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How Slido scaled with partnerships

🎬 E31 with Juraj Pal, VP of Product in Slido.

Today I'm delighted to have in our show Juraj Pal who has led partnerships in Slido. Juraj helped to scale Slido through marketing and product partnerships and Slido today is a product everyone loves. It is used in real life and digital events, small and large, such as SXSW or Web Summit. Last year, Juraj became VP of Product in Slido, which gives him a unique perspective on how partnerships interact with product and on the importance of partnerships.

Before leading product, Juraj was Head of Strategic Partnerships there, starting at the 20 people team and driving adoption of Slido by 1 million events (!) and many companies, all the way to the acquisition by Cisco.

1:00 – Slido today – an audience interaction app for hybrid meetings

2:00 – Choosing partnerships as the most impactful thing that can help company grow

3:30 – From first partnerships to a playbook that became the center of growth strategy

5:00 – Partnering with @Web Summit – unlocking the real potential of partnerships

9:00 – Winning first large marketing partnerships and doing things that don’t scale

12:00 –Partnerships lifecycle – more comprehensive engagement vs sales and marketing

15:00 – Expanding from conferences to internal meetings, effect of SXSW

17:00 – Product integrations - transition from a widely adopted feature to the app that integrates into broader workflows

18:00 – How to win integration partners, like Google and Slack, if you’re a startup

Juraj, Slido is an amazing product. Everyone knows it. It's simple, you can vote anonymously, but not that many people actually know that you have powered a million events (!) over the last nine years of Slido's existence. Despite that everyone knows Slido, I'm sure that product is evolving. So how do you describe Slido today to your friends?

Today we talk about Slido as an audience interaction app for hybrid meetings. I think COVID and everything, which we can talk about later, changes our focus a bit. But really, we found a spot with hybrid meetings, where we power interaction between the speaker and the audience. They’re going to be things like live Q&A, live polls, quizzes, etc. That's the quick summary.

You joined Slido as an employee number 20, focusing on partnerships. Many people think partnerships are very strategic and they think about alliances and complex products. But you actually scaled Slido through partnerships. When you started, why were partnerships important?

When I joined Slido, as you said, we were pretty early on. So we didn't really have many defined roles, as it's quite typical with early stage startups. Everyone was wearing multiple hats and trying to figure out how we can help Slido get to places. I didn’t join thinking, I'm going to partnerships, and this is what partnerships means. I honestly didn't even know that I personally am going to end up doing this. I didn't know what that label means. I didn't know that those jobs even exist out there in the world. So it was all just kind of weighed in. But one question that I remember I've been asking a lot at that stage: “I could be doing a lot of things, but I always ask myself, what is the most impactful thing that I can do today to help the growth of Slido?” And pretty much everyone in the company asked that. And we even pushed ourselves to ask this question in terms of prioritizing what's really important. But for me, it was “Okay, I'm here, and I can do stuff on this day, but what will really help us grow to the next stage to get more users, etc.” That's how I naively got into partnerships. Because suddenly I figured that growth could be if I partnered with someone, or if we did something cool, like a co-marketing opportunity with company X or something like that. For me it was thinking through this lens of what can we do that's maybe not by a certain playbook that will get us somewhere ahead of the plan that we have.

Can you give an example of partnerships that you had in the early days? I'm sure that like you mentioned, you were a little bit opportunistic in the beginning and trying to figure out things. But how this evolved into a playbook, or partnerships became a driver of your growth strategy?

When I joined in the first few years of Slido, even how Slido got started by the founders, it was really focused on conferences and live events. Big events, where there were speakers and hundreds of people in the audience, it's really hard to build interactions. And people are shy to raise their hand in a huge audience, ask a question to a famous speaker, etc. That was our focus and that's where the product found the first product market fit. It changed later on, which we can also get into how we started going to the corporate segment, enterprise, internal meetings, etc.

But being in this event world, one example of a first early partnership would be Web Summit. I’m sure many people know the conference, it’s very much known in the tech space, it is the place where people go, it's a huge event. And it fits all the things that Slido was focusing on right at that moment. I remember even the founder and CEO Peter, he was telling me “I'll do whatever you want, but one day get us to Web Summit”. I was like, “Okay, that was my little North Star”, and in my head thinking “Okay, how the hell do I get Slido to Web Summit, because it's a huge event, stakes are high. They are not going to be willing to talk to us. We're just a random small startup at that point”. So it was this game of cold email and reaching out to Web Summit in this example or other conference organizers that at that point started. And really together with a team creatively figuring out what we do, who do we know, how can we get into touch with this potential partner?

And then with Web Summit it came down to realizing that there's so much more potential in terms of the marketing value for Slido if we do something with them, that's not just selling them our software. Yes, we could do that, Slido is not expensive, especially for event organizers. So how can Web Summit gain something out of it, and how can we gain something out of it?

And with the Slido product I think the unique advantage is that virality is built into it. If someone saw Slido in action in a conference before COVID, you’d remember that. You're sitting in the audience and Slido suddenly shows up on the screen and you're looking at the Slido logo, you're using the product. It's a unique position for a product that gets used by two types of users essentially. We saw that especially with the audience, as soon as you start using Slido for a conference you experience the value firsthand. Then it gets you thinking “oh I have this meeting next week with my team, maybe I could use something like Slido there”. We saw almost growth loops building out. So we're like “okay, let's make sure that Slido was visible at more of these large scale tech events where our potential target audience is and let's have them experience the product. And on the side of the organizer, Web Summit for example, it was really about working with them, consulting almost on their meeting design, how do you organize this session or this programming with Slido in mind, with audience interaction in mind. It almost was like a consultancy where you're helping them design the session, we called that meeting design later on. It wasn't just “here's a piece of software, use it and we're hands off”. We would travel to these conferences, it was a bigger operation and we called it partnership at that moment and it still holds true. But that's how it evolved and when we started seeing these things [we said] “Okay, let's do more of that now, let's put it into a playbook and repeat that for other tech conferences, other conferences, etc.”

Great story. I personally see with my own experience that as soon as you have an anchor event or anchor guest or project, then you can essentially roll out similar projects. As soon as the project is super strategic and very important. But I'm sure that everyone who is in partnerships and is watching this, they're like “how the hell did you get Web Summit to partner with you?” I’m super interested in details. You mentioned writing a bunch of cold emails and everyone in partnerships writes a lot of cold emails, but can you talk a little about details and what you later recognized later in terms of marketing? Another thing I found really compelling in what you said, is about actually helping them to get the most of the product and work together on creating a real experience. Can you lean a little bit more on that as well?

The challenging part when working with this type of customer, which were event organizers and event agencies, in the first few years is that I think there are some statistics on that event organizer is one of the most stressful jobs. And we're in the situation of selling these people a new software that they never tried, for a live event, where things could go wrong and then they're responsible. Even now, when we're doing everything virtually and technology doesn't work, we know how painful it is. Livestream stops working, Zoom stops working, whatever it is, it's a lot of stress on the event organizer. It was really like this thin ice and this game that we're playing “okay, how can we help you especially with the first use, until they really see an experience and value that we are proposing with the partnership or just with the proposal of them using Slido?”

In reality that transferred to us going to a lot of these events and conferences, especially the first time they used Slido, especially if it was a larger conference like Web Summit or some others. Being there and doing jobs that none of us, none of the Slido team were really hired for. Almost sitting next to the AV technician sometimes in a dark room, helping connect cables. Random stuff honestly that you’re not doing as partnerships or any other team member. One of Slido's values is just pure care and I think this was transferred to that relationship to a customer. “Okay, you have a huge event that you're planning. You said, Yes, I want to try using Slido for the first time. Okay, we're going to be there, we're going to be there almost like this tech support.” But it was more, as you said, on the level of designing sessions with them.

With Web Summit I remember a series of cold emails and meetings and trying to help them understand why interactions on their event is important. And they knew it, many of the organizers knew they're ready, because they would hear it from feedback from their attendees, etc. But then it was about transferring this notion of “it's a pretty simple software, it is not going to change the world if I just use it. But we were able to come in with examples and meeting design stories from other customers. Like “Okay, you have this panel discussion. Well, if you want to make it more interactive and engaging for your audience, here's how we suggest that you plug-in Slido in between this and that moment and use a user poll there.” Because using Slido just for the sake of “Hey, I have a fun poll going on”, is not going to change much about the event or the meeting. It is really when it's meaningfully integrated into your meeting design. And there was a lot more on the thought leadership side than partnerships or biz dev. And we have a great team of folks who've invested themselves into that and spread that knowledge internally and everyone could train that we can more confidently come and talk to our customers about that and help them. It's almost like becoming a partner in crime for them to make their event successful.

It's a really compelling story. Launching a partnership, you typically do whatever needs to be done and you're almost like a startup CEO when “who is responsible? you're responsible.” Quick question regarding the nature of partnerships, because there's a lot of discussion on what is partnership, what is sales, what is marketing and so on. Partnering with events sounds intuitive, especially for Slido, but why did you call this “partnerships”?

I think a lot of this is not knowing any better and being an early startup and just figuring things out as we went. I'm not saying that this is the right formula, but it worked for us up until now. And we also learned from a lot of mistakes, and changed, and every six months we have evaluated as you do. These things that we talked about so far really are marketing partnerships, in other companies, maybe field marketing or other functions like that would own those things. We owned them with partnerships, because it was a more broader lifecycle. As we talked, it started with cold emails and our sales team wasn't doing that. We didn't really have an outbound sales team, even still now it's a sensitive topic. All the sales were inbound, which was great and awesome. But it also meant that we didn't have a sales force that would be calling up people and selling them Slido. So it landed on the partnerships team that we would identify potential partners, reach out, network, all of the pre-work was done by us. And then we would also own the implementation, going to them and working with them, partnering, negotiating the partnership. Because it wasn't just, “Hey, you guys use Slido for free and we get our logo on the screen”. It was “What else can we do? Can we co-host a session? Again, other co-marketing opportunities that we could explore”. Then post partnership was more of account management, but it was still owned by us. We would figure out, “Okay, next year with this partner, what more can we do?”

All that changed with product partnerships, and we can talk about that too. Then we eventually split the marketing side and product side. But at the beginning it was very marketing in nature. Again, I think mostly thanks to how Slido virality plays into the product and just building up on that opportunity. But that's how we did it.

You've done an amazing job. To be honest, I see a lot of companies start with marketing partnerships, because it's easy, almost no barrier to enter. It’s easy to start and then you double down and expand. You partnered with Web Summit and then you started to grow and evolve. How did you evolve, you mentioned that you split between product partnership and marketing partnerships? Tell us more about that.

Over time one thing that changed on all company's strategy level was that as we started focusing on conferences and big events, I think thanks to that marketing that we just talked about, we started to see more traction in internal meetings and companies themselves. People in the audience would take Slido and use it for their own meetings. I remember specifically one year, I think the first year when we did South by Southwest in the US, we saw a huge spike in signups. Mostly probably from that audience, because it was a great marketing opportunity. But those signups weren't event organizers, those were new users and we didn't really understand at that point.

So what more has changed? We said, “Okay, now our company's strategy is going to shift to support and grow in this segment of internal meetings”. Think all-hands meetings, town halls, just like all company meetings, which to me is almost like a conference, but internal. It has many similarities. You would have the CEO or the executive team presenting, and you’d have the employees watching, and you have this gap that you have to bridge with some sort of engagement. And similar to a speaker and a huge audience, not everyone is comfortable to raise their hand and ask their CEO or a leader about something like “why is our company strategy this and that and are not better? Or more sensitive questions. We realized that especially as companies were working on having more transparent and open cultures, this level of engagement was important. That impacted the way we looked at partnerships. And that's where we started seeing more of “Okay, we have these marketing partnerships in place. But if we want to work with these companies, they use a bunch of tools that Slido doesn't work with and that workflow is clunky. It almost was a bit of a threat or a challenge to be honest, that we talked about a lot in meetings. Looking at Slido, it was just a feature in these companies, the feature that could be easily killed if someone didn't like that product. It wasn't their Slack, it wasn't their Zoom, it wasn't a core product that was really embedded into their workflow and was critical.

They got us thinking how to overcome this challenge or this threat? How can we be a part of that workflow, and what is even that workflow? That got us into integrations, especially product integration. That's how it got there. The very first project was integration with Slack, which was still very experimental. I remember we allocated this three people team and our founder was like “you guys, do whatever you want to do with Slack, figure out a product integration. If it doesn't work, no one's going to be mad, just have fun with it. If we get somewhere - great, if we don't, we will learn something”. We didn't know that we were going to double down on that so much, but it was the first step towards it.

Getting your foot in the door and then essentially embedding into their workflow, I can totally see that. You mentioned that you also integrated with Google and Slack in product integrations. What was challenging and what was counterintuitive maybe from doing these integrations, showing to users, getting their feedback and figuring out what are the next steps for the partnership team?

I think the challenge was, and that's not unique, it's true to many early stage startups, but the challenge was that we were in these conversations kind of the little fish and Google and Slack were the big guys. Why should they listen to Slido if they in many cases never heard about Slido, never saw Slido or used it? We didn't have that name or that brand. We had some brand, but it wasn’t so strong that we could come to Slack and almost be on the same level in conversation. It took a long time, even with Web Summit back then, it took us probably almost two years to really get to that first point when they used Slido in their events. Then if you take an example of Google, that was also a year of just figuring out ways how we could get into conversation with them, how we can make them listen. The way we eventually started to maybe not overcome this, because again we were still small and you can’t really change that, but to understand how to navigate in this. This is advice I got from someone also in the partnership world. It's something that we asked partners later on, which was always trying to understand, say we're talking to Google, to understand what are three things is Google currently invest in, this team at Google they want to work with? Then can we fit into any of these three things? If yes, then let's be part of those one, two or three things. If there was that fit, and if we could fit in, you could already see the difference of that partnership would go somewhere and we would be having a conversation.

But sometimes in the early days, I wouldn't ask a question, I would just jump “Slack, you're a cool company, we'd definitely partner with you!” But I wouldn't understand what Slack wants to do, what's in their company objective? What does this person I'm talking to want to achieve in their job? I’d be just trying to convince them that we need to build something together. It would just stall and won’t go anywhere. But understanding this and asking the question “Okay, what are your priorities for the next X months? What are the top three things that you want to work with? Can I help you, can Slido help you with any of them? If yes, then let's go do it together. But if not, maybe let's revisit in a few months. That was a small, but important change in narrative when we're talking to partners, especially like Google, Microsoft, the large companies, being just like a random startup from Europe. Also we're bootstrapped, and it was our pride and still is. Now we exited, but it was always this pride. But I don't think it always helped, because I think many startups are VC backed, and you kind of have this stamp of approval behind you. You can come to your partner, like “we are a funded startup”. But we were in many cases just like this random, silent hero coming from nowhere.

TBC in part 2.


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