My Growth Story: Building HubSpot Academy

Since 2012, HubSpot Academy has been on a mission to transform the way people and companies grow, offering online training for the digital age. As HubSpot’s official learning resource, we aim to educate and inspire people everywhere, helping them learn how to market, sell, and grow an inbound business.

This is the story of how HubSpot Academy was created to help people and businesses grow.

“Be the change you want to see in this world.” — anonymous

Life Before HubSpot

In 2009 I was hustling at my first job out of college, doing market research about the technology landscape of the Fortune 1000. The company I worked for was growing, and my boss asked if I wanted to help with marketing.

At an early age, I learned to never say no to an opportunity you think could help you grow. So I said yes, I’ll help.

The challenge we faced at this company was growing our sales faster, which meant we needed more high-quality leads. What did we do? We Googled, “How to generate more leads.” What did Google return? The HubSpot blog.

HubSpot was a young company at the time. It had been only a couple of years since its founding, and it was starting to build some nice momentum.

My team decided to use HubSpot and inbound marketing to generate more leads and customers for our business. We purchased the HubSpot software in 2009, and I was put in charge of setting up the system, managing the day-to-day, and creating a ton of content. I sure did become a better writer because of our decision to buy HubSpot. But it was more than writing that I learned — I understood how to use inbound marketing to grow the business.

I learned how to use content, blogging, and conversions paths. I aligned our marketing and sales efforts to generate real revenue. The results started to come in. We doubled our revenue and tripled our leads. The business was growing, and in no time, I realized how powerful inbound could be.

Me at HubSpot’s annual INBOUND event.

I started to fall in love with inbound marketing and HubSpot’s mission. I realized I wanted to help more businesses see the success we saw, to help more people learn to use inbound to grow themselves and their organization. It was time for me to make a change.

I think Dharmesh, HubSpot’s CTO and co-founder, sums it up pretty nicely when he says,

“People don’t value marketing software. They value marketing success.”

That year I met a few HubSpotters at the first-ever HubSpot User Group, and an open position at the company came up in conversation. After about a month of preparing, interviewing, pondering, and stressing, I received an offer to become an inbound marketing consultant, now known as an implementation specialist.

Education Leads to Growth

I started at HubSpot back in May, 2010. I’ll never forget my first week. The company was growing rapidly, and I knew I’d made the right decision.

But I was determined that HubSpot needed to build something like today’s HubSpot Academy. I wasn’t exactly sure what it would be, nevermind what it would be called, but as a former customer, I knew our users needed more help, more resources, and more knowledge to be successful with HubSpot.

Not enough companies today offer education that makes their product or service more valuable to their customers. Education is a massive opportunity that almost any company can use to generate more leads, retain more customers, and help more people. Inbound marketing is precisely that.

So I came to HubSpot with an idea, and I knew the only way I was going to be able to make that dream a reality was through crushing my day job and working night and weekends to make it a real thing. Granted, I did join the team with an advantage. I was a former customer, and I understood how to use HubSpot with inbound marketing to grow a successful business. I’d seen first-hand the holes in HubSpot’s customer success model, and so I developed genuine empathy for the people I consulted with.

That’s exactly what I did. In late 2010, a small group of HubSpotters delivered more than 10 webinars to our customers. There were some about blogging, a few about landing pages, and some about email marketing. Still, to this day, they’re the core of an effective inbound strategy. They taught people about not only the topics but how to use them with the HubSpot software.

Some of us having fun hosting a live training webinar.

But after a few months of creating this customer education, we needed to make a decision — should we keep running this experiment, doing these webinars and teaching this content, or should we stop and move on to something else?

The decision was an overwhelming yes, we should keep teaching. Why? Because of the feedback we received from attendees and the sheer number of people who attended. More than 1,000 people tuned in to the webinars with positive feedback. They were saying things like “Finally, landing pages make sense,” and “Blogging doesn’t seem that hard anymore.”

But we didn’t have any real data about how the training changed people’s behaviors. Did they start using HubSpot more? Were they adopting more tools? Did the webinars lead to better retention or a higher NPS?

Regardless, we decided to keep it going and name the experiment. We landed on Content Camp. We created a website and built a blog and a ton of guides, checklists, and resources to help people grow their business with inbound marketing and HubSpot. We did at least one live webinar per week for more than 12 straight months.

The months passed by, and over the course of 2011, dozens of HubSpotters helped me build a thing that truly impacted both our customers and the business.

Attendance to our live webinars fluctuated but never declined sharply, the blog was growing, more HubSpotters wanted to be involved, and, most importantly, all of our activities lead to customers experiencing more success with the HubSpot software.

By the end of 2011, we had delivered more than 60 live webinars, dozens of guides and resources, and more than one hundred blog articles, all to help our customers learn about the HubSpot software and inbound marketing. All during nights and weekends. With the recommendations of several people, I realized I needed to start making a serious business case if I wanted to make Content Camp my full-time job. Wow, did I learn a lot.

The original HubSpot Content Camp logo

Frank Auger, who’s now our CIO, helped me understand what was important to measure, what wasn’t, and how to tell the story of Content Camp in a way that other people would understand. I owe a lot of our success to him and the many other people who believed in it and me.

As the year ticked over from 2011 to 2012, I was in the middle of refining and sharing my business case with everyone I thought should hear it. Everyone from Brian and Dharmesh to the people who helped build Content Camp.

The data showed that customers who attended Content Camp used more of the product, had a higher propensity to renew, and were more satisfied than those who never attended. The question was: Did Content Camp cause those things? We looked at data of customers before and after they engaged with the training, and we found that in some but not all cases they’d become more successful.

The question then became: Were these customers just more motivated than others? Each time someone asked me why or pushed back, it only encouraged me to find more data and more answers. Because of my own experience as a customer and the feedback we were receiving through the training, I believed in what we were doing.

I was patient and persistent. I never gave up.

Those are some of the key lessons I’ll never forget. If you truly believe in something, don’t give up on it. You might have to pivot or rethink your whole approach, but don’t give up if the data and your intuition are in alignment. And even if they aren’t.

One day, in January, 2012, Frank pulled me aside and said we need to run one more test before we could confidently say we should fund Content Camp into a real entity at HubSpot, aka my day job.

We ran a test to see if we could use education to help the customer success team teach our customers. The goals: increase a customer’s product adoption, measure their sentiment about the content, and reduce the time customer success managers spend on the phone teaching HubSpot. We did a final three-month test while I kept Content Camp running.

This test lead to a positive result, and in May, 2012, I was no longer an inbound marketing consultant.

I was the leader of HubSpot Academy.

“Success is making those who believed in you look brilliant.” — Dharmesh Shah, HubSpot’s CTO and co-founder.
Members of the team in 2013.

Phase One: The Startup Phase

I call this part our startup period. This phase of Academy’s life lasted for about two and a half years.

From an early age, I knew I wanted to become a leader.

I love helping people and seeing them grow — two important things you need a passion for if you want to become a great leader. I’ve learned I lead with a serve-people-first approach. The basic premise of servant leadership is putting your people before yourself. You sacrifice things for the betterment of the people you’re responsible for developing and growing. This mentality got me through the building of our original team, and I carry it with me today.

When HubSpot Academy became an official team, we did three important things that I believe set the foundation for the team’s growth and success.

1) We created the team’s leadership, management, and operating systems.

The leadership system came first. It defines our team’s purpose, our principles, and the people.

I believe every team, no matter the size, needs a purpose the whole team believes in and rallies behind. Ideally, the leader sets the vision and works with the right people to craft the team’s purpose statement. Serve people with the why.

I also lead an effort to develop a set of principles that act as the guardrails for how we work and what we believe in. These principles drive a lot of Academy’s success. Drafting and defining the principles with other team members is important. Depending on the team’s size, you might do it with the whole team or with different groups within the team.

It’s all about encouraging your team to feel like they have true ownership of the principles and that they’ve had a voice in developing them. We use our team principles for hiring, training, ongoing coaching, and to provide people with immediate feedback. We serve people with the how.

During our startup phase, we added more people to the team and we started to understand how important design and video are to teaching. We shifted from a group of generalists to specialists. We built the first few certification courses and became more proficient in how we teach people, so they don’t just learn it, they actually understand it.

The management system came second. It’s our current MSPOT, the projects we’re working on, and habitus. MSPOTs are how HubSpot manages the business. They contain what we’re doing, why we’re doing it, the measurement devices, and what we’re not going to do for each year. Habitus is something we’ve created to track our daily habits, professional growth goals, and personal growth goals.

The Academy operating system is the third part of our team’s core. It guides us in everything we do. It’s a resource we use to make sure we’re operating in a manner that’s aligned with our principles and our purpose. We use the operating system to teach others how to create education that’s informative, useful, and enjoyable to consume.

These three things have been key to our ability to educate and inspire people. They’ve been key to our growth as a team and the impact we’ve had on people and organizations around the world.

Plus, we like to have fun and stay weird.

2) We updated the inbound marketing methodology.

We needed a simple way to explain why people should adopt inbound, how to see success with the methodology, and what tools to use to reach their goals.

The original inbound marketing methodology was three phases: get found, convert, and analyze. Those three actions were core to inbound marketing and, at the time, were the three jobs HubSpot could help people accomplish.

All of that changed in 2012. Our toolset expanded and we were becoming more than a marketing software company. I worked with dozens of people across the business in all major groups to update the methodology and make it the central thing people would use to teach inbound.

Now both our education and product use the methodology as something of a north star. All of Academy’s education is aligned using the methodology, and when we create new tools, we consider what job the tool will help people accomplish within the inbound methodology.

3) We created our teaching framework.

It’s how all of our content — from our blog articles to videos to end-to-end certification courses — is created. It’s a simple three-step framework:

  • Why
  • How
  • What

This teaching framework enabled us to teach people how to use inbound with the software to achieve success. H/t to Simon Sinek. We adopted his Golden Circle concept to create the foundation of our teaching framework.

The why component of our teaching framework is the facts, the “why” you should care about this thing. If we were creating a class on why you should create content, for example, we’d identify the jobs content helps you do and the results of doing said jobs.

The how component is the concepts. How do you create content that will lead to the results you learned about in the why? It’s the things to do and things not to do. The concepts can be a more specific approach or methodology for that job, best practices, or the recommended steps you should take.

The what component is the HubSpot Growth Stack, or the other tools you need to use with the how to achieve the why. If you need to create content, we’ll teach you how to use our keyword, blogging, and sources tools to help you design and develop content. We’ll teach you how to use the tools with the concepts.

Using Data and Feedback to Determine Our Next Move

Right around October 2014, I sat down with several folks at HubSpot and we examined the impact Academy was having on our customers and the business.

The data and customer feedback we looked at was promising. HubSpot Academy was reaching more people, and more HubSpotters were using the content, which lead us to believe that the ultimate goal for HubSpot Academy during the next several years was to maximize its reach.

Enter Academy’s growth mode.

Phase Two: Academy’s Growth Mode

We entered growth mode at the end of 2014, and boy, have we grown.

We’ve continued to use our team’s purpose, principles, and systems to grow. They’ve evolved from the lessons we continue to learn, but the core of each remains intact.

They’ve served us well as we’ve hired more people, expanded our training offerings, and grown from training thousands of people per month to training tens of thousands of people per month. It’s been a wild ride, and it’s not even close to the end.

Everyone on the team is now a specialist. We have a video producer, a video editor, a designer, a content editor, a content manager, eight professors (otherwise known as prolific teachers and content creators), a growth marketer, program leaders, and even a product team focused on helping us marry the learning and doing with the HubSpot Growth Stack. And we’re hiring more.

The Team’s Growing!

The main lesson here is adaptability. HubSpotters should be adaptable to change as it’s part of the natural occurrence in a fast-growing company or team. Adaptability is, in fact, an attribute of the people we hire at HubSpot. Check out the culture code to learn more about our values and culture.

Brian Halligan, our CEO and co-founder, challenged the HubSpot Academy team to increase our success by 10x in 2015. We’re always up for a challenge, so we embraced it and got to work.

Today we’re awarding more than 8,000 certifications every month. Back in 2013, that number was more like 500. Today we’re producing dozens of videos per month. Back in 2012, we weren’t producing any video. Today we’re helping hundreds of people inside and outside of HubSpot teach and share knowledge. Our courses are featured alongside Facebook and Google in Udacity’s Digital Marketing Nanodegree.

We recently announced the Education Partner Program. We’re now partnering with more than 170 schools around the world to teach inbound and HubSpot in the classroom. Now around ten percent of the people getting certified each month are from an educational institution.

So what does our shared future hold? What can the world expect from HubSpot Academy?

I can tell you this: We’re not going to relent on growing Academy’s impact. We want to move faster and create more value for our students and users than ever before.

Here’s everything we’re working toward — HubSpot Academy’s 2020 moonshot.

A visual of our growth and momentum.

Phase Three: The HubSpot Academy 2020 Moonshot

We need three reusable rockets (h/t Elon) to reach our moon.

1) Empower people to create education.
2) Partner with networks to share knowledge.
3) Build places where people can connect.

Empower people to create education.

During our startup and growth phases, we built a lot of education. This building and improving won’t stop. Phase three, our moonshot, is when we’ll help other people create education.
We’ll work with people across the world to create education that will help people learn the marketing, sales, services, and human resource functions of a business.

But we won’t be able to create all of the education necessary for someone to learn how to start and grow a business. We won’t have enough time or expertise to create it all. What we will have is a lot of people who want to help and who have expertise in the areas we don’t.
We’re going to create more education next year than we ever have in the past with the help of more people than ever before. We’re going to expand the HubSpot Accredited Trainer program to empower more people to create and teach.

We need to build more education and find networks of people who can help. We need to teach people what we know about teaching so they can spread their knowledge.

Partner with networks to share knowledge.

During our startup phase, we shared knowledge with our network — our customers. During growth mode, we shared knowledge with larger networks, marketers and sales professionals. Phase three, the moonshot, is when we’ll help networks teach their networks.

We’re continually finding new networks of people who want to learn. It started with marketing, now sales, and who knows after that.
Within each one of those large networks, there are hundreds, probably thousands, of smaller networks that could benefit from our education, and we could benefit from their existing knowledge.

Together we’ll share the collective knowledge through HubSpot Academy.
Imagine a world where we’ve partnered with agencies. They’ll use our education to learn inbound, and we’ll use their knowledge to help other agencies grow. This is now happening.

Imagine a world where we’ve partnered with colleges. They’ll use our education in the classroom, and we’ll use their education to fill our knowledge gaps. This is happening today.

We’re starting to partner with online learning platforms and startup incubators. In 2017 we need to find more networks and build more relationships.

We’re building the education. We’re sharing the knowledge. Now it’s time to connect people.

The team at our annual lake day circa 2016.

Build places where people can connect.

The startup phase was about connecting with our customers. Growth mode was about making connections with marketers and salespeople. Phase three, our moonshot, is when we’ll build a platform for people to connect with each other.

How do we connect people who now have new skills and want a job? How do we connect someone who wants to teach inbound with someone who wants to learn it?

People need more than just the education. They need to use their education and drive real value from it. We need to help people find employment. We need to enable people to learn from one another. We need to build these bridges for people, to help them connect. Customers and agencies. People and jobs. Academics and businesses.

Where and how will those connections be made?

Yes, some will be organic, but it won’t be enough. We need to enable networks to come together and make a match. Think Uber (drivers and riders) or Airbnb (owners and renters).

We’re just getting started here. We’re about to take two swings. We’re going to build a jobs marketplace to connect job seekers with employers. We’re going to use the new HubSpot Community as a way to connect a person who has a question with a person who has the answer.

How will we know if we’re successful in reaching the moon?

We’ll know by how much knowledge is being shared and by how many networks turn to us for help. We’ll know by how many connections we help make and by the number of people who use our education and software to make the world a better place. We’ll know when we become a billion dollar revenue company.

We have a huge opportunity in front of us. We have a responsibility to our customers, to our users, to ourselves, and to society. 
We want to make the world more inbound — more human, more helpful, and more holistic.

My call-to-action for you at the end of this is to always be growing. To do that, you need to always be learning, teaching, and leading.

“If your actions inspire others to dream more, learn more, do more, and become more, you are a leader.” — John Quincy Adams

Want to join us on our journey to the moon? Email me mkilens@hubspot.com or find me on Twitter.