Growth Hacking Geniuses - Dan Kaplan - Visual Summary

Dan Kaplan

1.  Who Mentored You? What Did You Learn From Them?

I love this question because I love to say that, as a marketer, I have not been mentored very much by other marketers.

I wrote a post in the end of 2016 about the sort of bias that Silicon Valley has against marketing in general as a discipline and how that bias has led to both a lot of value destruction in Silicon Valley – you know, venture capitalists losing money’ founders losing time, money, and energy; people losing their jobs, et cetera, et cetera – but, also has contributed to a significant lack of high-quality – or shortage, at least – of high-quality mentorship and great marketing skills in the technology industry in general.

That is not to say, by the way, that there are no great marketers in tech. There are many. There just aren’t so many that they’re easy to find and easy to work for. And I have worked for some really great people, but most of them were not primarily focused on marketing. They were focused on other areas of building a startup business.

And so, most of the marketing I’ve learned – and I’d like to say Hiten Shah is someone who’s really helped me think through some of the big marketing challenges. So, in the tech industry, it’s basically Hiten. But, really, most of my mentorship has come from outside of both tech and marketing itself.

The mentors that have been most important in my life were my long-form journalist teacher in college, a man named Paul Hendrickson who had built his career as a journalist for the Washington Post and later went on to write a couple of national writers’ award-winning books.

Another man named Robert Wright whose books – Nonzero and another book called The Moral Animal – really have profoundly shaped my understanding of the world and human nature in fundamental ways. I know it sounds like that’s kind of […] marketing, but it is actually my skills, what I learned in long-form journalist class was the absolute importance of being able to dive incredibly deeply into a subject and master its emotional and logical details in a way that really is valuable and, in a way, that really lets you see the full picture and tell that in a story that is coherent and compelling to the person reading it. That is what I bring to the table as a marketer in a way that I think makes me unique – not unique but somewhat rare in that way.

I bring a magazine journalist skill and deep investigative reporting and compelling storytelling to the problems that companies face – marketing, hiring, recruiting, strategizing, et cetera. So, most of my mentorship has come from the journalism area. The mentorship and marketing I got from reading books more than anything else.


2. Would You Like to Plug Your Current Business/Product to Show Us an Example?

It’s funny you called me at this moment because I’m literally at this moment up to my neck, pivoting or adjusting my own message and story and set of offers away from what I’ve been doing out of the last four years. But the way I’ve been talking about it in the last four years into something that aligns much more closely with what is both dear to me and important to me on an emotional, spiritual, and intellectual level. That is what I’m doing with Exponents.

While I’ve been working for the last four years primarily on seed and early SaaS companies, seed stage, Series A and maybe the occasional Series B as a client, I’m now expanding my focus to companies that are building potentially disruptive products. They can either be at the early stages of the development or they can be further along but have not fully “crossed” the chasm into the mainstream. So, they still have hundreds of millions – if not billions – of dollars of revenue opportunity in front of them.

I am pivoting my business to focus on helping those types of founders and teams and companies develop the strategies they need to successfully get to the next stage of growth. If they’re in the early adopter stage, that might be winning that early adopter segment and really dominating and becoming entrenched in it. If they’re at the brink of the chasm and they’re sort of saturated, they’re early adopters and they’re ready to cross to the mainstream, it will be helping them develop the strategies they need to really focus on the mainstream.

That type of thinking is most clearly demonstrated by a piece I’m going to publish this week about Twilio which is a company I used to work at, like, five years ago. The piece is about how Twilio’s current go-to-market strategy is leaving anywhere from 53.5 billion to 500 billion dollars on the table over the next five years and an explanation of why that situation is the way it is and three completely different strategies they can take to solve that problem and cross the chasm – you know, realize some of those returns. That’s the type of thing that I’m focused on now.


3. What Are Your Thoughts on Growth Hacking or Growth Marketing?

Those are different things, right?

Growth hacking – I have very strong feelings about. I actually wrote an essay three years ago that said, “Real engines of growth on the internet have nothing to do with growth hacking.” In preparation for that, I interviewed a man named Stan Chudnovsky who works with James Currier on NFX Guild and was also one of the first thinkers about strategic tech implemented growth; I’ve also interviewed Josh Elman who had been one of the leaders of Twitter’s early growth team and also worked with Facebook and LinkedIn and is also partner at Greylock; and Andy Johns who is now at Wealthfront and had been at Quora and founded Facebook’s growth team.

Basically, the point there – and I was a little too harsh in the post because that can be some of my writing style – there actually are some people who call themselves “growth hackers” who are really growth people who really understand how to do growth. People like Sean Ellis and Andrew Chen who are actually the people who coined that term and popularized it are actually legitimate growth hackers. They really understand the subtleties and details and nuances of growth or growth marketers or growth people.

The problem is that the term that they coined has been adopted by people who don’t really understand what growth really is and like the sound of the label, like the concept that they can be a growth hacker – both a marketer and a hacker at the same time – but, really, they’re neither that good at either of those things.

And so, the term – even though it’s popular – I find it very misleading.

Now, growth marketing, on the other hand, is something very different. That is applying the discipline of marketing to making a company successful. One of the big differences is that so many of the people who call themselves growth hackers are focusing things like top of the funnel acquisition – literally just like getting more people to sign up, conversion rate optimization at the very bottom, top of the funnel stuff – whereas the most important things in growth are retention, long-term retention – your ability to retain your actual customers; your ability to activate new customers – people who sign up and actually turning them from signups into engaged, happy initial early customers; and monetization – actually getting those retained and activated customers to pay you and keep paying you.

If you look at the graphs on this on Price Intelligently – Price Intelligently did a great post on this – the difference in the number of posts about customer acquisition versus the number of posts about retention, activation, and monetization is literally something like ten to one or worse.


4. What Are Your Top 3 Pieces of Advice for Growth Marketing?

The first thing is hacks and tactics are okay and sometimes not okay. But, generally, strategy needs to come first. If you don’t have a clearly defined set of frameworks and tools and approaches for strategically finding your ideal channels, leveraging those marketing channels, scaling those marketing channels, throwing out the ones that aren’t working, scaling them down when they stop working, your growth efforts will fail.

The second thing is the most important thing is long-term engaged usage and monetization. The most important things are retention and monetization. If those things are lacking, all of top of the funnel efforts you put, all the brilliant things you do at the top of the funnel will be basically pouring down the drain or lighting it on fire or both. I don’t know if […] works but you’d be throwing money away.

And so, the first thing is to focus on monetization and retention above all else.

The second thing is understand the psychology of your retained user. I got that from Stan Chudnovsky when I actually interviewed him. I like the way he says it. It’s basically understand what really motivates the problems, the needs, the desires, and goals of the people who are sticking with your products and also paying for you. Understand those people and then figuring out what it’s going to take to get a lot more of them and create a lot more of them.

The third thing is focus on – and this depends on the stage of your growth – focus on solving a really clearly defined problem. Now, that problem doesn’t have to be something that the market already knows it has, but it does have to be a problem they have even if they don’t know it or not, right? It’s obviously easier to sell people a solution to a problem they have already articulated in their own mind. But, if they haven’t, there’s a whole other set of things you need to do to take them from “I don’t even know I have a problem” to “Wow! I really have a problem! Your product is the solution for it and now I want to pay you for it.”

You know, understanding where in that spectrum your customers are and how you get them from wherever they are now to becoming a paying engaged user is the most important thing for long-term sustainable growth.


5. What Are the Top 3 Mistakes to Avoid When Doing Growth Marketing?

That is sort of the flip side of that thing, right?

Focusing on hacks and tactics over core strategy; focusing on acquisition before you’ve really figured out your retention, activation, and monetization; and trying to apply growth strategies or hacks or tactics or any of that before you’ve really dialed in who you’re selling your product to, what they really need, what they really want, what problems they have, how they think about those problems or not, and how your product or solution fits into their lives and dramatically changes them for the better.

Another way of saying that is definitely don’t focus on features. If you’re in the growth space, you know that already. One of the assumptions that a lot of growth people make is that the right thing to focus on – if you’re not focusing on features – is benefits and I actually say, “Go a lot deeper than that.”

Focus on transformation.

There’s a diagram that I love to use in my presentations from a company called UserOnboard that shows Super Mario. For instance, in a Mario game, there’s a little guy. Then, in the middle, there’s the fire flower that, when he touches it, will let him throw fireballs. And, at the end, there is Mario with the super fireball capabilities.

The fact is that most companies and products – even established ones that are successful – think they’re selling the flower. If they’re talking about features, they’re talking about, like, its petals. If they talk about benefits, they talk about how it lets you throw fire, right? What they don’t realize is that Mario is living in this world where he is under attack from walking turtles that then might kill him, flying bullets that also might kill him, pipes that shoot out plants that also might kill him, and a bunch of pits that also might kill him. He does not care about the details of the flower or even that he can throw fire. What he cares about is being able to destroy the enemies who want to kill him and eliminating the risk that one contact with them will kill him immediately.

So, focus on that transformation. Focus on transforming Mario into a badass, less easy-to-kill version of himself, and you win.