Clarification: I have not taken a writing break

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15 years of startup marketing in one post, or how ideas are useless

This post is a summary of my recent talk at a marketing conference about things I’ve learned about tech marketing and growth. In that talk, I discovered myself stating multiple times how and why ideas are useless, or rather, what are the things that are more important than having good ideas.

Sidenote: I was suggested the title “Life lessons of an experienced marketer” but I changed it to “Reminiscences of an old marketing fart” instead.

#1. Treat your marketing budget like an investment portfolio

When I bought my first investment securities back in the day, I took the advice of a bank advisor and bought funds rather than individual stocks because this was less risky. Two years later my holdings had appreciated by double-digits but at the same time, popular stocks on the friendly neighbourhood stock exchange my friends had bought had gone up 5-7x in the same time.

I had taken on too little risk (for a 20-something).

What I should have done is put some of my investments in global funds for relatively safe returns and invest 10-50% of my budget in individual, risky stocks.

Photo Credit: Joshua Mayo, Unsplash

The same applies to marketing budgets. Yes, you need to do the things companies like yours have always done to make sales but you can’t afford to miss out on new, less tested tactics and channels. Things like testing novel tools, new advertising channels, new potential targets, new tactics.

And as everywhere, here too time is money. “Budget” can mean the media budget but it can also mean the hours and the attention of the marketing team.

What’s the right % to put into riskier bets?

That depends on the maturity of the market and your company. 

Established companies in mature markets are wise to think like people close to retiring – you don’t want to take on too much risk. 5-20% of your budget should go to risky experiments and the rest to business-as-usual.

If you’re a startup operating in an exploding category, you may want to take on more risk, 25% or even 50% of the budget.

In other words, ideas don’t matter as much as having the right financial model does. 

More on this: Your marketing budget as an investment portfolio

#2. One strategy that tends to over-perform? Find new emerging platforms

In the early days of Pipedrive (where I was head of marketing for 7 years) one-third of new signups came from Google Chrome Webstore because co-founder Martin Tajur thought it might be a good idea to invest some hours of work to try this out. Pipedrive did this before other CRMs did the same, got the advantage of more installs and reviews and this gift kept on giving for years.

We launched Outfunnel on Pipedrive Apps Marketplace at a time when the platform was relatively new. Our first version wasn’t that great of a product but if you’re one of the very few products in a category, this was enough to start getting signups.

3+ years after our initial launch, Outfunnel is still #1 rated app on Pipedrive Marketplace

Outside of b2b, Creative Mobile launched their drag-racing game on the Android platform just at a time then Google Play Store introduced the racing category. Today, their Nitro Nation drag racing game has bought in tens of millions and it’s still doing well in the crowded gaming market.

Whether or not emerging distribution channels apply to you, there are always new advertising channels launching.

Running Adwords in 2005 was super profitable because your competitors were not there yet to push up the prices.

In 2013-2014 it made all the sense to promote Pipedrive on Capterra because there were relatively few other CRM players there. (This was my first time experiencing maxing out a channel. We wanted to increase our Capterra CPC budget but the platform had no additional clicks to offer us at any price).

There’s a new distribution platform or advertising channel launching if not every day then every week. It pays to be looking for them and putting some of your resources into testing them. (see the previous point)

In other words, brilliant ideas don’t matter as much as finding the next platform that takes off. 

#3. Understanding category awareness is the magic shortcut to marketing plans that work

“It seems we have product-market fit. Which marketing channels and tactics should we invest in?”

I think I have a pretty universal answer to this question, and this answer involves category awareness (and category urgency).

Your category awareness is high when most people in your target audience know the kind of product or service you’re offering. Email marketing software, smartphones, and “hotels in Copenhagen” are examples of things with high category awareness.

And your category awareness is low when people in your target market don’t know there’s a kind of product or service that they’d need. For example, most people wouldn’t know to look for bookable-by-the-hour call booths (a new emerging category of services) when they need to make an important call and most of us wouldn’t know to look for smart swimming goggles before stumbling on an Instagram ad.

There is also category urgency. You know what a DVD player is very well, but I doubt you’ve bought one recently. Similarly, category awareness for gym memberships is high throughout the year, but the first two weeks of every year is the time where this turns into action for many people.

If you know where the market you operate in stands in terms of category awareness and urgency, you can make your first pick of channels.

When people know what to look for and are motivated to look for it, you’d need to become findable (doh!). Coming up in various searches is then a great bet.

When people don’t know to look for you, you’d need to interrupt them with a “cold” call or brilliant viral video and say “there’s this thing. would you like to buy one?”. 

In other words, the backbone of a solid marketing plan is not having good ideas, but understanding your category awareness and category urgency. 

More on using category awareness and category urgency for marketing planning

#4. Ideas are useless when you don’t have a good system for prioritizing them

In every company I’ve ever been involved with, there is always the challenge that there are more ideas than the team can execute. So how do you choose?

Based on what team members vote to be the best ideas? Based on what the boss likes? Based on whether something has been tested before?

I’ve found that the best way for prioritizing ideas is ICE – a simple assessment of:

Impact: what is the likely effect on (business) metrics

Confidence: how sure are you that this tactic will work

Effort: how easy or difficult something is

You may also add “Reach” when some of the ideas can scale more than others, in which case ICE turns into RICE. 

An important note: in my experience, it makes sense to add more weight to Confidence. Let’s assume that:

  1. = it sounds like a good idea
  2. = it’s worked for other companies
  3. = it recently worked for another company with a comparable target group
  4. = we’ve got qualitative information this works on our exact target group
  5. = we’ve tested this and gotten positive results

With these definitions, 5 is not 5 times better than 1 but 10-50x better, and you may want to adjust weights accordingly.

More on using ICE here written by Aivar Ots who was my team member back at Pipedrive

#5. Ideas are worthless, period. It’s the team that matters. 

At around Pipedrive series A round we’d gotten a couple of channels to work well. Charts were going up-and-to-the-right and we have the budget to properly build out the team. Among other things, content had started to work well, and done so without a lot of resources. Time to scale, right?

But seven expensive hires later you’re getting the same results…

But then web CRO, an area you’d given up on after several failed experiments gets a new lead, and your conversion rates start to improve dramatically.

This is how I learned there are no “good” or “bad” channels. It’s all about the people in your team. 

How you evolve as a marketer

And more importantly, it’s about the person that brushes your teeth when you look in the mirror. It’s about you. (Or me, in my case.) Things change fast in a startup and your role changes faster than you think. One day you’re operational, managing your PPC ads in one tab and drafting the next blog post in another.

And sooner than you think, you should have stopped all operational work and focused on hiring 90-100%. And soon thereafter, you would’ve needed to get really good at creating people room and resources to do their best work (in addition to hiring).

More on how you evolve as a marketer

More on hiring marketers at a startup

Were these all my important lessons from 15 years of tech marketing? Surely not. But these are among my TOP20 or even TOP10 for sure.

PS. Liked this line of thinking? Outfunnel is looking for a Growth Marketer

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I’ve created a b2b email marketing crash course

As a martech CEO, I think about emails a lot.

Too much, probably.

Here’s the thing about email marketing: it’s such an established practice, that many of the “best practices” are now outdated.

Also, a lot of content about email marketing out there is unnecessarily wordy.

So, I’ve created a “less is more” type resource. Something that’s super dense while still highly readable. And it even includes a joke! Sign up here.

email crash course

And here’s a taster:

What kind of emails to send

Emails come in all shapes and forms. But what kind of emails work best for B2B marketing purposes?

I’ll address this in the form of a few “frequently asked” questions. These keep coming up when I speak to people that are either new to email marketing or simply about to overhaul their email marketing. Continue reading

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Important coronavirus update for fans of standup comedy

The world needs four things right now.

First, medical doctors and scientists to bring us the vaccine against COVID-19.

Second, we all need to stay home and keep eating all those rolls of toilet paper.

Third, we need doctors, paramedics and nurses to keep doing their heroic jobs, saving lives even if many of the rest of us are irresponsible, careless, stupid or even malicious.

Last and, well, least, we need to laugh well. Laughter was invented by Mother Nature to keep us sane in situations like we’ve found ourselves in. Stand-up comedians for one have helped us laugh our way through the toughest of times (pandemics or even election results), and they’ve inspired us to see things in a new light in better times.

We all can and should change our comedy habits right now

With comedy clubs closed and tours cancelled, binge-watching Netflix and a lot of YouTube only solves part of the problem. For sure, there are plenty of funny stand-up recordings there, but if you watch the same names you’ve always watched, you’ll lose out on the excitement of going to a live comedy club night and seeing someone you’ve never seen before. Perhaps even seeing a kind of comedy you’ve never seen before.

You’re also not helping the economy to get better. Most people with shows on Netflix and large followings on YouTube are not materially impacted if a few more or a few fewer people watch their shows. And that’s not the case with many brilliant comics who mostly do live work (and whose gigs have all been cancelled).

Luckily there’s a solution or even several of them. Here’s how you can get entertained, keep getting some of the aspects of seeing live comedy and playing a small but important role in having the comedybiz pie distributed more justly and sustainably.
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How to hire the first marketer for your team or startup


I’ve built 3 marketing teams, hired more than 30 marketers, made a couple of colossal recruiting mistakes, been hired as the first marketer in a high-growth startup (Pipedrive), spent 5 years at the marketing team of global tech company (Skype) and founded a mar tech startup and found someone to hand marketing over to (Outfunnel). I haven’t “seen it all” but have clocked enough hits and misses to dare to write this post.

Hopefully, this post will help to hire your first (or third) marketer. As we all know, hiring is hard, and it’s painful to be working in a team where you’re missing a core skill.

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How to run ads for your startup – the penultimate guide

There are several ultimate guides available for running ads, and I have no ambitions to create another one. So here’s a penultimate one, containing only six pieces of advice. But the advice is practical, to-the-point and based on more than 10 years and several million dollars of ad investments, as well as several million dollars of ad spend (yes, these are different things).

senator we run ads printed graphic t-shirt-600x600

1. Make the first pick of channels, using category awareness and category urgency as your guide

“What channels should we use?” is a pretty common question and while all businesses are different and there is no best answer, I’ve found it helpful to use category awareness to make the first pick of channels.

Category awareness is high when most people in your target audience already know the product or service you’re selling. It’s things like car insurance, CRM software, web hosting, smartphones, etc. Each of these things is generally well known and people in the target audience use search engines and specialist shopping or comparison sites when they feel a need.

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How to create a marketing plan for your startup : here’s a no-BS framework

It seems we have product-market fit. What marketing channels should we invest in?

This is probably the most common question in the startup community (right after “should we do an ICO?”). After answering it a couple of dozen times in one-on-one sessions and workshops I now think I have a solid answer, the equivalent of having a map in an unfamiliar city. You can still get horribly lost but there’s a really high chance of getting to where you need to go. Which is particularly handy if you’d like to arrive before all the others do.

This post builds on my Two Hedgehog Marketing framework which was great but may have missed some practical implementation guidelines which are now present.

Ready? Building a marketing plan starts from assessing category awareness.

Step 1. Map category awareness and category urgency: are you a guard dog, a sugar glider or a little bit of both?

A sugar glider, your humble guide to understanding category awareness.

Join me on a (justified) detour with pets to illustrate this. You get a guard dog if you feel like you need to protect your property by someone who can also keep you company. You kind of know what to expect and how the business of getting and looking after a dog works. No amount of advertising or media stories will persuade you to get a dog if you don’t want a dog. In fact, if someone did advertise getting a dog, you’d probably be blind to this.

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70 meetings and calls later: How I achieved customer interview management superpowers

customer development path

I’ve been working on a marketing automation tool (more on that at the end of the post). Or rather, I’ve been working on an idea for a marketing automation tool as I don’t want a single line of code written before I’d experienced a notable pull from target customers. (This may sound like I am clever/ born lean, but in reality, I’ve made the mistake of starting a couple of projects out of pure enthusiasm in the past, and I’ve had enough of that, thankyouverymuch).

I set myself a goal of 10 customer pre-orders in a reasonable time, kicked myself in the butt and got started. As I had been preparing for cutting the cord of employment for some time, I had created an Evernote document with names of people I wanted to approach, another one with interview questions and the third one with feature ideas.

I knew I wanted to keep track of the whole process, be able to easily access and analyze my notes and automate as much as possible. Unsurprisingly, I picked Pipedrive as my main tool and took the advice that I had been preaching Pipedrive users for almost seven years: that the first step of achieving a (good) result is defining the process.

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Show your click stats to the designer, or how creativity at scale is hard work


This post leaped out of my head as I’m wrapping up my six or so years of heading marketing of Pipedrive and I’ve started to reflect on the good, the bad and the ugly. There might be more posts like this, you sign up to receive notifications in the right sidebar.

Q: What moron pays good dollars for the right to show Facebook ads to the perfect audience and then cobbles together stock illustrations and copy that makes one yawn at best?

A: The moron that wrote this piece.

Hear me out, there may be a lesson or two here. You see, I’ve considered myself as a “creative” marketer which has been somewhat justified. I’ve rented a tram for a month and had it transport people for free, brightly Skype-branded. I’ve won creative awards on both sides of the table. I’ve managed a creative team at an agency and run my own little boutique.  And then I completely stupidly dropped the creative ball as head of a 20+ person tech marketing team.

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How Pipedrive reached 50,000 paying customers

Pipedrive art

Earlier in the year Pipedrive crossed the 50,000 paying customer mark, an event we celebrated with cheap champagne insightful stats. I thought it’d be a good idea to follow up my “how Pipedrive got to 10,000 customers” post.  A couple of things are exactly the same, some have lost their relevancy and there are several new themes.

What follow are my observations of things that got us from 10,000 to 50,000 customers, in no particular order, but leaving the most important thing last. Note these are observations of a marketer, if you asked one of our product managers, sales leaders or investors to write the post, you might get a different post.

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