Sujan Patel – On Bootstrapping, Growth and the future of Content Marketing

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To be a successful entrepreneur, marketer, what have you, if you take your money, you take your tools, you take everything you have away how good are you now? I think bootstrapping and building from nothing and using growth hacking tactics to get there builds that character that if you take everything away you could still rebuild your fortunes because you already did it a few times over. So to me, that’s a skill that no one could rip apart.

 

Sujan Patel is the co-founder of Content Marketer & Narrow.io, tools to help you scale and automate your social media and content marketing efforts. Sujan has over 12 years of Internet marketing experience and has led the digital marketing strategy for companies like Sales Force, Mint, Intuit and many other Fortune 500 caliber companies.

Sujan is also the co-author of two hugely popular e-books, 100 days of Growth and The content marketing playbook and is a prolific blogger on Forbes, Inc, Entrepreneur, and his own blog SujanPatel.com

Sujan spoke with Alex Theuma on The SaaS Revolution Show Podcast, which is available to listen to now on iTunes, SoundCloud and now also Stitcher.

This article is a lightly edited transcript of the conversation focused on the topics of bootstrapping, growth marketing and content marketing.

 

Hi Sujan, currently you’re VP of Marketing at When I Work but you’re also Co-Founder of a couple of SaaS Startups?

Yes that’s correct. I do a lot of different things so kind of what keeps my day occupied is Wheniwork.com, but I also have a couple, I call them projects. Some would call them companies or startups but I want to make them make more money and get them a little further along before I call them full-fledged companies. One is Narrow.io and the second one is Contentmarketer.io. Both problems I saw that I faced in the industry that I wanted to come up with solutions for.

I understand that you work around 6 days a week? You’ve got your day job which is When I Work, you’re doing Contentmarketer.io and Narrow.io in the evenings and you’re writing 6 blog posts a week. That’s an incredible amount of things to do.  How do you find the time to do that?  

It’s really just a lot of hard work. It’s funny because I wish the amount of hours and energy I expend on all the things I’m doing, I wish I was able to do that at Single Grain. I just physically wasn’t able to. I think my mind wasn’t ready.

But explaining what that is, is I wake up every morning early, 6:00 usually, somewhere between 5:30 and 6:00 and I get ahead of the day. Then from like 8:00 to 6:00-ish that’s my When I Work time. That’s my day job’s time. I don’t do really any things that are for me, obviously emails and things like that, along the way might be answered.

Then in the evenings, I try to connect with one or two people a day. One of the things I don’t think I blogged about this much yet or actually I might have mentioned this solely in blog posts, I try to connect with one new person a day and it typically turns out to be 3 or 4 people every day. So I get to learn, I get to help out people and have great conversations.

Yesterday I was able to talk to Dan Norris, to talk about how he launched his awesome new content marketing blog called Content Machine. Anyway, I’m learning all the time.

So during afterhours, kind of after work 6:00 – 10:00, 11:00 or whenever I get to sleep, what I’m doing is essentially testing, learning, talking to people. Think of this as my night like growth hacking or throwing shit at the wall.

Sometimes I’m writing. Usually I do write but it’s in the form of recording an audio. So that’s kind of the things I’m doing in the evenings that essentially help when I work during the day. My new growth process is come up with an idea, and I just kind of came up with formally; read cool articles, talk to cool people, just brainstorm things. Come up with an idea, test it on me, measure the results. If it’s successful, test it on one of my companies or projects. If that works, test it on or scale it on When I Work. Then if all goes well, blog to the world about how well that worked and how to repeat it.

Do you suffer from Mental fatigue/burnout from switching between day job/side hustle/bootstrapped business?

That’s a great question. It’s one of those things I actually went through a burnout. When I sold Single Grain that was my burnout phase. It was more of a mental burnout than a physical one. I wasn’t actually physically working too hard but mentally, from all the stress and all of the things that were happening, I was just tapped. My judgment was clouded.

How I do it now is really a couple of different ways. One, I have a lot of different hobbies. I love cars. I love motorcycles and I’m an adrenaline junkie. Some weekends I’ll just turn off completely, try to do this once a month, once every other month.

I like to travel as well so part of When I Work requires me… so I’m based in Austin. The company is based in Minnesota so I travel naturally for work. I get my good ideas. I get to turn off like when you’re in a plane with no internet and like a crappy movie, it helps you just kind of… you have just two options: to watch this bad movie or go to sleep and just turn off.

I get to do that every once in a while but I also just enjoy life on the times I have it and unplug every once a month or twice a month or once every other month.

Why have you decided to bootstrap both your projects, Contentmarketer.io and Narrow.io?

A couple of reasons. One is that I love the freedom. I love the freedom of just being able to do what I want when I want with those companies. I want to get them a little more mature.
Both of them launched in July. I’m talking about 45-ish days out. Both of them are doing well.
First and foremost, before I even think about money, I want to get 6 months behind me, maybe a little longer and see if these are going to be $10 million, $20 million, $100 million businesses. In its current incarnation it looks possible but I would like to get some progress.

The thing people don’t realise when raising money, and that’s something that I’ve learned from helping and working with tons of companies and raising money in the past myself for a failed company, is that once you raise money, you have to like 10x whatever they give you. So if you raise a million dollars don’t expect anything less than $10 million minimum exit, and that’s like an okay exit. They want more.

I don’t want to be pressured to do that because if let’s say tomorrow, hopefully not, Content Marketer the model doesn’t work out, the current process or whatever breaks, I can pivot, I can stop it if I just say, “You know what? Screw this. I don’t want to expend any more money then so be it.” I’d like to be able to have those options.

I also spend a lot of time at When I Work and I love working with them. They’re venture-backed. I get to work with the VCs there. So raising money would require me to quit my job and go full time on this and I’m not quite ready. I think I will be as soon as these things turn from project to company.

It’s perhaps easier than ever to start your own business these days, what with all the incredible SaaS out there. However, would you say that despite this, it’s more Challenging?

Yeah. I think it is getting easier and easier to start companies but it doesn’t mean the companies are any more viable. There’s still that element.
I think one of the things I’m really glad I did with Content Marketer was that I had this idea like years ago. I’ve actually built some of these tools internally. But one of the things I did was when I met Colin, my co-founder on this who’s the kind of developer and the genius behind all the backend of everything, it’s that we validated the idea, took surveys and buying traffic to surveys for a potential idea and then we spent 4 or 5 months building and Beta testing it.

So we had a few hundred people in the Beta. With Narrow we didn’t quite do that because the product was a little easier to build and test in a small scale. I really liked the fact that we built it very small and that gave me time to build up hype and kind of talk about it more, which is probably why you don’t know… and most people don’t know that that launched a month ago or 45 days ago or so. Is that there’s a lot of hype and there’s a lot of people talking about it because we had 300 people using the app during the infancies and in giving feedback.
That feedback was valuable and I don’t think the company would be… we have about 150 or so customers right now, paying customers. I don’t think we would be there if we didn’t test and have those Beta testers.

What are Sujan Patels Bootstrapping tips?

First and foremost, let’s say you have a problem. Usually things start with problems. Come up with your idea. Spend some money, somewhere between $500 and $1,000, to validate your idea. It’s okay if you waste the money. I’m a cheapskate. I’m pretty frugal. I don’t want to waste money. But worse than wasting $500-$1,000 is proceeding with an idea that you don’t really have a market or like it’s not kind of thought out.

What I mean by validation is, one, first and foremost, ask 20-25 people. Get feedback on the idea and break your idea down to maybe a sentence. If you can’t say your idea in a tweet, it’s too complicated. Don’t tell people about it or don’t ask for validation until you could say it in a tweet.

Then I actually go and create a landing page. I’ll actually go and design one or you can go and use like Instapage to create a quick landing page. I did this with my ebook, 100daysofgrowth.com. That’s my growth hacking ebook. I didn’t actually start writing anything until I validated that people wanted it.

I built this landing page on Instapage. It took me a couple of hours and then I drove paid search traffic to it. Essentially I used Facebook and I targeted people that would be my target demographic. I was targeting marketers, growth hackers, entrepreneurs, startup founders, what have you.
I got people’s feedback and actually people started buying it. Holy crap, I actually have to make this thing now, which is a good thing.

But the easiest thing to do is actually go and pretend like you have a product. Go create the flow or make it very, very simple and then survey people saying, “Hey, we’re coming really soon. What would you like to see? How much would you pay for this?” Once you get 100-200 people that really answer that question and give you some of those details, you know you have a really good idea.
Before you invest in a single thing, do that because ideas are cheap. Ideas are really easy. A good idea that people want to buy is hard to come across.

Your a Growth Marketer and have written the book 100 days of Growth, which has sold over 10k copies. What are the primary tactics of growth marketing that SaaS Startups should be doing in their first 100 days.

Yeah. I get asked this question all the time. There’s no silver bullet. There’s no magic thing that’s going to work for all startups because if you’re B2B, it’s different. B2C is very, very different.
But there are a couple of things that, at a high level, every company needs to do. One is pre-launch and pre-promotion. It’s very, very, very important. What I mean by that is draw up a landing page, draw up like launchrocket. They built the whole company around a splash page.

Draw up a little more than a splash page. Talk about your idea and get hype, get people to talk about it, share it, what not. The way you could do that is actually do guest post and writing content or communicating with your potential customers. I’m actually finalising a blog post on this. I’ll give you my one little growth hack.
With ContentMarketer, bootstrapping it very little resources except time and a little bit of money. More time than anything. I went out to all the blog posts that talked about content marketing tools because we’re targeting content marketers and we’re content marketing tools.

I found all the top-ranking articles on content marketing tools and I just started commenting on them. I started participating. I commented probably on a little under 100 articles over the course of 2 months. Actually, when I did the math, it resulted in 513 new trials. That’s a pretty friggin’ good conversion rate.

I wasn’t really spammy. I wasn’t saying like, oh, a promotional saying like, “Hey, check out my new tool.” It was like I would respond saying, “Oh, these are my three other favourite tools. Here’s how I use BuzzSumo or here’s how I use this other tool.” Then I’d say, “Oh, by the way, one of the things I found is a weakness in content promotion and influence with outreach. I’m working on a tool like this. Anybody here want to give it a try, shoot me an email,” and I’ll blah, blah, blah.
So I actually provided a lot of value. Sometimes, I didn’t even mention Content Marketer. I just linked to it in my name and people came back.  Easy, easy win there.

But really going back to the point, pre-promotion is very, very, very key. You can launch Facebook ads. There’s a number of ways you can… if you’re a consumer’s product t-shirts or swag or like on the ground kind of whoever your target demographic is.

Uber does a really good job of this but obviously they have billions of dollars. But there’s a lot of easy ways to do that. Once you fall on the pre-promotion the next thing is about the launch.
I plan launches. Now, this year I’ve done six launches for myself. And really the key is to get the timing right and make sure you have the connections.

What I do is I plan, when I was going to try to get on Product Hunt, who I was going to reach out to try to get me on there, and before that I made sure I built relationships with those people and help them. When you’re launching something it’s really about building the right relationships to help you and that means relationship is a two-way street. You help them as much as they help you, if not more, but launching is key.

We had an article on Forbes scheduled and you’re probably thinking, “Well, you write for Forbes. How can I do this?” Well, 9 months ago now, I didn’t write for Forbes. I just started. Why I started writing for Forbes is because I want to get my brand out there so it’s part of like a bigger initiative to build my brand. Writing for Forbes is not actually as hard as it sounds.

But anyways, I had a couple of guest posts going out that were all planned along. Each week I had one thing going on. For the month of July there was just a whole seed of things that were talking about me. As a result, my goal when I started this year was actually I want people to know or at least tell me and I want to be everywhere. I want to actually… The way I measure that is people tell me I see you everywhere. And Alex, I think you mentioned like you see me everywhere earlier in this conversation. You’re helping with my goal.

Anyways, what I found from that in achieving that goal is that, holy crap, when people see you everywhere you have a large influence on their purchase decisions. If you were to sell something that’s very beneficial to them they’d probably buy it without much question. That’s exactly what happened with Content Marketer.

That’s my pre-launch launch format. There’s a lot of in-between to be honest. I don’t have very much experience from after launch to let’s say $500k in ARR. I’ve typically worked with companies that either haven’t launched at all and help them get off the ground or companies in my 12 years that are making $500 to $1 million a year plus and they want to 10x that. I’m giving in to a grey area which is I’m pretty excited about to solve this problem or to figure it out.

Should every SaaS company be doing growth hacking? Whether you’re big or small? Whether you’re bootstrapping, whether you’re VC funded?

I think everyone should be doing growth hacking. Growth hacking it’s becoming quite a buzz word but really it’s, in my opinion, growth hacking is taking the least resources to get the most ROI whether you have a dollar in the bank or you have $5 million or $100 million. You want to try to make something out of nothing. Maybe you have something.

Like right now you can’t see me. I’m holding my hand up. You have this like fistful of stuff. But don’t you want to make it a big box of stuff? That’s still like there’s that delta between a fistful to a boxful is still huge and it’s partly the same as a penny to $100. I think everyone should be doing that.
The reason I love bootstrapping and I failed a lot, I’ve learned a lot, I’ve learned from other people. But what I love about bootstrapping is that you can’t take that away. You could take money away…
You know, Dan Martell, I watched a video of his the other day and he really inspired me. He put to words what I’d been thinking for a long time. To be a successful entrepreneur, marketer, what have you, if you take your money, you take your tools, you take everything you have away how good are you now? I think bootstrapping and building from nothing and using growth hacking tactics to get there builds that character that if you take everything away you could still rebuild your fortunes because you already did it a few times over. To me, that’s a skill that no one could rip apart.

Whats your favourite example of a growth hack deployed by SaaS Companies big or small?

Yeah. I think Airbnb did a great job. I think my favourite ones, I don’t even know if it’s called growth hacking but Uber is doing a great job at this. It’s using the community. They have… I don’t know if this is like public information but Uber has private communities and encourage their drivers to make these Facebook groups and like support groups and they have education for their drivers. That’s how they’re building that whole side of the market is the drivers are recruiting more drivers and that whole engine is growing.

Then on the front end, they have a great community team that’s doing stunts like ice cream and things like that in different areas. If you pay attention to how Uber enters a specific market outside of the buzz, the news, and you pay attention to the details, it’s amazing how they get into a market, dominate with low prices, start to raise them, build a community of drivers then they start to do things to the consumer side of the community and they kind of grow.

I mean, there’s also the infamous Hotmail, like sent from Hotmail. I mean, those little things are amazing. What always surprises me or like it brings a smile to my face is when you start to do these little things that make such a big impact.

Two examples I’m doing and have seen so much success with and I just want to showcase how easy it is, one is with wheniwork.com. We’d send a handwritten Thank-You Card for every customer who signs up, who becomes a paid customer. That’s like thousands plus of Thank-You Cards. But we have writers in-house that are like handwriting it. We actually draw their logo of their company and we genuinely mean what we say.
Two things we did, whoever the salesperson or person they’ve communicated with to become a customer, we sign off from their name. One that resonates with them it’s not just a Thank-You Card from a company, it’s from that person they work with.

The second thing is with A, B, C, D tested the messaging to get people to share it. We used to get about 2% of people who shared it, the card, because they were just super excited about it. If you get a Thank-You Card and you’re surprised, you’d share it. We added a line that says, “Hey, feel free to share this on Facebook or Twitter,” and we got 7% of people that share it.

Then we added, we went a little further and we said, “Hey, if you share this on Facebook and Twitter,” it might have been little better messaging that I’m just recalling off the top of my head, “and you’ll get a free t-shirt.” Well, you’ve got 15 or 20% of people sharing it.

Now, the latest thing we’ve tested is with When I Work, our solution is to help save businesses time and money. A lot of businesses spend 8-10 hours a week. So it’s like a whole day they’re spending on scheduling if they have like 20 employees. So we said, “Share on Facebook and Twitter what you’re doing with your free time.”
Now, we have customer images of people hiking, on the beach, lounging or playing with their kids and all these things and that’s really the outcome. One, we’re able to use those as ads of real-life stories of our customers doing what our product does. And, two, we add about 25… I believe 25 or 27% share rate from our Thank-You Cards. That’s our customers doing our marketing for us.

As the world moves to content marketing, we’re seeing this glut of content online. It’s pretty overwhelming. How can companies stand out now and in the future and be found amongst this saturated sea of content?

The simplest thing is to go and write content where people are looking. The second thing is write what people want, not what you want to write about. I say this probably every time I talk to people. It’s don’t write about what you want to write about. Write about what people are looking for, what’s interesting, what is popular.
You have to do a little bit of a research. You can use SEMrush or new keyword research. Look at what’s been popular, look at what’s out there and then you write something.

There’s that when I said go where people are looking at or where they’re at. I mean, you could start a whole new blog or you could guest post on my blog. For example, if you email me and say, “Hey, I had this awesome topic.” I have visitors monthly. I have about like 50,000-60,000 visitors a month. I might be willing to take your guest post.

Now, don’t quote me. You have to send out a good idea and all that stuff but there’s a lot of like mid-tier blogs or like low-to-mid-tier blogs that have volume of some traffic and you could start to get your name out. At the end of the day, it’s really more of getting your name out more than it is about owning that. Then eventually you can move it to your blog or maybe you can do it on Medium or LinkedIn.
I publish on LinkedIn because, yes, I don’t own that traffic. It goes back to LinkedIn, but it’s okay. I have such a far bigger reach than I would if did it myself on my own.

Sujan Patel spoke with Alex Theuma for The SaaS Revolution Show. Subscribe now on iTunes

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