“Not all startups are created equal.”
I would learn the reality of these words after spearheading marketing efforts at my first couple of startups.
Before I even thought about startup marketing, I was an ambitious student studying at McGill University. At the time, I didn’t know anything about growth marketing; instead, I was entirely focused on school and studying for the LSAT.
At McGill, I majored in economics and minored in psychology — I’ve always had a passion for behavioral economics: observing people in action and seeing what makes them tick. Combined with my passion for teaching, writing and reading, it seemed to be the perfect field for me.
Looking back, it’s easy to see that I had the chops to eventually become a growth marketer. At the time, however, I still had to figure out that path.
The first piece of the puzzle fell in place when McGill held an entrepreneurial competition called the Dobson Cup. The winner received funding and advising from high-level entrepreneurs.
Eager to participate, I founded a company called ThoughtBasin, a social network that connected organizations with students who were looking to be recognized and rewarded for making a difference. My team was excited. We had high hopes — and then lost in the first round.
Learning…and moving forward
We could’ve easily been disheartened, but we continued chasing the vision and built-out a large team. At the time, we weren’t aware of what founding a startup involved. We immediately hit challenges, overcoming some but not all of them. A couple of years later, the startup failed.
Instead of being disappointed, I was enlightened. That was my first taste of entrepreneurship, and I wanted more. And the small wins felt great, especially recognizing that I didn’t have any prior experience running a company at that point.
It was clear that I needed to have a better understanding of driving sustainable growth, particularly with user acquisition. With this in mind, I began a new path.
Out of college, I cold emailed people to try and land my first full-time job. One of the companies I reached out to was Breather, a service that provides on-demand workspaces and meeting rooms. Julien Smith, Breather’s CEO responded to me with an opportunity to interview with him. I ended up sending him a marketing plan and offered to work for free for a week.
I landed the job.
Turning down law school for startup life
Working at Breather, startup life had a tight grip on me. I decided to follow my passion rather than my investment, so I rejected law school admission at the University of Toronto and turned down being waitlisted at Columbia and admitted at McGill.
I felt like I was making the right decision, but then I was let go because Breather wanted someone more technical. I could’ve looked down on myself, but Julien had taught me so much about product/market fit, lifetime value, acquiring customers, and thinking globally. By the time I left, I had learned so much from the experience. To me, that’s what mattered most.
Feeling ambitious, I traveled to Montreal to spearhead growth for Flatbook, a real estate startup where you can rent local places with all the services you’d expect from a hotel. It was clear that I was in for another startup adventure. This time though, I was more prepared.
During the seven months I worked there, we grew from ten to thirty-five cities. I spent a significant amount of time studying and implementing paid advertising, getting PR placements, and helping Flatbook become one of the most upvoted products on Product Hunt. Many things worked well — especially implementing systems for hyper-local marketing and scalable growth with local ambassadors around the globe. The team worked together to achieve incredible results in a short amount of time.
Even though I worked long hours, especially when running thousands of Facebook ad sets, I still found time to teach myself Python, SQL, Google Analytics, and more. I took the lessons I’d learned at Breather to heart.
I enjoyed working at Flatbook, but I was also looking for new adventures focused on my life-long passions. After seven months at Flatbook, I set out to find another great company culture which focused on education.
While I was searching, I took a contract at DogSync, a company, and app that helps families and roommates delegate tasks related to their dog’s care. There, I learned valuable lessons in creating a sales funnel from scratch. We tried many different things and found a lot of success with Facebook marketing and creating an excellent culture for fostering creativity. Even though I left at the end of my contract, the company has recently experienced some impressive user acquisition gains.
With a high-level growth mindset, I was ready for the next opportunity. I just needed to find it. I set up numerous conversations with friends in San Francisco and flew out to meet them. After a thorough search, I found Springboard, a company on a mission to make high-quality education accessible to everyone in the world. To get their attention, I tweeted the CEO and directly messaged him over Facebook.
At the time, Springboard was about to go through a major PR and re-branding push. I took a contract position with them to help with their campaign after the CEO responded to one of my messages. We managed to get placements in TechCrunch, The Wall Street Journal, and the Times of India. Things went so well that I decided to join them full-time.
Good routines are crucial to maintain balance
With so many transitions, it’s hard to maintain a steady life balance. As a growth professional, it’s critical to maintain a healthy lifestyle. You work a crazy amount of hours in a job that’s strictly driven by results and numbers. To remain sane, you must have excellent habits and routines.
A few personal routines I’ve adopted include waking up and writing down the three most important tasks I need to get done that day. I also use many productivity tools such as Linkclump to easily copy links on the web, Recordit to create quick GIF tutorials, and Boomerang for email tracking/reminders.
I’ve learned the importance of understanding when to delegate, automate, and replicate — and focused on T-shaped growth. This means doubling down on anything that’s working well, but not to the point where you forget about everything else that generates traction. Also, it’s important to understand when to say “no” because there are a million ways to grow a company, but only a few that should be a priority.
As Peter Thiel puts it:
It is very likely that one channel is optimal. Most businesses actually get zero distribution channels to work. Poor distribution — not product — is the number one cause of failure. If you can get even a single distribution channel to work, you have great business. If you try for several but don’t nail one, you’re finished.
Get obsessed about being absolutely great
It’s been eight months since I joined the Springboard team. In that time, we’ve driven tens of thousands of leads, developed advanced tracking systems, and created many of the best resources to help self-learners break into technology.
It’s been a wild journey to becoming an advanced growth marketer. It wasn’t easy. It takes determination and focus. You’re constantly looking at your results every day, and it’s easy to get caught up in the data and lose sight of the impact you can drive.
You’ll experience many failures, successes, and long nights. There’s only one constant in this industry, and that’s change. If you’re willing to embrace it, then you need a starting point. This means understanding the numbers that drive growth and developing an ability to focus on what matters.
If you can concentrate on these areas while reaching out to the many people in the growth industry to learn, you’re guaranteed to get your foot in the door. If they listen, then insist on becoming better by providing them value — and doors you never imagined will open.
Remember, growth is all about efficiently giving value. How much do you provide?
Roger Huang focuses on scaling companies. He has a proven track record of multiplying revenue in very short time periods, from 1m to 3m and beyond in less than a year. He also wrote a book on startups (Entrepreneur Blackjack), and is published in Entrepreneur, TechCrunch, Fast Company, VentureBeat, The Next Web, The Muse and Techvibes.
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