I Grew Our Startup 270% In 7 Months — And Then I Left: A Success Story
January 6th, 2014 I began working as the Marketing Manager for a Venture Capital backed SaaS startup called When I Work. I was employee number 11. My experience in Marketing was next to nothing, but I poured my heart and soul into learning everything I could and had some really great mentors along the way. Within 7 months, we had grown revenues by 270%. This is a story about what I learned and — why I left.
About My Boss — Chad Halvorson
As the Marketing Manager, I reported directly to our CEO, Chad Halvorson. You may have read about him on Inc. Magazine’s website last year as one of their 35 Under 35 Coolest Entrepreneurs of 2014.
Chad is quietly fierce. When you talk to him, he comes across as the buddy you play video games with, but don’t let his quiet demeanor fool you — he knows exactly what he wants, down to the pixel. It’s actually a bit Steve Jobs-ish. He’s also one heck of a worker. I’m used to working long hours — in fact, my job prior to this was as a registered nurse (RN), and I was trained in nearly every unit of the University of Minnesota. As an RN there are many times that you work 16 hour shifts, and occassionaly even work 20 hour shifts. Chad outworked me everyday. It was impressive and scary at the same time, but it made us one heck of a team.
Getting My Feet Wet with Analytics
I love numbers. Like, a lot. I memorized Pi out to 59 digits on my way to work one day simply because it seemed like a really fun idea. A few weeks into working with marketing analytics though — and I hated numbers.
We had metrics coming in from dozens of sources, Google Analytics, KISSmetrics, our SQL database, Facebook ads reports, along with a dozen other sources — and not a single one of them said the same thing. I spent hours upon hours trying to get our numbers to line up so I could actually make some kind of insights from them.
I learned that our previous LTV calculation was wrong — enough so that it made a pretty big difference. We had no good calculation of CAC breakdown for each of our advertising channels — which made it hard to tell if we should spend more money or less money on each channel. Eventually I managed to create a Marketing Metrics spreadsheet in Google Docs that was based heavily on this KPI Dashboard from Christoph Janz.
After digging into our analytics and their inaccuracies, we decided that if we want to be data driven, we should hire a data analyst full time to create and maintain the necessary KPI dashboards for us, along with having him spelunk through the caverns of data we were accumulating to see if there were other patterns that we might be missing that could help us find the right growth hacks.
We found a data champion named Dennis Still. He was able to come in and help us sort through all the data and find the right Business Intelligence (BI) Dashboard to help us get the numbers we needed at our fingertips. We tested and used a lot of solutions — but the one that helped us get the best dashboards for high level metrics right off the bat was Chartio. I can’t say enough good things about what it was like to start visualizing all of our data in such beautiful ways — it made me a numbers guy again.
Scaling PPC (Facebook Ads, AdWords)
After I learned the other 900+ tools (I’m exaggerating — a bit) that we used in the marketing department, I was able to settle down and find some big wins for us. I started with the fastest wins — advertising. The allure of PPC on Facebook ads and AdWords are that the return is almost immediate. SEO, Content Marketing, Social Media are all good, necessary and even fun — but they take a while longer to see revenue growth — which is just simply too long to wait for a grown up that hasn’t completely outgrown his ADHD.
At the time, we were working with an agency named SingleGrain. They managed our AdWords and Facebook ads — and they were doing a great job, but we wanted to grow faster. So I sat down with Tom Lambert and worked out a Facebook ads plan for February that would allow us to test out new copy, new images, and new CTAs all at the same time (multivariate testing) along with tripling our spend. The new ads were a hit. Not only did we learn a ton about what converts for our audience, but we managed to increase spend — all while decreasing TAC (Trial Acquisition Cost) by more than 50% (in fact, our efforts on Facebook were so effective that they did a case study on us here).
Hot off the heals of February’s success, we put a new plan into motion for March that allowed us to test out many of the same variables for MAI (Mobile App Installs) along with new custom audiences and look-alike audiences. This again helped us scale by spending more money and decreasing the cost for each MAI (Mobile App Install). As things scaled, we eventually switched to another agency, Growth Pilots, to help us get to the next level with our PPC — and they crushed it!
We also did some A/B tests on the homepage of the website that also showed some huge improvements in getting people into the top of our funnel — over 40% increase in signups. I wrote about that here on Optimizely’s blog — which is the tool that we used to test out our CRO (Conversion Rate Optimization) goals.
Redesigning A Website — From Scratch
Based on the big wins we were seeing from our A/B testing, and based on data that suggested our page load time was slow, we set out to redo the website. Garret Voight our VP of Design, and Chad, worked on designing the new website based on the feedback we got from the A/B tests. We scoured over every detail of the design — making sure that we were making decisions that would improve the CRO of the site.
When we finished the design files, our CTO, Dan Olfelt, and our programmer, Jonathan Swatkowski, went to work laying the foundation of the site. It was the most organized, logical code I had ever seen. I am not a programmer, but seeing the code that Jonathan created along with Ben Visness, I felt like I could take a stroll through the code and make any changes I wanted — it was beautiful.
The new website continued to convert at even higher rates than before, which was great — and the site was blazing fast, which helped us in search results. It was a winning combination that allowed us to really push hard and set a few more records in the early summer for customer growth.
Content Marketing — A 2014 Buzzword
Chad has always been pretty forward thinking — which is what allowed him to create the app in the first place, not to mention bootstrapping it to $1 Million ARR (Annual Run Rate) before accepting funding. He and I quickly noticed that the trend to be media publishers was not just a fad, but would likely be the key to good lead gen as well as the future of SEO. As a result, we hired a Rich Media Producer, Sam Mattson, to clean up our video presence online (including a super cool new explainer video that I got to write the script for), a dedicated graphic designer for the marketing team, Brandon Lord, and a Content Manager, Rob Wormley, so we could really take our blog to the next level.
One of the best lead generating things we created was an excel spreadsheet that people could download and use to schedule their employees. While it seemed a bit counterintuitive at first, that a SaaS company specializing in scheduling your employees online would offer a free excel template as a download, we quickly realized that by offering people what they THOUGHT they wanted, we could get them into the funnel. Once they were in the funnel — they would get our emails and realize that there was a much better way to schedule their employees.
The other big thing we were able to do was push to get our blog traffic over 100,000 visits a month. Having a Content Manager like Rob, that could focus on writing or scheduling posts that people were interested in, along with high quality images from Brandon, and the right promotion from Nicole Ward, our Social Media Manager — allowed us to quickly scale past 100,000 blog visits each month. The inbound marketing team would figure out what type of post we needed and how we would promote it before the piece was even written. I can’t stress the value of promotion enough.
Finding Batman — AKA Sujan Patel
Working for a startup let me network with some pretty heavy hitters. I even got to shake Alan Patricof’s hand (he’s the founder of Greycroft — one of our investors). But nothing compared to the opportunity I received in July. Sujan Patel, one of the top internet marketers of our day, a regular contributor on Forbes and Entrepreneur, decided to join our team and teach me the ways of the Marketing Jedi (yes, I realize that I just combined Batman with Star Wars — but seriously, there is just too much goodness here to be contained in ONE sci-fi epic mention).
When Sujan joined, he taught me the ropes of pretty much EVERYTHING. Everything I thought I had learned in the previous 7 months, he turned it upside down and inside out — showing me 100's of ways to do it better and faster. Since he took over the marketing team, it allowed me to focus in on weak areas. One of those areas was SEO (Search Engine Optimization). I spent 2 months developing an SEO game plan and figuring out the best strategies for us to maximize our link opportunites. I used Moz Pro as my go to tool — and I devoured every article I could find on their blog, moz.com/blog, on Neil Patel’s quicksprout blog, and on searchenginejournal.com.
He also helped me really grasp CRO (Conversion Rate Optimization) by sending me to HeroConf, about Lean UX (and Lean mentality in general) by sending me to a conference to learn from Jeff Gothelf, and even about email through some quality A/B tests that we did internally on our onboarding flows for trial users. It was truly a world class education in digital marketing. We even had the chance to do some traditional marketing when we went to a couple of trade shows like CoffeeFest in Atlanta (which was fun, but was not the most effective way for us to reach our potential customers).
The Rest Of The Team — But Not Last
The rest of the team was every bit as dedicated to growth as we were, and the growth would not have happened without everyone involved. I can only tell the story from a marketing perspective, but there are so many other facets that were crucial to our success.
Our Sales/Success team, lead by Garrett Kramer, was top notch. Every week they found ways to “touch” more customers — to find ways to engage them and truly provide them the help that they needed to see the value in our product — and ultimately convert. Our belief was that, if people don’t get the help they need to actually onboard and see the value of the software, they will never becoming paying customers (a little something we learned from Lincoln Murphy). If we wanted people to pay us money, then we needed to make sure that we provided the absolute best help and onboarding possible — making it easy for not just the customer to find the value in our software, but for their boss and employees to see it as well.
Our Customer Support team, currently lead by Matthew Carroll (previously lead by Angela Pidde), was every bit as focused on the success of our customers as the Sales team was. Their goal was to continue to provide the best in support — the kind of support that actually makes your business more successful. If you succeed — then you want to stick with us; it’s that simple.
I already mentioned our CTO, Dan Olfelt, but I would say that he is quite possibly one of the smartest people I have ever met. He had a way with managing all of the developers and code in a way that made it seem almost effortless. He could do ANYTHING with code — there was absolutely no limit to what he could accomplish or even how quickly he could get it done. I am forever spoiled now after working with an in-house development team of that quality. All of the programmers made our silly marketing requests a reality which really made many of these big wins as successful as they were.
I would be crazy if I didn’t mention our COO and President, Jeff Imm. We jokingly called Jeff the “Dad” of the group because he was one of the only ones that wasn’t in their 20's-30's. But also because he genuinely cared for his employees as though we were his own children. I learned a ton about leadership, management, “getting things done”, and just plain running a business, from him. He was so knowledgeable about processes, and getting the business running optimally and I’m thankful for the time I had to learn from him.
There are still people that I’m missing, but the truth is that it took an entire team of highly dedicated individuals to push us to grow as much as we did last year — and it was quite the ride — and education.
So Why Did I Leave?
At first, I didn’t want to. Another company had contacted me about working with them and leading their growth team to success in 2015, but I couldn’t dream of doing anything different. Thankfully I had a great friend and mentor, who also happened to be my boss — Sujan.
Sujan told me that I had grown immensely and that if I had the opportunity to lead a team of my own, that he believed I was more than ready. He told me that he was “graduating” me on to a new chapter — a new challenge. That really is the best way to look at it, as a graduation. In fact, we jokingly played “Graduation” by Vitamin C — lame, I know, but that’s exactly what it felt like. There were tears, cards, letters, and pot luck lunches. It felt like I was leaving high school all over again, saying goodbye to all of the many wonderful friends that I had spent everyday with for the past year — the people that worked their butts off with me as we grew the company in big ways.
But sometimes you have to graduate to get better. You have to move on and challenge yourself with something new — something different, so you can continue to grow. Which is why I have taken a position at Dollar Hobbyz, LLC as their VP of Marketing and Growth.
Who is Dollar Hobbyz?
Briefly, they are an ecommerce site that sells RC car parts and accessories. They have a model for success that is absolutely crushing the competition, and they have a leadership staff that understands the most important aspects of growth and how my skills can contribute to that. I am crazy excited to help them reach and exceed their growth goals in 2015 and beyond, and I hope you start reading about it all over the web as we grow and crush it this year. Keep an eye on us!