Article
Product design

updated on:

4 Jul

,

2024

Linear App Built $400M Issue Tracker With Next to No Marketing — Here's How

7

min to read

Dana Yatsenko

Writer at Eleken

Dana Yatsenko

Writer at Eleken

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That’s the case study of Linear app, the fastest-growing and most beloved issue-tracking tool in the world with a $400M valuation, more cash than they ever raised, and cult-like following — all with just a $35k lifetime marketing spend. 

How the heck did they manage that?

As a design agency that has worked on over a hundred SaaS products, we know the secrets behind success stories like Linear's. We'll explain exactly how they did it, and how you can do the same. Don't expect any easy answers here - their success came from a systematic approach rooted in smart moves and dedicated effort.

1. Founders’ pedigree

Linear's founders - Karri Saarinen, Jori Lallo, and Tuomas Artman - arrived on the scene with impressive Silicon Valley backgrounds:

  • Saarinen and Lallo had previously founded a Y Combinator startup before selling it to Coinbase, where both held early roles; 
  • Saarinen later also worked as a design leader at Airbnb.
  • Artman was an Uber engineering leader. 

As Artman himself admitted, they "consciously took jobs in Silicon Valley to prepare for their next startup." Smart move, if you ask me.  Not saying that the founder's brand guarantees success (hi there, Hyperloop). But those kinds of credentials give you an unfair advantage compared to beginning a sprint halfway through the race:

  • Thanks to their large Twitter followings, founders managed to line up 10,000 people for the waitlist for their closed beta.
  • And who were those early beta users, you ask? Oh, just a few of the buddies from these little future unicorns like Cohere, Runway, and Ramp.
  • Around the same time, Sequoia partner came knocking with a $4.2M seed round because, "people she trusts in her Twitter network were hyped about Linear."
founders' pedigree meme
First you build your founders' pedigree, and then the pedigree builds you

Lesson #1: Do your founder’s homework

The path to startup success starts way before your big idea — it starts from learning from the best, networking, building up your reputation, your personal brand, and your bank account.

2. The problem Linear’s solving

In his time at AirBnb Karri Saarinen noticed a strong negative sentiment towards the incumbent software in the issue tracking space (in other words, everyone hated Jira).

The hate that runs deep (sorry Jira)

So he created a Chrome extension to simplify Jira, and that extension took AirBnb’s product team by storm. There was clear interest in simplifying and beautifying issue tracking. So Linear aimed to solve inefficiency of existing project management tools for small dynamic startups, and specifically — for developers at those teams.

You can't be perfect for everyone, so when you create a tool for developers, it's gonna suck for PMs. And if you focus on small startups, bigger companies won't use it — but that's okay.

Linear focused on having product-market fit in small segments, and having it strong. As Karri Saarinen explains, in the first two years, they focused on, "getting the fit in the early stage startup segment" Basically, the goal was to become the default startup’s choice — and that's exactly what they managed to pull off.

As they started getting larger companies, they noticed that "Yeah, it's not really great for you right now, but let's work on it, making it better," and that is Linear’s product-market fit strategy for the next few years.

Lesson #2: Focus on your niche

  • Focus on it, as you’re in search for product ideas. Don’t look for something really, really original. Chances are, there's just not enough demand. Instead, find an underserved segment that the big players are ignoring. Make something opinionated and tailored for them, and you have it.
  • Focus on your niche when looking for product-market fit. If you try to be good for everyone, you'll end up being good for no one. First win your segment, then use that momentum to expand. 

3. How the product came to be

Legends say Linear was born fully-formed from the sea foam one day in June 2020, embodying the beauty of product design. But the real story is a bit more down-to-earth:

  • Stage 1: Idea validation, which took place yet in AirBnb as you already know.
  • Stage 2: Concept incubating.
  • Stage 3: Collecting a waitlist and launching a private beta — all within just a few months of starting to incubate.
  • Stage 4: MVP validation in a closed beta for a full damn year, slowly onboarding those waitlist participants. 
  • Stage 5: Only then did Linear's software become publicly available. But by that point, they had a polished look and feel, over 1,000 customers and raving fan reviews.

We usually speak about Linear as a design-driven company because of their focus on aesthetics and reducing friction for users. But the under-the-hood thing that really makes it a design-driven company is getting the initial concept tested on real users as soon as possible for as long as possible. Linear still tests each new feature in beta before launching it officially. Steal this.

Lesson #3: Get out and test

Resist the urge to hide in your cave and polish whatever you’re working on. Let people help you. Early feedback will save you from pouring hours into features or design elements that your customers don't even care about.

4. Product-led growth traction

As a collaborative tool, like Loom or Figma, Linear benefits from powerful network effects. One person starts using it, invites their team, which then invites other teams — making Linear spread organically inside companies.

This, combined with Linear's focus on delighting users allows the product to essentially sell itself through a bottom-up adoption model. No need to pour tons of money into ads when the app is winning over users one team at a time.

The network effects partially explains why Linear has been able to achieve such impressive traction with a minimal advertising budget. 

Lesson #4: Evaluate your product-led potential

Product-led growth can be super effective, but it's not for everyone. Definitely not for some nerdy non-collaborative B2B SaaS tools. Don't just chase the latest growth buzzword — the key is being honest about whether you have the right ingredients to make it work. 

5. Compelling product narrative

Do you have that feeling that there's something more powerful at play beyond the rational reasons for Linear's success? It goes deeper than just creating a useful tool.

Linear has taken a strong, opinionated stance on software development. They're in direct opposition to Silicon Valley's "fail fast", data-driven approach of A/B tests, KPIs, and rigid teams.

Instead, Linear believes in craft, taste, flexible goals, and empowered individuals. And people who resonate with Linear's cultural beliefs don't just see it as a product — they feel a sense of identity and belonging that goes way beyond functionality. For them, Linear becomes the obvious choice.

This kind of soft power is what elevates great brands like Apple and Stripe. And it's clearly working wonders for Linear as well. 

Lesson #5: Brand is what you stand for

Not the colors, or fonts, or logos. If you make your beliefs resonate with the  audience, your potential gets supercharged.

6. The naming dilemma

Product name “Linear" doesn't seem to be the best choice. Google search (reasonably) gives linear algebra results. 

Linear’s team ambitiously expected they could beat the algebra that’s dating back as far as 4000 years ago. In their brand guidelines, they state that “Linear” should be used as a single word, (not “Linear app”).

I don’t personally believe they can handle that competition (I put “Linear app" in the title so I don’t confuse you people) but the company strictly follows its guidelines with impressive self-confidence.

Lesson #6: Everyone messes up sometimes

Even founders with Coinbase, Uber, and Airbnb on their resumes are not immune. And that’s okay.

Inspired by Linear's focus on design and user delight? Our team specializes in crafting beautiful, user-friendly products that drive organic adoption. Schedule a consultation to discuss how we can do the same for your business.

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