Our guest today is the President and Chief Product Officer of Kajabi, Sean Kim.
Kajabi is the leading platform for knowledge entrepreneurs and creators. Previously, Sean was the head of product at TikTok, where he set the strategic direction and led teams responsible for developing and growing the company’s product.
Prior to TikTok, Sean was the global head of products at Amazon Prime, where he played an instrumental role in driving customer retention for Prime Membership.
In This Conversation We Discuss:
- Why Sean left a great job at Amazon Prime for a new opportunity at a startup
- How Sean motivates his team to get more done with fewer people and yield maximum efficiency
- How to make your team understand that growing their skills is sometimes more important than just hiring someone else
- How to say no as a company to ventures that don’t directly relate to their core niche
Kajabi – https://kajabi.com
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In this episode, our guest is the President and Chief Product Officer of Kajabi, Sean Kim. Kajabi’s the leading platform for knowledge entrepreneurs and creators. Previously, Sean was the Head of Product at TikTok, where he set the strategic direction and led teams responsible for developing and growing the company’s product. Prior to TikTok, Sean was the Global Head of Products at Amazon Prime, where he played an instrumental role in driving customer retention for Prime membership. Sean, welcome to the show.
Thank you for having me. I’m glad to be here.
There was someone who used to be at Amazon Prime, Anna Collins. She was the Head of Amazon Prime at one time. Do you know who that might have been? She ended up going over to Bulletproof.
I do know her, yes.
She was one of the very early guests on the show a bunch of years ago. I helped recruit her away from Amazon to go to work for Bulletproof Coffee. I was coaching Dave Asprey who was the Founder of Bulletproof and I helped pry her away.
I know another manager of mine a while back who also went to Bulletproof as well. It was Jeff Hall.
They poached a couple of people then and you went a different direction. Tell me about that. As a part of your career and going from Amazon, what was that like? What kind of skills did you pull from there? We’re going to talk a little bit about TikTok and then I want to focus on what you’re doing with Kajabi. Talk about Amazon.
Amazon was probably one of the best companies I’ve ever worked for in the past. I learned what it meant to be customer-obsessed and ensure that customers were first and foremost and the most important reason why you make any decisions in business. Throughout that experience, I’ve been able to see how a company can make a difference and have a positive impact on customers’ lives.
The revenue was not part of this discussion at the beginning. It’s always like, “What’s the best way to ensure you’re providing the most amazing customer experience,” and then work backwards from there? That was very different thinking prior to joining Amazon. That was not how any of the companies I’ve worked at approached the business. It was an amazing experience.
One of the reasons why I got excited about joining Amazon was way back in the day when they lost the Fire tablets. I remember seeing a commercial about it. I saw a customer clicking a button and having the chat agent appear on the screen to onboard the customer, walk through how to use the product and answer any questions. I thought to myself like, “The companies that I was at before would never launch that. It’s an amazing experience but it’s not scalable.”
That was the moment when I realized this is an amazing company that I’d want to work for. I had an amazing time. I learned a lot about how to run a subscription business and go-to-market devices. It’s a very metrics-driven approach and working with some of the best leaders in the world. It was overall amazing an experience.
Why did you leave there for TikTok? That must have been a massive shift in terms of the kind of company you were in and moving over to. Why would you have left Amazon to go to probably more of a startup at TikTok or certainly, an earlier-stage company?
I’ve built such great trust with my leadership and I got promoted and so on. It wasn’t something proactive. Someone had reached off from TikTok and said, “We had this amazing opportunity.” It was initially for a Head of Marketing role. I was like, “I’m not in marketing. I don’t even know what TikTok is.” I downloaded the app. I opened it and started playing with it. I saw a bunch of kids dancing and lip-syncing. I thought, “Why would I join this company?” I did not understand the utility or value behind it. “What are you solving?” That’s what I was trying to think being in Amazon is like. It’s solving big and immediate customer problems. I didn’t understand it.
I called and said, “I don’t think this is the right company for me.” A few days later, the Founder, Alex Zhu called me. He was like, “Let’s talk about this opportunity. Where would you like to slide?” I was like, “First of all, I’m not in marketing. I’m in product.” He’s like, “We can make it happen.” He says, “Come to LA and have a conversation with me.”
I flew down. I met with him and he said, “Sean, the content sucks. This is something that we’re going to work on but we have figured out something that no other company has figured out yet or they’re not very good at it, which is discovery.” That was the magic word for me. We got discovery down, which means that we can help people discover where to travel, what to eat, what books to read, what movies to watch and what’s the latest fashion trend.
The possibilities are endless and that’s when I got excited about it. I was like, “If you could figure that out, there are a lot of different ways we can go to push this.” He also mentioned that short-form video is the way people will consume information in the future. It’s guaranteed. When I heard that, I was like, “This is super exciting.” The natural question I came up with is, “Are you going to launch eCommerce?” He was like, “Check this out.” He opens a version of the app that had eCommerce enabled already.
There was someone in the video that was walking and you could click on her clothes and it immediately shows that product and be able to purchase it right there on the spot. I was like, “This is cool.” That got me excited. I felt like places to travel, what to eat, what movies to watch and if you enable that last mile experience within that app, you enable cost for anything.
How many people were at TikTok when you joined? What was that culture shift moving from an Amazon to there then?
When I joined, maybe at the LA office, there were maybe over 100. It was not a lot.
That’s about the same size as the Amazon bathroom.
It was a different culture and very startup. I remember walking in into the office. This was a rental office called Spaces. I walked in and asked, “Where do I sit?” I remember the IT guy looking around clearing some computers from this desk area and saying, “Just sit here.” I sat down and then he brought me a monitor and so on. I was like, “This is a super startup experience,” but I loved it. It was this one massive room with everybody and I could see everyone at the same time. It’s a lot of collaboration and excitement at the company.
Culture-wise, it was super young. Everyone was super scrappy. They are working late. We had to work with our counterparts in China as well. At the time, it was not a well-known company at all. We’re essentially building a culture and trying to figure out how to operate. One of the things I am proud of that I brought from Amazon was the doc writing culture. That was not a thing at TikTok.
It was writing documents for product strategy and business strategy overall because it was previously just all PowerPoint. I was like, “No. We’re going to do docs going forward.” I brought that to the company and then I continued to push that for everything across different teams as well as at ByteDance. That’s an accepted way of doing business there.
Walk us through what that means. What is the doc writing culture? Is that like you submit one page with what you’re going to be doing and the who, why and how? What is it?
It depends on the purpose of the document. Product strategy, for instance, will have, “What is the customer problem you’re trying to solve? How big of a problem is it? How many people have this problem?” We’ll have a solution in the doc along with what are the risks that come with that solution. What’s the cost to the business? What are the MVP approach and the phase 1, 2 and 3 timelines for that? What are some asks from the leadership team? It goes into detail that helps us ensure that we’re making the best decision and investment we’re going to make.
I’ve created something similar called the Decision Filter, where I look at the cost of inaction. What’s the benefit of doing it? What’s the ROI against our people, time and money? I need to go in and take a look at the Amazon doc process a little deeper because I like it. Was there any pushback against that change of culture when you were bringing something in? How did you socialize that when you were bringing that system into TikTok?
There’s some pushback from certain people but generally, it was widely accepted. The Founder of ByteDance, Zhang Yiming, had a fascination for Amazon. He talked about Amazon all time. He said, “Look how successful they’ve been. They set leadership principles.” He admired that company. When I met with him, he would ask me about Amazon. He would say, “How long were you there? How did they operate and so on?” When I brought the doc culture and wrote some pointers down in terms of how the doc is structured and how you should write it, I remember he took that and shared it across the company.
That makes a lot of sense because they were already bought into that whole culture. That wasn’t something that they were going to be pushing back against. They were trying to bring more of that in. What do you think some of the skills were that you pulled out of TikTok that you carried with you over to Kajabi?
TikTok work fast. It’s interesting how fast they are. One of the things I brought in from there was the sense of urgency and being able to test something quickly, fail fast and move on. If there’s something that works well, immediately double down and put the resources behind and shift resources immediately, however you see fit to make sure that you double down on success.
When it comes to competitors, they do several competitors. Anytime they feel like there’s a competitor that’s getting any traction, they will make sure that they are not getting traction, whether it’s outspending them, building products around that or whatever made that competitor successful in building similar products. They had to reach into the deep pockets to make sure that they were the leader in that space.
You often hear people talking about their competitors to either obsess about them or ignore them. Andy Grove is like, “Only the paranoid survive.” Was TikTok playing with both eyes? Were they looking at what the competitors were doing and then also, driving ahead with their vision as well? Were they obsessed with one direction more than the other, do you think?
They did both. In every business review, there was a full section on everything our competitors were doing. We had information about their DAU and retention. We had the latest product releases. We estimated their product release adoption. We had anecdotal data. I was like, “How did you get all this information?” There’s a whole section dedicated and then we go into our core metrics and what are we doing. It was something that we looked at very often.
You then flip over from TikTok to Kajabi. How many years has Kajabi been in business? It’s certainly a fantastic brand.
It’s several years old.
Is it a mature company? How many employees were there when you got there?
When I got here, we had eight, including employees in the Philippines. I think around a little over 300. It hasn’t changed a lot. We haven’t gone crazy and hired a ton of people. We’re very cautious and responsible about how we’ve been hiring.
It also feels like the kind of platform that you’ve probably hit scale that you don’t need to add a whole bunch of people either if you can stay cautious and focused. Is that true?
Yeah. Everyone on our teams is stacked and working at max capacity, which is the way it should be. There’s always room for more work and people to come in but we are very cautious about how we hire. We want to make sure that the current person was stacked before we hire the next person and make sure that the next person has lots of work ahead of them.
You’re the first guest in about 245 guests that I’ve had on this show that has mentioned that in terms of stacking and people working at max capacity. I’ve always believed that as well. It’s like the athlete that finishes whatever race that they’re in or the event that they’re in. They always have more fuel in the tank at the end of the race. You rarely see the marathoner collapse at the finish line, get hauled off to the hospital and win at the same time. How do you know if people are operating at that max capacity? How do you get people to wrap their heads around the fact that we need to get more done with fewer people faster? We need to be more efficient.
Not everyone would agree with me. Usually, my team will tell me directly and be like, “I’m busy.” I can see from their roadmap and all the initiatives that we have going on. We’re very transparent about all the work that is on the plate for all engineers and PMs. Having been a PM, I know what it takes to have multiple complex initiatives going on and work with hundreds of engineers.
When someone says they’re busy, we have this roadmap. I say, “You’re pretty busy.” They say, “I need to be able to have another PM for instance so that I can move faster.” We do that estimation and say, “If you had another PM, you can get this done in half the time or watch this faster.”That’s where we do that calculation and say, “Let’s get it to HR.”
I like that you go back to the roadmap. You’re looking at exactly what’s on their plate, specifically and what they’re working on over the next, how long? A month or three months or a week?
We can project out what we want to build for the rest of the year. We can see all of 2023. It won’t be exactly what we expected. If some things won’t work, we can pivot quickly. If some things work well, we double down but we have a pretty robust planning process where we think through what are the core meaty customer problems we can solve for, what takes the most time for customers or where’s the most friction. What helps customers become more successful to reach their audience?
We ask these questions to ourselves and then come up with these product strategies. The bigger the problem, the more complex the solution is usually and it requires a lot more engineers. We have a good and robust planning process. We’ve been able to predict the impact of the initiative. We have an impact estimation calculator based on the depth of improvement to conversion, activation and retention.
Also, when you launch it, see incremental customers will save or retain or whatever it might be. We have the impact calculator. We have high-level estimations from engineering. We know exactly how many engineers are on certain teams so we can estimate what we can launch within a quarter, half year or the rest of the year.
What’s the impact calculator?
That’s something I brought from Amazon as well. The impact calculator can forecast, essentially how many customers we can acquire as well as convert and retain based on historical data about some products we’ve flushed in the past in certain locations, for instance, within the app or where it might be. We look at that and say, “This is how a certain product has improved retention and this is how many people we can influence.”
If we launched a product in the space, we estimate that we can improve retention by 1% or 2%. If we launched in January, we can predict how many people will save. We have different versions of this impact calculator depending on where the product is launched, whether it’s in the front door or the back door of the subscription service. We work with the FinOps team, to build and model that out and then we got pretty good at predicting the impact of products. At Amazon, when we launched this thing, we were able to predict five bits in terms of how many Prime members we would save. We got good at it.
You also mentioned something about hiring more and being cautious with hiring people. It feels like when companies are smaller like in the 50 to 100 range and they have their 1st management or leadership team who doesn’t have the skills yet, their answer to every problem is to hire more people. How do you prevent that from happening? How do you grow their skills so they understand that it’s not always hiring more people? Maybe it’s becoming more optimized or automated or saying no more? How do you grow those people so that they understand that?
I don’t know if I have the best answer for you but throughout my career, we’ve been good at ruthlessly prioritizing initiatives so we don’t stretch ourselves thin. We focus our efforts on the most impactful initiatives. If someone says, “I’m really busy,” I’m like, “What’s going on? What are you working on?” They would say, “I have these five initiatives.” I’m like, “How important are these five?”
We will stack rank and say, “If you didn’t do these two, what would happen?” He’s like, “Nothing.” “Then don’t do it. Just focus on these three. Of these three, which one is most impactful? Which one has the highest impact with the lowest amount of engineering work required?” We do this exercise. We prioritize the time and effort put in to ensure that people are focusing on the most impactful things.
That is a win-win. Coaching meets alignment. It’s when you’re trying to align their efforts with what the results are going to be or whatever outputs you’re looking for. Tell us a little bit about Kajabi because I’m sure there are a few people out that haven’t heard, even though you’ve got a fairly big user base.
Kajabi is the easiest way to build an all-online business around what you know. We are an all-in-one solution that helps creators market, publish and sell their digital content, such as podcasts, video courses, newsletters and live stream coaching. We have around 60,000 customers and they’ve made $4.1 billion in 2022 with an annual run rate of $1.7 billion. They’re doing quite well. We have a few creators that have made over $100 million.
These are big, legit businesses that we’ve been able to scale with. Creators that joined in 2022 have earned 20% more than those that have joined in 2021 and 2020. The product and services have been getting better to make it easier to reach their audience, retain them and earn money. The company has been around for several years and did quite well.
What was the reason for you to join Kajabi? What was the reason for you to flip from TikTok over to Kajabi? I don’t want to focus more on why you left but what was it that got you to join Kajabi?
When I was at TikTok, I grew fond of the creators that I worked with. I grew a lot of admiration for the work that goes into becoming a creator. I haven’t worked with a lot of the creators at TikTok. One of the things that kept coming up was not being able to monetize properly as a creator. If you become a creator, in the beginning, it’s more about social credit with likes, comments, shares, views, followers and follower counts.
However, you’re putting in 4 hours a day, 6 hours a day or 8 hours a day to create content and then you realize, “I’m going to monetize my time. I can’t be just doing this for likes and followers.” We got a lot of feedback at TikTok about helping them monetize. We’ve tried a lot of different things there. We launched a billion-dollar creator fund. We launched tipping on the profile page, gifting videos, live stream gifting and a lot of different things to try and help creators build a living and earn meaningful income.
I would say that it wasn’t incredibly successful. You couldn’t quit your day job and do it full-time. You had to rely on brand deals. Brand deals are not always consistent and you can’t decide exactly what you want to create. With the recession, those brand deals are drying up. I talked to my team at the time and said, “Who’s doing the creator launch well? Let’s look at some of the competitors and some of the startups.”
We looked at competitors, they weren’t doing it very well either. We looked at startups and sure enough, Kajabi came up, number one. Kajabi’s numbers at the time were $3.5 billion made with 50,000-something creators. I’m like, “What? How is that even possible?” I started researching the business and met with some of the people. At the time, I told my team, “Let’s go copy them. We will figure out what they’re doing off of that to TikTok creators.”
We did the research and realize, “You can’t copy what they’re offering.” Those social media companies are going to provide their creators with all the email addresses and be able to own that audience, take them off the platform and allow them to control their business end to end. They want to keep them all on the platform because of the ad revenue and so on. It’s not something we could easily copy but in a meeting with the Kajabi team and leadership team, I realize, “You guys have an amazing business. This is such an awesome thing you’re doing for creators in terms of empowering them to build meaningful businesses.”
Coincidentally, I got a job offer at the time. I thought to myself, “This is once in a lifetime opportunity to help people build incredible businesses and change people’s lives.” I hear it time and time again. People are like, “Join Kajabi. Build a business. They have complete personal freedom. They’re able to retire. They were able to pay for their kids’ education in college and their families. They are changing people’s lives.” That’s why I thought like, “This is the time to join them.”
You said something that I’d never considered before, which is intriguing. You do give them the contact information for their clients and course users. They are able to take that and monetize it off the platform. You don’t care about it or worry about that, I guess. Is that because they’re paying a monthly fee and you know that if they can monetize it elsewhere, yours is lead gen for them that they’re going to keep paying for?
Since it’s an all-in-one solution, we offer our customers the ability to build landing pages and funnels, collect emails and nurture them to become paid customers for the courses, podcasts, coaching or whatever it might be. These customers are signing up to be part of the mailing list for our customers. That’s essentially how their business runs. “Join my mailing list so I can give you a preview of what type of content I offer.” They eventually become a paying number.
One of the things that seem to happen when companies get to be your size, especially when they’re a SaaS business, is that there’s almost like a feature creep or past features, even other markets you can get into or other services you can start bundling in. It then becomes this massive thing that no one’s using or it gets complicated like Infusionsoft. How do you as a company say no to the opportunities of what you could be bundling and building in? You’re not a funnel software. You’re not trying to compete with email marketing services. How do you say no to all the things you could be and say yes and stay focused on the things that you are?
We talk to customers regularly. I still talk to customers every single week. I require my team to do that as well. We have a lot of survey data. We also have our internal metrics in terms of what’s been most successful in terms of helping our customers become successful. What is the product that’s most utilized and has the best chance of helping customers succeed? We shift a lot of our focus as well as resources to ensure that we’re constantly improving that product.
We are thinking about how we can take this to the next level. We say, “What can we do to make sure we’re saving them even more time?” We’re moving even more friction points out of the way. When we have those conversations with customers, we talk through the steps you’re taking to build this business to offer this product. They say, “Here’s where I spend most of my time, XYZ.” We say, “How do I make that 10 hours into 5 minutes?” That’s essentially we’re shifting that time. We shift a lot of the resources and parties that don’t give us a lot of room to do other things.
I understand at the leadership team level how you say that and make those decisions to stay focused and say no. How do you say no to the employees and customers that are coming to you with ideas where it’s either a great idea but no or not now without killing their spirit and energy? It’s like Gen Y and Z. They all want their ninth-place participation ribbons.
I help them come to the same conclusion on their own and that’s through the product strategy doc. We say, “Let’s do the work and figure out how impactful this thing’s going to be.” They’ll go through and do the customer problem validation and how people have a problem and impact. They then realize, “It’s not very impactful.” They’ll come to that same conclusion, hopefully, and come to me and say, “This isn’t going to be very impactful. If I spend these eight hours a day working on this, I’ll have way more impact. This other thing is nice to have that we can build later.”
Is that tool that you were using at Amazon or is the impact calculator a tool that is from Kajabi?
We first built that at Amazon and then I brought it to TikTok and I also brought it to Kajabi. It gets more accurate over time. In the first version of this, we don’t have enough data to feed it but over time, we’ll have launched a lot of products. We’ll have estimations in terms of what impact would’ve been versus actuals and say, “Now, we know.” After we feed more data into this calculator, it gets more and more accurate over time.
I understand why you joined them and how the fit is. Why do you think they came and picked you? They’ve got a good team and some good employees. They’ve got product market fit already and they’re bringing this guy in from another company on top of all these existing teams. Why did they pick you? How did you enter the company without upsetting everybody that’s there that didn’t get your job or that now reports to you? Other than you seem to be a good guy and you’re easy to hang out with. That part seems easy.
They wanted to become a more product-driven organization. Seeing how widely successful TikTok has been and the products that the company has launched, they wanted some of that magic to say, “What are you doing in TikTok to make it so successful? How was it so successful within such a short time?” That did help, for sure. My background at Amazon and Amazon Prime being a subscription business was a big factor as well.
My product experience was probably core to the decision-making in terms of getting me in the door. When I came in, there are going to be people that are happy and people that are not happy. There’s no situation where everyone’s happy. I have to be very clear about the changes that are coming when it’s going to come and what’s going to change and try to overcommunicate that. You can’t please everyone. Some people don’t want to change and they’ll leave on their own or you have to get them out.
How about you and the CEO? Was it a founding CEO or was it a hired gun CEO that you’re then working with?
Ahad was the CFO/COO prior to joining. He became the CEO and then he hired me as the President and CPO.
How did the two of you divide, conquer and split up roles and responsibilities? How do you keep those communication channels clean with everybody else in the organization as well as who goes to whom?
I report to Ahad and we divvied up the responsibilities based on what we’re good at. I was good at product. I know how to oversee engineering and so on. I had product engineering as well as design. We also put customer service on my team because, with customer service, we can help influence some of the prospect launches. They’re very close to the customer. We get the voice of the customer regularly. We made a lot of adjustments in terms of being more transparent and surfacing that voice of customer information to all the teams at Kajabi.
We have monthly meetings to see what our customers are saying, where are most tickets coming from and what are the issues. That can also help prioritize our roadmap. The adjustments have been made with our customer service team, product engineering team and design team. The people that report to Ahad directly are marketing, FinOps, accounting, legal and so on.
How about your skillset? You’re involved in an organization that’s still scaling and growing. It’s got a huge upside in front of it. Every day, in our jobs, it’s like, “This is the biggest thing we’ve ever done.” Where are you focusing on growing your skillsets as a leader?
I want to continue growing in terms of being inspirational. I’m fairly demanding in terms of expectations, driving urgency and timelines. Being inspirational is an important quality to have and that’s something I want to work on as well. Also, learning more about the legal components as well. I get fascinated by legal. It’s so unique. Usually, legal and I have a love-hate relationship. I love them and they hate me. Just understanding all the nuances and what’s possible. It’s one of those areas that I’m continually trying to learn more about.
I want to go back to the 21 or 22-year-old Sean Kim. You’re getting started in your career. What advice would you give yourself that maybe you know to be true now but you wish you’d known back then?
Spend the time to figure out what you’re passionate about. You need it over time and you are like, “This job pays better. This is the hot new thing to work on. This is a hot new space or company.” If you focus on what you’re passionate about, you do not care about the money and all those things. Though all that will come later and follow. That’s important.
One of the things I’ve noticed the whole time we’re talking, behind you is all of these design things. Everything is designed and I kept looking at stuff like a plant in your chair. I don’t know what is behind you on the desk. It is something made out of wood like your guitar in the background. You have a love for design. The fact that you oversee product and design makes sense as well. You’re in a niche that you love. Sean Kim, President and Chief Product Officer for Kajabi, thanks very much for sharing with us on the show.
Thank you for having me.
I appreciate it.