Selling to developers: Paperspace’s customer-first approach to Product-Led Sales 

The how and the why behind Paperspace’s CS-driven Product-Led Sales motion. Insights from Ben Lamson, Director of Revenue.

Benjamin Lamson
October 3, 2023
Selling to developers: Paperspace’s customer-first approach to Product-Led Sales 

Alexa, CEO of Pocus, hosts Product-Led Sales (PLS) “Ask Me Anything” sessions with PLS experts to share best practices, frameworks, and insights on this emerging category. These AMAs are an opportunity to ask PLS leaders any question — ranging from hiring to sales compensation to tech stack — in a low-key, casual environment.

The PLS AMAs are for members of the Product-Led Sales community, the place to learn, discuss, and connect with go-to-market (GTM) leaders at product-led companies. The goal of the community is to bring together the most thoughtful and innovative GTM leaders to build the next generation of sales together.

Interested in joining? Request an invite here.

Now, keep reading for a recap of what we discussed with the Director of Paperspace Revenue at DigitalOcean, Benjamin Lamson, in our latest AMA chat.

Meet Benjamin Lamson, Director of Revenue at Paperspace by DigitalOcean 👋

​​Benjamin Lamson has been leading sales and revenue teams for a decade at companies like WeDidIt (acq) and Allegiance Group.

Most recently, he joined Paperspace (now acquired by DigitalOcean) as the Director of Revenue where he built the Product-Led Sales motion from the ground up. Paperspace is a high-performance cloud computing and ML development platform for building, training and deploying machine learning models. Their product is hugely popular among developer and engineering teams at SaaS businesses and individual hobbyists.

Ben joined Paperspace to build a revenue engine on top of their already successful PLG motion. Within six months and after adopting Pocus, Ben created a customer-first program that grew top-line revenue by over 2.5x YoY.

His PLS approach?

Focus on customer success and lead with value. Instead of hiring a traditional sales team, Ben built a dedicated customer success (CS) team focused on both customer value and revenue goals. Why? Paperspace is a developer tool and developers do not want to be sold. Understanding his ICPs preferences made it clear that a traditional sales team would not work at Paperspace. 

Ben’s decision highlights the importance of understanding your specific product and business model before copying over playbooks from previous roles. We’ll dive into this choice further below, but to spoil the lede, Ben’s CS-led program increased Paperspace’s average revenue per account (ARPA) by 100x.

A success by all measures. 

Continue reading this recap of our community AMA conversation with Ben. We’ll share the high points of our discussion, including: 

  • How taking a CS-led approach helps you convert more users
  • The ins and outs of setting up a strong CS team
  • How to create comprehensive user journey maps to identify PQLs to target

Let’s dive in:

Paperspace’s customer-first approach to Product-Led Sales

Before launching Paperspace’s Product-Led Sales motion, Ben first set up the foundations to support the motion.

Ben identified 2 key prerequisites necessary to power their PLS engine: 

  1. Mapping the entire user journey
  2. Hiring a customer success team adept at analyzing product usage data 

With this foundation Ben had what he needed to create a value-focused approach to sales at Paperspace. Ben shared his mantra for Product-Led Sales that underpins his strategy “always provide customers with value before extracting value.”

What does this value-led approach look like? The Paperspace customer success team reaches out to users proactively, to offer help before they need it. Armed with data this team can anticipate the right moment to reach out and add value to the customer’s journey. 

Ben shared a typical CS workflow, which looks like this:

  • Use data to create a prioritized list of customers who might need assistance in their self-serve journey.
  • Check-in non intrusively with users to ask if they can answer any questions they may have.
  • Offer users free credits to encourage more product usage.
  • Follow up with the same users after some time, offering a discount to convert them into paying customers.

According to Ben, his team adds value early to build relationships in the long run. As anyone running a successful product-led motion can attest, the initial land is just the beginning. Product-led expansion into larger contracts is the real moneymaker. 

 “These long-term contracts allow us to lock folks in and bring some predictable revenue into the business. They also allow us to create longer standing relationships with folks where we could ultimately expand their usage.”

Benefits of customer success led expansion

Ben explains that customer-success-led expansion works because it more naturally builds on the success of the self-serve motion and in Paperspace’s case matches their ICP’s buying behavior. Paperspace sells to developers who generally hate being sold. 

#1 Aligns with the self-serve model

Ben did not want to disrupt the magic of the PLG model at Paperspace. The product did a great job landing new customers. Ben wanted to accelerate the users’ path to value, make it easier for them to meet their goals with the product, and of course, set the stage for future revenue expansions. Instead of traditional sales reps, customer success felt like a natural extension of the self-serve model.  

“For the self-serve flywheel to spin, the product has to be self-explanatory. New users understand how to use the product, either through really good docs or through an intuitive user interface. Customers come in and get some value initially through a freemium or a free trial, reverse trial, and then pay to continue to use it.”

#2 Matches ideal customer buying behavior (developers)  

Prior to Ben, Paperspace did try layering in a traditional sales-led approach. It did not drive the expected results. The ICP, developers, did not buy software this way.

From Ben’s experience, “that’s just not how developers and engineers — especially at early stage, series A, series B, and series C startups — tend to buy.” 

Like most SaaS buyers, developers and engineers like test-driving tools on their own. Developers especially prefer reading support docs and other educational materials, before having to engage with sales. But that doesn’t mean they don’t need some help getting started with a new product. Who reaches out with that help, timing of that outreach, and how valuable the assistance is, will all factor into a developer’s willingness to jump on a call. 

Knowing when to reach out is easier said than done. Before the PLS motion could start, he first had to understand the user journey to identify all the potential triggers for outreach.

Mapping the user journey to convert leads early on

A user journey map gives you a visual representation of the various routes users take within your product, helping you identify:

  • Product gaps: Where users are getting stuck
  • Time to value: How long it’s taking them to reach their aha moment
  • Jobs to be done: How and why they’re using your product 

Ben used this information to structure goals for the PLS motion: help users who are stuck, decrease time to value, and expand usage across accounts based on customer goals with the product. 

How to create your user journey map

Ben recommends “mapping out literally every single path a user can take.” To do so, he advises: 

  • Partner with your product and marketing leaders.
  • Visualize the paths users are taking using a tool like Whimsical or Miro and write down all of the jobs to be done along the journey.
  • Validate the assumptions about how customers use the product with in-app product recordings tools. 

Ben built Paperspace’s user journey map in three steps:  

#1 Map out all the potential paths to in-product conversion

“We looked at every possible path that the user can take through the Paperspace platform. Then we mapped that user journey, looking for what we believe are going to be aha moments.”

#2 Define all the potential signals that indicate user activation

“After understanding our user journey and having a strong hypothesis on potential aha moments, we made sure we had segment events for every one of those product usage signals.”

#3 Operationalize the motion by surfacing product signals for CS to take action

“Those segment events get sent to the data warehouse where we can then pull them into Pocus, our Revenue Data Platform. Here the customer success team understands who they should be spending their time reaching out to, the users who are most likely to convert and expand.”

To make sure you are thorough in your approach to mapping your user journey, Ben recommends asking yourself the following questions: 

  • Where do the marketing qualified leads come from?
  • Where do the direct self-service leads come from?
  • Where do all these users come from?
  • Where could people fall into a trap?
  • Where are they potentially having their aha moment?
  • What are the things users need to do to get to their aha moment?

For example, if users are first getting acquainted with your product from a team functionality feature, ask yourself, “what is the new user experience like?” Ben recommends outlining all the paths they can take and then figuring out what marketing communication is going out at each stage.

Once you’ve done all that mapping, don’t forget to measure and validate! 

“Measure how many users are taking these routes and over what time period. Time matters a great deal when looking at the user journey.” 

For example, find out how long it takes new users to reach their aha moment after they sign up. If someone takes 15 minutes, whereas another user takes a week, you’ll find the former’s buying intent is higher than the latter. 

Use these insights to reach out to users early in their journey and to inform your product roadmap. 

Identifying your ideal prospects

Ben recommends starting with defining your ideal PQL, then setting up PQL and anti-PQL triggers in your PLS platform.

Here’s how: 

1. Define product-qualified leads 

Nailing your first PQL and PQA definitions isn’t easy. Ben admits they had at least 15 PQL definitions given the technical product niche Paperspace is in.

“In cloud infrastructure and infrastructure as a service, it’s a little tougher than some other SaaS products where the user journey is a little more linear.”

Overtime, through experimentation and iteration, Ben and his team were able to identify which product behaviors correlated to conversion and retention.

To do so yourself, Ben suggests looking for clues in your existing conversions to find any patterns in usage signals. Does every user who moves from hobbyist or tire kicker to real business user take the same few actions?

“We looked at usage signals that were either early in the journey, or usage signals that said someone was transitioning from being a hobbyist or a tire kicker to a serious user. Those were as complex as a series of four or five product usage signals combined, or they were as simple as utilization bill increase within a certain time period.” 

2. Prioritize profitable leads over tire kickers  

With finite resources to invest, not all incoming sign-ups are going to be worth your time. The solution? Set up a new user survey at sign-up to separate the wheat from the chaff. 

Ask new sign-ups questions like:

  • What do they do?
  • What are they interested in?
  • What’s the size of their team? 

Ben set up these new user surveys at Paperspace to separate founders and executives (read: people who are likely to buy) from students, gamers, and hobbyists who don’t have the budget or need to upgrade to higher tiers.  

“For example, if the new user survey says, ‘I’m a student, I’m interested in gaming’, such leads show low ARPA and high churn rate. That’s not someone we’re going to reach out to."

3. Set up PQL triggers in Pocus

Next, Ben recommends using a product-led growth platform to set up triggers for both surfacing PQLs to the team and automating workflows. In Paperspace’s case, they use Pocus! 

For example, if a free user has increased utilization costs WoW and they’re about to hit their storage limit, then CS should reach out with information about the Pro plan. This example represents a PQL and the appropriate action. You’ll likely have a few different types of PQLs depending on your playbooks (i.e. free-to-paid conversion or enterprise expansion.)

The customer success team at Paperspace checks in on their PQLs in their Pocus Inbox, where they get a prioritized view of all their PQLs organized by playbook. 

Tip: Automated emails to PQLs can work!

Ben advises that a well crafted automated message that makes it clear a real person will respond if you reply has worked well for Paperspace.

“Hey, I’m the head of customer success. I want to make sure you’re having a good experience. Based on your new user survey, you’re interested in X, Y, Z. If you’d like a tour of the platform, if you need support, or if you’d just like some free credits for testing, please reply to this email or book a call with a member of our success team.”


4. Go after anti-PQLs

Ben came up with an adoption playbook he coined “anti-PQLs.” Anti-PQLs are leads that are a great fit in theory, but their product adoption is low. Since they align with your ICP though, Ben strongly recommends reaching out to them.

These are the two types of anti-PQLs the Paperspace team reaches out to personally: 

Cold Anti-PQLs Playbook: Folks who sign up but haven’t taken any action.

This playbook requires looking at both product usage data and any firmographic information you have (via Clearbit in Paperspace’s case). The CS team can see which users are theoretically an ICP-fit, because of their company size or other firmographic data, but who need a nudge to actually use the product. 

“They’re in our ICP, they know about us because they signed up, but they didn't become a PQL. So we take a traditional sales approach and reach out to do some discovery and find out why they might not have activated.”

Warm Anti-PQLs Playbook: Folks who use the product but didn’t reach the PQL threshold. These anti-PQLs are users who don't become a qualified lead, but they did test the product and then went dormant. Like Ben said, “they’re warmer leads, they did something. We want to understand why they left.”

These types of anti-PQLs are great for sourcing feedback for the product team. Ben says the outreach strategy for these is straightforward: reach out, ask what happened, and offer free credits. By asking for direct feedback the CS team can often bring a percentage of these leads back into the product and eventually drive revenue. 

Setting up a customer success team for PLS

Ben says you’ll need to look for dedicated people who are ready to put in the work necessary to understand your tool (no matter how technical), get familiar with how your customers talk, understand their goals with your product, and have a value-first mindset (help, don’t sell!). 

For Ben this ideal CS profile doesn’t need to have any sales experience. You’ll need people who are ready to prioritize helping users and customers unlock more value.

For Paperspace’s first customer success hire, Ben brought on a CS rep from his previous company who didn’t have any selling experience. But, as Ben said, “he knew how to work with customers.” 

The CS team’s day-to-day responsibility? Identify product-qualified leads (PQLs) based on customers’ product usage and proactively reach out to help and convert users.

“Our team just gets out there, talks to customers. They answer questions about the platform and then provide users with free credits to test it out. If we do those things and they end up using those free credits, they’ll have that aha moment.” 

Tips for boosting customer success productivity

Before we wrap this up, here are two more tips Ben shared to help you maximize the results you can drive from a customer success-led PLS framework: 

Spend time to create a great docs experience

If your target audience prefers reading over talking to understand how your product works, as is Paperspace’s case, lean into documentation. Docs are helpful for users and make it easier to scale your team. If they answer a question manually more than twice, document it.

Create clear segmentation and automate outreach for non-paying customers  

Paperspace has individual users (hobbyists and gamers) as well as business users. It’s important that both segments get the best customer experience, but one can be achieved through automation. To answer questions for important but ultimately low revenue impact users, Ben suggests creating robust automation with links to your documentation. 

At Paperspace, they call this segment ‘too small for sales.’

Learn more in the PLS Community

The best PLS playbooks for your organization depend on your revenue goals, product, ICP, and end-user.

Making these decisions and charting your GTM motion can be hard. But you don’t have to go at it alone!


Benjamin Lamson
Director of Paperspace Revenue, DigitalOcean
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