Sujan Patel has made a career out of unlocking growth opportunities through marketing.
A co-founder of the growth marketing agency Web Profits, he’s led digital marketing strategy for Salesforce, Mint, Intuit, Expedia, LinkedIn, Zillow and more. Plus, Sujan is growing his own handful of SaaS companies through Ramp Ventures, where he’s a managing partner. And while much of his growth work is happening behind the scenes, he’s shared many of his strategies through 100 Days of Growth (which has sold close to 45,000 copies to date), as well as his blog.
Sujan recently joined me on our podcast to dispel the misconceptions around a growth marketer’s work, when a startup is ready to grow this way, why it’s important to start small, and much more.
Adam Risman: Sujan, welcome to the show. To get us started, can you give us the CliffsNotes version of your career to date? How did growing companies become your things?
Sujan Patel: I’ve been doing digital marketing for the last 14 years. I started in high school and college by building an e-commerce website. When I built it, no one came to the website. I was like, “Crap, I need to figure out a way to get traffic to it.”
I stumbled onto SEO and succeeded in getting traffic. I was horrible at business, like many 18-year-olds, but I found my passion for SEO. That evolved from SEO to T-shaped marketing to falling in love with SaaS.
Web Profits is my second agency. I love helping others do marketing. I love helping them as an outsider because it helps them think about the things they don’t consider on a day-to-day basis. We have this unique approach called Fluid, which helps people look at all parts of the funnel. I found that in my many years of doing marketing for SaaS that a lot of growth comes from less obvious areas, like customer support, leveraging your existing customers, or solving problems and creating content around it.
That’s a little bit about me. I run two companies: Ramp Ventures, which owns and operates about seven SaaS companies, and Web Profits, a growth agency.
A fluid approach to growth
Adam: You mentioned fluid marketing. How does that differ from the conventional approach you see at SaaS companies, and why do you feel like it’s more effective?
Sujan: Fluid is a dynamic way of investing into marketing channels, your growth and building out a team. Let’s say you have a marketing team, and you need to do conversion optimization. You need somebody to manage your advertising. You need somebody to do your social media. You need somebody to go and create new landing pages. Ultimately, those types of resources may not be busy all the time. You might not need to invest the exact same amount of resources across the board. If you were to hire somebody to do all of your landing pages, you need to make a lot of landing pages. You need to make it worth a full-time hire.
Even if you hire an agency or a contractor, what happens is you set the groundwork and you solve one problem. Let’s say you figure out one channel to grow and it’s humming along. It’s working. You continue to scale. To make a channel work is the hardest. The first three-to-six months into a channel are the most difficult. After that, it’s really about scaling the channel, which takes a lot less time and a lot less resources.
The way fluid works is you pay us a flat fee and we’ll go build a team based off the channels you need. Let’s say we made a big dent in your conversion rate. We’ll move on to a new channel. We’ll move resources while the retainer and your investment into marketing doesn’t really change. We’re just blocking and tackling. I don’t think it’s very unique compared to building an in house team, but it’s fairly unique to agency work. We’re much more like a consultancy. I think it’s the most effective way for an agency or an outsider to help a marketing team or company actually get results.
Adam: It sounds like a lot of early experimentation on a certain tactic and once you get that humming, you move as quickly as you can to the next thing where you can begin experimenting and working toward that sweet spot.
Sujan: Exactly. We run sprints as well. Those sprints are prioritized based off budget and what will move the needle in that time frame. As you go forward in a channel, sometimes it’s like, “Advertising humming along. We got a budget. Why would we mess around with a new channel that might not yield the same results?” This is making sure you prioritize those right activities.
The makings of a marketing sprint
Adam: We hear all the time about design sprints, which might take place over a week. But what you’re talking about are more robust, 90-day, marathon sprints. Break those down for me. What’s the structure like? What are your goals going in?
Sujan: Here’s how the sprints started. Everybody on the marketing team, the client side, has ideas. “What about this? What if we do this?” And we hear, “No, we already started on this. We coded this.” All these limitations that, if you think about it, were very arbitrary because we were already past a decision point. I don’t think there should ever be any limitations on decision making, especially in early stage startups or any company that is or wants to grow rapidly. This turned into a Google spreadsheet that was just ideas, what the output, potential impact and output of those ideas would be, and who would have to be involved or what needed to be done in order for us to hit that projection. It started with everybody making a wish list. That way we had a laundry list of things that we could potentially do when we’re cleared out our workload or when we’re ready to make that next decision. Everyone’s ideas get heard.
I don’t think there should be limitations on decision making, especially in early stage startups.
It turned out that it was too rigid of a process to make a decision, complete it and then go on to the next thing. Let’s say you make the decision to invest in content marketing. It might be six to 12 months before you’re ready to move onto something else. We designed a shorter, 90-day timeframe.
It didn’t come out of nowhere. It came from the fact that realistically it gives us three testing cycles. Three months essentially to do three big things or three different projects, with each month being the anchor for each test. For example, if you were to do an A/B test of if you want to launch advertising, you might need one or two months to really get that data. 90 days really gives us three or four shots of what to go after. We look at this spreadsheet of all the possible things we could do and decide what’s going to have the highest potential impact. Then we decide which ones to invest in based on that.
Some things are going to take design and development resources. Those items might be prime candidates for the next 90-day sprint.
Adam: This sounds like something that would work well not just for a team that’s new to growth marketing, but also one that has built out and wants to take stake of where things are and evaluate their progress.
Sujan: Absolutely. Before I was doing Web Profits, I was the VP of Marketing at WhenIWork.com, a B2B SaaS company. Every day I talked to new customers, different team members, and other people outside the marketing team. Everybody had a great ideas. When you list out all the great ideas and potential impact of them, naturally the things that move the needle rise to the top.
How growth fits into the larger marketing picture
Adam: Taking a step back, to you, what does growth marketing really mean? Talking to people that work in this space, it seems like there is some misconceptions or misunderstanding about where and how you growth marketing can make the biggest impact in a business.
Sujan: Definitely. There’s a lot of buzz around anything growth hacking or growth marketing related, and I think a lot of people misuse it. To me, the word growth and putting it in front of marketing means you have measurable results. You’re moving more than just the top of the funnel.
Marketing has long had this (mindset of), “We’re going to drive traffic. We’re going to bring in leads. We’re going to do email opt-ins. But it’s really not our problem to convert them.” Growth marketing is really making sure the marketing team owns up to it and takes the shackles off.
It’s really about the full funnel. Looking at traffic, and even before that exposure and awareness. Thinking about your brand. Looking at consideration. Talking and working with sales as well as customer success or customer support teams to know what happens after a customer signs up. It’s looking at things in three dimensions: You have traffic, you have visitors, and you need to convert them. It’s looking at the quality of those leads and getting feedback from sales and then optimizing your approached based off that qualitative feedback.
Adam: Twice now you’ve mentioned customer support and how it’s related to growth. Yet so many people think of support as a cost center.
Sujan: In my 14 years of marketing, my most successful strategies – the ideas that have driven the most growth out – have come from customer support or customer success. More importantly, it’s come from the customer and leveraging the customer to grow. For example, at WhenIWork.com, we sent handwritten thank you cards to our customers. At the very bottom of these thank you cards, we A/B tested all these different call to actions. We implemented a net NPS score and surveys, and everyone that was a nine and ten, everyone who was a promoter, we engaged those customers and asked them for favors. We asked, “Hey, can you leave a testimonial? Can we interview you? What features do you like?” We engaged the customers through our support and success team, and it brought in this word of mouth.
— Can You Escape? (@Canyouescape) April 29, 2015
Honestly, it also made our other channels and our Facebook ads work better. All of a sudden, we had customers or people who had a good experience with the company jump in and leave a comment. I don’t know about you, but I rarely see that on ads. Those types of things happened when we started to think about our customers as, in my mind, a marketing apparatus. But really, when we became customer driven, that’s when this magic started to happen.
Adam: I admire that you’re taking what customers already love about your product and just finding a way to amplify that. How can marketers get closer to their customers like that?
Sujan: First and foremost, build a habit of connecting with them every month. It doesn’t have to be a monthly call. Just send a survey to all of your customers every month. Send them a different question. On the last Friday of every month it’s the first thing I do that morning. It’s me emailing one question that I have to my most active customers. I’ll go into Intercom, I’ll look at the people who have logged in the most that month or had the most of a certain action, and I’ll email them, “Hey, what’s one thing you wish we did.” Or, “Hey, what’s your favorite thing about this?” Or, “What’s one thing I can help you with?” And at the end, I add “PS, this is really me. This is my Friday morning routine.” Showing that I’m the founder, a real person, and actually doing this regularly, they get excited about it. A lot of times the responses I get are like, “We don’t need anything. It’s just so cool to see somebody actually talk to us.”
Finding the channel that fits your startup
Adam: You and I are both in agreement that many startups don’t bring in marketing, in general early enough. Looking at growth marketing specifically, when is a startup ready to move beyond word of mouth, if they’re fortunate enough to have gotten it, and begin experimenting with those tactics?
Sujan: Once you figure out product/market fit, it’s immediately time to figure out what Andrew Chen and Brian Balfour call product/channel fit. It’s immediately time to figure out your marketing channels, and more so trying to find the one or two marketing channels you can use to go from wherever you’re at to that next level. That whole process of first investing into growth marketing isn’t, “Can I get social ads to work? Can I get AdWords to work? Can I do SEO? Can I do content marketing?” You have to invest in one or two.
After finding product/market fit, marketers should look for what Brian Balfour calls product/channel fit. Read more about the concept here.
Look at the biggest companies out there, like Apple and Microsoft. Each company usually has one main channel and two or three secondary channels. It’s never been the case that a startup with limited resources can achieve success at three different things at the same time, so find one that you want to enter in and then as you get that one humming along, go after the next one and then go after the next one.
Let’s say you’re trying to raise money. It’s probably not good to go invest into content marketing and SEO as a primary channel to move the needle because they take too long. Spend it on ads or outbound sales.
Adam: From the perspective of a growth marketer then, let’s say they come into startup and there’s a good, long stream of content. They’ve been doing a great job at content marketing for a while, but they’re still working out the product kinks. Can a growth marketer do their job well while the product team works out the product issues? Or does there need to be a great product in place right away for this to work?
Sujan: The product is always a moving target. I don’t think it’s ever going to be perfect. But, there is such a thing as investing in marketing too early. Unfortunately, at my first SaaS endeavor contentmarketer.io, which has pivoted to Mailshake, we made that exact mistake. So yes, you can definitely invest too early.
There is such a thing as investing in marketing too early.
If you don’t have a product that can fit that channel, then I would recommend not leveraging that. For example, at contentmarketer.io, we had a product that was kind of okay and we were still validating product/market fit. I went to town naturally as a marketer. I built an audience. I built an email list. We started blogging. We got lots and lots of traffic. People even converted into customers. But the feedback we got from the first month was like, “I don’t think this product is right for me. It doesn’t fit.” We wasted that whole channel and we had too many people talking about us. That sounds like a good problem to have, but it’s a really bad one because their first impression of us was a product that doesn’t work for them or a bad product.
In the early days, if you’re figuring out your product and it’s still not fully ironed out, lay the groundwork on some of this stuff. Go lay the groundwork of content that you know is going to be potentially optimized or something that can rank. Go to town on channels that you can turn on and off, like outbound or cold email or advertising. Make sure when you turn them on you get feedback and data, and then when you turn it off until you’re ready to go.
Adam: When your team at Web Profits begins working with a new start up, how do you identify that first channel to amplify? What’s the framework that you use?
Sujan: There’s really only four or five channels I look at. One is advertising. Can we get social advertising, or is there enough demand of people looking for the solution? AdWords or any type of search based advertising. Is that a channel we can tap? Generally, most businesses have this channel. Content marketing and SEO, I lump them into one nowadays because doing content marketing is the way you can actually achieve great SEO results. Outbound sales, cold email and sales prospecting are another channel.
I look first and foremost at what channels they’re currently leveraging. If they’re leveraging one or two, what are the things we can scale? Also, what’s the budget and the goal? With most startups, the goals are very short term. If your goal is to grow by ‘x’ in this year, that’s still short term because startups won’t be around in three to five years if they don’t hit the first year’s goals.
Creating content that helps and informs
Adam: As someone who works in content, how could I better partner with my growth marketing team, or vice versa? What can we work on together?
Sujan: Think about what your customer’s problems are in their career and their day to day, and start solving those. That’s an area where a lot of people find gaps. Here’s an example. At Web Profits, we’re selling to VP’s of marketing and CMO’s. As a byproduct, we attract all types of marketers.
Think about what your customer’s problems are in their career and start solving them.
Yes, people want to hire us as an agency. That’s great. But, our content talks about topics that are ancillary to marketing. We created an ebook on customer advocacy and customer delight. (We’ll talk about) different channels of marketing, how to hire a marketer, interview questions for a marketer, how to set these marketing budgets. These aren’t going to help us get leads. But it is going to help our audience, the people we want to be screaming about us from the top of the rooftops, do their jobs better. Those types of things are very important. It’s doing a lot of customer interviews and really honing and doubling down on the level of research and information you have about your customer personas.
If you don’t have customers, it’s your audience. Your hypothetical customer. The 50 people on your email list. It doesn’t matter.
Adam: You mentioned books. It’s been a few years since you published 100 Days of Growth. If you were to write that book today, what new information would you include? How has your thinking evolved?
Sujan: I wrote 100 Days of Growth because I saw a gap in information. I wrote it in late 2014 and it published in early 2015. People were talking about really high levels of strategy. Ryan Holiday had a book on growth hacker marketing, and a few others had bigger, growth hacking type things. I thought, “You know what? There’s no tactical way to do this.” The book was intentionally very tactical because that’s what was missing in the book space at the time.
If I were to do it again, I would include a bit more strategy. I would also include more information on marketing and understanding the differences in marketing for different business models. Having sold around 45,000 copies, I get questions all the time from different types of businesses. Now that I know there’s people who have e-commerce, SaaS businesses and service businesses doing this, I would have probably highlighted a lot of this stuff. I’d add a few chapters in the beginning of the book so that if it’s an e-commerce reader, I would say, “Go check out tips 1, 2, 17 and 35.” A bunch of tips that would be applicable to that business, while also making sure they know what’s not applicable. It’s really hard to know being new.
We sort of have a second edition. It’s called The Growth Manifesto. We talk about the whole funnel, different business models and really solve that. I haven’t really pushed it as hard because frankly I’ve been very lazy. I probably shouldn’t be lazy. We’ll probably push it a lot harder going into 2018.
Accomplishing three things every day
Adam: I think you’re the last person that should call yourself lazy. Until recently, you were regularly working 80 hours a week before finally scaling back. Whether you’re a marketer, product manager, designer or founder, all of us struggle with prioritization and balancing that with productivity. How do you prioritize what you work on these days?
Sujan: I only try to do three things in a day. I use an app called Things. Every day, I have all these things on my to do list. Running multiple companies and managing different teams, I end up with different hats on and am always going between things. You never have enough time in a day.
My secret to feeling good at the end of the day is being productive. I feel like that’s what I need to hold myself accountable to. I have a list of three things I want to get done that day, and I always leave home after I finished the first thing on that list. So, I’m one third of the way done. I get in the office maybe at 10:00 or 11:00am some days. Sometimes, I wake up early and I get in at 8:00am. But I’ve already knocked out a big thing I want to get done that day.
Adam: Whether it be productivity, marketing or growth, where can listeners go to get more of your insights, find more of your writing or learn what WebProfits is all about.
Adam: Thanks so much for joining us, Sujan. Hopefully we haven’t set you back on your three things for the day.
Sujan: Thank you. It’s been a blast.