10 highly practical startup marketing tips

10 traffic sign

Sounds like clickbait, right? A “listicle”, questionable facts loosely stitched together only to get you to visit. But what this really is is ten solid, if I say so myself, marketing tips based on almost a decade of technology marketing.

I wrote them down because each of them has proven valuable in conversations with people that are marketing startups in one way or another. Here they are, in no particular order.

#1. Talk to lots of customers in a short period of time.

Talk to customers” is the piece of advice that has probably the lowest ratio of awareness to real usage ie. everyone knows it and no-one seems to do enough of it. Let me one-up this: speak to a couple of dozen of customers in a short time at least once when you start working with a new company or customer group.

I spoke to nearly 40 customers in 3 weeks for an hour each about 1,5 years ago as part of a customer persona exercise and while the result was useful, the process of having gone through this was even more useful. This dramatically increased my ability to create connections between Pipedrive’s offering and our customers. I can now relate new features we announce to specific places in the day-to-day of customers. When I look at product usage stats or market research slides, particular pieces of these conversations spring to mind and help to bring data to life. (There was also the practical added benefit of finding three really insightful case studies for our blog.)

And here’s a practical tip. The answer to the question how many customers should I talk to is: keep talking to more customers until the stories you hear back start to resemble each other. If you have a homogenous user base the right number may be 10, but in most cases it’s safe to aim for 25 or so.

#2. Build a referral program*

And make it double-sided, so that both the inviter and person invited get something out of the transaction. In the case of Pipedrive’s referral program, the person referred gets an extra month of trial and if the invited user subscribes, the inviter gets Pipedrive credits as a reward. Nothing hugely attractive but adds a predictable number of new customers every month without requiring almost any management. More on referral programs here.

* once you’re past your 1000 users or customers.

Pipedrive tellafriend illustration
Illustration from the tell-a-friend page of Pipedrive.

#3. Don’t count on press releases.

Press releases in early stage tech media relations are not necessarily bad; they’re just not an effective way to get coverage. Instead, find the relevant journalists and bloggers in your field and reach out to them directly with a pitch that is concise, personal and focused on helping them to write a good story (vs helping you to get all the details about your product or service out).

Press releases are useful for two things though. Writing one helps to fine tune what you want to say and generates an artificial deadline that adds a sense of exclusivity and urgency to your communication with your shortlist of bloggers. (“We’re announcing our funding round next Wednesday, but happy to send you all the details this week already”).

There’s much more to getting media coverage, and there are good posts about it out there, but not relying on press releases is a good way to start.

#4. Build an email list as early as you can.

Email is the best marketing channel, period. It’s efficient, highly trackable and 99% under your control. When you’re at a very early stage, building an email list of interested people makes it easier to launch with a bang. And a later stage it’s perfect for scaling content marketing.

At Pipedrive, we invest quite a bit of time and money into distributing the content we’ve created. With social algorithms changing more frequently than Donald Trump’s views, email is by far the most predictable and efficient channel for getting people to read and share our blog posts.

#5. Define value proposition early.

This one is a bit of a “I wish I’d done this earlier” for me. During the early days of Pipedrive, we tried to lock down the key messages of the product and didn’t get to a good place with it. We had too many potential ways to talk about Pipedrive, and not enough validations to pick one. So we (read: I) kind of let it drift. It’s not like we had nothing: there were a couple of not half bad descriptions and we did numerous AB tests on the website to find the best-converting one. Also, we had a modest media budget and the number of people in the company was only a couple of dozen, so information tended to spread organically. All in all, this didn’t appear like the most pressing thing to work on.

And then Pipedrive raised its A-round and the team as well as marketing budget started to grow rapidly, and we were in desperate need of a crisp value proposition. We got it done and have gotten it socialized internally, but we really should have taken the time for this a year or two earlier.

#6. Customize your site with geo-specific elements. 

As documented here,  here and here, Pipedrive geo targets elements of the site based on country and larger US states. Web visitors from Miami see different testimonials than those from California or Germany.

We’ve changed our website in several ways since we released this but back in the day this “hack” had a double-digit conversion uplift.

Pipedrive customer gallery

#7. Do keyword research. 

Keyword research is a bit of an exercise and a bit of an ongoing process that  answers the following questions:

  • What content to produce to hit specific business goals
  • What language to use overall and on specific landing pages
  • Where to focus link building efforts

Not a bad list of questions to have answered, right?

Time and time again I’ve seen that content produced without a solid keyword base is a bit like building a gas station away from roads. Unless your model works with content that goes “viral” it’s a wise thing to invest in keyword research.

#8. Start paid marketing early.

At Pipedrive, we started experimenting with a$1000 monthly advertising budget as soon as we had that much spare money in the bank. While the effect at the time was almost invisible early on, this helped to start learning. And later, when we had money to invest into ads, we knew which channels drove new business and what was life-time-value (LTV) of different channels and keywords.

#9. Find ways to get qualified traffic where CPA/CPC is notably lower than major platforms like Adwords. 

Related to the previous tip, Adwords is very often the logical place to start for existing product categories because the buying intent is there along with a decent volume of searches. The challenge for many startups is that if you pay $10 or more for a click, it’s difficult to make economics work if your funnel hasn’t been optimized yet, you don’t have real churn and LTV data and you’re not funded in a similar fashion to that geese are fed in Normandy. (This might be a bit of a niche analogy but a man has to take risk every now and then. Even useless risk.)

The good news is almost always there are channels that have equally qualified traffic but that charge a much more reasonable CPC because they’re in growth mode and/or are getting their traffic for cheap thanks to good SEO.

Just search for keywords relevant to you and see which sites pop up on the first page of Google.

#10. Talk to others in your field. 

The best tips and precise stats are seldom shared in public blog posts like this. And sometimes the person that knows exactly the thing you need just is not a blogger/speaker type. So I’ve developed a habit of reaching out to marketers in my field and scheduling 40-60 min calls to compare notes. Sometimes I’ve done this via intros, but even cold Twitter or LinkedIn outreach works with a 50+% hit rate in my experience. Speaking to active practitioners has a 1:10 ratio of usefulness compared to time spent with books, blogs and podcasts, so this thing which never seems urgent to justify taking the time for, is a very wise thing to allocate time for.

These were the ten tips I felt were relevant enough to share. I’m failing my New Year’s Resolution to write one decent post per month but I’m already past the number of posts of last year, so I might consider this fail a success in the end.

And if you think we both would benefit from chatting, get in touch.

From hand to hand combat to a Bond villain – how you evolve as a startup marketer

I’ve worn so many different marketing hats it’s surprising I have any hair left. But heading marketing of Pipedrive from zero to more than 30,000 paying customers, and from writing copy for the first marketing site to managing a team of 15 on two continents, gave me a front row seat on how your role as a marketer evolves as the company grows, and the opportunities you will miss if your behaviour doesn’t match the phase company is in.

I’m not a fan of military doings but weirdly there is no better analogy to the evolution of marketer’s role than war. I must stress that this does not mean I treat customers/users as enemies – in fact, I’d like to think the opposite is true.

how you evolve as a marketer
This image will make more sense when you reach the end of the post. Alas, it won’t become any prettier to look at.

Stage 1. Hand to hand combat

Back in 2010 Pipedrive had an idea, a multi-skilled group of founders, one hired engineer, a lot of enthusiasm and … not much else.

While the ambition of founders was to start conquering the world, the focus was a lot more mundane – find the first handful of customers to actually use the product. And then use said customers, in a good way, to fine-tune the product and as social proof to get more new clients.

My brother Urmas Purde and Timo Rein had been in close contact with leaders of successful sales teams for more than ten years. Ragnar Sass was probably the best-connected startup person in Estonia. So the team got to work, sent hundreds of emails, had hundreds of calls and did dozens of demos. None of this scaled, this was true hand to hand combat. The team was trying to sell, beg and threaten their networks to use the product for free, one by one. Customer development work, not marketing in the traditional sense.

This hand to hand combat worked. The founders got about 400 companies to verbally agree to use Pipedrive, about 100 businesses to sign up to the product and nearly 40 of them to add their real customer data and use the MVP.

In January 2011, Pipedrive made its beta product publicly available and started charging customers who had thus far used the early product for free. The company had its first 10 or so paying customers after months of hand to hand combat.

Pipedrive first beta email

It’s worth pointing out that the hand-to-hand combat stage didn’t stop then but focus shifted from existing network in Estonia to new networks abroad. We had realised that having happy customers in Estonia wasn’t enough to get the company growing fast; we needed happy customers in larger markets with a greater amplification factor. Silicon Valley was the obvious choice back then, so the team hustled a lot to get into Angelpad and continued the hustle as part of Angelpad.

Stage 1 goal: customer development to find the first 10+ customers

Skills needed: hustling, pitching, more hustling, more pitching.

Stage 2. Deploy “weapons” of scalable marketing channels

For obvious reasons the company needed many more customers, and all of us got to work. Instead of getting to customers one by one we were looking for the metaphorical machine gun or grenade that would get multiple clients at once.

In the first year we tried PR, offers in newsletters of “friendly” companies, a bit of content marketing, distributing promo codes at events and the like. Two things made a big difference. One was an Appsumo offer which drove more than 100 customers in a matter of 2 days. And the other was creating a simple integration with Google’s Chrome Webstore, which had just started to get popular.

The problem was that Appsumo was not scalable, i.e. we couldn’t make an offer every month, nor was there another nascent but popular app directory in sight.

So we started to look for things that would win us customers every month. Content marketing wasn’t as obvious back then as it is now but it seemed like a great opportunity. For one thing, we could afford to type on a keyboard. We had raised a seed round, so we also started to spend a thousand or so dollars per month on Google ads and for testing other channels. 

In hindsight, it was a very good idea to start experimenting with paid ads as early as possible. This way, when we could afford to invest more, we already had an idea of the churn and life-time value of customers from paid channels.

We also built a simple tell-a-friend program, started working with our integration partners more closely, did some more PR, formed our first partnerships, participated in a couple of events, built web apps like the Sales Calculator, dabbled in social media and attempted many other things. Some of this stuff worked and became part of our “arsenal”, others turned out to be “lessons learned”.

The above was done on the “channels” side. We also invested time into conversion rate optimization: redesigned the website and developed a rather elaborate email onboarding program.

Stage 2 goal: find scalable marketing channels

Additional skills needed: sticking spaghetti on a wall, ability to assess stickiness of the spaghetti sauce and surface of the wall without much data, analysing results.

Stage 3. Not enough hands to man all the guns. Time to mobilise!

With some luck, you’ll soon find yourself in a position where some channels are bringing in a predictable number of customers.

By the second half of 2013 we at Pipedrive had the content engine working at decent revs, we were ranking for terms like “sales management software” and “sales crm”, some paid channels had proven to bring in customers profitably, our tell-a-friend program was working and we had more ideas than we could execute.

It was time to bring in more people. I was lucky the first team member to join was someone as smart as Kair (shoutout to Ragnar for reeling him in). Just like that we had doubled our ability to test new channels, do conversion optimization and other good things.

I soon found myself in a situation where every opportunity and problem started to look like a hiring opportunity and problem. I knew I was the bottleneck and the only way forward was to kick hiring into a higher gear. This was hard at every stage but it got easier once we had a recruiting function built out. In a short while we were 3, then 4 and so on.

Stage 3 goal: build the team

Additional skills needed: hiring, basic processes, measurement, people management.

Stage 4. Develop weapons of mass distribution*

Back in the day when Hitler was trying to wipe Moscow off the map, having the deadliest and most experienced troops on the planet wasn’t enough. To win this battle, he would have needed more factories to build more and better tanks and planes, supply lines that would have worked in the harsh Russian winter, more spies and a small miracle.

Big battles are won and lost in war rooms, with a map on the wall showing positions of own troops and enemy and a couple of generals huddled around a table. No bullets are flying in the air, in fact, it’s been a while since any of the people used their firearms. In a Bond movie, there are also exotic pets in the background and a red button you can press. 

The equivalent of this in marketing planning is remarkably similar. There are some people huddled around a competitive chart or a marketing plan. When the group or the person with the most stripes wants to change the position on said diagram or plan, some amount of people, money and processes will flow into that direction to battle this out.

The key here is the word “processes”. Having a great team is just a start, you’ll also want to have a solid strategy, you’ll want the proverbial supply lines to work and information to move freely.

You’ll continue to look for healthy marketing channels and methods and interview potential team members but the focus is on tinkering with processes.

For example, at Pipedrive our marketing all hands meeting was kind of useful, but also kind of awkward when a dozen or so people went around the room and shared what they had been up to. Sure, it was a good way for people in our two offices to interact but the updates themselves were easily available in Weekdone. So we changed the format to “Learning hour” where everyone presents what they’ve learned since the last meeting – be it related to their function, our customers or something else altogether. People are the same; updates are sometimes similar but the meeting has become much more useful.

Another recent example is defining nine principles or “How do we do things around here” for marketing to get rid of recurring bottlenecks or resource questions. For example, our principle #6 is: Prioritise based on strategy. We prioritise strategy over opportunities of more tactical nature. It’ ok, even good, to say no. Keep the main thing the main thing.

Stage 4 goal: build a “machine”

Additional skills needed: building processes and systems, marketing strategy, letting go.

You’ve made it all the way down here and are wondering: was it worth it? What can I learn from this? I hope two things.

Where big opportunities are missed, frequently

Zen Buddhism teaches you to be in the moment. Not dwell in the past, not dream about the future. Same applies here. It’s inefficient if not outright damaging to use weaponry that doesn’t match the phase your company is in.

(By the way, it seems I just used zen and war metaphors in the same paragraph. Who does that?)

There are two big mistakes I see startups do time and time again. The first one is going into a hand to hand combat with a grenade, metaphorically speaking. A little while ago I was invited to talk about growth models to teams in the current batch of a local startup incubator. Before the workshop, I sent round a 2-question survey to understand everyone’s expectations to our time together. The most popular requests were:

  • How to get the max number of teachers to sign up on [service]
  • We are launching our beta middle of December. What to do that the news would reach our target group?
  • What is the most efficient channel to reach hotels?

These are all valid questions unless you don’t even have a functioning beta, not to mention product-market fit.

So the first mistake is looking for scalable channels when you don’t even have a proper MVP. Which can be done but is not usually an effective way to go. You’re more likely to find success if you focus on hand-to-hand combat and getting your first ten customers. Talking to them you’ll probably find what you’ll need to do to get to first 100 customers, and so on.

And the second mistake is not moving on to the next stage quickly enough. Tinkering with channels when you should have been building a team. Or continuing to add people to the team when you should have been building systems and processes.

It’s worth pointing out that the outlines of these stages are not clear. It doesn’t depend on a certain number of people of customers or money raised, so the best time to make a transformation is easy to miss.

I’ve made both of these mistakes at various points in my career and by doing so have become a better spotter of these missed opportunities. If you haven’t been so lucky and unlucky yet, I hope this post helps to look out for warning signals.

Almost done. Just a couple more things.

To sum this up, your role as a (startup) marketer will change and there are at least four distinct stages.

  1. Hand to hand combat
  2. First scalable channels
  3. Build the team
  4. Build the “machine”. (Maybe even have a red button on your desk like Bond villains do)

Ironically, just as you get comfortable doing something, you’ll need to an entirely different skillset to continue successfully.

PS. I could really use some feedback on this post as I’m developing this into a longer train of thought. Let me know your thoughts in comments, ping me or tweet me.

* Cheers for the spot-on term, 500Startups!

Partial illustration credit: D0NK 

The Two Hedgehog Model, perfect for marketing early stage startups

One thing that doesn’t hold you back in startup marketing is the lack of options for models, frameworks and opinions on what to spend one’s time on. There’s Dave McClure’s AARRR model. The Bullseye framework. The “Throw spaghetti on the wall and see what sticks” approach. The list goes on.

So why this post? If you have little data and time, as many early stage startups do, these models don’t help you focus on the 1-2 things that can make a difference. And so many spread themselves too thin between too many channels.

I think there’s a simpler better model for early stage startups. (It’s so simple in fact that you might already be using it and I was the last person on Earth to stumble upon in it.)

Two hedgehog marketing model
The Two Hedgehog marketing model, focusing on Recommendations and Findability

About a year ago I did a customer persona exercise for Pipedrive and spoke to about 35 customers for an hour during an intense two-week period. (Something I recommend any startup marketer to do). One of the slightly off-piste questions I asked was: how did you first hear about Pipedrive? Most people replied “from a friend or colleague” and other said they searched the hell out of the internets. I dutifully marked down the answers and continued my persona work.

Only some months later it hit me. What I had gotten from those good people was not just an idea of who Pipedrive’s customers were but a highly practical marketing model.

Recommendations from friends and findability in search. This is basically the simple “model” that got Pipedrive from 0 to more than 10,000 paying customers. This model has worked or would work in almost all of the early stage startups I have marketed or know friends to market.

I’m going to call the model the Two Hedgehog Model, tipping my hat to Jim Collins and the “hedgehog concept” he popularized. (It’s one where you do only one thing, and do it really well.) Here you’d need to do two things really well, so you’ll need another one of those small animals. Very creative, I know.

Long story short, if you focus on only two things and do them very well ie. if you make sure your customers tell their friends and that people find you when they search keywords relevant to you, you’ll have your early stage startup marketing priorities sorted.

Hedgehog strategy #1: how do you get people to recommend you?

This is “easy”. Have a great product, which is a science and an art in itself and I’m not the best person to write about building great products.

Specifically in marketing context this means two things. First is not focusing on the communications side of marketing before you have some level of product-market fit. A product with a brilliant content marketing strategy or paid marketing budget that has a big churn problem will not fly very far. You’re better off wearing your unglamorous customer development hat rather than the flashy marcom one.

And secondly, past reaching the product-market fit, this means spending some time on making sure your customers have the motivation and triggers to recommend you. I’d say building a simple referral program is a good idea somewhere past the first couple of thousand customers / users. That’s when we at Pipedrive added it and the program continues to be one of the most efficient channels for us.

If you’d like to know more, I’ve written about referral marketing previously and ReferralSaasquatch has published some solid advice on their blog.

Hedgehog strategy #2: how do you become findable?

Answer to this is more nuanced than just buying some Google ads and doing some SEO.

Buying clicks is definitely the easiest option but cost-per-click marketing has become both expensive and quite complex due to the fact that absolutely everyone is using the channel from other startups to larger well-run companies to clueless companies who are spending large sums on Adwords for questionable reasons.

Getting your site to rank on the first page of Google (or your friendly neighbourhood app store or whatever is the place where searches are done in your line of work) for free would be nice, but it’s easier said than done. One can start ranking for some longer tail keywords in the first 6 months but, with a fresh brand and domain, you’re not likely to get your desired top spots for “best whateveryoudo” searches.

Look at search holistically, not from SEO or CPC perspective only.

My advice would be to not start from any one channel in mind and begin from keyword research, an exercise which identifies what people are searching for, where the biggest potential lies and where there is most low hanging fruit. Doing keyword research also helps to decide which channel(s) to double down on.

Let’s assume you’re selling a web based “website builder” service. I haven’t done a full keyword research there but a quick search suggests that each click costs 23$ and that in order to rank for that keyword you’d need to compete with the likes of Wix, Squarespace and WordPress.com. I don’t know this area well, but I’m sure this wouldn’t be a walk in the park. A walk in Jurassic Park, maybe.

Bit of competition for website builder

But hey, what’s this thing there in place #3? It’s a review / affiliate site that has already done the necessary work to rank highly. While you can’t start ranking on the first page of Google with your own site, you could be featured on articles, posts and comparison sites that are already ranking.

In order to be indirectly present on the first page of Google then you may need to:

  • do some PR/blog outreach
  • List your app on a review / comparison / directory site which may be free but increasingly is paid
  • Get yourself featured on the relevant non-mainstream social media sites such as Quora or Angellist
  • I wouldn’t go as far/low here as to recommend that you add a comment or ask a customer to add a comment about you on sites that rank highly for terms relevant to you. This tactic probably stopped working around Obama’s inauguration. (To my knowledge, there is no direct causation there, only correlation.)

At Pipedrive, we want to be present at not just our own landing page or ad, but basically all listings for searches relevant to us.

Pro tip: there is a lot of opportunity in the long tail

I was writing the advice above and thought “man, this is some seriously generic advice there, I should become a consultant or something”. The thing is, getting listed on sites that are already ranking for keywords relevant to you is not all that novel.

So here’s a pro tip: you’ll find better opportunities, if better is defined as “customers will start to find you quicker”, when you look at the long tail section of keyword research. In the website builder example this might mean doubling down on multi-language website builder or website builder for artists instead.

While search volume is orders of magnitude lower for longer tail keywords, you can get visibility for lots of terms quicker and cheaper, and this adds up to a decent volume of traffic.

How to apply the Two Hedgehog model

Using common sense and healthy scepticism, like all models.

This model helps to find focus in most areas where a category has been defined and people are actively searching for solutions. It might work that well if you’re building a new category. No-one was searching for “a better way to order a cab” before Uber and Taxify came along. (But as it happens, the recommendations half of the model is a key driver for these apps.)

Also, past the first couple of years this model might get too simplistic. When you’ve created two major ways for customers to discover you, you’ll probably have been successful enough to be able to look for the third and fourth one. You’ll then want to find a home for both Hedgehogs in a more comprehensive marketing strategy.

Finally, it doesn’t take into consideration your particular strengths and opportunities. If you have a large mailing list or social following, you’ll want to use that even if it is not part of the model.

Is the Two Hedgehog Model useful? Let me know in comments.

Keyword Research for Startups – or One of the Two Things Every Content Marketer Should Do

Keyword research. These two words sound about as sexy as an empty milk carton in a windy car park. But, unlike said piece of packaging, keyword research is insanely useful. It  helps to identify big content marketing wins without relying on trial and error only.

And the good news is that on early stage startup scale it relatively simple and quick to do.

Keyword research is based on 2nd grade mathematics. The more monthly searches a keyword has, the better. The less competing blog posts and pages are about the same topic the better. And finally, the more relevant that keyword is to the service or product you want to promote, the better.

High number of monthly searches + low competition + high relevancy = content you should be creating.

Let me give you a Pipedrive example here. Which one of the following 4 keywords would you start producing content for?

Keyword volume

“customer relationship management” sounds like a huge opportunity, and “sales pipeline report” kind of pointless, but it might be a mistake to start by creating content for the former and dismissing the latter.

Here are the same keywords with some additional information:

Keyword volume full example

You’ll notice that “sales pipeline report” and “sales quotes” appear to be less difficult/ competitive terms. But more importantly, when you factor in relevancy to what you offer, the picture changes completely.

While “customer relationship management” is a popular search term, people who type it into Google have very different motivations. It probably includes business students doing some homework, secretaries trying to decipher whether the email they just received should be deleted or forwarded, my mom trying to understand what does the company I work for really do, and many others. Very few of them are CEO’s thinking “I should probably get a new sales tool so let me google the dry conceptual term for the thing my team does every day”.

On the other hand, if you’re searching for “sales pipeline report” and I’m offering sales pipeline software with built-in reporting (see what I did there?) you’re kind of looking for me. I really want to reach you and the 89 other monthly searchers that are putting up your hand.

And if you put the three things together, it becomes evident that more often than not you shouldn’t probably focus on chasing high-volume generic keywords but the less popular and more relevant ones. Long tail keywords, as they’re called.

This is especially true if you’re an early stage startup with a relatively new and content-light site. It’s very unlikely you’ll start ranking for popular keywords in your niche before you run out of money. For a fresh startup 30 qualified visitors in 1-2 months is much better than 1000 visitors in a year.

Humble beginnings of Pipedrive content and SEO efforts

With Pipedrive we started with a blank sheet, zero search traffic and, characteristically for a startup, no money. Here’s what Hubspot’s now shelved tool called Website Grader (its current incarnation is Marketing Grader) showed me:

website grader

This is not a screen shot cut off at the wrong place. We really did rank for no keywords at all.

I drooled over keywords like “crm software” or “best sales tools” but a few evenings of reading the Moz blog and other resources quickly taught me that going after them wouldn’t be the best possible start. I decided to tackle the very long tail term “sales pipeline management software” first and some weeks later we were on the first page of Google. Even more importantly we had people coming to the site and signing up. I didn’t know I was doing keyword research at the time, but it worked and so we moved on to trickier keywords.

Here’s the Website Grader report a couple of months later:

website grader 2 months later

Today Pipedrive ranks for many more than the 5 keywords shown above. Our small and growing team has put a lot of effort into producing and promoting content, finding linking opportunities and improving our landing pages to get there. Effort that has been pleasantly productive thanks to the keyword research we have done on a regular basis.

Guess that was enough background. So how do you do keyword research?

Step 1. Compile a mega list of search terms that are even remotely relevant to what you do

The first step is to map all keywords people may be searching for when it comes to your domain expertise. In Pipedrive’s case this is:

  1. keywords that directly describe what we do (eg. “sales crm” or “sales pipeline tool”)
  2. keywords which kind of describe what we do or describe part of what we do (eg. “sales dashboard” or “sales tracking”)
  3. keywords that people use when they have problem related to the thing you do (eg. “how to manage sales” or “how to define sales stages”)
  4. things only vaguely related to what you do (eg. “best sales books”)

Possible sources for compiling your keyword mega list:

  • keywords that are driving traffic to you, free and paid that you can see in Google Analytics.
  • keywords that are driving traffic to your competitors. I use SEMRush but SimilarWeb can also give you that.
  • search queries Google suggest and that you can see when you type in a word and a letter … and refrain from pressing Enter. For example in Pipedrive’s case “crm h…” gives this list

google autosuggest“Crm (for) healthcare” looks like a solid long tail keyword. On the other hand, “crm hobbies” are two words I’ve never seen next to each other, so it’s either a great or a terrible idea to write content for it.

  • keyword tools like keywordtool.io and Google Keyword Planner
  • words that people search once they’ve hit your site
  • words that people use when they write to your support, comment on your blog, etc.
  • last but not least, brainstorming

Step 2. Estimate search volume

Step 3. Estimate keyword difficulty

I’ve lumped in the next two steps because you can get this data from the same source, at least partially. And this resource is Google’s Keyword Planner.

Now, because Google’s tool only gives you difficulty in Adwords context, I also get keyword difficulty from Moz and calculate a weighed difficulty based on these two sources.

Please note you can export a neat cvs file for all keywords from Keyword Planner in the end that lists search volume as well as keyword difficulty as Adwords team sees it.

Step 4. Assess relevancy, calculate Total Opportunity Score

The final step is the easiest and also the most important. Using any data you have about keyword history and and common sense (invaluable resource!) you add an index of relevancy. You’ll then get something I call Total Opportunity Score for each keyword you have thought of at that stage. 

Here’s a basic Google Spreadsheet template I’m using to do keyword research. Please note that  it can and should include more data fields such as current ranking in search results and the same for your most important competitor(s).

How to apply keyword research

It’s worth pointing out that completing this keyword research exercise doesn’t give you the authoritative answer on what content you should create, and in which order. If your content resources are limited, you’ll want to sense check and manually pick the keywords and topics you want to double down on. This way you can make sure you have a healthy mix of  relevant long tail keywords that can give you an almost guaranteed result within a reasonable time frame and higher volume generic terms that take more time to start ranking for, but can potentially be big home runs.

And finally, keyword research is not a “set and forget” type of things. Rankings and search trends change, new competitors and technologies arrive all the time. I don’t know what the consensus is on how often this should be done but I’d say at least once per year.

Happy keyword research. I’ll follow this up with a post about the other thing/process every content marketer should do.

PS. We’re growing our marketing team at Pipedrive (looking for Head of Content/SEO, Director of Performance Marketing, a copywriter, Designer / Creative Director, multimedia/video producer, a “sales whisperer” and a few others) so if you’d like to talk about marketing with me more often, get in touch.

Follow the discussion on Reddit

What happens when a post hits #1 on Hacker News? Here are my stats

My latest post about the Pipedrive story to 10,000 customers reached the top spot on Hacker News for a couple of hours. Here’s what followed numbers-wise.

The Hacker News effect

The post has been seen by 20,038 unique visitors to date, and counting. Counting in the sense that for nearly 3 weeks now, blog traffic has been 5-10 times greater than before.

I’m pleasantly surprised Hacker News traffic didn’t immediately die down and the site has sent a couple of dozen visitors per day ever since the post got published. Direct source has held up even better – I guess the link is making second and third rounds in various IM apps and gets found many an over-flooded inboxes.

Long tail traffic sources

Hacker News drove about 11,000 readers (47%) all in all, and that got many snowballs rolling. A further 35% of people got the link via IM or email aka “Direct”. 8% discovered my post via Twitter. The remaining 10% was split between more than 60 referrers where the “Hacker News effect” had trickled down; anything from mailing lists to RSS/”read later” apps to aggregator sites.

Traffic sources

More not-so-useful stats: according to SharedCount the post received 307 tweets, 47 FB shares, 184 LinkedIn interactions and 6 +1’s (the latter counts for appr. 70% of all Google+ users). So every tweet got me 6 readers and every FB share 2 readers. (Which cements my suspicion that optimizing for social shares is not very useful).

I also cross-posted to Medium some days later in spirit of experimenting, and several hundred more people have read the post there. I’m speculating that the total reach would have been bigger if I had skipped publishing on my blog and shared the Medium link on HackerNews as it’s a more trustworthy as well as faster site.

My medium stats

Any material benefits from the post? I hear you ask. Yes, nearly 2,900 people clicked through to Pipedrive.com and 48 have created a free trial account. I’ve also received a ton of positive feedback, a job offer, many hello’s from people I hadn’t talked to for a while and that feeling you get when your writing seems to resonate.

Bonus track. The “tricks” I used to rise to the top of Hacker News

I added the post to HN myself and pasted the link to 5 people. One of them turned out not to have an account, but he created one and upvoted nevertheless. Another (thanks, Jüri) replied back to me that upvoting a direct link is not kosher and that any upvotes should come via newest. (All this proves I’m a master content promoter.) Though I guess the  timing – noon’ish time in Europe, and it was deliberate – worked well because it’s probably more difficult to stand out once US starts adding their hacker-newsworthy links. Other than that I tweeted the post a couple of times and shared it on LinkedIn.

Pouring my heart into this post on a 10-hour flight and several evenings also helped. Guess there still is no better way to get traffic than to create decent content.

Discussion on Hacker News

How to get from 0 to 10,000 paying customers in SaaS

Short answer: great product, some marketing and a bit of luck. These things got Pipedrive to pass the 10,000 paying customers milestone earlier in the year. The longer answer is below. This is the post I would have liked to read back in 2010 when I had started working with Pipedrive founders. And I thought I’d get it out of the system as we change gears to target getting to the 100,000 paying customers mark.

Get tailwinds working for you – build a great product (with great support)

Pipedrive dashboard

Pipedrive could have grown to 10,000 paying customers without any marketing: by describing it as “it’s a piece of sales software” on an uncrawlable site without any design, without onboarding emails, without press mentions, without a single ad and blog post.

The main thing that got Pipedrive to first 100, 1000 and 10000 customers was having a great product. Our “inventory” back in December 2010 was: founders having a very good understanding of the pain in sales software, an MVP-level product used by 20 or so companies, plenty of ambition and no marketing budget. This wasn’t a lot, but because this included the critical component of having a product that solved a problem, it was enough.

There were two additional things that I’m lumping together under “great product” here: design and support. Both have earned positive feedback and social media shout outs from customers over the years. And I know that support is a completely separate topic but hey, this is a post from a marketing guy.

All in all, I’m not a sailor but marketing a great product is a lot like sailing with good tailwinds. You pick the best course, trim and continue adding sails and keep on adding engines that increase the speed (Add engines to a sailboat? Told you I was not a sailor). Whereas a mediocre product gets you a  motor boat that requires constant fuelling.

Get your product in the hands of the right people

As Pipedrive CEO Timo Rein has explained, having a great product and happy customers in the Baltics & Nordics wasn’t enough to get the company growing. It was only after Pipedrive founders had networked and hustled in Bay Area for months, graduated from Angelpad and expanded their early adopter reach with an Appsumo promotion that customers started to show up in any meaningful numbers. Call it an influencer strategy, opinion leader marketing or something else, you need to find a way to reach the people who matter in your industry.  And more often than not, this means doing things that don’t scale.

Invest more time in copywriting and brand than seems reasonable

Back in the end of 2010 we had a product that people in our immediate network found increasingly useful. We didn’t have a budget and company founders were running out of friends, clients and acquaintances to pitch Pipedrive to. We needed to start “marketing” as we were getting ready for a public beta launch.

Not having a budget forced us to look for ways to get the word out for free. One of the few things we could definitely afford was … words. More specifically, words we were planning to put into various kinds of emails and in-app notifications.

As makers of sales software we didn’t have to look very far. I wrote all emails as if coming from a slightly over-eager sales manager with some sense of humour and a questionable amount of taste.

For example, when you receive and activity reminder from Piperive, here’s what it might say in the footer


“Whether you think that you can or you can’t, there’s usually some wiseass that makes a motivational quote out of it.”

These quotes get tweeted more often than most automated emails. We also invested more time than is ‘practical’ into onboarding emails which have earned us tweets, email replies, write-ups in blogs and paying customers. So although we’ve invested more time into writing and tweaking these emails than is rational, the ROI on them is enormous. (If you’d like more examples, sign up to a free Pipedrive trial.)

It’s worth pointing out that not everyone likes Pipedrive’s tone of voice. But at least people notice, which is a good sign in communication.

Pipedrive humor quote

Customer comment about Pipedrive in NPS study reply.

Find platforms (before others do)

During 2011 Pipedrive got roughly 1/3 of new signups from Google’s Chrome Webstore. Not bad for the little amount of work required for the marketplace listing back then. As most competitors were slower to appear there, we enjoyed a period of very low competition there and so Chrome Webstore made a huge difference to the growth of the company at that stage.

Today the importance of Chrome Webstore has significantly decreased both in absolute and relative terms, but almost always there are new emerging platforms you can use to boost growth. In 2012-2013 it was very valuable to be listed on GetApp. While the volume was low it drove highly relevant traffic at high-ROI rates. It’s worth keeping an eye on and testing emerging marketplaces and directories. Which neatly leads me to the next thing that helped Pipedrive grow to first 10,000 paying customers.

Treat your marketing budget as an investment portfolio

Pipedrive has been managing marketing resources the way investment portfolios are managed. When you’re managing an investment portfolio for the long term and when you want to higher than average returns you want to find good balance between safe bets and experimenting with high-leverage bets that may flop or return money 100x.

In startup terms this means directing most of your resources to scaling things that work and following best practices. And depending on the business and stage you are in, setting 20-50% of resources aside for to testing new channels and “throwing spaghetti on the wall”.

Here’s an example of one of Pipedrive’s failed experiments: Sales Calculators has gotten Pipedrive about 2 new paying customers in about 3 years.  Sales Pipeline Academy on the other hand has worked reasonably well. And we’re still working on finding that web tool or piece of content that returns money 1000x.

It’s worth pointing out that because time = money this principle works equally well for allocating your budget and the time of your marketers and developers. More here.

Invest in content and SEO (and email)

In the race boat metaphor content marketing and SEO has been one of the larger sails, contributing a double-digit percentage of Pipedrive’s speed. In large part this is because we’ve been doing inbound marketing longer than working with other channels. And this in turn is due to the fact that producing content was one of the few things we could afford when we started out.

SEO is a very broad topic and there are great resources out there for learning the strategies and tricks. So there’s just one thing I’d suggest to everyone  – investing in keyword research as early as possible, and re-visiting it regularly. This doesn’t need to be complex – all you need to know is what keywords are popular and/or relevant in your domain and how difficult it is to get on Google’s first page with these. There are some free or cheap keyword research tools and methodologies out there, I’ve found that a combination of Google’s own Keyword Planner and search “autosuggest”, Moz and SEMRush does the trick on startup scale.

The return on keyword research is massive. Not only you’ll learn about the language you need to be using to drive traffic to your target group, you’ll gain valuable insight into whether you have a well-defined target audience at all. You’ll also probably discover some low-hanging fruit for landing pages or blog posts that will get you your first relevant organic search traffic. Google “how to build a sales pipeline” for an example of a long tail phrase that was easy to start ranking for.

And of course, if you’re going the content route start building a mailing list as early as possible. Work acquaintances, paying customers, freeloaders, churned customers, blog visitors, expired trial users – each of them can help you amplify that killer post you will write 3 years down the line. Unless you have a product that is inherently social such as Buffer, email is the best channel to help great content spread.

Find out your Life-Time-Value (LTV) per channel to know what to scale

Pipedrive started experimenting with a 500€ per month Adwords budget as early as there was a spare 500€ available. Despite having to turn off all paid advertising during some turbulent patches, by the time we had secured funding we had enough data to conclude that some keywords groups returned money in 3-4 months. We also learned that others that seemed equally attractive on cost-per-signup basis performed 2-3 times worse due to lower conversion to paid and/or higher churn.

Knowing what the LTV is from different channels and different ad groups taught us to scale some keyword groups and look beyond English language. This encouraged us to first start testing and now scaling our PPC efforts in countries such as Mexico, Russia and Brazil. Going back to the sailing analogy, this has added the Pipedrive race boat an additional little sail to trim.

Decide what you’re NOT going to do 

There was a time when I was trying to get company founders more active on social media. And to my great surprise I discovered it’s absolutely fine to ignore channels and techniques that don’t have a good fit for your company or audience. PR is another example of a channel we tried to get working and while there were some wins, the role of PR and social in getting to first 10000 customers was tiny. Same goes for guest posting, integrations, AB testing, onboarding emails, viral videos, tell-a-friend program optimization and many other things.

So the good news is that there’s no need to work on lots and lots of things. In fact it’s much better to decide which marketing channels and tactics to go “all in” with, to borrow a poker term, and which ones to park until you have more team members and/or money.

Localize – and make sure to “light the fuse”

Pipedrive translated the app and website to Spanish, German, Russian, Brazilian Portuguese, French and Estonian pretty early on. While this worked well, it’s worth pointing out that it worked significantly better in some countries. Localization without communicating it locally is like adding gunpowder without lighting the fuse. For example, a prominent Brazilian blog mentioned Pipedrive in a post early on, and this in combination with a localized app and website sparked growth. Where we failed to get local coverage, the impact of localization was more modest.

Also, talk to people smarter than yourself

I tend to read a lot of books and startup / marketing blogs. Reading is useful but over the years I’ve discovered I get more out of 1 hour of talking to a fellow startup marketer than 10 hours of reading (reasonably well filtered) marketing blogs.

On that, it’s worth pointing out that almost everything described here was a team effort, mostly involving people from other teams while yours truly was the only marketer. And that during some point from 0 to 10,000 customers it’s also a good idea to start assembling a proper marketing team. Pipedrive is currently looking for a Digital Marketing Manager and Web Analyst, by the way…

Teaser: How to get to 100,000 customers coming (relatively) soon

Next up: a post about getting to 100,000 paying customers. It is difficult to say what date exactly and what the content will be, but I’m sure that apart from having a great product, very few things described here will still be relevant at the next milestone. What got Pipedrive to 10,000 customers is very different than the things necessary in the next phase. It involves more user insights and data, more processes, different channels and a shit ton of other things (it may even mean making email notifications less funny…). I can’t wait to read it.

Join the discussion on Hacker News

Everyday work humour

The thing with everyday work humour is that it doesn’t happen every day. Work mate James made me chuckle so hard recently I couldn’t help but share a recent exchange of emails.


I’m a bit of a word geek so when you sign up to a trial of Pipedrive and don’t log in for a couple of days we send the following email:

Subject: Can we help?

Every time someone signs up to Pipedrive and doesn’t immediately fall in love with it, our support lead Martin gets a little anxious. He refreshes the dashboard of our analytics widget every fifteen minutes and wants to give this user a call to ask whether everything is ok.

It’s been 3 days since you signed up to try Pipedrive (thank you once again!) and Martin’s analytics widget tells him you haven’t used the software too much. Did we not live up to your expectations? Any technical issues? Would you like help with getting started? Please reply to this email with any questions, comments or concerns.

We recommend adding a couple of deals, or importing your own data to get a sense of how Pipedrive can help you get more clarity over your sales results.

PS. Martin says hi.

Not punchline-funny but does the trick. This email has gotten a good amount of tweets, positive responses and, most importantly, new customers.

But one day we received the following reply:

customer responseWhat do you do? Get offended? Explain to customer there might have been humour involved? Compliment customer on his (highly unlikely but possible) super dry taste of the funny? Here’s what James replied:

james replied



Andsin Ekspressile oma toitumissoovitused:


Naljakas sõna, kas pole. Alustasin nende kuulamist juba siis, kui iPodid olid alles võipaki suurused. Nüüd kuulan hommikuti, kui pea selge, audioraamatuid ja töölt koju sõites podcaste. Vahel annan ennast vabatahtlikult üles mõnda ebavajalikku asja poest tooma, sest tean, et saan põneva jupi raamatust või eriti heast saatest ära kuulata. Ükski auto- ega rongisõit ei ole liiga pikk. (Lennud vahel siiski on).


Teadlased vaidlevad selle üle, mis tähtsus on naermisel meie liigi jaoks. Juba enne, kui me rääkima õppisime, oskasid ürginimesed naerda, näiteks näitamaks, et pimedusest kostev hääl polnud ohtlik. Kant väitis sarnaselt, et huumor aitab tõsiseid olukordi helgemaks muuta. Veel arvatakse, et huumor on lihtsalt  paabulinnu sabasulgede verbaalne vorm. Igal juhul tundub huumoril olevat tumedam pool. Kui sulle väga meeldib stand-up, siis mida see sinu kohta ütleb?


Olukorras, kus autoteedel on ummikud ja bussiga sõitmisest on tehtud poliitiline akt, on jalgratas raudselt kõige parem viis saada punktist A punkti B. Vahel läbimärjalt või -külmunult, aga alati õigeaegselt kohal.

Elusad elamused

Odd Hugo meeldib mulle ka oma diivanilt kuulduna, aga kui näen neid live’is, siis ainult rinnahoidja puudumine takistab mul oma rinnahoidjat neile lavale viskamast. Komöödiaõhtute fänni ja korraldajana õnnestub iga paari kuu tagant kogeda mõneda sellist hetke, mil peale isegi kõikenäinud helimees puldis ennastunustavalt naerma hakkab. Konservide rohke tarbimise kätte ära ei sure, aga ainult nende peal elatud elu ei ole mingi elu.

4 Things That Are Broken with Internet Marketing Today – A Classic Example [Updated 24/2]

Update 24/2 : I got fooled. This post is about a Facebook ad for a nightclub. I kept seeing the ads and I examined the link later – it doesn’t link to Club Hollywood as one would expect but to a shady dating site. I wouldn’t expect meeting the love of your life on that site..

Rest of the post makes sense even with this ad being an example of a scam, not of a social media campaign, so I’m leaving it up.


I came across the following Facebook ad some days ago. At first glance, why make a fuss? People come across 3000+ marketing messages every day, there are many worse than this.

Club Hollywood Ad

But at closer look this ad is symptomatic of internet marketing in general. There are four five things fundamentally broken with this ad:


1. Bad targeting

Facebook knows my age (mid-30’s), but I haven’t specified things like my hometown and  relationship status. I haven’t “liked” the club’s Page. Surely an ad for a mainstream meat market vaguely in my geographic area, in English, is not a good use of anyone’s ad budget and my Facebook feed.

2. Zero authenticity

You’d think a nightclub would use a photo of a “local beautiful woman” here, perhaps even shot on one of their advertised club nights.

Not quite. When you do an image search on Google with that image you learn it’s someone called Mechelle Montes, and you learn that from a forum where guys with an IQ of a toaster are discussing MILF photos anonymously.

Local Beautiful Woman?

[Addition 24/2: Given the scam context, the photo makes perfect sense]

3. Irrelevant landing pages

If you click through you end up on a generic homepage which is sub-optimal to say the least. A hopeful clicker will find no reference to local singles there.

[Addition 24/2: I am almost sure I clicked through to the landing page when I first noticed the ad but I guess I didn’t. Lesson learned: will click on shady sites more often in the future]

4. Poor grammar

… is poor form, no matter what the language.

So this harmless nightclub ad is a caricature of internet marketing. We’re in a hurry and often spending money that’s not coming from our own pockets. So we cut corners on targeting, steal images or – on a good day – use tried and tested stock photos and treat copy as an afterthought. I, too have made these mistakes. (With the exception of featuring Ms Montes on my ads).

Decent targeting, some level of authenticity, reasonable landing pages and grammatically sound copy are not rocket science. They save marketing dollars and make internet a tiny bit better. How about let’s get them right more often?

Love letter to comedy

On Wednesday Komeediklubi, my little comedy club, will celebrate its 3rd birthday with a comedy show. 3 years is a long enough time to realize that I don’t just like stand-up comedy. Looking back at these 3 years I cannot help but admit that I love it, for better or worse.

Sometimes I forget that love is in play. When you have to carry chairs up and down the stairs after a comedy event, tired and sweaty, love is not the main thing on your mind. And there’s nothing romantic about having to juggle startup projects and worry about ticket sales for the next comedy event at the same time.

Comedy will save the world

But then there are the moments when you gain a new perspective on something during a comedy night or laugh so hard it hurts, or have a post-gig beer conversation with someone who is equally intelligent and funny. These are the moments you realise that laughter, if applied right, is a very powerful force.

Comedy has an important task of entertaining us on our brief stay in this world, it makes us laugh. But laughter is only the start of great comedy, because great comedy makes you think, too. It helps you see an event or belief in a different light. It can build a bridge between two worldviews separated by dogmas, prejudices, propaganda and such. I can’t quote a study that laughter causes lowering one’s guard and boosts empathy but I’m sure if you google it you’ll find I’m right.

Comedy’s other role in addition to entertaining us starts with political and socio-economic commentary at comedy nights and ends with the clear realisation that comedy will save the world. (Editor’s note: with the exception Russia. Putin may have screwed that country up so bad, it’s beyond repair).

In that sense comedy is a much better hobby to love than riding a jet ski, some multi-player game, kitesurfing (that I fondly practice) or darts. Fun things perhaps, but they bring about as much world peace and happiness as picking your nose or eating a yoghurt.

Full disclosure is on order here: it’s fun combined with the world-healing property that I love about comedy. If I wanted to save the world only, I would need to do something with a more quantifiable effect and in very different conditions. At this stage I tend to prefer a semi-lit room and laughter to war zones and people dying of disease. That’s about on the 20% mark on the scale of ‘armchair revolutionary to real doer’. At least I have managed to stand up!

From Lia Laats to John Gordillo – how I fell in love

I can’t say I have always loved stand-up comedy. Growing up in Soviet Estonia, there was no stand-up. Seeing our summerhouse-neighbour Lia Laats entertain guests at the village midsummer-night as a 5-year old was the closest thing there was to seeing live stand-up. I can’t pretend I was “instantly hooked” but I still remember the feeling around the fire. It was fucking great.

Fast forward about 20 years and I’m studying in Amsterdam. Most people don’t associate this city with comedy, but clubs like Boom Chicago and Toomler opened my eyes to stand-up. I was instantly hooked. In 2007 I moved to London which is a comedy heaven if you’re into British humour (not humor, mind you). Which I was. So I made it my habit to visit the various comedy clubs, always bugging friends to come along. I started to write the really good acts and the really bad acts down into my little black notebook (a .txt file, actually) to be able to see great ones again, and to avoid serial disappointment.

This black notebook came handy when I started toying with the idea of organising a comedy event in Estonia. In February 2010 I sent a rather unprofessional Facebook message to John Gordillo, the first name in my black book and one of my all-time favourites, and was ecstatic when he replied. After some swings and roundsabouts that year, John headlined the first ever Komeediklubi in November 2010 alongside Erich McElroy and Brett Goldstein. Which was fun.

Conditional love: club comedy comes first

It’s worth pointing out I don’t love all comedy. I prefer live comedy to Youtube and DVDs, and I prefer an intimate club comedy night to a big concert hall or stadium any day of the week. What draws me to the club comedy scene is that club sets are not perfect. Every line has not been rehearsed and finetuned to perfection and you’ll often see inspiration, the divine force, at work in front of your eyes. A Big Show is enjoyable but it doesn’t don’t move you, because it is usually a repetition of a previous stroke of genius, not stroke of genius in action.

Your mileage may vary, of course. I’ve seen my fair share of uninspired and uninspiring comedy nights, and dragged friends along to see them (sorry if this was you!).

In the end there’s only love

Komeediklubi doesn’t operate in vacuum. Kinoteater and Monoteater are creating Estonian-language comedy from their different ends, and there are other enthusiasts around. Comedy Estonia has done the most to kickstart the Estonian stand-up scene, but I don’t fully appreciate their zero-sum-game worldview. And putting aside my personal preferences, having just one flavour of comedy events is not good, full stop.

So if nothing else, Komeediklubi has added some flavour to the Estonian comedy scene during the last 3 years. A flavour of dry British humour, unfancy atmosphere and comedy for the love of comedy.

When you love something you’re invincible. You may lose out on an opportunity, or lose a bit of money and brain cells with an event, or you may be outnumbered or outsmarted – but if you’re not outloved, you’re still winning. Because love for comedy, like any other kind of love, lives forever. And when you reach eternal life with your time-wasting hobby project, things are not as bad as they sound.

Happy 3rd birthday, Komeediklubi! May you live a 100 years old and remain laughable even fully grown up.


Last but not least – Komeediklubi would be nothing without the performers, the audience, the venue, the people that helped to spread the word, design the posters and put the chairs in place, without supporters and sponsors. You know who you are (and I know who you are). Thank you!