From Startup to Rapid Growth: How SendGrid Scaled Their Developer Evangelist Strategy as They Reached Critical Mass

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Over the last five years, SendGrid has grown from a Techstars startup to a company of over 230 employees and steadily increasing revenue. During that time, their community team has transformed from one MBA grad running the show to a team of 14 specialized developer evangelists and community managers (6% of the overall SendGrid team and counting).

SendGrid’s product is aimed at developers building applications that need to send mission-critical emails. It’s incredibly important – and lucrative – stuff. The company now provides email infrastructure and delivery solutions for companies like Pinterest, Snapchat, AirBnb, and Uber, and has sent out as many emails as McDonald’s has sold hamburgers.

What does community look like at a company like this? Can’t you just build an awesome product and then market the crap out of it to developers and startups? It turns out, no. Not at all. Not even a little bit.

Tim Falls, the company’s sixth hire, has been there from the start, and charts for us SendGrid’s path to community (and business) maturity.

So what is a developer evangelist anyway?

Developer evangelists are a specific subset of community builders, who typically have technical background and knowledge. They tell stories about products and technology, bring people together, teach developers how to use their company’s technology, and serve as the foot soldiers for technical products.

“When I describe developer evangelism to people who aren’t in tech, I describe it as relationship-based marketing,” Tim explains. “We operate within the marketing department, but we also work with all departments, sales, product, engineering, support, and business development. We go out and build a relationship and learn about our customer and what they’re trying to do, and then we help them however we can.”

Over the last few years, developer evangelism has shifted to become a much more important role across companies such as Mozilla, Twilio, Twitter, and SendGrid, to name just a select few.

First, There Was One

Tim began working with the team in 2009, while he was working at Techstars and finishing up his MBA.

“I was Sendgrid’s sixth employee,” he says. “In May 2010, I joined SendGrid full-time as the first marketing team member and established the ‘traditional’ marketing program. At that time, I reported to Isaac, the founder and CEO, and I worked closely with my mentor and our (now) VP of Revenue (then Dir Sales/Biz Dev) to create and executing on our marketing strategy.”

But he found that marketing was just not the right place for him. Instead, he realized just how vital community building was to the success of the business, and he proposed that he change his title from “Marketing Coordinator” to “Community Guy,” which eventually advanced to “Director, Developer Relations” and is now poised to evolve to a more general title of “Director, Community.”

“In February 2011, we hired a Director of Marketing, at which time I offloaded my plate and started focusing solely on community.”

We’ve heard before that community should be an early hire (we’ve even debated this at-length in the CMX Hub community) and Tim really led the charge in these early days. He also realized how important it was to focus on the community aspect of his work. It’s clear – even from an outsider’s perspective – that SendGrid would not be where it is today without the work of their developer evangelism program.

Then, There Were Many

While Sendgrid was working out of Boulder, Colorado, Tim happened to work beside other leaders in the developer community space, Danielle Morrill and John Sheehan. John was Twilio’s first developer evangelist. Alongside Director of Marketing Danielle Morrill, he was growing the developer evangelist program from the ground up.

“I immediately saw the value of that program, and I learned from them how to build our team at SendGrid.”

When they first began, it was all about building relationships, trust, and value into everything they did.

I hired our first evangelist in July 2011, who is now Manager of Developer Relations, and our second evangelist in August 2011, who is now our Hacker in Residence). By March 2012, we were 6 people strong, and by Jan 2013 we were about 10.” 

The team today is broken down into 1 VP of Marketing and Product, 1 Director of Community, 1 Manager of Developer Relations, 10 Developer Evangelists (1 of whom is an on-site Hacker in Residence—the others travel), and 1 Community Development Manager. They are constantly growing and changing, especially at this pivotal moment when they are growing out of the startup stage.

The team

The team

Scaling the Existing Team out of the Startup Phase

“As we scale, we want to maintain our focus on developers and concurrently increase our attention toward startup and entrepreneur outreach. With this new effort, we need to broaden the collective skillset of our team and encourage individual team members to be more specialized, in alignment with their skills, passions, and aptitudes.”

As such, over the next few months, the team will be expanding and changing further, but also becoming more and more specialized.

“We plan to add another Community Development Manager in EMEA. This is a non-developer position, and these team members will help us on the startup outreach front.”

And, in order to scale the community, Tim’s role has had to change too.

“I went from doing everything – creating and executing the strategy – to delegating more and more of the execution. My role has shifted to focus more on evolving the strategy, building the team, and providing the vision and inspiration to instill the spirit of evangelism in each team member.”

The team today has several layers of focus:

  1. Developer Education: through hackathons, technical workshops, kids+code, women in tech, code schools
  2. Startup/Entrepreneur outreach: through the SendGrid Accelerate program and their involvement with accelerators, co-working spaces, incubators, and others throughout the world
  3. Developer Experience at SendGrid: maintaining public documentation, managing open-source projects, facilitating product feedback from the community and through usability testing (hacking on our APIs/webhooks/beta features), monitoring and contributing to developer forums and social media
  4. Misc/Events – speaking, attending, sponsoring conferences and organizing, attending, supporting meetups and offline events

These roles are distributed throughout the world, with members based in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Denver, New York, London, and Sao Paulo.

A youth hackathon

A kids + code hackathon with SendGrid’s developer evangelist team

That Tricky Little Question of ROI

From the early days to present, Tim admits that determining what to measure and how to place a quantifiable value on relationships is inherently against the spirit of what he does. Instead, up until this point, it has been more about faith in helping others:

“Everyone from the CEO to the interns has to believe in what we’re doing. There is a level of faith involved. Evangelism is itself a faith-based thing. If you doubt it, it just won’t work.”

What Have They Measured That Has Gotten Them to This Point?

Despite the level of faith involved, Tim did find that some of the work his team did was measurable.

“With community, there are so many holes in the process where information can slip out. All other marketing happens in a place where pixels can be placed and things can be tracked.” But they still found small ways to measure their interactions with the developer community.

Here’s some of what they measure currently:

1. Number of t-shirts given away

Why? “Every t-shirt we give away is either a face-to-face interaction or a symbol of a connection if we send it through the mail with a handwritten note. I always remind others that this interaction is far more impactful than a click on an ad.”

2. Number of times have they demoed the product at hackathons or other events and how many developers were there to see each demo

This gives a general impression of how many people they reached through sending their developer evangelists to events.

3. Number of workshops they have given

4. Number of projects at hackathons that have used their APIs

5. Traffic on developer evangelist content on the blog

“We have a very clear picture that technical content from developer evangelists is the most popular content for our audience.”

6. Onboarding of new customers as a result of any of their community channels

“Caveat: in certain scenarios (coupon redemptions and/or personal onboarding of new customers), this is trackable. But many of the customers who come to us through our efforts are not captured in our performance measurement.”

7. Retention of users who come via community channels

“By focusing on this as one of the most telling indicators of success and identifying a few channels (like our SendGrid Accelerate program) that allow for more dependable tracking, we can establish one clear picture of ‘here’s what we’re doing, and here’s how it’s impacting the business’s bottom line.’”

The infamous startup T-shirt swag

The infamous startup T-shirt swag

Now, A Key Pivot Point for Community

“Today, three years into building the team, our audience is growing and evolving. Therefore our plan for growth must adapt to meet the needs and wants of our community members – those who engage with our product, people, and brand. The people with whom we interact have historically been developers. But if they’re not developers, they’re founders, maybe technical and maybe non-technical.”

Tim is a self-professed non-technical person himself, leading an enormously talented group of developer evangelists and supporting the developer community at large.

They must now focus on providing tools and mentorship to founders through their SendGrid Accelerate program, which gives special incentives to adopters in the community.

This means they’re going to focus now more than ever on mentoring startups and making connections in the entrepreneurial community. But it also means that they’re hiring a business analyst to help them build a dashboard that they can share with the executives, board, and investors.

Equally important is an emphasis on maintaining the community efforts that have defined SendGrid’s program since day one –helping developers and making friends. Maintaining and doing more at the same time represents a net growth in active team initiatives, which requires growth and broadening of the collective skills and interests within the team.

The Challenges of Leading a Team in Times of Change

It isn’t all rainbows and unicorns as SendGrid grows. As the total number of employees soars toward 250 and the stakeholders diversify to include more investors, outside board members, and different customers, new challenges arise that require the team to adapt for continued success. The developer evangelists who have traditionally spent most of their time at hackathons and helping for the sake of helping must add new activities to their repertoire.

Tim candidly shares: “As a leader of the team, saying you have to change things up a little bit, it’s a really delicate thing to do. It’s not easy… But we have to do more of what we can track so that we have more and more resources to do the things we just can’t measure.”

Luckily, the nature of developer evangelists, and more generally the community-minded person, is perfectly positioned for evolution. Self-motivated, entrepreneurial, and a desire to make others’ lives better: these personality traits, along with the intellectual ability and natural tendency to grow and explore new things, lend themselves well to the ongoing success of each individual and the team as a whole.

Image Credit: HackNY 

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