Sujan Patel of Mailshake and Web Profits discusses the most common conceptions about 'growth hacking.'

I had a great time sitting down with Sujan Patel at last year’s SaaS North conference. We chatted about his background, how he became “obsessed with SaaS” and why most definitions of ‘growth hacking’ are flat out wrong.

Lucy Screnci: I’m a fan of yours so I’m excited to be chatting in person! Can you describe your journey – what you’ve done, what you’re currently doing and how that all came about?

Sujan Patel: Right now I have a handful of things I’m working on. I have a marketing agency called Web Profits. We specifically work with startups and we do all things growth.

I’ve been in house as a VP of marketing and run growth teams and have been an advisor at a couple of companies. I know how it works from doing it myself, so I’ve kind of built an agency model around doing that at scale.

What I found is when you’re trying to hire a VP of Marketing or a marketer, what you really should do is hire a team of marketers. Your expectation is that the one person that you hire is the team, but it just can’t be that way. That’s what our company is.

I also have a handful of startups myself, so I have I think six now, two of them I started, one of them I’m a part of, so Narrow and Mailshake (formerly ContentMarketer.io) and I’ve bought a couple of companies.

I just did this because I want to be a practitioner – I love the SaaS world. I got obsessed with it back in 2007/2008, and I didn’t have the skillset at that time or the experience to pursue something.

I was like “I wanna do this, I want to figure out a way to get in this space,” although I got in pretty late, in 2014, but better late than never.

I was always a marketer, and I started off in SEO. I had my own e-commerce website which failed miserably, but I got a lot of traffic to it. So I thought, ‘Okay cool, I know how to get traffic.’

One of the things I did in my career, that’s probably a bit unique, is half of my career I worked in-house,and the other half in-agency. I prefer the agency side because I get really bored. I can’t always spend a week on something, I can maybe only spend a few hours of my brain power.

I found the bridge between the two – and so that’s what my agency does now.

Lucy: What in 2007 and 2008 made you obsessed with SaaS?

Sujan: I think I just saw the rise of Salesforce, I saw guys like Hiten Shah and Neil Patel do CrazyEgg and recurring subscription software. I was like, ‘you can do that?’

I saw those companies scale really quickly because technology was a third of what the cost was years ago.

Lucy: That’s awesome. I want to switch tracks – I’m curious what you think about the term ‘growth hacking’. It’s overused and I think people define it differently, so what meaning do you attach to that term?

Sujan: It’s funny because I just got hit up to write a book on a growth hacking related topic, or the word growth hacking and I was like “Wait, hold on, can we do it on something else?”

Growth hacking, honestly, it’s a term made up by people, marketers, but in our defence, we’ve made up a lot of other words beforehand too, some of them have stuck.

I think online marketing, digital marketing, growth hacking is more of a mindset.

I’ve been hanging out with Sean Ellis a lot more because we’ve been on the same speaking circuit.

At the end of the day we just sort of laugh when someone says “I’m going to do this growth hack,” because half of people use it incorrectly.

In a way what they’re describing is just regular marketing, and the other half are expecting some random hack to be equivalent to a commitment in marketing.

Either way it’s wrong. I think it’s just the mindset of having this framework of “I want to go fast, I want to hustle hard to do whatever it takes to grow.”

Lucy: It seems that a lot of people want to do something quick and dirty to drive results. How would you suggest to a marketer to take on a strategy that will be authentic and make them an authority in their category, as well as drive results?

Sujan: I think it comes down to how much time you invest into a short-term opportunity, whether it’s a growth hack or what not.

I think growth hacks can be applied to long-term marketing, like sustainable marketing channels – it just comes down to how they rapidly do it.

It might be like an MVP way to enter PR, or it might be a way to get into SEO or capture more SEO, but, SEO as a channel is pretty big unless you’re a very niche topic.

I think it comes down to investing in things that will lead to both short and long-term growth.

If you invest too much in long, “Hey I want to do SEO, I want to improve our conversion rate so we can do paid campaigns”, you might not ever get there without the short- term wins. I think you just need to do both.

I think what typically happens – and I talked about this in my presentation – is that there are still two big problems that all startups face: they don’t get enough traffic and their conversion rate sucks.

Short or long, focus on those two things. And think about it this way: driving traffic is actually driving  awareness. You can add and in branding, PR and other brand recognition to traffic and that’s the same kind of way to tackle the problem of low traffic.

Lucy: Are there any particular marketing campaigns or tactics that a company executed recently that you were really impressed with?

Sujan: What I’ve seen this year is that a lot have things have been done at scale.

One thing I don’t see enough of is pre-launch marketing. The best kind of launches I’ve seen are when companies, from a year before, are building that brand, the equity and trust. When they do have something that launches it works really, really well because they’ve put a lot of time into marketing.

I don’t have any companies at the top of my head that have done a great job at this, but when I see that I have a lot of respect for it because I know they’re putting in the work beforehand.

Lucy: So something that a startup can do pre-launch is build their subscriber list?

Sujan: Capturing an email address is one big way of building an audience, but it’s also important to nurture that email address and that person and/or offering something of big value, like a piece of content or an e-book.

In 2015 I launched a book called “100 Days of Growth” and I had a very specific plan. Whether it was going to work or was not going to work I didn’t care, because I knew that in the next six months I was going to be launching a marketing tool.

So my thought was, If I launch this material to build credibility, I’m going to build up the audience first. And if I’m building something that’s going to help the audience that will in turn help me, because it’s going to help me get a foothold in once I launch the tool.

I think those types of things are very important and again, I see less and less of it these days because everyone is so focused on that short-term win.

Top 4 takeaways:

  • ‘Growth hacking’ isn’t about shortcuts. Be nimble and test assumptions. Even if you only have a basic strategy down, trial it and see what happens. For instance, Sujan pointed to executing a MVP tactic to garner PR coverage.
  • Stay the course and commit to a strategy. Marketers think that a growth hack can somehow drive the same results as a commitment to a strategy, as Sujan mentioned. Without a plan in place and your end goals in sight, you’ll never be able to track and measure your progress.
  • Play the long game. Don’t abandon long-term strategies simply because you’re holding out for a short-term win. Balance out what you’re trying to achieve, whether it be for the near or far future.
  • Don’t squander the opportunity to build a user base: One thing Sujan doesn’t see enough of? Startups engaging in pre-launch marketing activities to build their subscriber base and nurture potential leads. He says when companies do this their product essentially takes off because they’ve put in the work beforehand to ensure the launch will be a success.