When it comes to solving problems, Andrey Khusid, co-founder and CEO of Miro, puts a premium on experimentation and collaboration. Khusid founded Miro in 2011 to empower people and companies to create “the next big thing.” As Miro has scaled to serve 99 percent of Fortune 100 companies, Khusid’s pioneering methods for company and leadership organization have disrupted the traditional hierarchical structure companies have relied on to create leads, growth, profit, and relationships. The ethos powering Miro’s software and its company has become even more relevant as remote and hybrid work models have grown in popularity and practicality across sectors.
Khusid sat down with McKinsey partner Mina Alaghband and senior partner Paul Roche, who leads the firm’s global software practice, to talk about his agile organizational philosophy, layering marketing and sales into a PLG model, customer-centric business practices, and how “hand-raisers” drive product adoption and proliferation. The edited conversation appears below.
Mina Alaghband: Andrey, can you start by discussing how you founded Miro and the growth story up to today?
Andrey Khusid: Oleg Shardin and I founded Miro in 2011 with the simple idea of bringing a whiteboard into a browser. Since then, it has developed into a major visual collaboration platform that supports critical workflows for enterprises of all sizes. “Visual collaboration” is a new term meaning people can communicate visually, compared with what they can do through messaging platforms, video, or audio. A picture is worth a thousand words, that was the initial idea behind Miro. Today we serve 99 percent of Fortune 100 companies and more than 50 million users, working across 12 offices.
Paul Roche: Tell us about the mission of and vision for Miro.
Andrey Khusid: We are building a company, a platform, that empowers teams across the world to create the next big thing. That’s what excites all of us here at Miro. When we thought about our name, we asked, “How can we be inspirational for every person out there?” And we came up with the name Miro in association with Joan Miro, the artist. We want to bring people the joy of being artists during their day to day jobs when they brain dump ideas or create complex visualizations on an infinite canvas. We want to empower people to play their best game, to create the next big thing.
Building an efficient PLG model
Paul Roche: What attributes are key to building a successful PLG motion or engine?
Andrey Khusid: PLG starts with the product and product distribution. You need to focus on your user and customer and remove all the friction they could face in their journey to be purely product-led. For us, this means customers can sign up for free and buy the product by themselves on the website. They can have an unlimited number of users and share boards with external collaborators.
We started off with two teams: One team was responsible for delivering major chunks of value and what users need. This team was roadmap–driven. The second team was distributing and monetizing the value, optimizing for the funnel. This team was experimentation-driven, focused on questions such as how customers can activate additional value themselves, how can this value drive engagement, how can it be monetized, and how can it drive new user referrals.
There was no conflict because the teams were resourced simultaneously. They worked very closely with each other because they needed to understand what type of value was being created at what stage of the user journey, what friction points they could remove, and so on. But at the same time, we resourced them separately so they could run their own playbooks.
I see more and more of this kind of approach today, but I think it’s still rare.
Mina Alaghband: How do companies that don’t have a ton of telemetry or SaaS offerings capitalize on a PLG strategy?
Andrey Khusid: In collaboration software we have the privilege of natural virality, assuming it’s done right. You can, for example, sell volumes of usage rather than seats. Users can test the product—even set up a team and start to use the product—without swiping their credit card. But I personally believe that PLG can be developed with any type of product and company, it doesn’t have to be a collaboration-focused software or product. The key is deciding how you want to interact with your customers and build your product organization.
Mina Alaghband: It sounds like it’s about having an experimentation mindset but being disciplined in how you apply that approach to product development and customer engagement. Is that right?
Andrey Khusid: It’s a customer-centric approach, plus experimentation. But it only works if you truly believe in it. You can’t just read the cookbook; you have to be excited about getting into the kitchen to make something special. That’s where it starts.
Scaling the PLG model with marketing and sales
Mina Alaghband: One common trend in PLG start-ups is that, as they scale, they tend to incorporate more traditional elements of Go-to-Market with marketing, sales reps, and customer success. Has that been the case for you?
Andrey Khusid: We started with a B2C2B model. In the past five years, we added marketing to this model, which helps us generate the pipeline for sales. We reach out to users to check if they need help or have any needs that we may be able to serve with one of our other tier plans. On top of that, we started to layer our sales machine. Teams are aligned around different stages and sizes of companies. The sales non machine then prioritizes the most promising opportunities out of the leads that we generate. So, we have this “integrated motion” between product, marketing, sales, and customer success. Every part plays a role in building the business.
Mina Alaghband: How has this addition of marketing and sales to the pure PLG approach changed your efficiency and growth?
Andrey Khusid: To build a strong, durable business, you need to be customer-centric. By adding marketing and sales layers on top of PLG, we increased our investment in customers, since before, it had been a transactional, self-service business. By doing that, we increased the depth of relationships we have with those customers, and we increased the breadth of customers that we can serve. It also impacted our reputation in the market.
The key questions are: “How can you build an efficient business with these different motions? What do you need to drive through PLG and self-service?” and “Where do you need to pay your most expensive sales reps?” You need to experiment continuously to find the answers. We’re at the beginning of the experimentation journey, looking for the most efficient ways to combine these motions.
Mina Alaghband: Let’s talk more about the top of the funnel. How do you identify leads?
Andrey Khusid: Most of our business comes from what we call “hand-raisers”: people who adopted the product and are ready to talk with someone to take it to the next level of adoption in their company. Some people are ready to talk and reach out, but some people don’t consider reaching out to the sales team, so our marketing team is also working to generate those leads through marketing campaigns, targeting certain strategic personas in our user pool.
Mina Alaghband: How do you pinpoint the most promising hand-raisers?
Andrey Khusid: We treat lead generation as a product and continuously improve it. We have spent a lot of time assessing the best moment to reach out, how mature the account should be, and the most effective way to connect.
We use a complex model to generate Product Qualified Accounts [PQAs] and then reach out to start to build relationships.
Iterating and Experimenting in Growth Pods
Mina Alaghband: You have some cool organizational hacks that we haven’t really seen in many other places in the industry. Let’s talk about your “growth pods.” What are they and how are they used?
Andrey Khusid: The idea is to align and build pods around the organization’s value streams. Employees from success, marketing, product, design, engineering, and sales come together to solve complex problems such as, “How can we have twice as many hand-raisers?” Then those people hack and iterate together.
We still need to scale this approach, but so far, it’s been beneficial for the culture of the company. People understand what they’re aligned around, the mission of the team, and the value they create in the business. But they have to be set up for success in terms of roles and responsibilities, rituals, and enablement.
Mina Alaghband: Can you give an example of one cross-functional pod and how the team worked together?
Andrey Khusid: We created a pod of people who can influence usage. It was made up of individuals from marketing, customer education, product, engineering, and customer success. They worked together towards the shared goal of driving usage and came up with a backlog of ideas for what could be impactful around this metric. They set a regular meeting cadence, established ways of communicating, and developed an approach, including how many experiments they wanted to run. When they discovered something that seemed to have an impact on usage, the approach was taken out of the pod and scaled.
We have another pod built around what we call Miroverse. This is a platform for content that our user community generates, with the goal of democratizing the best practices of how to drive innovation. This pod includes a cross-functional group of folks from product marketing, product growth, growth engineering, and community marketing. They experiment to grow a metric like “engaged community members,” the users who create and consume the most content. We started working on this in April of 2020, and since then, Miroverse has experienced tremendous growth and become an autonomous, self-sustaining community engine.
Paul Roche: How are people picked for the pods, and what does their work look like once they get in one? How long do their roles last?
Andrey Khusid: We try to create pods around topics that are long-lasting, not short-term. For us, “long-lasting” is six to 12 months and more. People work in the pods full-time. The belief is that they need to be fully dedicated, focusing on one metric that they want to move further. We try to bring people who have a growth mindset, who are oriented toward experimentation, and who are ready to try different things. They need to be able to operate in an entrepreneurial way, where they’re figuring things out rather than building specific solutions.
Given that the company is relatively new, most pods are forming through external hiring. We try to bring people who will be excited to work together, who have diverse backgrounds and skills, but not just based on subject-matter expertise. We want folks with different ways of working, creativity, and resourcefulness. We want to form teams, not groups of people. An autonomous team should have all the competencies inside it.
Mina Alaghband: With all these autonomous pods driving much of the impact in the business, what is the role of functional leaders?
Andrey Khusid: The whole organization is not in pods; we have a mixed model. We have individual contributors and some more streamlined operations. On a leadership level we are trying to operate as company leaders, not functional leaders. We have a Chief Marketing Officer, Chief Product Officer, Chief People Officer, and others, but they are company leaders who have to do what’s best for the company. They may be a sponsor of a pod, like our Chief Customer Officer is for the usage pod or our Chief Financial Officer might be for a pricing pod. It goes way beyond the traditional “area of responsibility." Their job, broadly speaking, is to create a successful strategically aligned organization with a durable foundation for growth.
This is a complex model, and we still sometimes struggle with it. It’s way easier to operate in an environment where marketing does marketing, sales does sales, success does success. But the most efficient organizations create this complex cake where PLG is layered with marketing, and sales, and success together. The roles and processes are not traditional.
There’s a performance and leadership coach who won a gold medal with the British rowing team in the 2000 Summer Olympics, [Ben Hunt-Davis]. His key principle is: “Will it make the boat go faster?” When I think about the future of the organization, and organizational design, that’s the principle I apply to leadership: will it make the boat go faster?
Paul Roche: Is the growth pod model something that you can do because you’re a tech company that’s fast-growing and still medium-sized? Or is that something that you can see larger, non-tech companies adopting?
Andrey Khusid: I think that this kind of approach is relevant to all sizes of companies and to complex problem-solving.
Every organization in the world wants to solve more problems because that’s where you have the potential to monetize as a first mover. Many big corporations have trouble inventing big, new complex things, because they don’t have the flat structure of a start-up. Our approach relies on having startups inside our organization, people who can figure out complex problems, and who can solve them faster through a low-ego culture, working towards a shared goal. A dedicated team is focused on a problem, and continuously iterates. I think this is applicable to everyone.
Leadership in a PLG-driven organization
Mina Alaghband: How does the overall leadership structure work in your organization?
Andrey Khusid: Every office we have across the world is a primary office with a company leader in each one, not just an office leader. My leadership team is distributed across five of the 12 offices. The extended leadership team is distributed across all 12 offices.
The challenge is that, especially when you are spread across all time zones, you need to build strong relationships so you can work together quickly. But because leaders are in key offices, the vibe is the same everywhere, and we have access to a global talent pool. We often bring the leadership team together to have strategic and social time, and that lessens the friction in terms of time zones. Then we can work through conflicts and problem solve more quickly.
Paul Roche: I’ve been in a bunch of CEO roundtables, and a bunch of board round tables, and there’s been a strong view from those groups that having a distributed leadership team lowers productivity. You’ve experienced the opposite. What are some of the small things that you do to make it work for you?
Andrey Khusid: We spend time as a leadership team one week every quarter in a room together. Every time we travel to different hubs. And we have rituals. Every week, we have a business strategy-operational meeting; we call it the “leadership water cooler.” It has a packed agenda. We plan it two months ahead of time because it’s very expensive for us to meet. We try to build trust as much as possible. We run retrospectives, give direct feedback to each other, and we facilitate complex and uncomfortable conversations. We want to be a team who are invested in a shared journey, and who can have hard talks with each other. People really love and enjoy working in the leadership team. They are proud to work together.
Mina Alaghband: If your Chief Customer Officer is sponsoring pods, he or she is probably responsible for the hiring and oversight of the people in the pods, and the folks doing the day-to-day running of the business, right? How does that work for performance management and metrics?
Andrey Khusid: We align the organizational leadership around two metrics: users and revenue. Then five to eight people in a pod work toward one metric. Miroverse, for example, has engaged community users, which contributes to more engaged platform users, and ultimately to more revenue.
You also need one leader who can look at your customer base holistically, not through your organizational chart. I don’t want my customers to think, “Oh, this email is from marketing, and this email from success, and this from renewals, and this from sales, and this from product.” I want my customer to interact with one company, not a bunch of different functions, so they get a streamlined experience. People need to have the right DNA for this type of setup. They have to be able to leave their ego at the door and not have ambitions of building their own kingdoms inside a company.
The journey to the best solutions
Paul Roche: How do you assess the success of your initiatives?
Andrey Khusid: We frame the initiatives that we come up with as hypotheses. You have to come up with “best-guess” hypotheses and test them as fast as possible to understand if they can bring you to the ultimate result, or you need to test something else, or you need to change the approach. If you start to build something, and then you see that leading indicators are not where they should be, you have to ask yourself: Is it the right solution for the problem? Is it being implemented correctly? Do we have the right people on the problem?
Some parts of the organization are more advanced around this than others. We are on a journey.
Mina Alaghband: Given that Miro’s roles and business processes aren’t traditional, how do you ensure your goals are making the boat go faster?
Andrey Khusid: First, I don’t think that this setup “makes the boat go faster” in the short- to middle-term. It’s not only about going fast in specific areas; it’s also about going smart. We don’t know the answers. The teams have to experiment with what drives the best outcomes. It might not be the fastest journey in the beginning, but it’s the most effective in the long run.