Developers can be a tough crowd. They typically hate being marketed to and are often short on time, which sets a particularly high bar for any content marketing aimed at them.
Coming up with relevant content that developers find interesting takes specific know-how, and this is where Draft.dev comes in. Its Chicago-based founder and CEO Karl Hughes describes the firm as “a superniche content marketing production company, producing technical content for companies that want to reach software engineers.”
Hughes and his agency were recommended multiple times in our growth marketer survey, which we launched to surface experts that startups can work with. (If you have your own recommendation, please fill out the survey!) One of the survey respondents noted that developers are underrated as a target audience: It may be niche, but it is a large one. More importantly, they are an audience a growing number of startups need to reach.
“If you are going to have subject matter experts write, you also need to have good editors to work with them.”
Developer marketing came up in our conversation with strategic marketing firm MKT1, so we called on Hughes to learn more. Our discussion covered a lot of ground, from what he has learned and his ambitions to Draft.dev’s process.
Editor’s note: The interview below has been edited for length and clarity:
What kind of clients does Draft.dev work with?
Karl Hughes: Almost all of our clients are developer tools companies. Mostly Series A- and Series B-funded, so they have got some funding and some knowledge that content marketing works for their audience. What they are trying to do with us is scale production and make sure that what they are writing is going to resonate with developers.
What inspired you to create Draft.dev?
I’ve been a software developer, and then most recently was a CTO at a startup in Chicago, so I knew that there were lots of companies trying to reach developers [ … ] and that a lot of them were doing a poor job of it. So last year I wanted to combine my tech knowledge with writing knowledge, and that’s where Draft.dev came from — and it’s been awesome!
We get to work both with technical and non-technical marketing and developer relations people to help them get more content out. And even though it’s marketing content, it’s super focused on education, because developer marketing is a bit tricky. Developers can be a bit skeptical of marketing, so you have to be nuanced in your approach. You have to be genuinely helpful, so we really try to focus on helpful content that is also a net positive for the client.
What are some mistakes that you see companies making when creating content for developers?
There are a couple of big challenges that Draft.dev is specifically built to solve: Relying too much on your own team to create content when they are busy and have other priorities, and thinking that you can just get your general copywriting agency to cover developer topics. It usually doesn’t work well.
Many companies start off getting their engineers to write content and make the mistake of thinking this will work forever. Let’s say you’re a continuous integration tool and you want to write content that shows developers how your tool works and that it’s a good option. Marketing teams will go to developers and say: “Hey, could you guys write a blog post?” And they’ll usually get a few blog posts here and there, but it’s really hard to build consistent content when these engineers are building the product and have production deadlines to hit.
When you look at companies that have done developer marketing really successfully, like Okta and DigitalOcean, you see that they have dedicated teams to produce this content. There’s a reason for that: It’s almost impossible to get your engineers to write everything that you need to produce high-quality and consistent content over time.
The other big mistake that I see companies making is thinking that a general marketing writer or SEO copywriter can write great content for developers. That is super rare. I mean, I’ve probably met two or three who can do a decent job of making it look like they know enough to speak with some authority. In general, you either want somebody — either at your company or otherwise — who knows the tool.
So for example, if I ask a general SEO copywriter, “Could you write about how to write a SQL query that does X, Y and Z?”, maybe they can hack some other articles together and come up with something, but it’s certainly not going to have the authority that a real software developer has.
This is true in any area where you have to rely on subject matter experts to help you with marketing content, but because my background is in development, I knew that this was a huge problem for companies.
How does Draft.dev address that?
We are definitely not right for every company. But for companies that are looking to scale-up content production and have technical authority behind those pieces, that’s where we come in. Typically, these are companies that know they want to do developer content, but are stretched too thin on their engineering team or they have tried freelancers and have a really hard time managing them and keeping quality consistent. So they come to us to do that.
We solve that problem with a huge pool of software developers who write for us on the side. Right now we have about 50 or 60 active monthly writers who are all software developers; they work full-time jobs and do this at night and on weekends. We bring people who are actually in the field, doing these things every day. They bring that technical expertise to the articles that we create for clients.
The mutually beneficial aspect here is that while we obviously pay these writers, they also get a byline out on the client’s site. We don’t do a lot of ghostwriting, which is a little unique, but is really good for our style of content because you want to show subject matter expertise. It’s preferable when you don’t have your head of marketing listed as the author of every piece of developer content. It’s nice to have a byline by a real software developer.
All of this goes back to what your content strategy is and who you want to reach. This is not blanket advice for everybody, but for companies trying to reach developers who are writing code every day, I think it’s super helpful to have some technical authority from people actually doing this.
How do you make sure your writers have subject matter expertise?
We have a writer vetting and selection process. Once we have vetted the writers who have applied, we also look for the best match for each article. We are looking through their skills and past experience to see who’d be the best fit.
We also recruit specific writers to write about niche topics. Sometimes that means doing cold outreach; sometimes it means going through our networks and figuring out who we know who’s written about Rust before. Things like that can be really tricky and time-consuming for a marketing team to do, but because we are doing this full time for lots of clients, we can spread that work around. It makes a lot of sense, and our clients like that we do this for them.
How to you balance your writers’ technical expertise versus writing skills?
That is tough! But there are some best practices in this field. If you are going to have subject matter experts write, you also need to have good editors to work with them.
There are two sides to how we get high-quality content from software engineers who may be average writers when they start, and are often ESL speakers. The upfront part is that we plan content pretty thoroughly. We go back and forth with the content to make sure we know what we are producing, and we also have technical content planners who make sure that each article has a story, an outline and lot of structure before we give it to a writer.
The writer fills in the technical details and personal experience, and then every piece will go through three rounds of edits to get it up to our standards: a technical review; a developmental edit for things like structure and flow, and a copy edit.
How do you split these tasks?
We’ve refined this process a lot since starting this [in May 2020]. Initially, it was just me and my managing editor Chris [Wolfgang] — she had a lot of experience in editing, so she could do full-stack editing, and I was focused on writing, picking writers, reviewing, etc. That’s how we divided things in the early days, but as we grew, we realized that we wouldn’t find an army of Chrises and Karls.
We had to figure out how to split these jobs into specialities where people can do their best work, and that’s how we managed to scale and keep quality high while growing at the pace we have. We now have five full-time people and we work with over 35 startups of various sizes, so we are still a small business, but it has been growing very quickly.
How do you get new clients?
Our biggest source of new business has been referrals. Clients who work with us love what we do and refer us to other people. We have also ended up working with companies going through accelerator programs like Y Combinator, so when new YC companies ask who does developer content, they hear about us. Besides us there’s probably just a couple of other companies that specialize in this. It’s a very small field so we get mentioned a lot.
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Growth has been so organic at the moment that I haven’t pursued a lot of active outreach strategies, but we are starting to get better at boosting this [organic growth]. One of the first hires I made this year was an account manager who’s helped with maintaining relationships with existing clients and getting things like testimonials, case studies, etc. Another thing is that when people see our content, they ask the company who did it, because companies that are selling developers tools really need a way to produce this kind of content, and there aren’t many providers.
How do you complement your clients’ own content production efforts?
Our two sweet spots are bigger companies that are looking to augment their in-house content team, because they have a hard time keeping developer content going, and really small teams that are building a tool specifically for software developers and need to get going with content production or ramp it up.
A lot of our clients will have something like a community writer program in addition to what we provide. For instance, we work with Strapi, which is an open-source tool that has a big community with community writers writing about how they use Strapi.
But then they use us to augment that content, because they want to be able to set some topics themselves. A lot of times, community contributions are good for whatever your community happens to be working on, but you can’t necessarily ask your community to write about X or Y.
The other challenge here is that with any developer-focused community writing program, you are going to need to spend a lot on editing. A lot of companies underestimate the work it is going to take. That’s where we come in: Instead of hiring all these different people you need and trying to build your own process, you can slot Draft.dev in there for a while. If some day you want to go hire your own team and replace us, that’s great — we’d love you to outgrow us. But ideally, we’d like to stick around and always be part of your developer content efforts.
Do you also do anything related to content distribution, such as writing the tweets that go with the articles?
We just started doing that; it’s our first big add-on service, where for each piece of content we’ll create social media collateral, like a couple of tweets, LinkedIn posts and Reddit submissions with the subreddits they would be most appropriate for. Then the client just has someone on their team copy-paste and schedule it with whatever system they want.
We also send a full promotional checklist they can use to promote the content, because one of the challenges I see with some of the smaller companies we work with is that they sometimes get lost when it comes to getting the content we produce in front of people. If you are not a developer, it’s hard to come up with copy about a technical piece. So by offering that collateral, we’re making it a bit easier. It’s been our first foray into this. We could expand into other things in the future, but that would probably be next year.
There is no authoritative playbook for marketing these days. Every company must find its own voice, and as it grows and evolves, its marketing needs to evolve as well.
Relying on proven tactics and measurable metrics isn’t enough — today, the most effective marketers constantly study and learn from innovative approaches while exploring new avenues.
This is where Unmuted comes in. A growth marketing agency based in Amsterdam, this company focuses on LinkedIn marketing, content marketing, marketing automation and email marketing. Before starting Unmuted, Max van den Ingh was head of growth and product at MisterGreen, an electric vehicle leasing company, and he also served as head of growth marketing at ShopPop, a chat-based marketing platform.
Van den Ingh, who also serves as a guest lecturer at Nyenrode Business University, was recommended to TechCrunch through the TechCrunch Experts project. We’re currently on the lookout for top-tier growth marketers that you can recommend to other startups. If you know of one, let us know by filling out this quick survey.
Van den Ingh spoke with us about his “modern” approach to marketing, setting realistic goals, how startups had to shift during the pandemic and more.
Editor’s note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
You call Unmuted a “modern” growth marketing agency. What do you do that makes your approach to marketing modern?
The way we help our clients is fundamentally different from how most traditional marketing agencies operate. At Unmuted, our clients don’t come to us to have their ideas executed; they come to us for our process. In a way, we’ve productized a growth marketing process that generates ideas for our clients. They find immense value in that process.
Depending on the customer’s team size and resources, we either guide them during execution or execute autonomously and report back. This process-based service model is, in our opinion, the only way to grow a business in a sustainable way.
“The way we help our clients is fundamentally different from how most traditional marketing agencies operate. “
In a practical sense, this is what that process boils down to: We take all that we’ve learned from fast-growing companies and apply these principles to our clients’ businesses. Typically we focus on what we call “innovative companies” — whether that’s because they have a SaaS offering or they’re an innovator within a traditional industry doesn’t really matter. The process we’ve designed works for B2B startups, scaleups and SMBs. That last category can benefit greatly from the way we work.
Our role, then, is threefold: We come up with strategies that we carry out by experimenting with several proven marketing tactics based on our extensive in-house knowledge and experience. This relieves our clients’ marketing teams of potentially stifling tunnel vision.
Our growth program typically unfolds in three stages as well, which we call the Foundation, Acceleration and Transformation stages. In the Foundation stage, we set up the fundamentals based on an extensive audit of the client’s business, and start out with our initial experiments. In the Acceleration stage, we scale the experiments that have shown promising early results. Finally, in the Transformation stage, we teach our clients how to continue growing their business themselves. If necessary, we stick around in a consulting role.
Your work at MisterGreen helped it grow about 10x. How much can a client expect to grow when working with you? How do you help clients set realistic goals?
Setting goals is always a challenge, especially when it comes to marketing. Why should you aim for a certain number? Why not aim higher, or lower, for that matter? At Unmuted, when we start working with a new client, we perform a series of exercises together. This helps us get a clear picture of where the client is now and where they could be when we’ve optimized marketing.
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Next, instead of fixed numbers, like a specific amount of new customers in a given period, we focus on growth levers, like month-over-month growth in certain conversion or activation areas. Focusing on growth levers makes our work more actionable.
We then construct a framework as part of our growth program that also allows room for certain beliefs a company has. I feel this “belief system” is truly essential to any growth marketing strategy. If you don’t allow room for gut feeling activities and only focus on data-driven projects, you will end up only working on things you can measure. We believe that growth marketing will become more effective when you also invest time and effort in channels and spaces you can’t necessarily measure.
When people talk about your solution on WhatsApp or during podcast episodes, that’s amazing and will effectively influence revenue, but sometimes there’s just no way to track these activities.
Finally, we don’t make any guarantees when it comes to growth results. That’s not how it works. We’ll always aim to maximize results as part of the process. Diligent focus on continuous improvement and optimization comes first. Results will automatically follow afterward.
For instance, we recently helped a B2B SaaS platform increase demo requests by 350%. But this wasn’t the goal at all. The process we were following was focused on optimizing every aspect of the demo request journey, from acquiring visitors to optimizing the demo page and more. Every experiment we ran increased the demo request metric to some extent. After six months, you start seeing these compounded results.
You were also the head of growth at ShopPop. How did that experience shape the way you help your clients?
Working for a fast-growing B2B SaaS company with a self-serve product taught me quite a few things. For starters, the importance of getting a really clear understanding of what sustainable growth looks like. Especially in growth marketing, there are a lot of things you can do to gain short-term results. But this doesn’t necessarily help, because you might be acquiring customers that you lose in the long run.
For example, running aggressive advertising campaigns in the early stages to acquire new users in sectors that you know won’t benefit considerably from your product. This type of superficial growth will come back in the form of churn sooner rather than later, and simply isn’t sustainable.
At Unmuted, when we start working with a new client, we put a lot of time and effort into understanding their best type of customers, what their problems are, and why that’s the case. Only then do we start looking at how to solve those problems with our client’s products or services.
You’re a guest lecturer at Nyenrode Business University and do speaking engagements as well. What do you hope people take away from your talks?
When I stand in front of a crowd during a speaking engagement, I always share stories about times where I took a pragmatic approach and did things differently. Growth can come in different shapes and forms, and although it often seems simple, it’s never easy. People, and especially management, have to understand that growth takes time and that you need failures to learn.
You need to have conversations to be able to learn and iterate. It’s better to have the wrong type of conversations than not having any at all. Without feedback, there’s no way to grow. And while an eagerness to learn comes naturally to most marketers, this isn’t necessarily the case for your average business person. If I can inspire audiences with my approach to growing by learning, I think that’s a great takeaway.
How have you seen startups change during the pandemic?
A lot of startups have been forced to change their approaches during the pandemic. Some have adapted successfully, while others are now stuck. I experienced it personally when I was still working at ShopPop, where we were focused on the music industry when the pandemic hit.
Music industry clients weren’t buying, for obvious reasons, so we had to pivot somehow. We ended up moving into e-commerce, which was, and still is, booming.
As the pandemic continues, what trends are you seeing in growth marketing?
The biggest trend I’m currently seeing is in the role marketing departments play. These have never been as important as they are now. Digital marketers, especially, are often the ones that come up with new ideas as to how a company can grow online. Nobody will know how the COVID-19 pandemic will play out, but in the meantime, every company is trying to adapt and find new ways to connect with their customers in unique, meaningful ways.
Logically, we’re seeing a surge in demand for online events like webinars and virtual summits. But everybody is doing those. So where can you carve out your own thing that becomes recognizable for your brand? Discovering these new channels and approaches — I think that should be the role of marketing.
How have you seen the startup market develop while working in growth?
The development of the startup market has been most noticeable in how new standards are being set. For example, startups have always been characterized as fast movers, but remote working and the rise of highly collaborative tools have further increased the speed at which startups operate. The whole industry transformed from speedboats into rocket ships. Talent became much more accessible, and through that internal cultures became more diverse and more resilient.
You can always depend on startups adopting new ways of working early on. They need to differentiate in order to survive, and a novel approach can be the one thing that makes them stand out from the crowd.
You have to understand that working at a startup often feels like you’re standing on the edge of a cliff. And that’s also the moment you’re at your most creative. I think this is also how growth marketing as a whole came about. In competitive markets, people have to fight for their right to exist. Marketing is often a way to radically differentiate. When people become really good at that, set new standards and raise the bar, the market develops as a whole.
What do startups continue to get wrong?
It’s been said many times before, but even today, most startups don’t learn quickly and deeply enough. Founders often have an amazing idea and vision of how things will play out. But how much field experience does this person really have? Enough to be able to foresee the future?
Usually, for startups, short-term growth goes well — they get some initial traction from their network, but then the next phase kicks in. Especially when there’s an investment involved, putting more pressure on the commercial side of things, this next phase will mean encountering a lot of hurdles.
When a company doesn’t find a strong enough product-market fit and doesn’t apply what its learned early on, things will get extremely tough. In this phase, a lot of research and experimentation is necessary. If the founding team isn’t up for this and they put their heads in the sand, the startup will deteriorate quickly.
On the other side: What are startups doing better now than ever before?
The best thing a startup can do, and I’m seeing it happen more and more, is investing in community early on. When I was leading growth at MisterGreen, we created a community for the first thousand Tesla Model 3 owners in the Netherlands. Everyone wanted to be a part of this founding tribe, learn from each other, get insights and so on.
This group turned out to be our most effective marketing tool. Word-of-mouth went through the roof. We had all of these people talking about our community at birthday parties, in their office, you name it. This is a great example of investing in marketing you can’t really measure, but which you do strongly believe in.
Emily Kramer and Kathleen Estreich are the founders of of MKT1, a strategic marketing firm that does much more than just marketing. As we mentioned the last time we spoke with the company, it offers a plethora of services ranging from marketing consulting and organizing recruiting and mentoring workshops to angel syndicate investing.
The two founders took to Twitter Spaces on July 20 with TechCrunch Managing Editor Danny Crichton to talk about about the growth marketing industry. They offered some new perspectives, like thinking of growth marketing as an engine and other subdivisions of marketing that make up growth marketing, as the fuel.
After talking about what they were seeing in marketing, we opened the floor for a Q&A session that founders took advantage of to ask how to know when to hire a marketer and when is it good to outsource.
Below is an excerpt from the Twitter Spaces event, edited for length and clarity.
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What is growth marketing?
Emily Kramer: I think the easiest way to think about it is: Marketing consists of the fuel and an engine. Growth marketing is the engine and content marketing, product marketing, comms, events — all of that are your fuel. It’s building that engine: Everything from building marketing ops and making sure that you’re tracking and can get everything out the door, to what you’re doing with email, ads, SEO and on your website. All of these things that are used to drive your audience throughout your funnel.
“Marketing consists of the fuel and an engine. Growth marketing is the engine and content marketing, product marketing, comms, events — all of that are your fuel.”
It’s not just getting someone to sign up or getting someone to be a qualified lead to pass over to sales. It’s also supporting the customer success team and the product team. Anything that is communicating with your audience in a one-to-many way is how I think about the marketing function. Specifically growth marketing in general — it’s a full funnel, it’s the engine, and it’s ever changing.
We in marketing have 5,000 names for everything, including growth marketing. You’ll often hear in top-down sales organizations it is called demand gen, but I really think of demand gen as a subset of growth marketing focused specifically on driving leads to sales. That’s kind of what it is and how I define it. Every marketer you talk to would define it a little bit differently.
What does the landscape of growth marketing look like in 2021? What are you seeing in summer 2021?
Kramer: We’re seeing two major shifts. One is thinking about how community is a part of this, or at least throwing around the word “community” for things that have always been done. “Community-led growth” is obviously a big buzzword; that’s basically getting people in conversation to drive growth. The phrase “product-led growth” is another, and that is really just another way to describe self-serve.
Having growth marketers who can collaborate with product growth roles and product growth teams and having one centralized team has been a trend over the past 10 years. But now the term product-led growth is what we use for all of that. Marketers love to rebrand even their own functions.
Kathleen Estreich: A lot of companies are starting to think about growth marketing earlier. We’re seeing a lot of companies thinking about hiring their first marketer. It used to be you’d hire at Series A, but because all the funding rounds are sort of being moved up a level, a lot of seed-stage companies are thinking about growth earlier.
The skill sets of growth marketers are in high demand. They always have been, but it feels pretty acute right now. Given that a lot of the companies are raising money earlier and starting to try and build that traction faster to grow into the valuations, we’re starting to see a huge need. Pretty much every company we talked to is wanting to hire and thinking about growth levers they should be using earlier.
Where is there an oversupply of folks? Where is there an undersupply? Where’s the demand today? What’s underutilized today?
Estreich: In general, marketers are in pretty high demand. Product marketing in particular has been pretty interesting. We’re seeing a lot of folks in product marketing roles, because typically, the first marketer at a startup is someone who has product marketing experience and there are many companies being started and they’re looking for product marketers. And finding someone who has the experience in product marketing, who’s not just coming from a big company.
I think product marketing at a larger organization, you’re very much tied to a product line; you’re doing just product marketing. But at an early-stage company, you’re not doing just product marketing; you also need someone who understands distribution. So we encourage a lot of companies to hire someone that is what we call a pi-shaped marketer: Someone who has depth and competence in two areas of marketing.
Usually it’s product marketing and growth marketing, and finding that person is really challenging in a normal market. I would say in this market in particular, it’s a pretty tough role to fill. But if you can find the right person, you might have to make some trade-offs on either the level or the experience that you’re bringing someone in. But if you can find a person who has competence in product and growth marketing, I think that’s someone a lot of companies can benefit from in the early days of building their marketing teams.
Kramer: I’ve had a couple of startups that I’ve talked to, even in recent weeks, and I’ve heard, “Oh, our first marketer is going to be a community marketer.” That role is evolving and changing a lot. Back when I started doing startup marketing, about 10 years ago, community really meant social media, and it doesn’t mean that at all anymore. So finding people that have had that exact role before is really difficult.
In some cases, when people say community marketing, they mean they’ve done a lot of content, virtual events or customer success. I think when people post that role, it’s kind of like square peg, round hole or not knowing if it’s square peg, round hole. I sometimes see this mismatch on roles that are posted and the talent that is actually available.
I think my advice to marketers based on that is: Really read the job description, and maybe the title — does it match exactly what you’ve done, or does the title even match what you think you should be doing? Maybe there’s an opportunity there to kind of educate on what you can do and also educate on how to define roles in really early-stage companies.
When is a good time to start working with a growth marketer?
Estreich: A question we hear quite often is, “When do I know is the right time to hire my first marketer?” One of the things that Emily and I often tell founders is, the founding team is the first marketing team. You’re doing a lot of the early messaging and positioning. Usually kind of the early vision — that’s probably how you raised money. I think the way to think about it is to take a step back and ask, “Okay, what are the needs? What are the things that we’re trying to get done?” And thinking about product-market fit.
I think a product marketer, growth marketer or pi-shaped marketer is generally the first person that you would bring on. You want to make sure before you bring your first marketer that you actually have a product that’s ready to go to market. And if not, then it’s probably worth waiting until you have the product out there with some semblance of a handful of customers. Once you have that, then it might be time to start thinking about who that first marketer is.
I think the first marketer then is usually some combination of a product marketer with growth experience or a growth marketer with product marketing experience. Someone who, like Emily said at the beginning of the call, has experience with your business model and is ready to roll up their sleeves, because the first marketing job when you’re an early-stage company involves wearing a lot of hats, testing a lot of hypotheses and doing a lot of the work.
So you want to make sure that you don’t hire someone too senior who is not going to want to do the work. They’re just going to want to hire a team, which you’re probably not ready for. You also want to make sure they’re not too junior and they don’t even know what to do yet. Finding that balance, a midlevel person, is also going to be important.
Kramer: You mentioned that a product marketer can help you find the right niche to focus on. I think you should have some customers and a starting place. A better way to describe product marketers is actually audience marketers — they are figuring out how to communicate what you do to a specific audience. You probably have some idea, but they’re going to help you continue to explore within your team, like, “Should we expand to other audiences? Should we stay within this niche? What do those different audiences need? Are we talking to customers? What are they saying?”
They are responsible for knowing everything about your audience and also helping you grow into and test new audiences. That’s a huge part of the product marketing role. But again, it can be really risky to bring that person on too early at the sacrifice of building product and getting things out the door.
Is MKT1 seeing any trends with B2B and growth-stage businesses around the balance between hiring FTEs and outsourcing certain marketing functions?
Kramer: Early on, I think founders think, “I don’t need to hire a marketer. I’m spending so much time on marketing, but I don’t need to hire a marketer, or I’ll just hire a contractor or agency for content. I’ll hire a contractor or agency for paid or for SEM or even for SEO.” Then you end up with all of these contractors. But contractors, even the best of contractors, are only good when they have a contact or someone to help them review things, and when they have clear instructions on what they need to do. Because you’re working with so many clients, you can’t get up to speed on all of that quickly.
The management overhead of a contractor agency is sometimes just as much as doing the work yourself, especially if you are not experienced in that area, because of all the back and forth. Many times, marketing is more iterative than some other areas of the business where you can hand over some things, especially when it comes to the creative aspects, because you’re figuring out what your brand is. There’s just going to be a lot of back and forth.
I think there are a couple of areas where agencies and contractors are better to hire. One of those areas is paid searches. You won’t need to hire an SEM specialist for a while. And it is definitely a specialty; it is a unique beast and kind of changes a lot, what’s working and what’s not. Having someone who understands how that works and is inside AdWords all day is really helpful, so that’s a good area to bring someone on. So no matter the size of my marketing team, I think I’ve always had a search agency to augment. Even when I’ve had a dedicated search person on my team, I’ve still had an agency to augment them. That’s something you’ll always need; you’ll need different agencies as you scale to do different things.
I think another area where it makes sense is on the content side, to augment the content people or your product marketer. Again, you need to have a clear understanding of what you’re trying to write about, what you’re trying to say, what your unique perspective is, what your brand is, before you start paying a contractor to write a bunch of content. Because what you’re going to end up with if you do that, is just a bunch of content that doesn’t really say anything; it doesn’t really drive a goal.
So content, paid search, always really good areas. And then as you scale — not at the beginning, most likely there are some exceptions depending on what type of business you are — but PR is the other area where media relationships, I mean, we’re talking to TechCrunch here, but like they can probably speak more to this. But media relationships are something where economies of scale really come into play. So having an agency that is a master in media or has a bunch of media relationships makes a lot of sense. That’s more later on. PR, content and paid search, but make sure you have people internally to manage them or it can become more detrimental than helpful.
With more venture funding flowing into the startup ecosystem than ever before, there’s never been a better time to be a growth expert.
At TechCrunch Early Stage: Marketing and Fundraising earlier this month, Greylock Partners’ Mike Duboe dug into a number of lessons and pieces of wisdom he’s picked up leading growth at a number of high-growth startups, including StitchFix. His advice spanned hiring, structure and analysis, with plenty of recommendations for where growth teams should be focusing their attention and resources.
Before Duboe’s presentation kicked off, he spent some time zeroing in on a definition of growth, which he cautioned can mean many different things at many different companies. Being so context-dependent means that “being good at growth” is more dependent on honing capabilities rather than following a list of best practices.
Growth is something that’s blatantly obvious and poorly defined in the startup world, so I do think it’s important to give a preamble to all of this stuff. First and foremost, growth is very context dependent; some teams treat it as a product function, others marketing, some sales or “other.” Some companies will do growth with a dedicated growth team; others have abandoned the team but still do it equally well. Some companies will goal growth teams purely on acquisition, others will deploy them against retention or other metrics. So, taking a step back from that, I define growth as a function that accelerates a company’s pace of learning.
Growth is everyone’s job; if a bunch of people in the company are working on one problem, and it’s just someone off in the corner working on growth, you probably failed at setting up the org correctly. (Timestamp: 1:11)
While growth is good, growing something that is unsustainable is an intense waste of time and money. Head of growth is often an early role that founders aim to fill, but Duboe cautioned early-stage entrepreneurs from focusing too heavily on growth before nailing the fundamentals.
I’ve seen many companies make the mistake of working on growth prior to nailing product-market fit. I think this mistake becomes even more common in an environment where there’s rampant VC funding, so while some of the discipline here is useful early on, I’d really encourage founders to be laser-focused on finding that fit before iterating on growth. (Timestamp: 2:29)
The bulk of Duboe’s presentation focused on laying out 10 of the “most poignant and generalizable” lessons in growth that he’s learned over the years, with lessons on focus, optimization and reflection.
Growth modeling and metric design — I view as the most fundamental part of growth. This does not require a growth team so any good head of growth should require some basic growth model to prioritize what to work on. (Timestamp: 3:09)
The first point Duboe touched on was one on how to visualize your growth opportunities using models, using an example from his past role leading growth at Tilt, where his team used user state models to determine where to direct resources and look for growth opportunities.
The second lesson is to prioritize retention before driving acquisition, a very obvious or intuitive lesson, but it’s also easy to forget given it’s typically less straightforward to figure out how to retain users versus acquiring new ones. (Timestamp: 4:19)
Retention is typically cheaper than acquiring wholly new users, Duboe noted, also highlighting how a startup focusing on retention can help them understand more about who their power users are and who exactly they should be building for.
Bringing on new ideas is obviously a positive, but often ideas need guidelines to be helpful, and setting the right templates early on can help team members filter down their ideas while ensuring they meet the need of the organization.
Caryn Marooney, Silicon Valley communications professional turned venture capitalist, spoke extensively on storytelling at TechCrunch Early Stage: Marketing and Fundraising. During her talk, she broke down messaging into four critical parts.
Marooney knows what she’s talking about: Throughout her time in Silicon Valley, she helped companies like Salesforce, Amazon, Facebook and more launch products and maintain messaging. In 2019, she left Facebook, where she was VP of technology communication, and joined Coatue Management as a general partner.
The presentation is summarized below and lightly edited for readability. Marooney breaks down her method into the acronym of RIBS: Relevance, Inevitability, Believability and keeping it Simple. A video of her presentation is also embedded below and contains 20 minutes of Q&A where she answers audience questions and covers a lot of ground.
Marooney has written extensively on this subject for TechCrunch, including this article, where she describes her RIBS method in detail. Last month, she expanded on this topic with her go-to-market strategy around building a hamburger.
‘The gift of editing is critical. Do not just write all your ideas and get very excited about what you think and ship it.’
Why should anyone care? Does anyone care? That’s the point Marooney is making here. The message must be relevant to the audience before anything else.
The very first thing is why anyone should care. And it’s important to remember that as a startup, you’re in a situation where nobody knows you. And nobody thinks, “Oh, I should really care about this. So you need to be very specific about who your audiences are and why they should care and why it matters to them. Early on, too. Relevance is usually to a very small audience, and you earn the right every day to expand that audience.
So, for example, when I was first working with Salesforce, it was a very narrow set of salespeople, for small- and medium-sized businesses, there was always the sense that it was going to be a cloud provider for companies of every size, but you have to start somewhere. And when you’re starting somewhere, you can paint the bigger picture. But you have to be specific about the benefits to your smaller audience. (Timestamp: 1:48)
In addition to talking about Tesla, Marooney uses the counter-example of the Segway, which shows a great idea alone is not enough. Even though Segways were introduced as a world-changing mode of transportation, in 2021, Segways are mainly only used by mall cops and tourists.
Tailor Brands, a startup that automates parts of the branding and marketing process for small businesses, announced Thursday it has raised $50 million in Series C funding.
GoDaddy led the round as a strategic partner and was joined by OurCrowd and existing investors Pitango Growth, Mangrove Capital Partners, Armat Group, Disruptive VC and Whip Media founder Richard Rosenblatt. Tailor Brands has now raised a total of $70 million since its inception in 2015.
“GoDaddy is empowering everyday entrepreneurs around the world by providing all of the help and tools to succeed online,” said Andrew Morbitzer, vice president of corporate development at GoDaddy, in a written statement. “We are excited to invest in Tailor Brands — and its team — as we believe in their vision. Their platform truly helps entrepreneurs start their business quickly and easily with AI-powered logo design and branding services.”
When Tailor Brands, which launched at TechCrunch’s Startup Battlefield in 2014, raised its last round, a $15.5 million Series B, in 2018, the company was focused on AI-driven logo creation.
The company, headquartered in New York and Tel Aviv, is now compiling the components for a one-stop SaaS platform — providing the design, branding and marketing services a small business owner needs to launch and scale operations, and within minutes, Yali Saar, co-founder and CEO of Tailor Brands told TechCrunch.
Over the past year, more users are flocking to Tailor Brands; the company is onboarding some 700,000 new users per month for help in the earliest stages of setting up their business. In fact, the company saw a 27% increase in new business incorporations as the creator and gig economy gained traction in 2020, Saar said.
In addition to the scores of new users, the company crossed 30 million businesses using the platform. At the end of 2019, Tailor Brands started monetizing its offerings and “grew at a staggering rate,” Saar added. The company yielded triple-digit annual growth in revenue.
To support that growth, the new funding will be used on R&D, to double the team and create additional capabilities and functions. There may also be future acquisition opportunities on the table.
Saar said Tailor Brands is at a point where it can begin leveraging the massive amount of data on small businesses it gathers to help them be proactive rather than reactive, turning the platform into a “consultant of sorts” to guide customers through the next steps of their businesses.
“Users are looking for us to provide them with everything, so we are starting to incorporate more products with the goal of creating an ecosystem, like WeChat, where you don’t need to leave the platform at all to manage your business,” Saar said.
As we move toward a privacy-centric, less targeted future of growth marketing, the biggest lever will become creative on paid social channels such as the Facebooks of the world. The loss of attribution from our good friend iOS 14.5 has accelerated this trend, but channels have increasingly placed efforts toward automating their ad platforms.
Due to this, I believe that every growth marketing engine should have a proper creative testing framework in place — be it a seed-stage startup or a behemoth like Google.
After three years at Postmates, consulting for various startups, and most recently at Uber, I’ve seen the landscape of marketing change in a multitude of ways. However, what we’re seeing now is being orchestrated by factors out of our control, causing a dawn of shifts unlike anything I’ve seen. Creative has subsequently risen to become the most powerful lever in a paid social account.
If you’re looking to leverage the power of creative and succeed with paid social marketing, you’re thinking right. What you need is a creative testing framework: A structured and consistent way to test new creative assets.
Here’s a breakdown of the pieces a creative testing framework needs to be successful:
Creative has become the most powerful lever in a paid social account.
Testing creative should be a constant and iterative process that follows a defined testing schedule. A goal and structure can be as simple as testing five new creative assets per week. Inversely, it can be as complex as testing 60 new assets consisting of multiple themes and copy variations.
For a lower spending account, the creative testing should be leaner due to limited event signal and vice versa with a higher spending account. The most important aspect is that the testing continues to move the needle as you search for your next “champion” asset.
4 themes x 3 variants per theme x 5 copy variations = 60 assets. Image Credits: Jonathan Martinez
After setting a testing schedule, define the core themes of your business and vertical rather than testing a plethora of random ideas. This applies to the creative asset as well as the copy and what the key value props are to your product or service. As you start to analyze the creative data, you’ll find it easier to decide what to double down on or cut from testing with this structure. Think of this as a wireframe that you either expand or trim throughout testing sprints.
For a fitness app like MyFitnessPal, it can be structured as follows:
It’s vital to make sure you have a channel-specific approach, as each one will differ in creative best practices along with testing capabilities. What works on Facebook may not work on Snapchat or the numerous other paid social channels. Don’t be discouraged if creative between channels perform differently, although I do recommend parity testing. If you already have the creative asset for one channel, it doesn’t hurt to resize and format for the remaining channels.
Equally important to the creative is proper event selection and a statistically significant threshold to abide by throughout all testing. When selecting an event to use for creative testing, it’s not always possible to use your north-star metric depending on how high your CACs are. For example, if you’re selling a high-ticket item and the CACs are in the hundreds, it would take an enormous amount of spend to reach stat-sig on each creative asset. Instead, pick an event that’s more upper funnel and a strong indicator of a user’s likelihood of converting.
Using a more upper-funnel event leads to faster learnings (blue line). Image Credits: Jonathan Martinez
It’s important to select a percentage that stays consistent across all creative testing when deciding on which statistically significant percentage to use. As a rule of thumb, I like to use a certainty of 80%+, because it allows for enough confirmation along with the ability to make quicker decisions. A great (and free) online calculator is Neil Patel’s A/B Testing Significance Calculator.
You’re scrolling through a social feed, a sleek gold pendant catches your eye, but all the messaging has is the brand name and product specifications. It hooked your attention, but what did it do to reel you in? Think about it: What are you doing to not only hook, but reel people in with “creative” — the make or break it factor in paid social growth marketing?
Creative testing is only getting tougher for mobile campaigns as iOS 14.5 obfuscates user data, but that doesn’t equal impossible and simply means we need to get craftier. There are a variety of hacks that can be implemented to help gain clear insight on how creative is performing — some may not last forever and others may be timeless.
Amid all the privacy restrictions, we still have access to a huge population of users on Android that we should take advantage of. Instead of running all creative tests on iOS, Android can be used as a clear way to gather insights, as privacy restrictions haven’t rolled out on those devices yet. The data gathered from Android tests can then be taken directionally and applied to iOS campaigns. It’s only a matter of time until Android data is also at the mercy of data restrictions, so use this workaround to inform iOS campaigns now.
If running Android campaigns isn’t a viable option, another quick and easy solution is to throw up a website lead form to gauge the conversion rate from creative asset to a completed form. The user experience will certainly not be nearly as amazing as evergreen, but this can be used to gain insight for a short period of time (and small percentage of budget).
When crafting the lead form, think of questions that are both qualifying and would indicate someone completing your north-star event on the evergreen experience. After running people through the lead form, communications can be sent to convert them so ad dollars are being put to good use.
The testing efforts for creative asset types should differ widely by account stage and can be broken down into three I’s: imitation, iteration, innovation.
The type of creative testing should vary over time. Image Credits: Jonathan Martinez
The earlier an account stage, the more your creative direction should rely on what’s proven to work by other advertisers. These other advertisers have spent thousands proving performance with their assets, and you can gain strong insight from them. As time passes, you can slightly slow derivation from other advertisers while focusing on iterating on the best performers. If a percentage had to be placed, I would target 80% of efforts on imitation early on, with iteration gaining steam, and innovation being the final, heavy-lagging prong.
This isn’t to say that innovation can’t be attempted early on if there are great ideas, but generally a more mature company can afford to spend heaps to validate their innovative ideas. Whether you have an in-house design team or are working with freelancers, it’ll also be much easier to spin up 50 variations than it will be to think of and design 50 different innovative assets. Imitating and iterating will make your early testing exponentially more efficient.
Brainstorming and trying to imagine the most beautiful, eye-catching, hook-inducing creative doesn’t always happen within seconds, let alone minutes or hours. This is where utilizing competitor insights comes into play. The most abundant resource is the Facebook Ads Library bar none, because it contains all the creative assets that every advertiser is using across the platform. It always surprises me how few actually know of this free and powerful tool.
When browsing through competitors or best-in-class advertisers in this library, a sign of a great performing creative is how long an advertiser has been running specific assets. How does one find that? The date of when an advertiser started running their creative is stamped conveniently on each asset — this is beyond powerful. I can spend hours scanning through creative assets, and each advertiser provides even more intel and inspiration.
Creative should be at the top of the list as you think of where to place efforts on your paid social growth marketing. We must have a hacky mindset as data becomes more obscure, but with that mindset comes separating the winners from the losers. The types of strategies put in motion will vary over time, but what won’t vary is the importance on strong creative, the make it or break it factor to success.
A famous poem advises us not to compare ourselves with others, “for always there will be greater and lesser persons than yourself.”
The same holds true for startup fundraising; the size of your seed round will be determined solely by your company’s immediate needs and the investors you’re working with.
“Remember that fundraising is not the goal,” says three-time YC alum Yin Wu. “Building a successful business is.”
Full Extra Crunch articles are only available to members.
Use discount code ECFriday to save 20% off a one- or two-year subscription.
If you are an early-stage founder who’s seeking clarity about apportioning equity — or if you’re biting your nails over how much to raise — read this primer. It’s also a useful overview for early employees and co-founders who may be new to startup financing.
Thanks very much for reading Extra Crunch! I hope you have a great week.
Senior Editor, TechCrunch
Image Credits: MKT1
Join us today at 2 p.m. PDT/5 p.m. EDT/10 p.m. London for a Twitter Spaces conversation with Emily Kramer and Kathleen Estreich, founders of MKT1, a partnership that advises SaaS startups.
In addition to their work with individual companies, they also run founder workshops, a job board and a marketer-led syndicate.
Emily has built marketing teams from scratch at companies like Asana, Carta, and Astro, and Kathleen has scaled and led marketing and operations teams at several high-growth startups, including Intercom, Box, Facebook and Scalyr.
If you have an Android device or an iPhone and a Twitter account, click here to join the conversation or set a reminder:
Image Credits: Nigel Sussman (opens in a new window)
Alex Wilhelm and Natasha Mascarenhas look into recent figures from U.S. edtech giant Duolingo.
It announced a first price range of $85 to $95 per share, which Alex and Natasha note “feels strong.”
“If Duolingo poses a strong debut, consumer edtech startups will be able to add a golden data point to their pitch decks,” they write. “A strong Duolingo listing could also signal that mission-driven startups can have impressive turns.”
But if it struggles?
“The wave of consumer edtech apps may lose some enthusiasm about going public.”
Image Credits: Bryce Durbin
Seven years ago, ad executive Jen Young and tech entrepreneur Jeff Cavins stepped away from the careers they’d built to launch Outdoorsy, an RV rental marketplace.
Last month, they announced a partnership with high-end camping company Collective Retreats and raised a $90 million Series D and $40 million in debt to speed up an already impressive rate of growth.
To learn more about their approach to building a transportation company that caters to people who crave a taste of nomadic existence, Rebecca Bella interviewed Young and Cavins for Extra Crunch.
Their conversation explored the impacts of COVID-19, their business strategy and why they decided to take on $30 million in debt financing:
Jeff Cavins: We like to look at macro trends as a business and I think U.S. monetary policy is going to get us all in a little bit of trouble. So we wanted to lock in a credit facility for the company at advantageous terms.
Image Credits: Steve Jennings/Getty Images for TechCrunch
TechCrunch virtually sat down with venture capitalist and Cleo Capital managing director Sarah Kunst at our latest Early Stage event. Kunst joined us to chat about preparing for raising capital in today’s frenetic fundraising environment, digging into the gritty mechanics for the audience.
This post rounds up a few favorite excerpts from the chat, starting with Kunst’s notes on how to make a killer pitch deck.
She also offered advice regarding incorporation, how to find a co-founder and when startups are too large to join an accelerator.
Image Credits: Klaus Vedfelt (opens in a new window) / Getty Images
The good news for biotech startups is that investment in the sector is soaring.
“Along the way, founders will need to procure additional investments, develop strategic partnerships and stave off competition,” Kevin A. O’Connor, a partner in the Intellectual Property practice group at Neal Gerber Eisenberg, writes in a guest column. “All of which starts by protecting the fundamental asset of any biotech company: its intellectual property.”
Image Credits: Luis Alvarez / Getty Images
Alex Wilhelm and Ron Miller dug into ServiceMax, a company that builds software for the field-service industry, after it announced it would go public via a SPAC.
“Broadly, ServiceMax’s business has a history of modest growth and cash consumption,” they write. “It promises a big change to that storyline, though. Here’s how.”
At our recent Early Stage event, we had the opportunity to talk with Arvind Purushotham, the managing director and global head of Citi Ventures, about how startups should think about corporate venture arms, including what a check from an enterprise like Citi can mean, and how to leverage that kind of goliath once it’s already a financial partner.
For founders trying to understand the benefits and potential pitfalls of working with a corporate venture arm versus a more traditional venture team, it’s worth zipping through this discussion.
Image Credits: Nigel Sussman (opens in a new window)
Alex Wilhelm considers what Robinhood’s first IPO price range ($38 to $42 per share) means for the U.S. consumer fintech giant and whether we can expect it to raise the range again before it debuts.
In picking apart Robinhood’s latest filing, Alex noticed an aside about decreased crypto trading volume.
“Because Robinhood deals with consumers, who might decide to trade less in time, it has more uncertainty in its future growth than, say, Zoom,” he notes.
Image Credits: Kena Betancur / Getty Images
Zoom plans to spend a little less than a sixth of its value on Five9, which sells software that allows users to reach customers across platforms and record notes on their interactions.
Alex Wilhelm notes “that Five9’s revenue growth rate is a fraction of Zoom’s.”
“The larger company, then, is buying a piece of revenue that is growing slower than its core business. That’s a bit of a flip from many transactions that we see, in which the smaller company being acquired is growing faster than the acquiring entity’s own operations.
“Why would Zoom buy slower growth for so very much money?”
Few companies have deeper insights into the day-by-day state of venture capital than AngelList.
According to the company’s data, over 51% of the “top tier U.S. VC deals” involve their platform and tools, giving them a remarkably expansive view of everything going on.
AngelList Venture CEO Avlok Kohli joined us at TechCrunch Early Stage to discuss topics ranging from the state of the market to his thoughts on why there’s suddenly so much money flooding into VC (sending valuations to the sky), and where AngelList could go from here.
Maya Moufarek, founder of Marketing Cube, spent more than 15 years working for companies like Google and American Express before launching her own agency. Today, her London-based firm works with startups around the world — and her startup clients have raved about the results, based on what we’ve heard in our TechCrunch Experts growth marketing survey.
“She’s an absolute powerhouse who knows growth better than anyone I know,” according to Alice at The Lowdown. Nikki O’Farrell of KatKin told us that “[She has an] expert ear and eye from the world of startups/scaleups and growth. Her functional and direct approach allows you to execute at speed and see results quickly.” Constance at Luko said that they “[r]eally liked her mindset, both hands-on, no bullshit while also super strategic.”
We interviewed Moufarek to get her take on lessons she’s learned from working with larger companies, how she applies them to smaller companies, her approach to optimizing her clients’ success, trends she’s seeing in growth marketing and more.
(This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and length.)
We received many testimonials about you through our TechCrunch Experts project that mentioned your direct approach and hands-on experience. How do you think those qualities contribute to your success in working with startups and forming strategies?
The truth is, a lot of the time ambitious founders and executive teams don’t have a marketing background, so they need to outsource to find the right support to deliver on huge growth ambitions — usually within very limited time frames.
“Choose a marketer or agency with no direct experience and you may simply get the wrong answer for your situation.”
In that situation, experience is everything — there’s no one-size-fits-all marketing approach for startups. Marketing strategies that help find product-market fit are very different from acquiring your first 100 customers, which is very different from scaling your customer acquisition or lead generation. There are also a lot of intricacies to this sort of role, which makes it pretty unique — choose a marketer or agency with no direct experience and you may simply get the wrong answer for your situation.
Having gained 15+ years of experience in a range of businesses — from startups to conglomerates, and experience of Series A to private equity — I’ve had the opportunity to actually apply the tried-and-tested practices of hypergrowth, as well as offer the full stack of C-level support. That’s why I founded MarketingCube.co, a boutique strategic growth consultancy for innovative startups and scaleups.
Being direct is critical, because by their very nature, startups are after fast and transformative outcomes, not never-ending presentations and lengthy processes, so a hands-on approach is crucial. You need to get straight to the beating heart of the business, understand the culture, involve the right people — and be comfortable telling founders and exec teams things they don’t always want to hear. In return, they get a solid foundation, ambitious deliverables, and the right tools to hit the ground running and continue to do so after you leave the room.
What lessons did you learn from working with larger companies such as Google and American Express that you use when working with startups?
Now, everyone sees Google as this huge company with endless products and expansive teams, but back in 2005 when I worked there, it didn’t seem like a megacompany. It was post-IPO hypergrowth, but the EMEA and emerging markets I contributed to were like regional startups within a scaleup. At the other end of the scale, American Express was a more traditional and established corporation with legacy systems and processes that was beginning to go through a digital transformation.
So the lessons learnt from these companies vary widely — but there are some universal principles that are always relevant.
One lesson — which was especially true at Amex — is to always be prepared for shifting markets that may disrupt your business. That may seem strange advice for a new startup, but the economy is volatile and things change very fast. It’s hard to prepare for every situation, but you need to have the vision and drive to lead the market, as well as the means to execute it.
In terms of CX/UX, I tell everyone I work with that less is always more. It might be a cliché, but that doesn’t mean it’s not true. By this I mean, customers want fewer clicks, fewer words and simpler, more direct steps to reach their end goal.
Google really understood that it’s essential to provide your customers with a seamless experience and to delight them throughout — after all, customers are the lifeblood of any successful business.
If your organization is truly customer-centric, it’s always possible to deliver a digital transformation successfully or adapt to a changing market. Amex has shown how a brand and business can reinvent itself many times over.
Finally, always agree on a clear set of objectives and key results (OKRs) to ensure focus, prioritization and collaboration. Agility and speed are the competitive advantages of young businesses and OKRs help deliver that, as well as create accountability.
Has a growth marketing expert made a big difference for your startup? Please share your recommendation in our survey.
When looking at your portfolio, you’ve worked with companies in various areas, like Pexxi/Tuune in health tech, YuLife in insurtech and Andjaro in HR tech. How does your approach to each client differ to make sure you’re optimizing your clients’ success in their field?
The first thing is that — regardless of their specialism — every company is at a different stage and has different needs. So asking the right questions, setting the right goals, and including the right people and teams at the start is key.
Beyond that, each business model, industry and audience has its own principles, best practices and proven strategies. For instance, in health and finance, credibility and trust are critical. Whereas for an HR SaaS brand, the challenge is all around driving adoption because the market they are creating is totally new.
So, I always start with an audit of their customer base or target audience:
I find Clayton Christensen’s jobs to be done (JTBD) framework very powerful because it’s relevant to the product, marketing and strategy teams. It’s built on the assumption that consumers don’t buy products, they “hire” solutions … and they can “fire” them just as quickly if they’re not doing the job properly. It shifts the focus away from the “ideal” customer persona to the real issue and how to solve it.
Understanding the business levers and Sean Ellis’ North Star metric is vital for growth. It’s about focusing on the metric that directly reflects the value that your company and products bring to your customers. For example, for Airbnb that may be the number of nights booked; for Spotify, minutes listened to. It’s all about simplifying your strategy into something that is digestible, memorable and applicable.
The North Star metric is not a revenue metric. Revenue is the result of the value you deliver. Not the value itself.
What do startups continue to get wrong?
All too often startups don’t truly know their audience or make the mistake of thinking that brand-building can wait.
According to CB Insights, “no market need” is the main reason startups fail, coming in at 42%. For me, this shows that too often founders do not fully understand the market potential and its alternatives, their customers’ pain points and anxieties, what’s pushing the audience away from their current solutions, and what the pull points are for the business.
This is why I really love the JTBD framework — it stops you from seeing the customer like a strict “persona” and lets you start seeing the solutions they need to find instead.
No matter what maturity stage or success level of the startup/scaleup, we often end up going back to customer insights and really stress-testing how well they know their audience to help elevate their value proposition, messaging and growth opportunities.
When it comes to brand-building, a brand really exists in the hearts and minds of consumers, which makes it hard to quantify. So founders often delay the brand-building process or laying the foundations for one. But an established brand helps increase perceived value, unlocking incredible margins or market share, depending on a firm’s pricing strategy.
Strong, effective brands are not built overnight. Many founders think that brand-building means costly advertising, which is not the case. Brand-building occurs at every interaction between a brand and its customer base across the purchase lifecycle — pre (advertising), during (how and where the purchase happens) and post (CRM, warranties, customer service).
On the other side, what are startups doing better now than ever before?
Right now, startups are working on bolder, more diverse and more impactful issues.
I started angel investing and it gave me exposure to a fantastic and wide variety of founders and innovative ideas. I have been fascinated by how far and wide founders are spread to help reshape our lives and change the future.
A few recent businesses that have inspired me are:
What major trends are you seeing right now with hiring growth marketers?
I often hear founders say that “growth is the new engineering.” Tech companies have been fighting over engineering talent for as long as I can remember, and now it’s the same for growth talent.
I think there are multiple reasons: One being the lifting of COVID-19 restrictions, as businesses heavily impacted by the crisis are now hiring at the speed of light. A lot of small businesses applied the “cut deep and early” recommendations to manage their cash flow, so they now need to rebuild entire marketing and growth functions.
Thankfully, there is a lot of funding going into startups at the moment, so there has been a huge spike in demand for growth talent. Lastly, as we’ve all seen, the crisis catapulted the digitization of businesses and purchase funnels for more established businesses that now need digital growth marketing talent to help maintain their sustainability.
During times of disruption, there is a great opportunity for innovation, and from what I’ve seen, this has made hiring managers and recruiters quite creative about how they go about sourcing and attracting growth talent. Lots have expanded their geographical search thanks to remote working becoming the norm. Some even applied account-based marketing best practices by building target lists of talent and creating automated sequences to reach out to them. It’s been really interesting to see.
In your “Hiring Growth Marketers — Where to Begin” post on your website, you mention the T-shaped growth marketer. How has the shift in company’s priorities during the pandemic changed the skills that growth marketers consider essential in their T?
During the pandemic, we had two categories of businesses: (a) those seriously impacted by the restrictions and (b) those who saw a spike in demand for services, like Deliveroo and Netflix.
Those severely affected had to pivot and pivot quickly to survive. A great example is Airbnb, launching digital tours and online experiences to support their hosts and ensure they continue connecting with guests. Another is Oxwash, previously exclusively washing laundry within the hospitality industry, who shifted their business to cleaning scrubs and bedding for NHS hospitals during the height of the pandemic. By adapting, they learned to clean to clinical NHS standards and help keep a strained health service afloat. For these businesses, the flexibility and customer development were the essential elements of the T in their growth teams, as they had to build an entirely new proposition on the fly.
On the flip side, businesses who thrived through lockdown saw an increase in requirement for CRM skills and merchandising. To find the right tone to match the mood of the nation — and curate relevant recommendations or services to engage with existing and new customers — was the name of the game. Data and analytics became an essential skill to make sense of the changing behaviors, and understanding how to manage pandemic demand levels, especially as companies like Ocado early in the pandemic struggled to meet customer demand and so allocated limited slots for delivery.
The wealth of knowledge and adaptability of the growth teams in both of these types of businesses shows how valuable T-shaped marketers are to whether businesses big and small fail or succeed.
Google favors large sites more than ever, basically because it is trying to avoid providing misinformation in our polarized age. But sometimes the small sites have key new information — like the content that your startup is trying to share with the world. How can you stand out in the right search results, as algorithms continue to change?
Growth marketing expert Mark Spera writes that AI-driven content generators, careful trend tracking, great UX/UI and graphics and inspiration from your competitors’ ads can all give you an edge. His article for Extra Crunch this week was one of our more popular ones with subscribers, but it’s not alone.
Check out our latest coverage of growth-related topics below, plus a few of the many reviews we’ve received this week in our ongoing growth marketer survey. (Please fill it out if you haven’t already, we’re using founder recommendations to find the best growth experts around the world, and sharing the results back with all of our readers.)
Marketer: Maya Moufarek, Marketing Cube
Recommended by: Nikki O’Farrell, www.KatKin.club
Testimonial: “Expert ear and eye from the world of start ups/scale ups and growth. Her functional and direct approach allows you to execute at speed and see results quickly.”
Recommended by: Rhoda Ullmann, Sense
Testimonial: “We’ve tried a number of different agencies, they demonstrate best in class expertise with Facebook and Google paid ad platforms. They also have a very smart and efficient approach to creative development that was critical to helping us scale.”
Marketer: Mitch Causey, Demandwell
Recommended by: Drew Beechler, High Alpha
Testimonial: “Mitch and the Demandwell team are some of the smartest content, SEO, and digital marketers I’ve ever met, and their results speak for themselves. Their process, proprietary software, and expertise around organic search and content is some of the best out there in helping companies think about organic search as a repeatable, proven method for growth and demand gen. Mitch and the Demandwell playbook worked so well that after being a client for two years and recommending to many in our portfolio, High Alpha ended up bringing Demandwell into the portfolio to turn their playbook into a scalable software platform.”
How pitch training can help startups get their story right: Anna Heim talks with Alex Barrera, Spanish marketing expert, about his consulting work and how he sets up his clients for success.
Kenya’s AIfluence closes $1M for its AI-powered influencer marketing platform: Tage Kene-Okafor dives into the seed funding of AIfluence, which has been developing software to run brand and performance campaigns for a range of global advertisers across Africa and Asia.
Announcing the agenda for the Disrupt Stage this September: Come hear from top founders and investors about how to build a company.
(Extra Crunch) 5 advanced-ish SEO tactics in 2021: Growth expert Mark Spera discusses using content generators, how to do keyword research and other ways to increase your SEO.
(Extra Crunch) How we got 75% more e-commerce orders in a single A/B test for this major brand: Managing partner of The Conversion Wizards, Jasper Kuria, pushed the limits of optimizing a page for conversions, which led to a 75% increase in sales. Read the guest post to find out how.
Do you have a top-tier growth marketer who works with startups that you want us to know about? Let us know by filling out this quick survey.
When you hire a marketing consultant, you don’t necessarily expect to wind up discussing your life’s purpose. Yet, that is what Spanish marketing expert and entrepreneur Alex Barrera often ends up doing with startup founders who hire him to help improve their pitch. They think they are going to get help convincing investors, and they do, but the byproduct of the process is that they reframe their startup’s vision.
In this context, ethical and philosophical considerations aren’t that far away, because more often than not, this includes a deep look at how their company impacts society. “The days where you could do whatever you wanted and dive into grey legal or moral areas are dwindling,” Barrera says. “Growth companies need to be careful about the potential fallouts of pursuing such strategies. While there are still plenty of investors that push for “growth at any cost,” the social pressure is changing and it’s suddenly becoming costlier to take such stances.”
You may have spotted Barrera’s cowboy hat at one of the many startup conferences he is involved with as a mentor, judge, host or speaker — and he does wear many hats.
Having previously co-founded two startup accelerators and Europe-focused tech publication Tech.eu, he now authors The Aleph Report, a periodical publication on cutting-edge technology and its implications. But it is through his Press42 venture that he collaborates with startups and corporations on organizational storytelling and strategic communications, and it is also what we discussed in the interview below (which has been edited for length and clarity).
TechCrunch is asking founders who have worked with growth marketers to share a recommendation in this survey. We’ll use your answers to find more experts to interview.
What do people often misunderstand about pitch training?
Well, it depends on their experience level. When first-time entrepreneurs hear about pitching, they immediately think of the infamous “elevator pitch,” roll their eyes and moan. For those with a bit more experience, pitching is about a set of slides to achieve a certain goal, mostly funding. However, seasoned managers end up discovering that telling the story of their product or service is not a one-way street. Having to sell a future vision of where the company is heading invariably affects your conception of the product in the now and what you need to build to achieve it. The vision impacts the product, because you need consistency between the product and storytelling.
What type of companies do you help?
I have been helping startups with pitching for years. This used to be mostly early-stage startups, and in groups, with accelerators and startup competitions calling me to help their entire batch or portfolio. I still provide that sort of training, but these days I will more often work one-on-one with a single client that is at a later stage. And I also sometimes work with tech companies getting ready for M&As, as well as large corporations.
“I don’t work with companies that sell smoke and mirrors or hurt society because they shamelessly disregard any responsibility for their impact on others.”
What is your sweet spot for startups you work with?
For one-on-one work, I have a preference for David versus Goliath, and less sexy spaces. I love these companies that were built without the noise: There’s a lack of hubris, they are really humble, but the numbers are there — the founders could be obnoxious, but it’s the opposite. I don’t work with companies that sell smoke and mirrors or hurt society because they shamelessly disregard any responsibility for their impact on others.
Luckily, that’s rarely the case of people who call me. Usually, they are a bit out of the circuit, and they often have impostor syndrome. So my work is also about helping them understand what they can be proud of what they do, and then how to show that in their pitch. They value talking to someone who understands them and their challenges. I spend a lot of time doing research on all verticals and thinking about the future, so the conversation will typically go like this: “Dude, you get it!”
What is one of your favorite things about one-on-one pitch-related consulting work?
I find it very fulfilling to see how much value it brings to those involved. I am also a developer, and I do project management, but most of the consulting I do is not the kind of growth marketing stuff that takes more time to show results. When you do growth hacking at the product level, it takes time to see the impact, and even then, it’s not always easy to connect the dots.
When we work together on their pitch, CEOs can instantly see if the new pitch resonates or not; and they also know if the exercise itself worked for them. Working on a pitch requires a lot of reflection and it entails a lot of tension between you and the CEO.
This is especially true at the beginning, when you keep questioning why they did this or that, what the product provides and to whom, or why it grew here and not there. All these questions force many founders and managers to stop and think hard about the product, the market or the roadmap. Sometimes it pushes them to provide data to back up certain claims. The process pushes them to revisit old biases, beliefs or even myths around their company. Many people are surprised by how much clarity they gain into their company when they work on a pitch.
Do you only work with founders and executives?
Sometimes, the clarity and the strategic insight that working on a pitch provides to founders or CXOs becomes a trigger for them wanting to provide that level of understanding to other areas of the company, like sales, customer support or even the product team. In my case, being a developer myself enables me to switch and adapt my process to any layer of the organization, including the development team.
This is rare, but it eventually turns me into a kind of translator of the challenges of different parts of an organization, acting ultimately as the connector bridging different perceptions. In the end, that’s exactly what storytelling provides. It’s not just a tool for pitching, it’s a brutally effective way to communicate between humans, especially around challenging topics.
How would you describe the value that executives get from your collaboration?
One of the usual and even surprising values for most executives is the insight the process provides. When someone is running either a big company or a scaleup, their day to day is all about growing. They rarely have time to sit down and think about where they’re heading in terms of future product. They do have a roadmap, and their KPIs, but I rarely see a strong future vision broken down into steps.
The pitching process provides them with two valuable things: time and perception. Time because as they’re paying me, they’re stuck with me and need to allocate time for our sessions. That bubble, and the need to build a coherent story that tells why the company is at that particular point, create tremendous insight for most. And then, there’s perception. It’s funny because they’re the ones that provide all the pieces of the picture, I just help them put them together and then point at the obvious.
This process is very rewarding at a personal level for them. It helps them build a confidence that, while it was always there, it rarely shone through the pitch before. It also makes them reflect on where they want to go next, not just from a product perspective, but from a mission’s perspective. It reconnects them with that side that most of us care about, and the personal questions we ask ourselves about life and meaning.
How do you bridge the gap between what your clients already know and what’s next?
My clients already know how to grow a company. I always keep this in mind, not just with startups, but also with big corporations — too often, I see consultants talking to them and starting by telling: “You are doing it wrong!” Well, they got to where they are, didn’t they? It doesn’t mean that they don’t need help, but you can make them see that, you don’t have to dismiss what they have achieved. I see myself as the person that helps them get to the next level and build on top of what they have already done. Sometimes it takes some bruising to get there, but there is always massive respect for their achievements.
These people are very good professionals. It’s not that they don’t see or can’t see the vision. It’s that the need to connect the dots in detail allows for the emergence of a strategic vision of the organization. Now, here is where the real “coaching” kicks in. When such a picture emerges, many founders or executives tend to shy away from it. They have a hard time believing that they might be onto something groundbreaking or actually winning in their respective markets.
This is especially true for many scaleup companies. They’ve been fighting, first for market fit, and later on for market share, that they freeze at the possibility that they might be doing a fantastic job. Part of my role is precisely to break through their impostor syndrome and encourage them to be bolder, to believe in themselves, to trust the data.
How do you promote your services?
Well, it would be very hard for me to do cold calling. I wouldn’t be able to say: “It’s not just about pitching, you are going to see the future of your company!” — so I stopped even trying to market that. My best marketing tool is word of mouth from my clients, or even from people that see me perform on stage. But even then, people call for help with a specific milestone, like raising a round. It’s only through the process that they see that there’s way more to it. They begin to understand other parts about themselves that either enhance their capacity to raise more funds, or even take them to the next level like an acquisition or the development of a major breakthrough.
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What do you end up actually working on with founders?
Going higher up the chain, the pitch becomes a very powerful tool not just for fundraising, but also for thinking about your company strategically. It’s a place where founders can reach clarity about their strategy and what really matters — questions they don’t have time for on a day-to-day basis. They allocate time to it because they think it will help with fundraising, and then they find out that it helps them understand their company.
So typically, they will call me because they are raising a Series B round, or a very large A round. They realize that to unlock the next milestone, they need to fine-tune what they say. The game is different; it’s not about market fit anymore, or just about gaining market share, and what worked for them just no longer works — especially if they were semi-bootstrapped up to that point. They need to talk to someone who understands them and can help them prepare for the future, for instance by researching certain pitfalls or trends. I’m not just the guy that “pitches” but the guy that’s going to provide you with ammo to help you build a compelling case for your audience, whatever it is. The pitch is just an excuse!
“The thing is, scaleups and growth-stage startups have a choice in how they market themselves; so they need to be aware of ethical concerns that may arise sooner than later.”
What’s your take on comparing your startup to another one when pitching; for instance, calling yourself the “Uber for X”?
Analogies are very powerful. The major challenge when you are pitching any company, even a late-stage one, is that people have a tendency to put you in a box. So you have two options: either you let them do it, or you provide the tools to put you in a box. That’s where analogies work really well.
But then, who do you compare yourself to? It’s a challenge, because two elements are becoming increasingly important: capturing the right trends of the moment, and the ethics of how you do what you do. You want to control which box they place you, ideally one that’s trendy but at the same time one that doesn’t position you in apparently direct competition with someone you don’t want to be associated with.
Why do startups need to be careful when communicating?
Over the last few years, we have seen how startups are no longer seen as innocent by society; they no longer have “carte blanche,” and society is becoming a lot more sensitive. There’s a polarization issue around many topics, and we are increasingly going to see a clash between society and startups. It is even going to increase post-COVID, with tensions around automation versus jobs. And the thing is, scaleups and growth-stage startups have a choice in how they market themselves; so they need to be aware of ethical concerns that may arise sooner than later.
Society is going to ask you for responsibility. What’s happening with big brands is trickling down, and scaleups are hitting that threshold sooner. Typically, it catches them unprepared, because they reach that stage only knowing local feelings about what they do, and suddenly getting national or regional blowback. Or they expand internationally with local operations led by really young people with no experience in dealing with politics, who suddenly face strong local blowback.
All of this has a lot to do with pitching, because it’s not about product anymore. So for instance, it’s about convincing public authorities at different levels to let you operate, when their incentives are very different from investors. It’s B2G2C — business to government to consumer. And we are seeing more and more startups, with regulation as a factor in their operations.
How can you talk to public authorities, customers and investors in a unified pitch?
The major pitch needs to bring all elements together. It needs to be clear on what you do, and hit the right notes on ethical concerns. It’s important both for regulators and for fundraising; because from the investors’ perspective, it also reduces uncertainty around your business. As a scaleup, your ability to scale is a concern, so it helps to show that you are thinking and planning around societal impact.
I have to say that an increasing amount of investors do genuinely care about this. It may be because they have been burned, for instance from seeing regulatory blowback firsthand, or just because they are growing conscious. There are still some investors that have the “Uber mindset” and only care about muscle — grow first, and only then, deal with regulators — but more and more, VCs are aware that this might not fly, because society is changing. The pandemic is just highlighting this even more.
What about startups? Do they also care more about their societal impact?
I think it’s a pendulum, and the current generation is a child of the previous regulatory blowback. Crypto might still be on the other side, but increasingly, startups are aware that there are societal implications they will have to deal with. I also try to bring that message across when I prepare my clients to pitch — and warn that it sometimes happens very quickly: We’ve seen how one prohibition in one place can spread like wildfire. So you need to regulate your initial message and also be prepared to adapt quickly.
One might think that a short week due to a U.S. holiday calls for a short weekly recap, but we have plenty to share about growth marketing from our coverage over the week. With the help of your recommendations, this week we were able to interview Peep Laja and Lucy Heskins, and publish multiple guest columns on growth-related topics including homepage testing, marketing lies to watch out for, VR ad opportunities, company-naming and ad compliance.
TechCrunch is collecting responses in this survey to find the best growth marketer for founders to work with. We’ve included some of our favorites, below the links.
This early-stage marketing expert says ‘B2B SaaS is actually very, very cool now’: Extra Crunch reporter Anna Heim interviews Wales-based growth marketer Lucy Heskins about her experience working with start-ups, how content marketing is best used, and more!
Navigating ad fraud and consumer privacy abuse in programmatic advertising: Did you know that “ad fraud exceeded $35 billion last year, a figure expected to rise to $50 billion by 2025”? Jalal Nasir, CEO of marketing compliance startup Pixalate, lends his thoughts about how business leaders and brands can ensure they don’t fall victim to the problem.
To stay ahead of your competitors, start building your narrative on day one: Anna also sat down with Peep Laja to discuss the importance of a startup being the one to write their own narrative and how it can mature with the company.
Demand Curve: How to double conversions on your startup’s homepage: Head of content Nick Costelloe looks at when it’s good to be unique, and when it’s best to stick to the status quo when working to double conversions on your homepage.
(Extra Crunch) Demand Curve: 10 lies you’ve been told about marketing: For subscribers, Costelloe goes through 10 lies you’ve heard about marketing, and what to try instead to create better results.
(Extra Crunch) Can advertising scale in VR?: Have you been on the fence about VR advertising for your company? AR/VR analyst Michael Boland lists out the pros and cons in this article.
(Extra Crunch) What I learned the hard way from naming 30+ startups: Naming a start-up might require more thought than you imagined. Marketing executive Drew Beechler takes us through what should be considered when picking out a name, like strategic alignment.
As always, please let us know if you can recommend a top-tier growth marketer who works with startups by filling out this quick survey.
Marketer: Nikita Vorobyev
Recommender: Ruby Club
Testimonial: “Nikita & his company, Buildrbrand, have worked tirelessly to bring my idea to life and did everything in his power to get it to the level it is today. He & his team created a world-class conditional quiz visual experience that I think would be really cool for him to share with the industry. He doesn’t know I nominated him, but I definitely wanted to give back to him in any way I can since I believe his agency creates some of the best brands going viral online right now.”
Recommender: Harry Willis, ShopPop
Testimonial: “They [have] shown considerable and demonstrable growth marketing success at various companies. One of them being MisterGreen, a Dutch Tesla-leasing company that had grown 10x under Max’s leadership.”
Testimonial: “Hired her to lead Product Marketing and she identified the opportunity to do growth in a much different way, which could significantly accelerate our company’s growth. So, she founded the Growth Marketing team and scaled the team from 1 person to 30 people in less than 2 years, based on all the success they had in growing our member base.”
Doing more with less: This is what marketers get asked for when they join an early-stage startup. British consultant Lucy Heskins knows firsthand how overwhelming that can be, which is why her services can both replace and complement early in-house marketing staff. Either way, it often involves educating the founders about the job to be done.
“Too many people fail to realize that marketing is the process of understanding your customers, building appropriate channels to reach them and ultimately meeting their needs (profitability),” she wrote on her site, Oh, blimey.
TechCrunch is asking founders who have worked with growth marketers to share a recommendation in this survey. We’ll use your answers to find more experts to interview.
Having earned “scars and stripes” at various startups, Heskins recently joined “tech for good” company Big Lemon as a part-time head of growth, but still offers her services to other teams as a SaaS and early-stage startup marketing consultant. If you are a marketer yourself or thinking of hiring one, read on: She shared some compelling insights with TechCrunch.
(This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)
How do you collaborate with the startups you work with as a consultant?
Typically I will work with startups in two ways. The first will be project-based. So for example, when they want to explore a potential new customer market or introduce a freemium strategy.
The other way is as a mentor or extension to their marketer. Often I will work with marketers who’ve never worked in a startup and they can bounce ideas or strategies off me. It helps speed up their learning and time to deliver results.
How do your roles as an employee and as a consultant nourish each other?
I’ve experienced the very real pains/challenges/opportunities a startup presents, especially as an early-stage employee. I’ve come in, helped change business models, explored things like freemium and repositioned brands. It’s tough. So as a consultant, I can pass on my learnings (and mistakes). And I get to work with some great startups who are open to trying new things. Plus, having worked in four startups now, I get the pressure they’re facing and can adjust my approach accordingly. There’s a lot of plates spinning, and I get that.
What do early-stage startups typically misunderstand and need to know about startup marketers like you?
In my experience, there are a few mistakes startups often make.
The first is hiring a marketer too soon. I’ve come into startups, thinking I was coming in to set up their in-house function. However, very quickly you realize that they’ve jumped the gun and think they’ve got product-market fit when they are nowhere near it. This can cause conflict because the startup’s expecting one thing (say, revenue) but the marketer is missing a few basics to be effective (value proposition, an idea of how “painful” the problem is that they are solving, lack of involvement in areas like pricing).
The next mistake is not trusting their marketer. All too often I hear of marketers who’ve gone into a startup only to learn that their ideas are put on the back burner because the founder(s) — and this is typically first-time founders — don’t quite understand marketing and will push them to deliver short-term results (leads).
Lastly and probably the biggest mistake is applying what worked at a previous business. When joining a startup, you’re starting from scratch — new customers, new markets, go-to-market strategy. There’s a bias for wanting to use what worked previously, but people forget … your customers and markets are totally different. You can’t just replicate.
What should be the main focus of a startup’s first in-house marketer?
Of course, it depends really on the stage of the startup; however, whatever stage you’re at, it needs to be customer research/development. I’d be very wary of a marketer who doesn’t suggest this as one of their first activities.
You need to unlock why customers buy or subscribe to the startup’s product. This will determine your traction channels, your proposition, your pricing model — everything.
Why should startups consider hiring a freelancer or agency to help with their marketing instead of doing everything in-house?
I think it’s a great idea to outsource until the startup understands 1) if there’s an actual problem that needs solving and 2) whether there’s a market big enough to actually turn it into a business.
Whilst you’re in this period, you can’t afford to learn new skills — even though it may seem attractive/”cheap” to do it in-house, it really isn’t. It can actually set you back. Outsource the specifics and focus on what you do best. Once you’ve got a better idea of validation, then you can start to see which skills to bring in-house.
Have you worked with a talented individual or agency who helped you find and keep more users?
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Why have you decided to focus on SaaS startups? What makes them different when it comes to marketing?
I love working in SaaS, especially B2B SaaS. What makes it different, for me, is that the role becomes part marketing, part product, part commercial. You get to look at the entire customer experience, and because many SaaS products are trial/subscription-based, your focus needs to be on retention. You’re only as good as your last month, so it forces you to work and think harder.
Plus, B2B SaaS is actually very, very cool now. Just because you work in B2B marketing doesn’t mean you need to be boring!
What are some key takeaways from your Early-Stage Startup Marketing Playbook?
I created the playbook because I sat in a board meeting and, when an investor was asking about the go-to-market strategy, I realized that there wasn’t a clear toolkit for helping early-stage startups to map out the market, nor think about the steps leading up to launching a product.
There are many takeaways, but I think the main one and the most valuable is providing clarity as to what specific steps go into a go-to-market strategy and how it all works together.
I talk you through how to speak to the customers who’ll actually buy from you — not those who tell you they love your product but run a mile when it’s time to pay — and how to determine which market channel is best to reach them.
What is customer-led growth? And how can it help startups adapt post-COVID?
Customer-led growth is a strategy that combines product, marketing and sales. It views your product through the lens of a customer with the aim of working out how value is delivered to them “whenever, wherever and however they need it.” It’s something I learned and studied from the co-founders of Forget the Funnel.
The idea is that you look at the entire customer journey, from the struggle stage right through to when they’re a customer, and you break each section down to where there’s an opportunity for growth. It’s really helpful for startups — especially post-COVID because chances are, your customers’ needs have changed.
How your customers derive value from your product changes all the time. This framework gives you a starting point.
How is content marketing best used?
I often say to startups, stop creating content for the sake of it. A lot of content that’s created doesn’t allow for where your customer may be in the buying process. It doesn’t consider what’s motivating them to solve their problem.
As a result, the results you get are skewed. Things take much longer than they should. Customers get confused about what it is your business actually is/does. Everyone starts to lose respect for marketing.
Again, you need to take it back to the customer and their journey and identify what content they need to overcome that particular problem that’s getting in the way of signing up/using your product.
Why is alignment with sales important, and what does it involve?
I’ve worked in startups that have been sales-led (so complex products, long lead time) and it’s important to understand what sales needs to uncover to help move a customer to the next stage. Likewise, marketing can help sales to really dig into the proposition and understand what channels are best to convert leads.
I think when you work in a startup as a marketer, you have to roll up your sleeves and get involved in sales. It’ll help improve the content, strategy and revenue in the end.
So if you are working with a salesperson whose ultimate aim is to secure a call with a prospect, you can’t just go in and expect a prospect to say yes, immediately. There are a series of steps you and the salesperson need to go through in order to nurture and open up this relationship. It’s all about proving a set of hypotheses about your customer. Do they really hang out on LinkedIn? Are they bombarded with companies offering the same? Which proposition is working enough to get someone to agree to a call? Is that calendar link putting off prospects altogether?
I truly believe people do love to help, but it’s about working out what’s in it for them and how your product will make their life just that little bit easier.
Want to convert twice as many visitors into customers? Follow these copywriting tactics.
The section of your homepage that’s immediately visible to a visitor before they start scrolling is called “above the fold.” (Think of a print newspaper: Everything above the literal fold in the paper is the most important information.) When a visitor sees the content above the fold, they decide to either keep scrolling or exit your site.
In seconds, they’re trying to figure out what you do and whether you’re a fit for them.
The most common mistake we see startups make? Their “above the fold” is either uninteresting or confusing. This often happens when marketers attempt to squeeze too much content above the fold.
The most common mistake we see startups make? Their “above the fold” is either uninteresting or confusing.
The truth is, most of the information on your website is irrelevant to new visitors. So the area above the fold should be used to explain how you can help new visitors solve a specific problem.
For example, you might see a homepage that promotes the newest technical blog post that the company published. But that’s not useful to a visitor who doesn’t yet understand what you do.
To further confuse the visitor, many companies add an extensive navigation bar to the top of their site. In theory, this allows your visitors to easily access any part of your website. In practice, it leads to decision fatigue and low conversion rates.
Unless the content directly helps answer what you do and whether you’re a good fit for that visitor, it should be removed.
There are three things you can do to improve the conversion rate of your homepage:
Let’s get into the tactics of these three areas of improvement.
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Your header is the largest piece of text on your website. In under 10 words (about the longest we’d recommend), your header needs to accomplish three things:
This is your most important value proposition. If you can’t explain how someone gets value from your product in fewer than 10 words, it’ll be a challenge to keep visitors’ attention for much longer.
Here’s how we uncover your key value proposition:
Here are some more examples from top startups:
Image Credits: Demand Curve
Telling your visitors what you do is a good start, but now we need to get them excited about your product.
A huge missed opportunity we see a lot of startups make with their website copy? It’s not action oriented. In a world where customers can shop 24/7, there’s very little urgency for your visitors to take action now.
Adding a hook will increase the likelihood that a visitor buys from you on their first visit.
There are two ways we like to write hooks:
Image Credits: Demand Curve
Here are some value propositions of top startups that incorporate their biggest objections upfront.
Image Credits: Demand Curve
To truly make the message in your header grab the attention of your visitor, rewrite your value proposition to speak directly to your customer personas.
To do so, list your top two to three customer personas. Rewrite your headers to address the part of your product they value most. Use their own language, not industry jargon. The best way to learn what your customers love about your product is through one-on-one customer interviews or reading customer success tickets.
Now you’ve got headers that speak directly to your ideal customer persona. You can either A/B test which header leads to a higher conversion rate or create custom landing pages using each header to drive traffic from different sources to specific pages.
For example, if you include a link to your website in a guest blog post, send that audience to the page with the most relevant header.
Here are some examples of writing multiple value propositions for the same startup:
Image Credits: Demand Curve
We suggest spending about 50% of your time working on writing the header and 25% of your time on the subheader. Why? Because if your header isn’t interesting, your visitors won’t even bother reading the subheader.
Your subheader should be used to expand on two things:
You can use your top two to three features to explain how your header is achieved.
For example, let’s say Airbnb’s header is: Experience your getaway vacation like a local. No minimum stays.
To make this statement believable, we need to explain how it’s possible to vacation like a local and how “no minimum stays” is possible.
A subheader could read something like: An online rental marketplace with thousands of short-term rentals in your area.
Do not use industry jargon or technical terms in your subheader or header. Use words that a fifth-grade reader would understand. Use short sentences. Lengthy paragraphs will kill the momentum of your reader.
Here are a few more examples of using the subheader to explain the header:
Image Credits: Demand Curve
The last aspect to consider when creating a high-converting homepage is the design. We see a lot of high-tech startups try to use their website to show off their creativity.
From our experience, your website is not the place to try to be original.
A website’s design should rarely be unique. It’s your product that should be unique. Your website is just a familiar medium for communicating your product’s uniqueness.
Using familiar buttons and navigation that other websites have popularized will save your visitor the hassle of having to learn how your website works. For example, we’ve come to expect there to be a “home” button in the top left of the page. Attempting to place the same button in the bottom right for the sake of uniqueness will lead to confusion and possibly a lost customer. Stick with what works.
Consider these goals when adding images to your homepage:
Image Credits: Judy
Image Credits: Allbirds
Your call-to-action buttons (CTA) are where you’ll convert a visitor of your webpage into an active shopper. Therefore, your CTAs should be a continuation of the magic that you teased in your header copy.
Make the CTA button copy action focused and tell your visitor what will happen once they click it.
Here are some examples of CTA buttons that feel natural because they continue the narrative that began with the header copy:
Image Credits: Demand Curve
What do all companies, regardless of industry, say they want? Growth. Lighting-fast, continuous growth. The good news is you can quickly learn which growth marketing strategies work by studying other companies’ success and adapting it to your own business.
Most technophiles remember Dropbox’s referral program — the one that helped it grow 3,900% in 15 months. Its philosophy was simple: reward customers with free storage space for referring other customers. In 2008, it was an absolute revelation. A golden ticket.
Tell a story with your business’ proprietary data. You’re the only one with this information, and that makes it valuable.
In 2021, you’d be hard-pressed to find a company without a formal referral program. It’s a standard growth marketing trick. If you study other companies’ tactics, you’re going to be able to shortcut growth — it’s as simple as that.
The race to grow faster is more pressing than ever before. When you consider the speed with which venture capital funds need to return dollars to their investors and that consumer acquisition costs have increased by 55% over the last three years, forward-thinking entrepreneurs and growth marketers simply must make time to study their competition, learn best practices and apply them to their own business growth.
Of course, you should still run your own experiments, but it’s just more capital-efficient to emulate than to trial-and-error from scratch. Here are five companies with growth strategies worth emulating — including the most important lessons you can begin applying to your business today.
Have you worked with an individual or agency who helped you find and keep more users?
Help us identify the best startup growth marketing experts!
SEO is going to spend this summer shaking in its boots. Google began rolling out a two-week core algorithm update on June 2, and it’s unleashing a page experience update through August. These updates usually come with significant volatility that makes organic Google rankings jump all over the place.
However, one clear winner of the 2021 SEO footrace is Flo, a women’s ovulation calendar, period tracker and pregnancy app. According to GrowthBar, a SEO tool I co-founded, Flo’s organic traffic has soared 192% over the past two months and it ranks on page one for some staggeringly competitive women’s health keywords.
If SEO is a strategy you’re pursuing, there are two key growth lessons to take away from Flo’s recent success.
1. Authority matters now more than ever. Healthcare websites fall into a category of sensitive sites that Google classifies as Your Money, Your Life (YMYL). Because of oodles of fake news and suspect web content, Google has rightfully raised its bar for expertise and factuality. Go to any one of Flo’s more than 1,000 blog posts (yes, content is still king) and you’ll see that nearly all of them are reviewed by gynecologists, primary care physicians or some other type of women’s health expert. Its site also has pages devoted to its writers and medical reviewers, content guidelines and peer-review specifications. Flo takes its information seriously. From the 2020 election to QAnon to vaccination side effects, Google is on high alert. Whatever your niche, you need to establish credibility to win Google searches.
Growth leaders used to build key relationships across a company while working together in a real-life office. Those relationships could carry over through the pandemic, but let’s say you’re a new company and you’re remote-first.
How do you build this complex collaboration from scratch?
Growth marketer and investor Susan Su tells us that the solution is not just more software tools. In the interview below, she says that after the pandemic, startup founders will need to develop a mentality that places growth at the center of company strategy.
Consultants and agencies can be great additions to this effort, especially if they have previously solved the types of problems you face. (In fact, TechCrunch is asking founders who have worked with growth marketers to share a recommendation in this survey. We’ll use your answers to find more experts to interview.)
Su is currently the head of portfolio strategy for Sound Ventures, previously a growth leader at Stripe and the first hire at Reforge. She also shared a few thoughts on market opportunities after the pandemic in the full interview below. E-commerce is mainstream for good, she says, even as we all try to step away from screens more often. However, many social and mobile sectors are mature, and it’s going to be even harder for startups to compete as real-world activities absorb more time.
Don’t forget: Susan Su will also appear at our Early Stage virtual event on July 8 (and answer questions directly).
How are you seeing startups manage changes in user engagement as more people exit pandemic lockdowns and adjust their daily lives?
As we exit the pandemic, I expect that we’ll see a natural and obvious spike in some consumer activity that will roll up to midsized businesses and enterprises. Just like with the onset of the pandemic, we’ll see uneven results across sectors:
E-commerce boomed during the pandemic but was really an augmentation of an already-accelerating trend towards digital commerce and streamlined logistics. I don’t think we backtrack from e-commerce because habit formation around online shopping has been building for years; we would be backtracking to an age long before 2020, and that’s not going to happen.
New social-mobile experiences also boomed during the pandemic, but there’s still a valid question around whether 15 months or so is enough time to become part of the ingrained infrastructure of daily life. We are living in an age of mature platforms, so every new service is stealing time away from an existing service. As with pre-pandemic growth, their success rests upon fast-accumulating network effects and great, sticky core product experience. Now that we have parks, friends and dinners out calling to us again, it’s a real test of how compelling some of these new value propositions really are, and whether they can continue to demonstrate their relevance in a more hybridized online-offline world.
That said, the pandemic was an enormous constraint on human society and [the] economy, and these kinds of constraints often breed innovation that doesn’t go away. We will evolve, but we can never go back. It sounds cheesy but it’s true.
Some aspects of the pandemic, like remote work, appear to have radically changed certain industries. How will these societal changes impact how the typical startup thinks about growth?
Growth will always be growth — that is, a process of iterative experimentation to identify and solve customer problems, and then scale those solutions in order to reach and convert bigger and bigger audiences. Platform changes like iOS 14 or Facebook’s periodic algorithm adjustments will have a bigger impact in the near term on the technical functioning of growth, and these aren’t specifically pandemic-related.
One area to watch is how growth teams are built and operated. Growth is a horizontal function that touches many different parts of the org, including product, engineering, marketing, comms and design. Many startup teams have already been working with collaboration tools even while they sat in the same office, but growth is about more than just using tools. The most effective growth leaders succeed by building relationships across the organization; it’s like the fable of Stone Soup — you’re creating this meal that will feed everyone, but you also need each person to bring a pinch of salt, or a dash of pepper, or one carrot, and that requires socialization and relationship-building. I’ll be very interested to see how new growth leaders onboard remote-only teams and what approaches they take to this “networking” need within the function.
From the days of growth hacking on social platforms, growth marketing is now an established part of the world. But it’s not necessarily the main expertise of a startup founder, even if it needs to be. So, how should they think about addressing growth marketing in 2021? What are the essentials they should do in their roles?
Every founder needs to have a growth mentality. They don’t need to memorize all the right buttons to push in an ads dashboard, but they need to be familiar and comfortable with the core work of gap-finding. That said, founders are by definition entrepreneurial — their company exists because they saw an opportunity that no one else did, and this is the fundamental work of growth as well.
Founders will fail if they adopt a mentality that someone else can or should do it for them. The founder’s job is to supply ambition and opinions, and then magnetize high-quality talent to come and pull the levers and bring their creative vision to life. There are many people who can do growth marketing — that is, they know how the platforms work, they understand the rules and the playbooks. But there are very few who can come up with truly visionary strategies that change the game altogether — those people become founders, and those companies become household names. So for a founder, I’d say the most important growth work is to continue to know your market and customer better than anyone else in the whole world, have an opinion about what’s missing, and work to bring the best talent to come in alongside you and be a thought partner, not just a button pusher.
With limited resources, how should early-stage companies think about what to focus on?
This is going to depend on the goals of your company. Are you planning to raise money and need to demonstrate certain KPIs? Are you bootstrapping and need to keep the lights on? Resources should always be allocated to the most strategic purposes, with the longest-term view you can afford. For some companies, this could mean forgoing revenue to focus on viral or word-of-mouth-driven user acquisition to demonstrate to future investors that there’s something special here. For other companies, perhaps in lower volume categories like enterprise, it’s about bringing a few strategic logos into the family as a signal to later customers and other stakeholders, including future employees and investors.
One thing that early-stage companies should always be focused on is building a top-shelf employer brand. You will only ever be as good as the talent you attract to your company, and interestingly growth can actually play a role in this. The best designers, engineers and product people are often flowing towards the companies that have the best growth. In that way, it’s a highly strategic role and function.
What do startups continue to get wrong?
You can’t truly outsource growth or any other core function; you can’t tack on customer acquisition after product development. At the end of the day, if you really think about it, all a company is, is a customer-acquisition engine. This needs to be core; wake up every day and think about growth, not just to hit revenue or user KPIs, but to build the company that the best people are clamoring to work at. It’s not about finding someone sufficient to solve your near-term problems; it’s about framing problems in a way that’s so compelling to the most creative, hardest working people so that they can’t get it out of their heads. Go for talent moonshots, and figure out how to close them. The rest will fall in line from there.
When should a founder feel comfortable getting help from an outside expert or agency?
Anytime. Agencies are great. They are an extension of your talent, and the best agencies aren’t selling you — they have to be sold on your problem because they have their pick of companies just like yours. That’s the agency or outside expert you want to work with, because they’ll have a priceless perspective from the other best-in-class founders and teams they’ve worked with that they can bring to your challenge. Any agency can run Facebook ads (it’s not rocket science), but you want to find the team that’s solved the gnarliest problems for your hero companies. Then you’ll get not just an ads manager, but a teacher.
Berlin-based cannabis and digital health start-up Sanity Group has closed a $44.2M Series A financing round led by Swiss VC Redalpine along with US-based Navy Capital and SOJE Capital. GMPVC also participated in the round. This appears to be the largest round of cannabis funding in Europe to date and brings total investment in Sanity Group to $73M.
The new capital will be used to expand the Group’s medical division in Europe as well as a EU-GMP-compliant research and production facility near Frankfurt.
Previous investors include HV Capital, TQ Ventures, Atlantic Food Labs, Cherry Ventures, Bitburger Ventures, and SevenVentures. In addition, Sanity Group has attracted celebrity angels including music producers will.i.am, Scooter Braun, and actress Alyssa Milano.
Sanity’s cannabis-based platform is for mental health and chronic pain management, allowing the tracking of cannabis-based therapy digitally with a medical device. This tells customers how much of the active ingredient (THC, CBD or other cannabinoids) is being administered. This is then registered in a therapy diary.
Finn Age Hänsel, founder and managing director of Sanity Group said: “A round of this magnitude shows that cannabis is increasingly moving into the mainstream of investor awareness, and represents an important milestone in our business expansion on our way to becoming Europe’s leading cannabis company.”
Over an interview, he added: “So we are fully legal and operated in Germany. We are just about to enter the Czech Republic and Poland. The UK is one of the biggest markets we want to enter going forward because, as you might know, the whole area of medical cannabis is slowly but surely opening all over Europe, with Germany being the largest market, about 80% of all the cannabis cannabinoid-based therapies today. But actually, the UK being the number two, which is a super attractive market for us but we look further into the Czech Republic and Poland, because those are the markets that have opened up from a regulatory perspective, at the most, over the last two years, and then France will open up next year, but that’s basically one after the other.”
Sean Stiefel, CEO at Navy Capital said: “The European cannabis market faces exciting developments in the coming months. Compared to the North American market, Europe is now where we were in the U.S. about four years ago. We want to bring our expertise and experience to the table. For our first investment in Europe, it was important for us to find a team that understands the market and has real industry experts in its ranks.”
Another sizable raise for a pet (cats and dogs) tracking company this morning. Austria-based Tractive has announced a $35 million Series A, led by Guidepost Growth Equity. The round is the company’s first since 2013, when its GPS-based tracker first hit the market.
Along with the funding round, the company is also announcing its official push into the U.S. market — though Tractive has had some presence here through a “soft launch” of an LTE tracker over the summer. That product apparently made the States its fastest growing market, in spite of a lack of official presence.
The funding will go toward its expansion into the U.S./North American market, along with additional scaling and headcount. For the latter, the company is already naming a new EVP of North America and a VP of marketing.
“Tractive is like a seatbelt for your dog or cat. It provides coverage when and where they need it,” said co-founder and CEO Michael Hurnaus in a release. “We designed Tractive to deliver the best possible experience, with up-to-the-second information, so that all pet parents can care for their dogs and cats the way they want and deserve — whether that means monitoring activity levels to reduce the risk of obesity or tracking a dog or cat that slipped out of the yard.”
Also new is the arrival of an upgraded tracker from the company, primarily focused on improved battery life. The big change is the use of Wi-Fi to reduce battery strain when a pet is in the home. The company says it’s able to bump up battery life up to 5x. The tracker is available for $50 in the U.S., plus a monthly subscription fee.
In February, smart pet collar maker Fi announced a $30 million Series B.
Whether you’re building a company or thinking about investing, it’s important to understand your strategic advantage. In order to determine one, you should ask fundamental questions like: What’s the long-term, sustainable reason that the company will stay in business?
The most important elements for founders to consider when figuring out their strategic advantage(s) include one-sided or “direct” network effects (e.g. with social media sites like Facebook), marketplace network effects (e.g. with two-sided marketplaces like Uber), data moats, first mover and switching costs.
Let’s take a quick look at an example of one-sided network effects. At the very earliest stages of Facebook’s existence, it was just Mark Zuckerberg, a few friends, and their basic profiles. The nascent social media platform wasn’t useful beyond a few dorm rooms. They needed a strategic advantage or the company would not make it beyond the edge of campus.
A successful startup without a strategic advantage is just a validated business model vulnerable to copycat companies looking for a market entry point.
In fact, Facebook only truly became a useful platform — and accelerated as a business — when more users came into the fold and more types of email addresses were accepted. Add to that the introduction of an ad marketplace revenue model and you have a clear strategic advantage — based on one-sided network effects — that gave Facebook a strategic edge over other early social media sites like MySpace.
These one-sided network effects are different from two-sided network effects.
Image Credits: Canvas Ventures
Two-sided network effects are most common in marketplace business models. In a two-sided network, supply and demand are matched, like Uber riders (demand) being matched with Uber drivers (supply). The Uber product is not necessarily more valuable just because more users (riders) join, the way Facebook is more valuable when more users join.
In fact, when more users (riders) join the demand side of the Uber network, it might actually be worse for the user experience — it’s harder to find a driver and wait times get longer. The demand side (riders) gets value from more supply (drivers) joining the platform and vice-versa. That’s why it’s called a two-sided network, or a marketplace.
Regardless of industry, a successful startup without a strategic advantage is just a validated business model vulnerable to copycat companies looking for a market entry point. Copycats can range in size from startups with similar grit to large companies like Facebook or Google that have limitless resources to drive competition into the market, and potentially run the startup with the original idea out of business. This vulnerability can prove fatal unless a startup’s founding team explores and embraces one or more strategic advantages.