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How to build a developer-first company

How to build a developer-first company

At my company, Descope, we are building a customer authentication and identity management product, meaning the end user and the developer are two sides of the same coin. Providing a great developer experience—by enabling our customers to easily add auth flows and user management to their apps—leads to a great end-user experience as the customer’s customers seamlessly and securely log in.

This kind of virtuous cycle exists at many developer-focused companies. When building a successful developer-first business, it’s critical to tie together the similarities between the customer experience and the developer experience while clearly delineating the differences.

Customers and developers: Similarities

There are many similarities across customer and developer onboarding. Both experiences try to reduce friction by streamlining any initial setup and minimizing technical hurdles to create a good first impression. Both try to build understanding by explaining the product’s value and functionality. Both nurture engagement through interactive elements, personalized communication, and clear pathways to success. Both are geared toward realizing value to the user as quickly as possible. Finally, both establish trust by demonstrating reliability, support, and responsiveness to foster confidence and loyalty.

In our case, developers are our customers. Our developers’ customers, however, are not our customers. As a result, we need to make sure developers are onboarded in a way that is very easy and intuitive. We need to equip our customers in the best way possible so they can do the same thing for their customers.

All developers want their customers to have a good onboarding experience. At Descope, we help them achieve this by reducing cognitive load through passwordless authentication, progressive profiling, adaptive security measures, easy A/B testing, and so on.

Customers and developers: Differences

The nuances in these two audiences also create unique considerations in the onboarding and overall product experiences.

If you’re an end user, you don’t want to bother with documentation, let alone code or code samples. The product should also be self-explanatory—anything that you read while trying to use a service should be directly part of the experience. Catering to customers means prioritizing usability, emotional connection, and value perception. Clear instructions, relatable stories, and problem-solving guideposts resonate with customers seeking a smooth experience.

If you’re a developer, you want a straightforward onboarding process and access to ongoing support, but you also need a lot of materials. You’re a self-starter, meaning you want plenty of documentation, APIs, code samples, and information shared in different channels. Catering to developers means prioritizing technical mastery, collaboration, and self-serve capabilities. Robust documentation, code snippets, and community-driven problem solving empower developers to complete tasks themselves and ask for help when needed.

Customer retention and developer retention both come down to not annoying your end user, but the approaches are completely different. To build an onboarding flow that keeps your customers coming back, you need to choose the right auth method, make sure not to front-load a lot of questions on the first visit, and ask the right questions at the right time.

To keep your developers coming back, you need to do minimal marketing and only connect with them when they run into problems. If you can determine when they’re running into problems and help them troubleshoot, they will thank you for it. Be mindful when you reach out to a developer who is using your product. There is a reason they haven’t reached out to you yet.

Enhancing the customer and developer experiences

At Descope, we factor these two personas into everything we do. We build onboarding and support collateral for our developers while also offering a product that lets them create their own clear onboarding and customer experiences for their end users. Simple onboarding can make or break a product or service, both for developers and customers, but the ongoing work we do to maintain prolonged value is also crucial.

When helping developers build their customer experience, we emphasize building onboarding and authentication flows with the best user experience in mind. That includes reducing friction, like the use of passwordless methods and progressive profiling, and creating an embedded in-app native experience to avoid needless redirections or pop-ups.

Our developer experience includes an onboarding wizard that sets up their project and login flows in a few clicks. We offer a drag-and-drop visual workflow editor to easily create and customize their customer journey (screens, authentication methods, flow logic, connections with third-party tools, and so on). We also provide robust documentation, code snippets, SDKs, tutorials, and a Slack community for troubleshooting. And for those who like free stuff, we provide a “free forever” tier for developers to get started with the product.

We are building the platform for what we call “the weekend problem.” If a developer’s manager challenges them to build out an identity management feature and they decide to try options over the weekend, we want them to be able to show their boss a proof of concept on Monday. We have all the samples, code, tutorials, webinars, recordings, and documentation available for them to do everything with their existing users over a weekend. This is what we build our targets and objectives around, and why we see hundreds of projects start every week.

Final thoughts

We are designing and building a service that provides easy onboarding, but more importantly, that enables developers to build something for their users to easily adopt. This is a trade-off that we constantly consider internally. We have decided that while we could make our product easier to use, we are building a more complicated product, at scale, so that developers have everything they need to create the best experience. This way, we go beyond a great onboarding experience to maintain high retention and create lifetime value.

Gilad Shriki is co-founder of Descope.

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