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The tech industry has experienced a surge of interest in developer relations (DevRel) from both startups and established players. Much of this is the result of the challenges that marketing teams face when trying to reach developers, a group that has historically had low confidence in traditional marketing.
To help demystify DevRel, we spoke with Nicolas Dessaigne, co-founder of Algolia and guest partner at Y Combinator (YC). Algolia is a research platform as a service founded in 2012 in Paris. As a tool sold exclusively to developers, Algolia lives and dies by DevRel, and the company has developed a solid reputation in the field. This growth has generated significant investor interest, propelling Algolia to unicorn status with $ 75 million in revenue in 2020.
But it hasn’t always been easy, and Algolia’s first YC candidacy was rejected. The team had an initial product, mobile research, and compelling technology, but they lacked a clear market. “Our feedback was that we didn’t understand our competitive advantage and that the initial market wasn’t right,” Dessaigne said.
The team therefore had to turn to offering a SaaS product. “It turned out that the requirements of our initial product, which required us to rebuild the research from scratch, were perfect for the new direction,” Dessaigne added.
It also didn’t hurt that Algolia had many YC alumni among its clients, including Michael Seibel of SocialCam and Pebble. “On a business development trip to San Francisco,” said Dessaigne, “our customers were telling us we should reapply. We didn’t even think about it at the time. The second time around, it was much easier to be accepted.
A good DevRel starts with a good product
Algolia has focused on making the product useful and easier for developers to learn. Classic search tools like Lucene and Elastic search are powerful but have a steep learning curve. They are great for businesses that can invest, but difficult for small businesses looking to adopt a solution quickly. “We were going after the long tail by focusing on creating a tool that was easy to use and easily integrate for the developer,” Dessaigne said.
The team also innovated on the main search engine. While traditional search engines focus on features like word count to rank search results, Algolia’s research relies heavily on metadata. “If you have an ecommerce site and a customer is looking for an iPhone, they don’t want the product that said ‘iPhone’ the most times in the description. They want the one who has the most sales or the most likes, ”Dessaigne explained. “Likewise, if you have a video search and you type ‘B’ we could tell you what you are looking for”Bridgerton“Because that’s what’s trending right now. By allowing developers to easily exploit this metadata, Algolia was able to quickly provide a team of engineers with almost ready-to-use “magic” results.
Marketing for engineers well done
Traditional marketing often struggles to reach developers. But Dessaigne and his first team had a key advantage as the developers themselves. “We were customers of these tools,” he explains. “Our goal was to reach developers wherever they are, and it was easy for us to understand them. One of their early successes was to populate the search function for News from hackers, a popular news site for developers. They also made their product free for open source projects, including webpack, Babel, Scala and OpenStreetMap. All of this research is accompanied by a nickname “Powered by Algolia” and the company logo, showcasing the power of its tool in real time and offering instant brand recognition.
Don’t build the DevRel team
Reflecting on her experience building Algolia, Dessaigne credits not starting a DevRel team too early as one of the keys to success. From its founding and until it had more than 100 employees, Algolia relied on its main developers to be the evangelists of the product. “Once you’ve put together a formal DevRel team, the engineers start to think it’s not their job to evangelize the product anymore,” Dessaigne said. “We wanted to keep them active and engaged in the community as much as possible. “
This comes with many challenges. Many developers (and non-developers) may not enjoy speaking in public or other public activities associated with evangelism. When I pointed it out, Dessaigne quickly corrected the notion: “Developers don’t necessarily have to be sociable to do DevRel”.
One of Algolia’s requirements is that all developers must complete documentation for any functionality they build. “From there, it’s not a big effort to write a blog post about the feature,” Dessaigne explained. For enthusiastic employees, the company offered a two-day in-person program to learn to speak in public. “It helped unlock a number of great speakers,” Dessaigne said. “One of our developers who took the program in Paris was so excited to speak in public that she ended up flying from Paris to Silicon Valley to give the opening speech at React Conf 2017. “
Do not build a customer service team
Listening to customers and understanding their weaknesses is another important aspect of dealing with developers. For Dessaigne, the fact of not having a dedicated support team during the first years of operation is a major factor in Algolia’s success. Since its inception and for quite a long time, engineers have doubled customer support. “It had two advantages,” Dessaigne said. “First, our customers are developers, and they find it frustrating to speak with customer support reps who don’t understand how to code. With Algolia at the start, they were talking to the developers. On the employee side, “developers usually hate doing level one support,” he added, “but when it comes to supporting other developers, they love it. “
Hiring engineers for customer service might seem silly in an age of high developer salaries, but Dessaigne sees it differently: “You get a high level of customer empathy when you have to do customer support. We had engineers hooking up with customers on a call, realizing they had discovered a bug, and pushed a fix within an hour. It made the customer happy, the engineers happy, and our product much better. “
DevRel as you grow
Despite Dessaigne’s best efforts, Algolia was unable to support the engineers as part-time Rel Dev and customer service always. As Algolia grew, corporate clients demanded 24 hour customer support, which a team of engineers was unable to provide. But they kept it for a long time. “We hired our first customer support and the dedicated DevRel team of around 150 people,” Dessaigne recalls. “But we still try to maintain this culture of everyone on the bridge.” Engineers should still provide one to two days of technical support and contribute to DevRel every month. Maintaining this culture requires the support of senior management. “You have to have buy-in from the engineering team – that has to be part of the expectations for the role,” Dessaigne explained. “You don’t want to make these demands punitive. It has to be part of the culture.
DevRel helps with hiring
When developers are your customers, marketing to them is simultaneously advertising job candidates. As a bonus, candidates are also familiar with your product, having often used it as a customer.
Algolia has used Meetups and held regular pre-COVID tech lunches in its offices. By pairing free cheese with four speakers in quick succession, Algolia was able to simultaneously nurture the thriving culture of startups in Paris and bring this community to its offices. The company decided on a formula: three of the speakers came from outside the company and one was still from Algolia. “We got excellent visibility thanks to this and a lot of interesting hires,” said Dessaigne.
Word of caution
However, future DevRel practitioners should take note: DevRel takes a different form in every business and circumstance. Algolia couldn’t just copy what other successful startups had done. When the company was founded, Twilio had already created their own playbook, going to hackathons and participating in the community. With the success of Twillo, everyone was hosting hackathons and the developers were quickly inundated with opportunities. “However, we found that hackathons were not a good investment for us,” Dessaigne recalled. “They just never worked so well.”
Algolia’s success in DevRel is largely based on deep customer empathy and understanding customer issues. Empathy can come from the fact that employees are the customers themselves or that the product manufacturers engage with the customers of the product, whether through evangelism or technical support. And even as an organization grows and specialization leads to information silos, finding ways to break down those barriers is essential to creating a product that serves customers and drives sales.
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