4 Lessons I Learned From Failing As A Growth Marketer At An Early Stage SaaS Startup

Bhaskar Sarma
Aug 13, 2016 · 10 min read

Last December I was hired as a full stack growth marketer on a part-time basis to help a tiny SaaS startup grow.

The deal was, I would be paid a flat retainer every month ($500), with bonus paid based on how many users I was able to convert. The CEO (let’s call him Nick) and I decided that I would work for approximately two hours every day.

When that deal happened I was stoked.

I was excited because despite the low fees, zero paying customers, a product that was in beta, and non-existent marketing I was finally in charge of, or could have an impact throughout the entire user journey.

I could finally put to use all those strategies and tactics featured in top ranking Growth Hacker posts.

I had a great rapport with Nick. We read the same growth blogs and we followed the same authority figures (both of us subscribed to Lincoln Murphy’s work, for example). It helped that he approached me after reading on of my articles on onboarding enterprise SaaS users.

And best of all, he was willing to do whatever it takes and greenlight any experiment I wanted to run to move the needle.

I was also passionate about the product and the mission and it all seemed like a perfect fit.

Until it wasn’t, when things went sideways and my engagement ended eight months later in July, without one paying user and a dollar of revenue to show for my efforts.

I will be honest here: it’s a shame that I failed and if the Doctor turned up with his Tardis right now and offered me to take back to December, I would do a whole lot of things differently.

1. Ruthlessly focus on one type of user

Just one type of user. Quit marketing to every one in the target universe

Our product (I am calling it Tessarect) was up against Microsoft Excel. It could be used by power users and regular users at enterprises and SMBs or by individual customers.

For a few months after I had joined, there was no clarity on who we should target first. The power users would get the most value out of Tessarect but with an untested, buggy product that had a learning curve we were asking people to unlearn Excel habits ingrained over tens of thousands of hours.

That was going to be a big fat ask.

We could target users less indoctrinated in Excel like MBA students or small business owners but we would have to invest significantly in education and outreach.

After exploring multiple approaches we finally decided around April-May to focus on the enterprise users and got to working on detailed user personas.

These lost months of indecision cost me heavily.

If you are starting out and have a severe resource crunch, focus on one type of user. You might (will?) have to pivot your marketing and messaging later, but unless you live in the head of a particular persona you will spread yourself too thin, or worse, work with untested assumptions.

2. Dedicate more time

You know that old saw about how fast, cheap and good can’t exist together?

Let me propose a corollary: if you are working on an early stage SaaS startup, without any product market fit, and no backend, or any systems and processes to speak of…

…you can’t be working remotely and part-time throughout the entire marketing stack and expect paying customers to line up immediately.

You will have to scale down your ambitions or allocate more time.

If you want to stay remote, you can either work full time on the complete AARRR framework, or work part time on only one area (acquisition, activation, retention etc).

Because there was no marketing infrastructure or usable data when I joined I realized that we needed to set up systems like Wordpress and Intercom to attract users and convert them.

And thus, in the early months, I tried to juggle multiple balls as I sought to understand the user, figure out appropriate web copy and design,set up a blog, determine a content calendar….you get the drift.

And like an amateur juggler, I dropped most of the balls.

A snapshot of my early efforts at organization/planning. If someone asks you how to show what eating an elephant whole is in Trello, show them this

I had overextended myself badly and I was more than frustrated with the glacial progress I was making.

If you are working for limited hours, scale down expectations or have a discussion with your client and increase the time you can spend for faster results.

3. Demonstrate quick wins

Movement over Meditation” was one of the axioms which the late great Gary Halbert, the Prince of Print, lived by.

When you are starting out on any kind of assignment, you need a series of quick wins to establish trust and credibility with your team and also validate some of your assumptions.

After I began my engagement I had decided that I would focus on building an email list using content marketing. That seemed to be a tangible result and a quick win.

The first month, I worked to figure out an editorial calendar, and then helped set up a blog so that we could get some content rolling out.

I wrote two posts, and then stopped.

Such a rookie mistake!!

Instead, over the next months I spent time in multiple areas like:

  1. Attempting to get Intercom working with our system so that we could start sending triggered emails and in-app notifications.
  2. Figuring out the content for the knowledge base.
  3. Working with a contractor on the design of the knowledge base installation.
  4. Writing out knowledge base articles.
  5. Setting up Groove.
  6. Contacting people on LinkedIn and on forums and attempting to understand what their needs were.
  7. Teaching myself Mixpanel and creating a tracking plan inside it.
  8. Understanding how Segment worked as a data hub.
  9. Designing the flow of onboarding emails.
  10. Creating an onboarding logic inside Active Campaign.
  11. Working on the outlines of the welcome and the onboarding emails.

For integrating services like Mixpanel and Active Campaign with our app via Segment I needed the developers to allocate some time out of their already busy schedule. There were multiple bugs in implementation, and with data not flowing in everyone was frustrated.

After almost two months of evaluation we had to eventually eighty six Intercom because the app didn’t play nice with our code.

Now that I think, there was a part of me which wanted to move from blogging and was seduced by the prospect of building systems and creating a marketing, analytics, and customer success stack.

I was too enthusiastic and ADD for my own good, and I disappointed my team.

Taking my eyes off the blogging ball was a costly mistake. By focusing more on activation and retention related tasks over acquisition, I essentially put the cart before the horse.

If only I did this consistently from the start

If I had kept writing one post per week, I would have started to drive traffic and build an email list. And while not having an analytics infrastructure or a knowledge base would hurt conversions we would still have an audience to reach out to.

That list, even if unengaged or cold would always be an important business asset.

Prioritize on few tasks and don’t get distracted by simmering fires elsewhere. Build the foundation before worrying about the superstructure. Get a few quick wins to validate your assumptions and boost your confidence.

4. Get the tough conversations out of the way

While I was working away in Mumbai, the rest of the core team was located in Moscow. As the months passed and my performance dipped (because of #1, #2 and #3) I started to notice some worrisome patterns.

Before, I was included in every major discussion related to Tessarect. From hiring strategies to pricing, and PR to making the UI more conversion friendly, my contribution was sought.

In May a senior UX designer came on board, with a mandate to redesign the entire interface from ground up. I didn’t get an opportunity to find out his thoughts on the UI even though by that time I was focusing on customer success and in-app experience was dependent on how well designed the product was.

In June I found out that two team members had been hired to beef up the marketing team, with one of them hired full time. The decision caught me by surprise because Nick had told me not long ago that he would like to have me on board full time.

These decisions and the lack of communication signaled that my relationship with Tessarect wasn’t as deep rooted as I had assumed. I didn’t know what my place was in the team, and I didn’t reach out with my concerns. Who knows, if I had done so I might have been able to overcome the trust deficit and fix the problem.

Tough conversations, especially around performance and future plans might be tempting to avoid. But you need to have them, in order to maintain morale in the team and keep trust levels high, especially when you don’t work in the same office and have never met each other in real life.

The essential elements for fail proofing a remote startup project

I didn’t co-found or invest any money in Tessarect, but I had come to see it as my own project, and I effectively worked on it well beyond my “normal” work hours.

I thought about how to write better welcome emails in the shower.

I mulled over how to apply Nir Eyal’s Hook model to make the app more sticky while chopping onions for an omelet.

And while I was not really hired for sales, I had started to make a list of potential enterprises I could reach locally. This was easy because I lived in Mumbai, the city was India’s financial capital and one of Tessarect’s main user types happened to be finance professionals.

But none of that was enough for me to keep my place on the team. And I will not lie: it sucked when I found out in late July that I was no longer going to be working from August.

As my experience has shown, passion and willingness to wear multiple hats isn’t enough for you to succeed in a resource constrained environment.

Even being a self starter isn’t a sufficient condition.

To be an effective growth marketer especially at an early stage startup you need to be picky, tune out distractions, be extremely strategic, and ship the right stuff at the right time.

A representation of a growing, resource constrained, early stage startup

For leaders, fostering a culture of trust and transparency and establishing a set of shared values is also critical in building a well oiled team. Your team members will have given up on more lucrative and less taxing gigs because they believe in the product and in your vision.

Non transparency and trust deficit will lead to mental opt-out among your team members and it will show in their performance.

Without that feeling of esprit de corps, you will just have a bunch of vendors who are merely looking at delivering what’s in the contract and going their separate ways.

A whole bunch of startups like Buffer and Groove have done this very well, and while early stage startups won’t have the funds for retreats, other elements like daily team meetings doesn’t need any budget to get started.

My next steps

Right now, this is how I feel about the whole thing.

Did Cap get a beat down from Iron Man? Should have seen the movie

So in my first round against the growth monster I did get punched out by a flurry of punches and a wicked right hook.

But I am up now and like Cap, I could do this all day.

I could land well placed jabs which will actually hurt the other guy and put him on the mat.

I am more self-aware and know my blind spots. I am prone to making high-level plans but now, I would rather go as detailed as possible and prioritize more on executing a few minor and closely related tasks rather than take up a bunch of unrelated and sprawling jobs.

I am very thankful and grateful to Nick and his team for giving me an opportunity to work in the trenches, and I wish them all the best. I learned a lot about startup operations, and picked up some wicked Mixpanel and Active Campaign skills.

I am also never going to forget the value of strategic prioritization.

So whose monster should I slay next?

A version of this article first appeared in an Inbound.org thread.

Bhaskar Sarma

Written by

Conversion copywriter and full stack SaaS growth marketer. Whovian. Bit of a geek. Spend my spare time trying not to fall off a handstand

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