Welcome to another episode from our “2Inspire” series, where we ask entrepreneurs, managers, creative people we admire, different questions about themselves. How did they get to where they are? What did they do before? What does a day or week in their professional/personal lives look like?
We’re super happy to have the opportunity to chat with Sujan Patel, the co-founder of Ramp Ventures, and a partner in a handful of software companies including ContentMarketer.io, Narrow, Quuu, and Mailshake. With more than 14 years of experience as a marketer and entrepreneur, Sujan has helped hundreds of companies boost online traffic and sales and strengthen their online brand reputation. Not to mention he’s the author of 100 Days of Growth, a growth hacking book that sold over 40,000 copies!
Geoff: What’s the common thread that you look for when you’re bringing on a new company or starting a company under that portfolio? Can you give us some perspective?
Sujan: Yeah, when you look at our portfolio and what our companies have in common and it’s that they’re very, very focused on the customer first. Meaning the product is around that, maybe it’s the UX, maybe we’re winning on pricing and customers love that part of it or we have one little thing that sets us apart, but it’s something that a customer does and says. So, I always try to put the customer first and then think about what marketing or we can do to add value to that customers’ lives or expand the product. So really that’s what it is, I think about not just the customer but the customer experience, and don’t get me wrong we are nowhere near perfect on any of these companies. Every company probably has a handful of things at least that are known issues and probably a lot more unknowns but that’s our mission, right? For example, Mail Shake was built based on talking to customers of our competitors who were just sick and tired of paying a high price or using a clunky or hard to use software. So, we said let’s just build the exact opposite: it super cheap, really easy to use, and it does the one or two things that the salespeople really want to do.
Geoff: Are there any new companies in your portfolio that you want to highlight, or that represent new challenges for you?
Sujan: Yeah, so we just acquired a company called RightInbox.com, it’s a Gmail extension and really it’s a competitor to companies like Boomerang or Yesware. We’ve got about 200,000 or 250,000 users, so that’s a lot of users. We’ve got tens of thousands of people even signing up every month and I’m not trying to brag here but I’m why I’m showcasing this is that there’s a lot of customers and people we can go to get lots and lots of feedback. So again one of the biggest things we’re doing since we acquired this company in July is talking to customers building in these feedback loops, whether they’re positive feedback like an NPS system where the customer would rate us positively when we asked them for a review on the chrome store or on G2Crowd, GetApp, wherever. Or feedback like we do a bad job but they tell us what’s wrong, or a feedback loop of what kind of features, functionality, or even what they’re using it for so we know where to where to develop new functionality. So three months in, that’s what we’ve done and we’ve learned a ton, we’re still implementing things, but ultimately I want to just showcase that we don’t just talk about this, we walk the talk.
Geoff: It’s great, I mean you talk about how important a feedback loop is and I think that’s great! So other what kind of common things do you find that your portfolio companies, or other companies you work for, struggle with the most when it comes to marketing and trying to grow a digital business or a SaaS business?
Sujan: Yes, I see three big things across the board. One is that most companies are focused on themselves, thinking about themselves first and then they ask how can my company achieve growth? Or how can my company get in front of these customers? I think it should be backward. There are these cool people, your potential customers, they’re sitting around hanging out somewhere on the web, how can you best serve them and get in front of them? What can you create to get in front of them? When you turn it around it’s like you turn around your headline copy and you take the customer’s voice or words and you use it to market to them, instead of you describing your product, you use your customers to describe your product. This is a very big thing I see wrong with the industry because when you go with “me first” mentality you’re guessing a lot of the time. You’re not talking to the customers, you’re trying to match two dots, you and the customer, when you should be really thinking about: here’s a customer, and then figuring out what you can do to put a string down from that company to you. Small mindset change.
So number two is on every single company I’ve ever come across whether it’s a client or a company, has an acquisition or an activation problem. And what I mean by this is if you’re SaaS, you get people to sign up. Well, there’s a sign-up problem so there’s a conversion problem in general but the key part I see is in activation. So you’ve got someone to sign up but how do you get them to implement? So take 2Checkout for example. Your customers, and these are assumptions here, so B2B eCommerce, anyone that needs payments, well, you get them interested, they set up a call, they say “Okay I’m gonna implement this”, the activation part is them actually doing something significant to implement in the backend the 2Checkout process. It doesn’t mean they go live, that’s where a lot of software companies fail in my opinion. But the same goes with eCommerce and really marketplaces and everything like that. If you’re an Uber yeah you get somebody to download the app, you get somebody to get a ride, and great, you’ve gotten further, but what if I told you their activation point is three rides? And so the marketing should all be focused on how do you get users to take three rides? If you’re 2Checkout, how do you get people to implement your checkout process, your checkout flow? I think there’s a big, big weak point and that’s the hurdle around conversion as a whole.
I think number three is too many ideas get executed, so I think too many people do a lot of things. And what that means is they do a lot of things of which only some of them are impactful, but if you end up doing a lot of things you end up not being able to do them to the best of your ability because you’re using resources across multiple things. What I’ve seen with generally every company we’ve audited or analyzed, there’s only a handful of channels or things that actually really, really work well. And if somebody were to double down in those channels versus try new things, they would have way more success. So I urge new marketers or software founders or really anybody listening to this, to think about all your ideas, listen up, don’t pigeonhole your ideas, but then sleep on it, wait a week, and then think through the impact those ideas will have. We use the Ice Framework. It’s really measuring the impact, the ease of implementation and the overall score of like how much this is going to move the needle for us.
Geoff: Interesting, I mean that’s a great perspective by the way. So when you come into a new company situation, you obviously talk about changing the mindset to be “customer focused” or “outside-in.” How do you go about identifying the conversion points that matter, and more importantly, how do you change the mindset? What do you do in that situation, and what are some tangible things that some of our listeners can think about to turn the boat?
Sujan: So the exercise I would do is just kind of a brainstorming exercise. I say put a pin in everything you’ve got now. Don’t change anything. Let’s just start fresh. You’re this XYZ company, your potential customers are small businesses, or you know B2B companies or whatever, so who’s the buyer? What I’m talking about here is doing a bit of an exercise on customer persona. Throw on a whiteboard: “okay these are my three buyers,” then think about with no limits in the world, what can you do to market or get in front of them? One of them could be knocking on the doors. Okay, how many people would you need for that? It’s obviously not viable or plausible to do that but then at some point after maybe 50 ideas you start getting some good ones that are actually applicable. But I think doing this brainstorm is a really, really powerful thing because you end up getting everything out of the way, whether it’s a good or a bad idea. And then kind of going back and thinking “okay what does it impact?” Forget how hard it is gonna be to do this or execute this but think about what’s the impact each is going to have. And think about in terms of customers. So here’s a couple of things you need to do while you’re doing this. You need to estimate your conversion rate, just think about how much traffic your idea can bring the conversion rate, and you want to measure against the impact in terms of how many customers is going to bring.
Geoff: It’s easy to get caught up sometimes and get analysis paralysis. Sometimes there’s just so much you can look at. What’s your perspective on going with sort of instinct or kind of high- level intuition versus digging into the data? Where do you draw the line and how do you coach people to think about that?
Sujan: So, I totally hear you. I think that’s another kind of common problem here. People are just digging into the numbers way too much, which is great. I would go based on experience and then use that to drive instinct. Let’s say you’re marketing for a new industry or you’re the CEO of a company that you’ve not lived and breathed for that long. Talk to people that have marketed to your customers. Go talk to the marketing or executives at companies that sell to your customers. For example, with Mail Shake, I went and talked to everyone else selling to salespeople, I talked to the VP of Marketing and VP of Sales at Pipedrive, I went and talked to a few marketers. I tried to recruit a few marketers from my competitors. What I was trying to get to was ultimately get somebody’s experience who then can drive intuition. When you have that experience, that’s way more \valuable than any type of analysis can do.
Geoff: Tell me about a time where you know you did all that stuff and it didn’t work out, you screwed it up and you learned from it.
Sujan: Even the best people don’t know everything. I mean I think I’ve done this many times. With MailShake I’ll give you an example. So MailShake is the one in our portfolio that we started ourselves, while the other ones we’ve acquired. MailShake originally started as a tool called Contentmarketer.io. So, we now serve salespeople, that’s our customer base. It’s a little bit of marketing as well because you can use it for link building and outreach but we’re a sales tool prominently. We were a marketing tool, a content marketing tool because we were pretty much a very similar product to what we have now but we were trying to target marketers. The story behind building this company was: let me build something in a market I know. I know marketing, I know enough marketers to validate whether it’s a good idea or a bad idea, we validated everything, everyone’s like “Yes!” I even pre-sold about 150 seats on the software, gave a very big discount, was able to build about 3,000-person email lists, gave them a steep discount. So we were able to get to some sort of revenue, but then we got stuck. And the reason we got stuck was like everyone had confirmation bias. Every one of my friends, people in the industry were like “Yes this is a great idea!” It was a great idea except for the fact that no one wanted to actually use the software. Or that it’s a lot of work. We’re a constant marketing outreach tool. In order to promote your content, you have to have really awesome content. So the other hurdle was that yes, this is a genius idea except for the fact that not everybody has awesome content. So what we ended up building is a tool for the elite marketers that were already creating awesome content or we had a successful process and we were just making it easier. But we thought we were making it easier but changing the habit is a lot of hard work. So ultimately it was confirmation bias–everyone validated the idea, people even paid for it, but when it came down to actually using it no one did.
Geoff: Referring back to your book 100 Days of Growth, when you talk of the hundred, what are some of your favorites when you’re given a summary, or someone asks you about it?
Sujan: One of my favorites is creating content. I like to create content like eBooks, guides, videos, any type of 10-x content on a topic you can use to really just educate the market. So don’t worry about intent, I would actually say non-intent keywords are better here and make something 10x better than what else is out there. And just create something huge and put a lot of ammo behind it, around promoting it, pushing it to your email list. So that’s not one of my favorite tactics because if you do this a couple times over, what you end up getting is all of these destinations where people will link to overtime, assets that will grow and continue to build your brand while you work on something else.
Number two is surveying the people who visit your website. So this is CRO 101, but you don’t use it for CRO, you use it for just figuring out how do you describe your service or what you do. So ask people when they come to the website what’s the problem that they’re looking to solve. And then get the most common responses and turn it around on them. Or ask people what their biggest problems are.
Number 3 thing is to delight your customers. So you get people through the funnel. Send them a mail, send them a thank-you card, send them a book you think they would need. So I use this virtual assistant company called Priority VA. Awesome service, pretty expensive for a VA but well worth it. I love F1 so I was watching Formula 1, I was taking care of my kid, I put a Formula 1 hat on him and me. Obviously, it didn’t fit him but I just posted a picture on Facebook. Days later after I posted that picture I got a surprise package in the mail and the Priority VA people were like: “Hey I just sent you a little something, you should see a DHL package in a couple days”. And it was like a onesie for the baby. Like so that was a delight, I didn’t expect it, didn’t even think that anybody would give me that and the fact they saw a picture and they took an action is the thing, that was why I would not churn. You would have to really twist my arm there, to screw up ten times over for me to churn because they hit my heart, not my logic. So when I was a VP of Marketing before Ramp Ventures and Web Profits, we would send these handwritten thank-you cards and that worked really, really well because people were like just shocked that we actually did something physical. And we would draw their logo on the thank-you card and we did one thing further, we would have the salesperson that they talked to actually sign the card.
We ended with about 10 or 12 percent of people that received the thank-you card sharing it on social media. And they weren’t sharing on social media saying here’s a picture of the thank-you card. There was an actual testimonial. So, if you think about it, we got a testimonial in the first month of somebody using a software before they even actually fully utilized the software. So things like that can be really, really powerful.
Geoff: You mentioned some examples, but are there some companies out there that you look at as role models, that do this stuff really, really well, that are just kind of way above everybody else?
Sujan: Yeah I think Drift.com does a good job. They’re creating content products that solve people’s problems, and they treat their customers right, they do this exact thing I’m talking about with customer delight and it’s really customer advocacy.
I’m listing tech companies because these are very obvious: you can go look at them, go purchase their service, and go see what it is. Buffer.com does it with their monthly invoices that are actually company updates, and I’m like wow. I don’t know about you, I never read an invoice, I just forward it to my accountant or do nothing with it, but this one I do, and it’s like wow! It’s like their company retreat, how many people, it’s a picture of them, it pretty much humanizes them and it gets me as a customer on their journey. I think those two companies are really good examples. There’s a service called MailLift.com, no affiliation, they will do handwritten thank-you cards or letters and things like that on your behalf so you can even automate it if you’re really lazy.
Geoff: Cool! So when you’re talking to entrepreneurs who are just starting out, what are the training wheel kind of things that you recommend that entrepreneurs should really focus on to get started?
Sujan: I always go with a really simplistic view of what are the one or two things that could really grow the business and focus on one or two things at a time. I usually try to focus on one channel, getting it working. So, if it’s like a product, a feature or functionality, just focus on the one thing. As that starts to work, introduce the second thing where you can spend maybe 23 to 30 percent of your time. I see entrepreneurs too many times spread themselves too thin. So I suggest they focus on the one or two things that can really move the needle. And don’t believe everything you read, listen to, whatever. Everything should be an inspiration for you to get ideas, and those ideas should always be vetted in terms of how much they are going to move the needle. That’s really what’s gonna help you out get out there because no two businesses are the same.
Geoff: So we talked about companies, are there some particular people out there, leaders that inspire you and challenge you? Who would they be and why?
Sujan: I think Hiten Shah is really, really a big inspiration to me, he’s a really an awesome product guy. He runs a company called Product Habits. I’ve learned a lot from him on everything product-related, product-marketing. Peep Laja from Conversion XL, he’s awesome because he’s a no-bullshit type person. He’s in Austin as well and I get to hang out with him once in a while, and if I say something, he’s like ”No that’s just wrong.” I was running an idea by him the other day and he’s like “That’s not actually going to solve your problem. This it gonna help, but it’s not gonna solve the problem. You need to think about it this way.” So, I like the things he pushes back on and you don’t need to know him or hang out with him to get this. You could see it in his content online, you can see in his videos and his conference Conversion XL. I like Neil Patel. Neil really pushes the limits in marketing. I like the fact that he ranks for everything and it’s not from him cheating his way to the top. I think he’s just built a lot of content and tools. You know this whole 10x concept piece I’ve talked about, I think Neil has just done that time and time again. I get inspiration from guys like Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos and you know the big guys in the space. I really admire Jeff’s ability to hire. In a recent interview, he’s like: I only do three things every day and I get eight hours of sleep every day. And then I think that goes to like the fact that he’s hired really, really smart people. Tony Hsieh is a great guy too, now I think he’s part of Amazon but he’s where I learned a lot about customer delight. If you really read the book Delivering Happiness, what he’s done in the e-commerce space with Zappos, over delivering every time, I think that’s the key to really customer to customer support.
Geoff: What other books besides the one you just mentioned do you turn to when you’re looking for advice?
Sujan: Yeah there’s a book called Zero to One. I think Peter Thiel wrote that book. I read a lot, I actually do a lot of audiobooks so every probably once a month I’m going through two or three books, so I’m trying to think through what else has been good. Yeah, I think Zero to One is really good. All the Jim Collins books like Good to Great, and Great by Choice are really good. Seth Godin’s books are really good. David Versus Goliath is really good. I like to read these business books that are broader than just giving me one little nugget.
Geoff: So if I talk to people that interact with you all the time, what would they tell me is your go-to motto or expression is? Or do you have one?
Sujan: I don’t know if I have a motto. I just usually say “no.”Anyone that knows me just says like I say “no” in a nice way. That “no” may turn into a “yes” three days later, but yeah I think my go-to motto is “Are you sure? I don’t think we need to do that”.
Geoff: And is that born out of wanting to focus more, so you’re saying no, or challenging the mindset before you say yes?
Sujan: I got this habit because every time I say “no” it makes the person on the other end convince me. And it’s not me that needs to be convinced, it’s the person that needs to do as much research as possible to have a proper argument or a case to do something and I want to see the real impact. Because anytime someone comes the idea, I did this thing where I made myself very inaccessible, so that most people, when I disappeared for a while, solved their own problems. And because the time was limited to talk to them, we only talked about the most impactful things.
Geoff: So given all of that, your desire to focus and the demands on your time, what does a really productive day look like for you?
Sujan: I mean, I always leave some time for nothing. I’m a morning person so 5:30 to 6:30 is when I wake up. I try to listen to a podcast, read an article or two, or an audiobook. I try to just get some information in my head to get inspired. Then I’m cranking out emails, so by like 9-10 o’clock I’m Inbox 0, and that will not stay there for that long, but I’ve answered any requirements from anyone waiting for me to move forward. And generally, I also do the “What is one of the three things I want to knock out that day.” I have a three things-to-do list on Evernote and I try to knock out one or two of those things, and then it just kind of goes into the abyss of like chit-chatting for a while. I mean my whole company, all my companies are remote, so Slack is kind of our water-cooler. So I can just spend a whole day and do nothing. So that’s why I want to go and knock out everything on emails and Slack and then go heads down. And then the second half of my day, usually after two o’clock, it’s really quiet and I love it that way. So I try to minimize phone calls and meetings. Six months ago I just canceled everything on my calendar. Pretty much removed like 80% of my meetings and about half of them never came back, and so every six months I kind of just kill everything and then the things that will float back to the top are really required, the things that just disappear are just complete waste, and there’s everything in the middle that I need to reassess.
Geoff: One last question, tell us something that would surprise our listeners about you, your experience, your companies?
Sujan: So one thing you’d be surprised with is how small our teams are. How small, and how little we do. Not in terms of we’re not just twiddling our thumbs all day. I just mean that we’re just so laser-focused on a couple things that we can do really, really well and be the best at. And we just don’t do a lot of other things. I think a lot of people would look at what I do and say I’ve got everything, or a lot of things figured out, and I don’t. I still don’t know what I want to do in life, I don’t have as much of a direction as you would think. I have a number. I mean my number is 50 million dollars cash in my pocket. Why that number? I don’t know . . . it’s big enough to really chase but small enough to where maybe I can achieve it in in a 10-year window. And so yeah, I mean everything else it’s kind of a lot of winging it. I used to be like “Oh my God, I need to get this, I need to not just wing things, I need to have a mission and drive,” and I just got more comfortable with “You know what, I’m pretty sure a lot of other people don’t know what the hell they’re doing either”. I think I’ve got a lot of inspiration from guys like Jason Fried from Base Camp. He once said ,“This is the last business I’m gonna start”. He basically has over 50 million dollars in annual revenue and he also doesn’t know what’s next, or the direction from here, and I think I think that’s okay. At least for me.
Geoff: I appreciate your perspective and your insight, it’s been really, really valuable. Other thoughts or things you might want to leave as a wrap-up around people getting started or just other perspectives you monitor?
Sujan: Yeah, so one other thing I didn’t discuss here, and I think we should, is really about your network and relationships. I think a big part of growth, in general, comes from the people you are exposed to and that shared pool of knowledge. I mentioned earlier about when you don’t know something, or you don’t have industry experience or channel experience, go talk to experts. Well if those experts were your friends then the byproduct of that is you just having all this answering knowledge based off someone else’s experience, so that prevents you from making a mistake. Without you ever asking me for that information. So, I think whatever you’re doing, you’re building an eCommerce business, but look at the top eCommerce business owners in the world. Go to all the e-Commerce events, go talk to the folks, and you’ll be surprised how easy it is to kind of get a hold of somebody. All you have to do is start with an email. Make a list and go email the folks with one specific question on a Saturday morning, most people respond to you over the weekend and make sure your question is detailed and you’ll be surprised how many responses you get to that. So, build that network, because you’re gonna learn a lot just through the osmosis of being around smart people who have done that, been there or are in the weeds just as you are.
Geoff: That’s really, really good advice. I think a lot of people kind of underestimate the value of those kinds of networks and think about the tactics first, so that’s a really good perspective.
Sujan: I put about a third of my day in that bucket, out of where I spend my time.
Geoff: Okay, excellent, so thank you very much, I appreciate your insights, really, really good stuff. To all the listeners this is our “2Inspire series” and we thank Sujan Patel for joining us today and look forward to the next series! The best of luck Sujan!
Sujan: Thank you! Thank you for having me!