the wizard. All right, now click on Settings. Now click on Billing, and here's where you enter in your credit card. I'll wait while you do that, and then let you know when you're a customer. Like, that might be the bar that needs to be set for those activation UX touchpoints of getting people set up with an account, ready to do things in the offering, making it through the billing flow. They might have a coach or they might have a salesperson just doing it on their behalf in many circumstances. Whereas, if you're trying to close people on $10 a month, $20 a month, $40, $80 a month, subscriptions, they're gonna need to have the force of will, and the desire to make their way through all of those steps without any kind of coach and without anybody that they can just say, "actually, how about I just give you the number and you punch it in for me?" They have to choose that it's worthwhile and that it's not too much of a pain in the ass for them to continue doing it, and the weight that those screens need to carry or that those steps in the conversion process need to carry is significantly higher because it's just your automated pre-recorded script that you're sending people through and the person who's deciding to give you money for the first time.
So you have this tremendous amount of pressure on the design of your offering. And let's face it, most of your design attention has probably been put toward dark mode, and new features and things like that. A lot of times the billing flow, the onboarding, these are, this shit's designed by interns a lot of the time. And yet, this is what your replacement for a salesperson is.
And so you not only have this benefit of so much more data around how much you're converting people from one step to the next, all the way through becoming customers and then being able to see what kind of customers they become based on different attributes, like how you acquired them, what plan they're on, what sort of activities they've partaken in, so on and so forth. But be able to count that in actual dollars. Whereas with Sales, it's " well, we got good leads and our product is getting people addicted to it, so they're sticking around longer. So, you know, we should probably be able to sell more." Not a lot of rigor demanded there in terms of having a highly attuned system for paying attention to how your automated processes are actually performing.
Yohann: My takeaway from what you're saying is that when you don't pay attention to these automated systems, only the most motivated users get over the hurdles to actually become a customer and you're leaving a lot of money on the table.
Samuel: Absolutely. It would be unthinkable in a sales-driven company to just not manage your sales process whatsoever. But I mean there are literally highly prestigious companies that are like, "oh yeah, an intern designed our onboarding two years ago and we don't even know where our billing flow came from." So it's, like, clearly there's some sort of disconnect there.
Yohann: Right, and when we say manage the sales process, like, a sales team does very real things to identify bottlenecks in the pipeline or create sales enablement resources that they can use on their sales demos or talk to other reps in the company so that the same customer isn't approached twice.
Samuel: A thoughtful approach to developing the relationship. And yet when you contrast that with how thoughtful of an approach Self-Serve companies generally take to developing the relationship, it's try to get sign-ups, hope they stay engaged, profit. I mean, in a lot of ways. And we just think that especially because of the volume and because you have so much more data to be working with, you have a much faster feedback loop in being able to tell whether the automated sales process that you probably didn't really intentionally design is getting better or not when you put some intentional design toward it.
Yohann: Right, right.
Samuel: And that alone can be a daunting and complicated endeavor to go down. But we have a whole episode queued up, ready for next time, where we're gonna dive into what it really means to manage your customer life cycle in an automated fashion, and how to lean into that rather than just throwing up your hands and saying, "I guess I either need to get more acquisition or make cooler features."
Yohann: This episode was all about the fact that there is a hidden advantage, the next so it is going to be about actually taking advantage of it.
Samuel: Yep.

A Quick Summary

Yohann: And there you have it. If you run a self-serve business, you're not just executing a Sales playbook for revenue growth without a Sales team. You have an advantage that sales-driven companies do not — an entirely automated sales process that you can refine till the cows come home. And data from increased user volumes to do it more quickly than any sales-driven company possibly could.
Thank you so much for listening. We'd love to hear from you. Have we got something wrong? Have we got something right? Please let us know at You can also join us at the Self-Serve SaaS community we're building to discuss this episode and all the others. Until next time, keep fighting the good fight.

Episode Discussion

Have thoughts to share? Join the episode discussion here.


Written by

Samuel Hulick
Samuel Hulick

Co-founder: Self-Serve SaaS, prev founder of UserOnboard

    Written by

    Yohann Kunders
    Yohann Kunders

    Co-founder: Self-Serve SaaS, prev Airbase and Chargebee