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 


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