6 lessons the strongest SaaS companies learned from Ben & Jerry’s

In 1978, childhood friends Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield decided they wanted to do something fun. The food business sounded cool. And they’d dabbled a bit in making ice cream, so what better place to start? After taking a $5 ice cream-making course to brush up their skills, Ben and Jerry opened their first shop in a renovated gas station in the hippiedom of Burlington, Vermont, now home to the 70,000-square-foot Ben & Jerry’s headquarters.

What’s interesting about this HQ—designed in ‘96—is that it “still has the feel of a Silicon Valley startup,” I read recently in Allen Gannett’s brilliant book The Creative Curve. Ben & Jerry’s welcomed dogs, yoga, and private nursing to the office years before “open-plan” became a metaphor for innovation. And of course its conference rooms are named after its flavors.

Don’t forget the Flavor Graveyard. [  Source  ]

Don’t forget the Flavor Graveyard. [Source]

But what really surprised me was just how involved Ben & Jerry’s process is. Like Allen, I assumed they just throw a bunch of flavors together now and again to see what sticks. Not only does the company ship six to twelve new flavors a year, but during its 18 to 24-month development life cycle(!), staff rehash and share ideas constantly.

The more I thought about it, the more parallels I noticed between Ben & Jerry’s and the strongest software companies of our time. Besides setting a precedent for office culture, these companies were well ahead of many of us in learning one of the most valuable product-business lessons of the decade: ship early and ship often.

More on those companies later. But what else can we can learn from one of the world’s largest ice cream empires?

1. Start small

“Superpremium” Ben & Jerry’s was a local phenomenon in no time. Its founders had found their fit (Burlington was a college town in need of an ice cream parlor), started lean (with 12 flavors in a location they could afford) and ran all operations (both in-store and distributing locally) themselves. Ben, then truck driver and salesman, pitched grocery stores with a one-door-closes attitude: If it didn’t sell, they’d take it back. But the flavors carried them through by “capturing people’s imaginations.”

Start local… start lean… it’s much the same to SaaS companies that followed in Ben & Jerry’s footsteps when bootstrapping became a thing decades later. As Jerry points out, it forces you to get your hands dirty. “You learn all the nuts and bolts of what you’re doing and become an expert,” he says. Then premium products speak for themselves.

2. Stand up for a cause you care about

Part of what makes Ben & Jerry’s so spesh is its commitment to brand values: innovative flavors, social good, and that businesses have a responsibility to operate sustainably and give back to the world. The company pays its values forward by teaming up with civil rights activists around the world on social justice campaigns, using digital marketing and flavors like Pecan Resist to spread its message at scale. The result: meaningful engagement with a kindred community that works with the company to make social impact.

Your brand beliefs and customer reach can be powerful tools for social and environmental change. Use them. And don’t be afraid to take risks. Not only will your courage empower others to speak out, but your customers will love you all the more for it.

“We understand that not everyone is going to agree with us. Ben has often said that we're never going to get a 100% market share. But from a business point of view, it's much more beneficial to have stronger relationships with customers, based not on a clever marketing campaign, but on shared values. It's really the most powerful bond you can make with customers.”—Jerry Greenfield

3. Know your product, but don’t marry it

The “knowing your product” part sounds obvious, but Ben & Jerry’s takes it to extremes. Said Allen: “As I made my way around the building, I couldn’t help noticing empty pints of ice cream on every desk. Employees collected the flavors they worked on as a sort of cardboard trophy wall.” Amazing.

But inside knowledge of your product can become a trap. Think about it, Allen points out: When you’re deeply involved in your product every day—whether testing ice cream or software updates—how can you represent a customer who uses your product to solve specific problems? Your plans for your product won’t always align with customers’ needs.

4. Look for inspiration beyond your own backyard

This is the best part. B&J’s hires actual Flavor Gurus.

These are the former food scientists and chefs responsible for discovering the next greatest ice cream flavor—which they do by taste-testing all day. Every day. And not just flavors they find in Bon Appétit magazine (mandatory reading for our guys at Ben & Jerry’s). The team travels all over the world on “trend treks” to observe what the people are buying and the foodies are making in restaurants, bars, and grocery stores (giving rise to cocktail-inspired flavors like blueberry lavender. #RIP).

Again, most successful SaaS founders agree it’s important to get on a plane and work on the ground when you can. The next best thing is to consume as much and as often as possible online. Especially if, like Ben & Jerry’s, you manage long release cycles, consumer and competitor insights from multiple sources can help you track trends from infancy.

5. Look for one good idea in 200

Ben & Jerry’s product development process is scientific, Allen found—backed by numerous stakeholders and even more data. From their research, the Gurus like to start with 200 viable ideas. An arbitrary number, but one that ensures they’re fishing from a large pond for the best chances of catching something great.

The takeaway for SaaS entrepreneurs couldn’t be clearer: you have to fail to succeed. Rather than focus on coming up with high-quality ideas (and beating yourself up when you don’t), let the cream rise to the top of a wide variety of bad ideas.

From there, before engaging gatekeepers at the final stages of development, Ben & Jerry’s Flavor Gurus validate their ideas through the lens of the company’s brand values—do they fit with our ethos? Are they innovative but not too crazy?—and more importantly, customer feedback.

6. Use customer feedback

In case you hadn’t noticed, people who buy Ben & Jerry’s are devoted. And B&J knows it. The company’s most valuable insights come from its customers, who submit 10 to 12 thousand of their own ideas every year. The company collects and refines them using:

  • A dedicated support team. These are the folks responsible for tracking flavor suggestions and fielding them to brand management for approval.

  • ChunkMail. Periodically, the team sends out a list of ideas to a representative sample of their 70,000-strong email list for feedback.

  • Testing. This is where culinary development comes in. Ideas might look good on paper, but are they workable? If they can’t decide, Ben & Jerry’s will ship samples to customers or place test batches in their retail stores.

“Artists are traditionally reluctant to let others see their work before it is done. But great creatives—and great companies—know that the only way to consistently create in the sweet spot of the creative curve is by putting their work in front of an audience early and often.”—Allen Gannett

So who’s learned from Ben & Jerry’s already?

You don’t have to look far to see how these lessons paid off in the volatile business of software.

Let’s take a look at a few of today’s strongest SaaS companies (by satisfaction ratings, according to G2 Crowd’s roundup of Best Software Companies 2019):

  1. Google, one of several $25-billion companies that started in a garage, is a near-perfect example of what happens when you use data to accelerate customer success. One of its core tenets: “Focus on the user and all else will follow.”

  2. Slack didn’t go from zero to $12 million in ARR in its first year by running on instinct. Interestingly, it doesn’t “believe in the ‘fail fast’ mentality,” says Slack Product Manager Fareed Mosavat, adding:

    “With a business product, you’re dealing with customers who are paying you real money and have a low tolerance for problems, mistakes, and failure. You have to really understand why things work or don’t work and have high confidence that every experiment has the potential to deliver a good experience, even if it doesn’t end up having the impact you hoped it would.”

  3. Granted, Microsoft was once more focused on Windows than its customers. But now the company is done talking about KPIs like revenue and profit in favor of “customer love.” In other words, says CEO Satya Nadella:

    “Microsoft needs to focus less on profit for profit's sake, and more on building stuff that people love. If people love Microsoft products, the rest will fall into place.”

  4. SurveyMonkey will be the first to tell you that customer feedback surveys help foster curiosity, a characteristic the team takes seriously. Said SVP of marketing communications Bennett Porter in an interview with Fast Company:

    “Curiosity is one of the things that CEOs need to have in their companies, and also one of the attributes they look for in leaders. And that’s really the essence of what people told us they use SurveyMonkey for: not to make a decision, but to have enough data to know they were headed in the right direction.”

  5. HubSpot was built on a philosophy that companies achieve staying power through laser-focus on their customers, or as co-founder Dharmesh Shah describes it, focusing not only on “growing bigger but growing better.”

What do these companies have in common with Ben & Jerry’s? They know their #1 job is to listen to their customers.

Most companies these days will tell you they’re customer-focused. Meanwhile, many of us still struggle to translate feedback into actionable improvements or miss hidden gems of feedback altogether. It’s a lesson we continue to muddle through, especially in B2B, as consumer expectations continue to shift. But we can create more stability for ourselves by building internal systems and loyal communities. With those, B&J was armed to make “the best possible ice cream in the nicest way possible.”

Swap “ice cream” in that sentence for your own product or service. Doesn’t that sound like a dream?

Big thanks to Allen Gannett for inspiring and informing this post!