Growth Hacks and The Illusive Silver Bullet…

We live in the age of instant noodles.

We look for ‘instant’ hockey stick exponential growth.
Hoping that this new widget / tool / hire / service will be the silver bullet for growth.

Its probably quite counter-intuitive for me as a Growth Marketer to call BS on that – but hey I have always been honest and the first to call out BS when I see it.

I think there are many different stages to a business – not all stages are ‘growth hack-able’ or meant to even be ‘growth hacked’.

I remember telling restaurants back when we launched foodpanda – “We are just a delivery platform – we can help in facilitating convenience and improving distribution of your food. We can’t help you if your food sucks”.

Perhaps I shouldn’t have been so blunt.

The early days of any venture is to get the basics right.
To understand your product, service and most importantly regular paying customers.
I emphasize – regular paying customers.

Not all customers are created equal unfortunately.
The ones that really matter are the ones that are regular and that would pay full price for your product / service. The rest are just noise.
If you don’t have enough of regular paying customers – you are either barking up the wrong tree or the problem that you are solving isn’t worth solving (or so your customers think).

Once you have the basics down to pat.
Its about looking at which channels bring you the most results.
Most often for entirely new products it would be offline or ancillary online.

Back when we started foodpanda – the search volume for food delivery wasn’t great.
As I recalled it was less than 1K searches per month on Google.
So it was almost like educating the market that there are other alternatives besides pizza and fast food that can be delivered.
We had to start with food bloggers and e-commerce partners – these are ancillary online partners.
Food bloggers would get us foodies who wished that the restaurant was closer to their homes / can be delivered and e-commerce folks are people comfortable parting with their cash (or credit card information) based on picture descriptions on a screen while waiting for the item to be delivered (extra difficulty when they are hungry).

The education and mindset shift took some time – the way we brought the message across wasn’t always clear – we struggled for a bit trying to communicate our value proposition. But we learnt along the way that what we were selling besides just food delivery service was convenience and time saved.

All this while trying to fix the product (last mile delivery, customer service, product features) while balancing company morale, expectations from HQ and obviously competition.

As much as others would say focus on your own race – the reality is that unless you are doing something 10X, you should never underestimate your competition.

The fancy growth hacks are more experiments based on hypothesis built on the product, UI/UX, customer experience from a proven (or at very least clearly defined) product / customer base.
Else – it will be just as good as buying a WSO and building a short game IM scheme.

Growth hacks are by no means a silver bullet – rather calculated optimizations to improve customer acquisition, activation, retention, revenue and referral.

My Current Thoughts on Startups / Businessess

I was just talking to a friend of mine on Facebook summarizing my current thoughts on the state of startup’s / businesses. Added a bit more to add some context to my current thought process:

“Most of the new startups start with business models that have eventual tipping points of success. Where its a zero to one / monopolistic / only one winner takes all approach.

This makes the unit economics sometimes not making too much sense.

I just want to start something simple…that makes good money to solve simple real world problems where I can add value by providing a better customer experience.
For example an agency – its all done before. Proven business model. Things that have been done before and sometimes seem un-sexy is where the money is at.

Its nothing too game changing, I just need to set up and automate enough processes to make it as efficient as possible.

That is a business.

Low Customer Acquisition Cost (CAC), high Lifetime Value (LTV).

Then just spend the time to oil the mechanism – getting better acquisition channels and strategies, better onboarding process, better re-engagement processes to up sell / down sell and cross sell various related solutions that solve the customer’s pain point.

And obviously deliver value.

I think venture backed stuff should deal with more real world issues – like eliminating hunger or something that has no real commercial value but brings up quality of life for those who do not enjoy the same quality of life us.”

 

Where Is This Blog Heading To?

I believe its true when they say good writing is a function of clear thinking.
I have been mulling about on the best way to structure my current blog / content.
Do I go more personal? Or maybe a bit more on my interests? Or just pure marketing / startup related content?I think it’s both the misgiving of my part of not being able to pen my thoughts in a linear / concise fashion and also not wanting to give too many comments on some of the things I see / do due to private and professional reasons. Call me chicken shit. I don’t care. LOL.I have also been looking to explore different mediums including Medium and YouTube.
I might consider doing videos instead of writing as I have been told I have the gift of the gap. Go figure.I have recently been playing about with Snapchat – if you are there do add me up, my UserID is sidneyng.

Speaking of communications – I have come to believe that everything we do – how we communicate, what we do everyday, what we create is really just an extension of ourselves and our reality.

 


via GIPHY

 

Sounds very meta and out there. I know. But bear with me for a bit.

But back to marketing and startups:.
I would like to think that your product / service / solution is there to make the world a better place.

And a job of the marketer is to paint that ideal world scenario picture and how using the product or service – your reality and worldview will change for the better.
I digress.
So – I decided to use my blog primarily to document what I read / learn from sites / blogs related to marketing / startups etc.
I will put in my own comments and thoughts in the post as well.
This is a 2 prong approach to keep myself accountable to finish books (or at least learn what I need to) and to share what I learn / my thoughts to the three of you who come to my blog.
It’s a book review + commentary + self accountability tool. I tried Goodreads – which just made me end up buying more unread books.
Just a note: I read a few books at once. – For variety and to deal with ADHD. sic.
These posts will be “live” posts – I will constantly update as and when I read.
I will do summaries of 5 key take-aways (or more) and put them on Medium.
Let’s see where do we go from here.
Here’s to starting the middle of the year as a Creator 😉

Why Some Startups Are DOA

Some business ideas are just BAD.

Even the word bad is an understatement.
It is almost doomed to begin with.

Sure – some are uncommon successes that some might have thought they were crazy to even begin.
But I truly believe all successful startups have one thing in common.

They knew exactly who they were serving.

I don’t just use the word “KNOW EXACTLY” in passing.
But really know:

  • What their concerns were.
  • What keeps them up awake at night.
  • What makes them go “I wished they had X….”
  • What their interests were
  • Where they usually hang out
  • What are their political leanings like
  • How much they are willing to pay for a product / service
  • Why do they feel strongly over certain issues
  • Did their dog / cat really ate their homework

OK – so the last one was a stretch.

Without knowing (or at least having an idea) on who you are selling to – selling to everybody has always been a bad idea.

Your solutions would not be as targeted as they should be.
Your marketing message and value proposition would not be even remotely attractive.
Your prospect might not even feel that they need / would pay for what you are selling.

I always believe in sales or a business: You won’t make a sale when you are not selling to the right person or have the clarity of what you have to offer.

But notice – the entire thread still has elements of value creation.
Without value creation. You are not contributing to a better world and making a true difference.

So before you strut off a “really good startup idea” – would be good to first outline who you are selling to and how you can simplify / add value to their lives.
The execution usually falls in place when you get the basics right.

As Bruce Lee said

– “I fear not the man who has practiced 10,000 kicks once, but I fear the man who has practiced one kick 10,000 times.”

Startup Notes – Product Fit / Viability

I attended Infinite Venture’s Demo Day yesterday.

A few startup’s were presenting their case and requested for funding.
Without naming names – here are just a few observations and opinions that I have on starting a startup.

Before everything else – it is so vital to identify product fit.

For a moment – just forget growth hacking, forget being the next Uber, forget what they teach you in MBA.

It is so vital to identify:

  1. Is there a market for your startup? If so – quantifying the number (it can be households, users within the industry etc).
  2. Do you have a niche offer – if you are marketing to everyone – chances are nobody will be using it. Let’s take Uber – Uber caters to mid / high end consumers who don’t drive / find driving a hassle / are sick with cabs.
  3. Is the problem worth paying for? Or rather would your customers pay (and how much are they willing to pay to solve the problem?) to have the problem solved.
  4. Is your startup a pain killer or a vitamin? – i.e. Solves an immediate need vs a nice to have

Once you can correctly articulate the above and it seems possible that there would be a market that would gladly pay for the service / product. You would need to ask yourself:

  1. Is this easy to scale? To grow – would I need to incur a higher cost to hire more people? Or can I use technology to automate?
  2. What is the barrier to entry like? – what’s so special about my product / service that is difficult to emulate. If it’s easy to start something – can big corporates just do it and move much faster with more capital?
  3. Can this be grown to other countries within the region? – sure hyperlocal is cool – but from what I observed – most investors are looking for something that is easily to replicate in other countries.
  4. Are margins good enough? If not – what is the tipping point for you to start breaking even / profit.
  5. Is it labor intensive?
  6. What is your acquisition cost per customer and lifetime value per customer?
  7. What is your customer retention strategy like? – and no, discounts isn’t the answer – the product / service must serve a real purpose besides just solely relying on discounts.

 

I met an investor a few months back and he offered me a very good piece of advice. He said (and I am paraphrasing here) – “With new technology, it’s almost unlimited what you can do – the key thing that people are looking at is how do you monetize it – and how sustainable it would be”

Personally – I take another factor into consideration – “Is your product / service actually serving the community and the world at large? Are you actually making a difference in the lives of others?”

 

Because if all your business does is feed people with sugared drinks and junk food – regardless of profits – I personally think you are doing a disservice to the clients that you serve. Would you feed your own child what you peddle on a daily basis?

As Simon Sinek puts it – ““People don’t buy what you do; they buy why you do it. And what you do simply proves what you believe”

I Cringe Everytime People Ask Me This…

These past few days I have been a busy bee (literally).

I have come out of my narcissistic introverted cocoon to do the mingle.
Networking. Meetups. Social Gatherings.

Call it what you want.

I always get butterflies in my stomach before these events.

I have been told I am good at this.
But honestly I don’t think I can work the room as well as I should.

Being a Type-A (read: kiasu) worthy of a full citizenship in Singapore, I have always wished I could outsource this part of life to a smoother operator.

But just like most good things in life.
If you want to do it right – better do it yourself – and use this as an opportunity to improve myself.

Back to topic. I digress.
I always cringe when people ask me “So What Do You Do?”

This question comes in all shapes and forms:

“Do a quick introduction of yourself”
“What do you do for a day job”
“So how do you pay the bills” – OK so nobody asked that before.

You get the point.

It’s quite hard to actually describe what does a Jack of All Trades do.
Doesn’t really help when you are between jobs and not at liberty to disclose the next coolest thing you want to do to change the universe (at least in my own worldview).

I have always prided myself in having a mixed bag of talents.
As they say in Malaysia – “rojak”

Sometimes I get real lost when people ask me “What exactly do you do?”

There are so many moving parts that make what I do difficult to properly explain.
As much as I like to say I am a Marketer – I also do other miscellaneous stuff in other parts of the business to ensure that the engines are firing in all cylinders.

Honest truth is there are no 2 days that are the same.
And it’s this variety that has always made me enjoy what I do.

I guess plainly put – I solve problems on a daily basis.

In Defense of Rocket Internet

The startup (and startup wannabes) world is divided into three groups.
At least here in Malaysia.

Those who hate Rocket Internet – 70%
Those who tolerate Rocket Internet – 20%
Those who work for Rocket Internet and are not in liberty to say much – 10%

OK – so the percentages may be a bit wayyyy off.

But my point is – there is a lot of Rocket Internet hate.

Some are ex-employees who may have been laid off.
Some are insecure Co-Founders
Others are just arm chair tech hobbyist (yes I use the term hobbyist because they don’t exactly really do much for the industry – kinda like how everyone suddenly becomes Economists when the Ringgit drops another basis point).

Since I have officially left Rocket Internet / foodpanda – so I am writing this as an impartial party who has worked for them for 3 years (which kinda puts me in a better authority to comment about this versus hobbyists).

As much as I disagree on the way some things are run – lack of culture, pro-European management (being yellow wasn’t easy but hey 3 years – go Sidney!), not perfect products (so where did the money go again?) to name a few things.

I think Rocket Internet has done quite a bit of good that goes un-noticed.

But They Are F**king Clones!

For those not in the know, Rocket Internet brings e-commerce ideas that works in Europe / Western World to Asia (except China and Japan) or to countries with minimal competition to be the “market leader” (since nobody is there or the competition is weak).

Some label them as a “clone factory”

But really – what else is new except for Tesla and Google?

Newsflash – isn’t Facebook actually MySpace and Friendster 2.0
Too far? What about GrabTaxi? Taxi hailing apps aren’t all that new.

But just because it’s local – it’s hailed as a local champion.
This is what the Malays call “Jaguh Kampung” (Villageside Hero).

Heck – don’t go far – look at the so called “tech websites” that we have – are they even original?

No.

And I truly believe that Rocket Internet looks at speed and execution (hmm sounds familiar?) – do a Minimum Viable Product (MVP) with minimal cost (EUR vs MYR!) and push the “Co-Founders” / local team to make it successful. If it fails – wrap it up (remember Office Fab, Price Panda, Easy Taxi?) – else pump in huge marketing budget until it becomes the go-to product / service online.

So They Think With All The Cash They Have – They Can Bully The Small Players?

Another argument stems from Rocket having a huge war chest of money to push local / true-blue startups.

Well – have you ever heard of capitalism?

The market rewards the best products and services.
And if one comes with a mentality that money can buy anything – then one should not even be in the startup space.

Because – isn’t that what a startup is all about?

Operating a business in near extreme conditions and going where no corporate has ever (or will ever) go?

That being said – there are multiple Rocket startups that have failed in the battle with local startups.
The answer to this is really execution and coming up with better products / services.

Money buys awareness – but does not buy quality and in most cases agility.
Most Rocket startups have central product teams – with a long list of JIRA tickets.
Where else local startups are small and agile – thus being able to do really cool growth hacking strategies that would fit the local landscape.

In fact – Rocket Internet is doing local startups a favor because awareness and behaviour hacking is very expensive.

3 years ago – nobody would have thought of ordering bubble tea online or buying clothes online.

In fact – they would have said we were crazy to even attempt this.
Awareness will definitely lead to an increase in search volume and SEO if done right – will ensure that you are on the 1st page of Google alongside a Rocket venture.

People are always game to try new things.
Novelty activates endorphines in the brain – so in this regard I think Rocket is actually doing a huge favor.
And c’mon honestly – Rocket’s products aren’t the best – just look around – so I really don’t get why people are getting their panties wrapped up in this.

Why So Many White People?

Racist jokes aside.

Most ventures you will see a lot of expats sitting in the management positions.
You also hear horror stories of these expats not understanding the local market, etc. etc.

To be fair – there is some merit to the argument.
But looking at the greater picture – Rocket provides employment and on ground training to many locals (myself included).

Most of the more entrepreneural ones have gone ahead and started ventures of their own.

The rest?

I have always believed that human potential / assets are like shares.
There is a market value (what you are being paid at the moment) versus a par value (what you are worth based on your experience).

The trick is really to shuffle the deck to your favor.

Learn what you need to learn to increase your par value.
So that when it’s time to “sell” (i.e. move) – you have a much higher par value compared to your peers.

I have seen so many who have been paid really good money in Rocket finding it hard to leave because nobody else in the market is willing to even match the person’s pay – simply because there is a gap between asking price and the par value.

In fact – if you are really entrepreneural – you should capitalize on the situation and be the most valuable employee / entrepreneur employee.
Rocket really celebrates people willing to do more, learn more, and add more value.

I always believe – the individual is in control of his / her career. Not circumstances or the company.

If They Are So Perfect – Why Move On?

Well – I did not mention they were perfect by any stretch of imagination.

Even when they might be ruthless – they are not evil.
And it’s purely business at the end of the day.

I have always believed employees of the future to be “Mercenary Agents”.
Loyalty lasts as far as there is an opportunity to grow and fertile ground to experiment, express yourself and have fun.

And if there is one big thing that Rocket lacks – it’s a right culture.

I hope to inculcate that culture of growth, fun and positivity in my next venture.
If you are already spending 70% – 80% of your time in your job – its best spent doing fun things with people you don’t mind getting stuck in an airplane.

Which – if we were stuck in an airplane and you are going to spend that time bitching about Rocket (and how unfair the world is – well newsflash – nobody said it was going to be fair) – then that person sure isn’t you.

Past Present Future – How It Relates To Us

As some of you know I used to work in the Bank.

I just love this disclaimer.

And there are so many different ways the Bank actually spins it around:

Past performance does not necessarily predict future results
Past Performance Is Not A Guarantee Of Future Returns
Past performance is no guarantee of future results

Well they all mean the same thing.
In common speak: “We might be lucky in the past – but we might not be so lucky in the future and we will not shoulder that responsibility of being right all the time – even if we might already used up all your retirement funds

OK – so the last bit is a bit of an exaggeration.

I digress.

Anyway – I find that we (myself included) usually have this fascination of looking back at past victories (usually victories) and thinking we can replicate the same in the future.

Think of it.

Job interviews – they ask you for your past experience and past success in the companies.
Dates – we always look at who the person is today from what the person did in the past.
Relationships – need I say more – the girlfriend / wife has almost photographic memory of EVERYTHING you did / wore in the past (while I struggle to recall what I had for dinner a week ago).

That being said – we put so much emphasis on the past as a solid marker for what is to come in the future.

This is both dangerous and irresponsible – I got to side the Bank with this one.

Most startup factories do the same (I shall not name which – but it’s really an open secret – no?) – just because something does well in Europe / Western World – it MUST definitely do well here in Asia.

And yes – let’s just give the top seat to a European instead of the Asian savages.
They know better – besides they spent most of their formative years in more civilized Europe.

Unfortunately – as much as I believe in unicorns and yetis – it does not work this way.
Life / startups / relationships / marketing campaigns are often much more complex than that.

Sure – there are some principles that stay true – we are after all humans – with more or less the same needs and same “Lizard Brain” that makes us tick.
But the real key here is improvisation.

I view past success as just milestones from what we do on a day to day basis.

There is no such thing as an “overnight success” – rather repeated patterns, rituals, behaviors, habits and mindset – and crafting that to perfection.
So a success or award or <insert ego stroking boost> is just that – a milestone.

Future performance is entirely dependent on current actions.
And like most things in the current – it has to have a degree of fluidity.
Sure – you need to have a clear destination or goal – but the means of execution (eg. marketing campaigns, growth hacking strategies, operational execution) is solely dependent on what you have to work with.

I think we also dangerously discount past failures.
Its usually with failures (at least for me) – that we learn and grow the most.

Pain (a healthy does of it at least) promotes growth.

So does this mean to stop buying all bank products, freeze hiring and stop what was working before?
On the contrary – this means – looking beyond what is currently working, looking at a bigger landscape and raising your standards to stay ahead of the curve and over-exceed “past performance”.

Screw past performance.

The past is just a reminder of what was before – just be grateful and don’t use that as a crutch for the future.

A Marketer Should Have 9 Lives…

I was just sharing this with my team today.

Remove all the fancy trappings, ninja techniques that comes with marketing.
Take away A-B Testing.
Take away SEO, SEO, CPC – and other 3 letter buzzwords.
Take away copywriting tricks.
Take away sales funnels.

A marketer is a strategic salesperson.
Strategic because as convincing as he is – the marketer is aware of how best to use different channels to multiply his efforts – think door to door Mormons evolving to click bait webinars online.

OK – weird example.

The aim of a marketer is after all to influence, persuade and to illicit an action or thought.
And great writers and speakers also do the same.

It can be to influence someone to start using Macs (trust me – I am trying to be a convert myself – but I still love typing on my Thinkpad), persuading the girl that you are the Alpha Man she should open her legs for, or to get someone to re-think about how much their time is worth and to start ordering food online.

But a marketer is first of all a person who is curious about humans and their idiosyncrasies.
Thus like a curious cat – they should also have 9 lives.

What makes individuals tick?

What are their cognitive bias are?

What is the tipping point for someone to say “Yes” to something?

Where do “Early Adopters” hang out? – Yes I mean you over there who keeps checking on Windows 10 update on your computer

What makes people reluctant to pull the trigger? – Yes, the other camp who still has not clicked on the “Get Windows 10” icon.

Where and how do people place value on items? – The curious case of people complaining that the economy is bad yet still wait in line for the overpriced new iPhone

It’s an interesting brew of both art and science.

Art is making ideas, products and services come alive – hell really good marketers can even make tissue papers the best piece of paper.
Science in having measurable outcomes and perimeters to test against.

And I feel blessed that we live in a digital age where we can track down to the precision of what works and how do we make things better.

With so many data points – we can accurately pin point the exact customers to target.

After all – its all about finding the relevant audience – else it’s as good as selling Windows to a die hard Mac fanatic who is sold on the idea that minor hardware tweaks “changes everything”.

Back to my point.

Whenever I go out – I always observe people, buying patterns, how do people choose items off shopping shelves (do they read the copy? or are they sold with really cool packaging?), what do people talk about, and what their main concerns are.

Simply because – complementing a curious marketer is an entrepreneur – that solves problems for fun and profit.