blog

The Startup Growth Framework

A Tried-And-Tested Process For Building A Scalable Growth Engine At Any Startup

Get My Growth Templates!

This is the framework I use to grow MRR for my clients by over 20% MoM

Subscribe
I've been featured in
May 6, 2020

I was on a call with a potential client recently and, after he gave me a rundown of his software, I started to brainstorm some ideas with him. Having worked with similar companies before, I had a good idea of his audience and what would work.

Unfortunately, he kept shooting them down. None of the ideas I threw at him, strategies devised from working with dozens of other startups, were good enough.

Side note: I’m offering free 30-minute brainstorming sessions right now. Contact me for details.

Mind you, I can’t predict what exactly will work for you. I can only come up with ideas to test out (more on this later) and yet he was dismissive of even testing them. Having exhausted my repertoire of ideas I finally asked him why he didn’t like any of it.

“None of these ideas will 10X my company in the next year. I want 10X ideas,” he said.

10X engineers, 10X growth, what’s next? 10X valuations? Oh yeah, I guess that’s just Softbank!

Ah, so he was looking for the good old silver bullet. That one growth hack that propels your startup into unicorn status. I told him I was good, but not that good (no one is), and respectfully ended the call.

You see, in our world of instant gratification and “overnight” success, founders tend to look for the silver bullet when it doesn’t exist. More importantly, they ignore the foundational stuff, the boring, tried-and-tested strategies that, when combined, will deliver results over time.

Like Hiten Shah says, marketing is really about doing the same set of things over and over again. The One Hack doesn’t exist. It’s only by following a systematic process that you’ll get results, and I’ll show you how.

Why Hacks Don’t Work

In poker, a common mistake new players make is to go for longshots. They have two cards of the same suit in hand, and one shows up in the flop. At this point, you have a 6.25% chance of getting a flush but new players chase it anyway.

This is the main problem with focusing on hacks. You’re chasing longshots that may have tremendous upside, but usually all the time, money, and resources you put into it are wasted. 

And then you need to start over. Do that enough times without big gains, and you’ll be where you are a year later.

Another problem with trying out the latest growth hack is that it often doesn’t make sense for your business.

This is why the best poker players have a process. They only play certain hands when the probabilities are in their favor and they don’t change their strategies because it works for someone else.

A process will help you build a clear growth engine with strategies that make sense for your company.

The framework I use is that process.

PS – This post is 3,000 words long, so here’s a video overview if you prefer

An Overview Of The Process

I can’t take full credit for this process. It’s really a combination of various frameworks developed by other experts in the field. I simply combined them into one unified process for my area of specialization – SAAS.

As always, we start with the customer. The first step is building out a customer persona. The second step, and one that is often overlooked, is mapping out the customer journey to understand their buying process.

Armed with that information, we can move on to ideation, where we generate highly relevant ideas for channels we want to try out and prioritize the ones with the highest potential.

Then, we start testing to quantify each channel. This step allows us to determine which one we really want to go all-in on. In poker terms, it helps us get to the double Aces hand.

And finally, we scale.

PS – I’ve created templates you can use to follow along and implement my framework.

Building A Customer Persona

As Harvey Specter says, when he plays poker, “I don’t play the odds, I play the man.”

What he means is, even with poorer odds, you can still beat your opponent if you understand them really well.

Of course, your customer isn’t your opponent, but the principle still applies. You need to understand them really well to figure out what will make them buy your product.

While every startup and marketer understands this principle, most don’t actually apply it. The pressure to constantly grow MRR supersedes what is seen as an exercise that doesn’t instantly increase revenue.

But while digging into your persona may not give you that 20% growth you’re looking for this month, it will help you sustain it in the long term.

There are many excellent resources for creating a customer persona already, so I won’t get into it in this post. However, I do want to share some key aspects you should focus on as they’ll come in handy later in this process.

To illustrate this, here’s an example of a good customer persona from a company called ClearVoice. They’re a platform for in-house content marketing teams to find vetted freelance writers.

The top half of the persona is about who this customer is. Attributes such as the age range, job titles, industry, and so on allow us to fine-tune our targeting. So if our ideal customer is a middle-aged executive then, instead of marketing on Tik Tok despite it being so hot right now, we would likely pick LinkedIn.

I’d also add data around their interests here. Who they follow online, what sites they visit, what books they read, what podcasts they listen to, what shows they watch. This allows us to niche down in our targeting even further.

The bottom half of the ClearVoice persona is about the customers’ why. It gives us an insight into what they really care about, and allows us to determine the messaging that would appeal to them. We see that Sandy really cares about saving time vetting freelancers, and doesn’t mind the cost, so our marketing should be geared towards “save time” vs “save money”.

You can have multiple customer personas so you’ll want to do this exercise for each one. Here’s another one for ClearVoice.

I know you’re skimming through this section and convincing yourself you don’t really need to spend time building a customer persona, so here’s a personal story to illustrate the importance.

I once worked with a client that built a platform to connect engineering managers with mentors. I made the mistake of not figuring out the customer persona right at the start. I assumed we should target engineering managers and developed strategies around that. We ran meetups and webinars and created content and ads all around engineering management.

And while they were indeed the end-user, it turns out they didn’t really care about finding mentors. Their primary goals were finishing the story points for their next code sprint.

Eventually, we realized we should be targeting the VP of Engineering. Though the VPs themselves wouldn’t use the platform, it was their responsibility to ensure their engineering managers were doing their best work and growing in their careers. And that meant helping them find mentors.

The moment we switched out marketing to the new persona, things became easier. We were able to cut out a whole bunch of channels that weren’t working and focused on strategies like group dinners that eventually moved the needle a lot more.

Starting with the persona, even if you think your assumptions are spot on, will save you a lot of time and money in the long run.

Mapping Out The Customer Journey

It’s rare for someone to wake up in the morning and suddenly decide to buy your enterprise software. If that happens often for your company, let me know, I want to invest. In most cases, though, they go through some decision-making process, the journey.

While the customer persona answers the ‘who’ and ‘why’, the customer journey is the missing piece that answers the ‘how’ and ‘when’.

Here’s a quick overview of what the journey might look like for your customer. This is an example for Thinkific, a company I worked at that lets people create and sell online courses. We didn’t actually map out the journey when I was working there, and I developed this entire process only after I left, but I imagine this is what it would look like.

Problem Unaware

The journey begins with your potential customer not knowing they have a problem you solve. In Thinkific’s case, for the online blogger persona (they had many personas), it meant that she wasn’t aware that she could be making a lot more money from her blog.

Problem Aware

At some point, due to some trigger, she realizes she has a problem. She could be monetizing her blog audience and creating a full-time income. Now she starts doing some research to answer the question, “how can she generate more income?”

Solution Aware

As she does her research, she becomes aware of various solutions. She could sell services, or physical products, or online courses, or something else. She decides to try the online course route and needs to figure out how to set one up.

Product Aware

As she explores the online course world, she learns of various platforms and tools that allow her to set one up quickly and affordably. There are marketplaces like Udemy, and there are platforms like Thinkific. Which one is best?

Decision

In the final step of the journey, after researching all the products, our blogger makes a decision and picks Thinkific.

The journey does continue after this into retention and referrals, but that’s outside the scope of this post.

The whole exercise gives us valuable insights into what our customers are thinking about at each step and, by extension, what they care about. This is why there are situations when a direct sales pitch to someone who seems like the perfect customer doesn’t work. They don’t think they have a problem yet.

Meanwhile, if you’ve ever been in a situation where you’re trialing a software and you know you want to buy it, but you’re redirected to a salesperson who goes into the full sales pitch, you know how frustrating it is. You can’t blame the salesperson, though. They’ve been trained on Glengarry Glen Ross and will always be closing.

Someone is probably looking at this right now thinking, “this is how I want my company to run.” Spoiler alert: this is not how you want your company to run.

So when we combine the persona with the journey, we can create campaigns specifically for each stage, knowing who our customers are, where they are online, and what they care about during that stage. Our content, our ads, our entire messaging strategy, and the channels we use, are derived from this.

One example of this is a startup I worked with that targets high-volume Shopify stores. We realized that if a store was low-volume then they were likely to be pretty happy with a competitor solution. However, once they started doing more business, they’d have problems because those solutions couldn’t handle it.

That’s when they’d become problem aware and start looking for better software, which meant it would be the perfect time for us to reach out. So instead of blindly marketing to every Shopify store, we monitored their web traffic and reached out when it was the right time. Better leads for less work!

Tips On Mapping Out The Journey

I’ve broken the persona and journey into two separate steps in the process but they go hand in hand and you should create them at the same time. The best way to create both is to talk to actual customers. Get on the phone with them and while you’re asking them the questions you normally would for a customer persona interview, throw in some questions around their journey.

Ask them to think back to before they bought your software. They would have been in the Product Aware stage then. Ask them what other products they were looking at and how they made their decision. Then ask them to take another step back into Solution Aware and find out what solutions they were considering and how they did their research.

Keep going back until you’ve got the full picture. Do this with at least 10 customers to get a composite view and extract trends.

Ideation and Prioritization

While our persona and journey maps give us excellent insights into which channels we should pursue, we can’t do them all, especially at a startup. Except if you’re backed by Softbank. Then you can do everything and have money left over for free beer.

With limited resources, we need to pick our battles carefully lest we end up like the amateur poker player. 

We start by listing out all the ideas we have so far. Many of these come directly from our persona and journey, as listed in the Triggers section of the journey. But you can turn this into a fun group exercise for your marketing team, and even your entire startup team. Have them go over the persona and journey and generate ideas based on that.

For prioritization, there are multiple methods out there. The ICE framework (Impact, Confidence, and Ease) is a popular one but I’m not a big fan of it because you end up with numbers that are mostly pulled out of your… back regions.

I prefer instead the much simpler bullseye framework that Gabriel Weinberg suggested in his book, Traction. 

In the context of this process, all the channels targeting people in the Product Aware stage of the customer journey fall under the Inner Circle.

The Promising channels are all those that target people in the Problem and Solution Aware stages. Finally, our Long-shots are channels targeting Problem Unaware.

We may end up with too many ideas in our Inner and Promising Circles, so even within those, I’d further prioritize them starting by channels that a more scalable or more cost-effective to implement.

Here’s what it ends up looking like for Thinkific based on the triggers from the customer journey exercise. Obviously, it might look different for you.

Testing Ideas

Even with our research and prioritization, we don’t want to go all-in on the best idea on our list. Instead, we need to test each one on a smaller scale, calculate the ROI on them, and then pick the one with the best ROI to scale up.

A good framework for this part is the Growthhackers high tempo testing process.

We’ve already done the unbridled ideation and prioritization piece in the previous section. Now it’s time to launch tests on each one. 

First, we need to set up a hypothesis. This needs to be specific, measurable, realistic, and sensible. SMRS. I just made that acronym up.

The hypothesis states what you expect will happen, and the metric you will need to determine if the test was a pass or fail. 

So let’s say you want to test Google Ads. Your hypothesis would be something like “With a budget of $1000 over the coming week, I expect to generate 10 leads at a cost of $100 per lead.”

As you can see, this hypothesis is very specific and measurable. We’ll know if it passes or not if we hit our target numbers. It’s realistic for many companies to generate $100 CPLs on Google Ads. Whether it’s sensible or not depends on your customer LTV. You should be trying for a 3:1 ROI for any of your experiments.

Always make sure you have the hypothesis and the means to track it accurately before you run your experiment.

One of the ideas we’d come up with at one client was to create an online course as a lead magnet. It had worked well at other companies I’d worked with.

However, instead of creating a full-blown course with high production quality, we decided to test an email course and screencast videos. We set a target for our signup rate.

We found that people weren’t interested in taking the course so we dropped it in favor of running webinars, which ended up working better. This saved the company time and money on creating the whole course.

Once you’ve found a winning strategy, it’s time to scale that up.

Scaling Up

This is where we get our 10X results. We go from The Rock bringing down Triple H in WWF to Dwayne Johnson nearly bringing down a helicopter with his bare hands in Hobbs and Shaw.

Most startups really only need one or two channels at scale to grow rapidly. This is why at the start of this post I said you don’t need to be playing every hand chasing long-shots. By following this process we’ve systematically figured out our highest potential channels and we can focus on those until we saturate them.

There are three ways to scale.

Automate

Start by breaking down your strategy into its component pieces. For example, if you’ve decided to scale content marketing, you’ll have strategy (like identifying topics to write about), writing the post, editing and publishing it, and promoting on social media.

This is a high-level breakdown but even here you can identify pieces like promoting on social media that can be automated with tools.

With one client, we had identified that webinars was a good channel. To set one up we would need to invite an expert as a guest speaker, set up a landing page with a signup form, connect it to our webinar platform, and then email the link to our list.

Most marketers do this manually, and I myself had done it manually in the past. This time, I wanted to scale and do multiple webinars a month, so we automated most of it.

We had a list of experts in Coda who we would automatically receive an invite email with the click of a button. If they said yes, another click would activate the webinar set up via Zapier. It would create a new landing page on Webflow dynamically, create a new Zoom webinar, connect the two, and then email our list with the link.

You’ll notice that all of this was done without coding. There are a ton of no-code tools out there that allow you to set up automated processes like this.

Outsource

Anything that can’t be automated will need to be done by a human. If it’s a task that doesn’t require knowledge of your product or brand, it can be outsourced.

In the content marketing example, this would be the content writing piece. Many companies also outsource ad management and PR. Just make sure you have someone in-house to manage your freelancers or agencies and ensure they stay on brand.

Two excellent resources for finding high-quality marketers to outsource to are GrowthMentor and Growth Collective.

With GrowthMentor you can find experts in marketing who can get on calls to guide you or give you specific advice. And if you want to hire someone for a project, Growth Collective has a curated list of top marketers.

Hire/Delegate

The final step, if you’re in the leadership team, is to delegate the remaining tasks to someone on your marketing team or to hire for that role.

For our content marketing example, we’re left with the strategy, and editing and publishing tasks.

Early on at Thinkific, we realized influencer partnerships were a powerful channel. To scale that up, we hired someone who’s sole job was to connect with influencers and get them to promote us. That one hire fueled a lot of our early growth, and freed up my time to activate other channels.

Conclusion

By following a systematic approach, you’ll escape the trap of always having to find the next 10X growth hack. Instead of constantly throwing darts at the wall and hoping something sticks, you’ll know exactly what to be doing to grow every week.

More importantly, you’ll ensure your long-term growth. Because, unless you’re defrauding your investors like Theranos, you probably want to still have a company next year.

I’ve created templates you can use to implement my framework here. And if you need any advice, reach out to me!

Get My Growth Templates!

This is the framework I use to grow MRR for my clients by over 20% MoM

Subscribe