How To Grow From 0 to 1 Million Customers With Noah Kagan From SumoMe and OkDork [AMP 056]
Have you ever wondered what the process would be like to start something from scratch and end up with a million users? Today we’re going to be talking about just that with Noah Kagan, the chief sumo at sumo.com and AppSumo. He also hosts Noah Kagan Presents, which is an awesome podcast, and he has a steady stream of stuff on okdork.com. Our conversation today is going to help you set better goals and achieve more than you ever have before.
Some of the highlights of the show include:
- How Noah handles the marketing at Sumo.com and what has the most potential.
- How Noah ended up at Mint, where he helped grow the company from zero to over a million users.
- Why Noah doesn’t believe in hope in the business world.
- The process Noah used to put his plan together, come up with ideas, figure out how much traffic he had, and more.
- Common mistakes that Noah sees other people making.
- Why copying methods you see described on other people’s blog posts doesn’t work.
- The greatest piece of marketing advice Noah has received.
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Jordan: Howdy marketers, super excited for today’s episode. I’ve got the one and only Noah Kagan. Noah is the Chief Sumo of sumo.com and AppSumo. He was number 30 at Facebook, number 4 in Mint. His awesome podcast is Noah Kagan Presents. He has a steady stream of amazing stuff at okdork.com. Make sure you get in on all of it.
Today he and I are talking all about growth. Have you ever wondered what it looks like to grow something from zero to a million users or more? What’s the process? What’s the mindset, growing something that quickly and that large? How do you stay focused when you’re doing something like that as a team, especially on a pretty tight timeline. If you’re looking to up your marketing chops, set better goals and achieve more than you ever have before, you are in the right place. Let’s jump into my conversation with Noah to learn how to get this stuff done.
Hey Noah, thanks for being on the show today.
Noah: Thank you so much for having me, Jordan.
Jordan: It’s awesome to have you. Can you kick this off by telling us what you’ve been up to recently?
Noah: Recently… Well, this morning I had a breakfast taco with a coconut flour tortilla. In terms of business and marketing, I’ve been running marketing for sumo.com.
Jordan: And how have things been going?
Noah: Interesting, interesting on the marketing side. There’s some of the traditional stuff that’s been fun to play with, like content marketing and Facebook ads. Some of the experimental stuff has been really promising. I’m curious to see the results, it’s too early to tell, specifically around a lot of this bot talk. Everyone’s talking about bots. We’re experimenting with that, seeing interesting results. Affiliate marketing kind of like partner marketing, never really done anything with that, pretty bullish on it. We’ll see how that goes. Lastly, we’re doing directory marketing. WordPress is a directory and other platforms, we try to grow sumo.com through that. Definitely curious to see how well those work for us.
Jordan: Awesome. Any most promising so far? Which one do you think has the most potential?
Noah: The way I’ve always looked at marketing is what’s our goal? Do more of what’s already working and then experiment a little bit and then bring those into the fold if they show promise. The maximum one is content marketing, that’s been a huge channel. We’ve doubled our blog traffic, really gone hard on what’s worked, which for us is super deep case studies which are 90 page articles, or books, and then going crazy promoting those. The content marketing has worked really strongly.
I think bullish wise if I had a bet on it, I would say affiliate marketing. Mostly because we did it, we have it live, we haven’t touched it at all and it’s already worked. It’s like well we haven’t done anything with it and it’s working, what if we actually found someone who’s done this before? We hired this guy Carl and Daryl and they started and we’re going to soft launch it next week. The way I looked at it is we’ve got ten sales people who are awesome, we’ve got hundreds of thousands of people using sumo.com, what if those people could then become salespeople and run their own companies through us? Sumo is kind of like we create the software and then they promote it. Curious how that goes.
Jordan: That’s killer. I’d love to chat some more about goals with you too. I’ve been following you for a long time and that’s one of the things I’ve heard you talk a lot about. We were even just having a little chat about vision and about going places and knowing where you’re going. One of the most interesting things to me that I’ve wanted to talk to you about is how you helped Mint go from zero to a million users, if I have my history right there, and I wanted to chat a little bit more about how you made that happen; your process, your vision for that, setting those goals and making it happen. Can you start, just how did you end up at Mint first of all?
Noah: I got fired by Facebook. After that, for six months I floated around. I talked to businesses in Korea, I put on conferences, I did marketing or product consulting for different startups in the Bay Area. Dave McClure from 500 Startups who’s a good friend of mine, he’s like hey, come check out this Mint thing. I’ve met the founder before and he can be a little abrasive. I came and saw Mint and his vision for it and what he was doing. I just go so excited about it. It was very clear to me that that was a future which is huge market, everyone wants more money, huge problem, everyone wants help with their finances, and it was free. He just wanted me to come check it out.
They were hiring a director of marketing and I never did marketing before. I referred a few people to the company and they didn’t hire them. I said Aaron, let me just come do the marketing. He’s like you suck at marketing, you’ve never done it before. I’m really proud of this story. I said, “Let me show you a plan and if you like my plan, I’ll do it for free, I’ll show you the plan. If you like it, then I’ll execute it and pay me to execute it. If you like my execution, then hire me full time.” I think in sales and in business, the lesson from that story is that I reduced his risk. There’s no downside to him, there’s only upside.
With sumo.com now and with okdork.com and my podcast and YouTube, what I’ve noticed is that some of the people I’ve worked with that I’m not impressed with just haven’t come to, “Hey, is there anything you need help with?” Dean, this one guy I work with, he’s amazing, is like, “Hey, I re-wrote something for you. What do you think of this?” I’m like, “I never even asked you to do that.” That’s how he ended up working now. He quit his job being a barista, which is awesome, I love stories like that.
Jordan: Yeah, absolutely.
Noah: I think it’s easier… I myself am guilty of this. It’s easier just to be lazy. It’s easier to be like hey, can I help you with anything, versus hey, I did this for you already. What else do you need help with? That’s how I got him in.
I put the plan together, spent a whole week, 40 hours, sent it to Aaron. He liked it, executed it, did it full time, company launched, did well. That’s where we are today.
Jordan: What was that original goal attached to this plan you put together?
Noah: Aaron tasked me with getting 100,000 sign ups when Mint launched, 100,000 registered people.
Jordan: What was the timeline on that?
Noah: Mint was an interesting story because I started marketing nine months before they launched. Basically, it was like within 12 months, get 100,000 people. I think with marketing, that’s really stuck with me. I still do it 10 years later which is what’s your goal and what’s your timeline? The moment that marketers don’t have that stuff in place is the moment I already discount them and I would bet against almost every single one that don’t have that stuff set up.
Jordan: How did that feel looking at that 100k number, you’ve never done marketing before. Did you feel like yeah, we got this, or did you feel a little bit of oh man, I don’t know.
Noah: I don’t believe in hope.
Jordan: That’s delightful.
Noah: Yeah, I don’t believe in hope in business. I believe in hope in fantasy and fairytales in the real world or in the non-business world, but in business, no. I don’t believe in oh, I hope this works, I don’t believe in surprises in business. I said alright, who’s the right person and where the hell are they? I think the way that people need to be thinking about marketing and their businesses in general is thinking about it like a Google Maps which is what’s your destination and what’s your route to get there. I just put together a route, a destination which is 100,000 and a route which was where do I think this 100,000 is going to come from?
I thought it would come from sponsoring small targeted blogs, personal finance blogs. I thought it would come from our own blog, thought it would come from some advertising, thought it would come from speaking and being at conferences. Some of those things work, and some of those things don’t work, and you kind of have to just be aware of that. I generally check in on metrics once a week. I see what stuff is workmen and I do more of it, and I see what stuff is not working and I do less of it.
It’s like when you’re driving somewhere. It’s like oh, the road’s blocked. Shoot man, I’ve got to go a different direction. As long as you’re reviewing that stuff, I think you can generally get to the destination.
Jordan: Okay, so when it came time to rocking out the process and the strategy, I know you had some spreadsheet mojo going on, you had some different steps you were going to walk through. Can you paint a picture of what that looked like, putting it together so that your ideation phase, figuring out how much traffic or how many users do we want from this source and what can we actually predict from that? Can you sort of paint that picture for us?
Noah: Yeah, man. I still do if to this day. It’s the same process I’ve always used in marketing that I started at Mint. Let me give you an example. With sumo.com, we have a certain registration goal that we want to hit. Each month, there’s a goal. Let’s just say this month it’s 25,000 people. We have an end goal for the end of the year but this month let’s say it’s 25,000 sign ups. I map out where the hell is that going to come from. I think what you have to do in business is alright, what’s already working? Alright, content is working, advertising is working, webinars are working. Let’s stick with those and see how we double, triple, or 10X those amounts, what’s working in that and do more of that.
Then what’s my experimental stuff? Experimental stuff is the directory, experimental stuff is the affiliate, the experimental stuff is the bots. I map out how much I expect from each of those, and then every week with each of the different leaders or myself that are owning those different outcomes, I just check in with them to see if they’re on track or not. If they’re not, alright, what do we do about it? If they are, leave them alone.
Jordan: How do you go about estimating something if it’s sort of like a black box to you? Are you shooting from the hip and guessing or are you doing some research? What does that look like?
Noah: Honestly, I’ve gotten that question a lot. I just shoot from the hip. The whole point is like this, everything in business to some extent is a hypothesis. You’re like a scientist; you make a hypothesis of what you think things will be and then you experiment with it. The point I would make is that you make a hypothesis, do a little research and then within a week or two weeks, you can actually see if it’s making a difference or not.
Jordan: Do you think people are just too scared of being wrong then, or messing up?
Noah: I think people overemphasize that they track all their metrics. “I’m very data driven,” I’m like hmm, I don’t think you are.I think the spectrum is too wide, that’s one side. The other side, there’s like I don’t know what to track, I just do it and then it works. That’s beautiful, but when things get a little tough, I don’t think they’ll be ready for the winter. If you’re a Game of Thrones fan, you know what I’m saying. I think there’s that balance where you’ll set a metric and you check it and you have to get your head out of the sand.
One of the things that I like to do is that every time I feel fat or out of shape, I go stand on my scale. It’s uncomfortable. I don’t want to face it but I force myself to face it, and then that helps me make some better decisions moving forward. I think that goes for your marketing where to have some thought about what your goal should be, go and actually act 100% on that and then iterate from that.
AppSumo, our other business unit, which is the Groupon for geeks, appsumo.com, I think what they’ve done, Amen and Oman, the guys who run it, they basically said what stuff’s working, lifetime deals of working. We do recap emails, meaning we’ll do a promotion and then we’ll do a recap. These things are working, how do we do more of these and less of other things? I think that’s where these guys have 3X the business in two years. I think that the big thing is they said here’s our hypothesis, okay what stuff is working, how do we do more of that, and then do less of other stuff?
Jordan: What do you think those characteristics in them have made them do that? Was that something you set the vision for and let in like hey, this is how we grew Mint, this is how we’ve grown AppSumo to this point, and this is how you do it. Or did they come in like this is the mindset that they’ve had. They’re going to be data driven to a point but they’re also going to move really fast and experiment with stuff.
Noah: I give them all the credit. You got to ask them. I think we’ve structured things as a business, what’s been helpful is that we say every month, how do we check in on the numbers at a board level. I think more companies are going to be successful if they have board meetings. It doesn’t have to be something formal, it’s just like hey, here’s where we’re trying to go, here’s how we’re doing. Is it on track or not? I think if you have an outside opinion of someone who doesn’t always agree with you, you’ll start getting better insights. They’ll be like, “Hey, why is that working well?”
It’s like you with this podcast interview. You’re like well, how did you do that with Mint? I think sometimes you need to have someone who’s outside the fishbowl in your personal life and in your professional life to give you that kind of observation.
Jordan: Where will most people go wrong you think? If they’re just getting into this or just wanting to start implementing some of these things, what mistakes maybe did you make at the beginning that you think people could avoid?
Noah: The mistakes that I make still to this day, Jordan, and I think if you’re not making mistakes, you’re probably not experimenting enough.
Noah: I hate when people say that stuff, but it is true. Because if you’re not experimenting, you’re probably not going to find new things. Most marketing comes where there’s not other people, and most marketing happens with things other people haven’t done. Otherwise, there wouldn’t be an opportunity there. That’s number one.
Number two, people read blog posts and take them to be true. They say alright, Noah put a blog post about how he did this thing to help his business. And then you copy it and it doesn’t work for you. You’re like Noah sucks, number one, and two this doesn’t work. I think what I’ve found in business that’s really interesting is more about trying to understand the why and what things and happening and how you’re making these decisions. Don’t just assume because someone else does it, it works for you, or that their business is successful, that if you copy their business it will work for you. Just notice what stuff is working in your business.
I’d say number three is being patient. This is something I’m still guilty of where I do a blog post and I’m expecting it to go viral, I’m expecting it to have 100 million visitors and changes the business forever when in reality I’ve been blogging 17 years and no joke in 17 years I’ve had two articles go viral.
Noah: What I mean by that is 200,000 visitors in a day or less, maybe 100,000 in a day, 200,000 within two days. That’s in 17 years. I’ve blogged almost over 1,000 articles, I’ve guest posted tons of times, all the stuff. You have to have some indication that things are going to work, but it’s more I’m trying to give people a realization and a reminder to myself that things take time. Be a little bit more patient with the things you’re doing.
Jordan: What do you think this starts to look like now? A lot of people who follow our podcast or follow our work are on marketing teams. Do you think this dynamic changes it all? You’re almost talking about a culture, kind of in a mindset. Do you think this changes at all when teams try to adopt this sort of mindset and if you want to call it quant based marketing or whatever you want to call it, but do you think teams versus an individual running this show makes it any different?
Noah: What I’m noticing with the team at Sumo is that you have to have some clear goals. What is the clear goal that everyone is around? Clear goals for each of the people on your team so that they have autonomy to go and be amazing. I think with teams, you should think about how do you get two things? One, how do you move faster with the team. There’s no way I can do all the different marketing activities right now by myself, that’s number one. How do you move faster with the team or technology with the team? There’s a reason that Microsoft and Google and Amazon have 100,000 people. Sometimes, I’m like I don’t know why they have so many people, but you have to think. Alright, there’s a reason for that.
The second thing with the team is—this is a cliche thing—everyone says oh yeah, I only hire the best. It’s like husband and wife, everyone says I’ve got the best wife, I’ve got the best husband. I’m like why is everyone getting divorced if they’re choosing the best people? It’s the same thing with teams. It’s like if everyone’s choosing the best people, then why is your company sucking? I think what that comes back to is they’re really not finding the best, they’re finding the local best, the local maximum.
What I’ve started to do with our marketing, it’s so far been promising. In the world, who is the most impressive person possible at this role? Content marketing, I found a guy in China who was from Australia who wrote some blog posts that were just unbelievable and I recruited him. And then there’s an affiliate guy who’s been doing affiliates for ten years and he’s been launching his own partnership affiliate stuff, recruited him. Then I got the guy who did one of our large competitors, someone who’s similar to us, and he’s actually coaching us around how to launch our program.
With our directory approach, our platform marketing, I found the guy who did it at one of the largest ones online. The point is I’m spending a lot of time and a lot of effort to go out and be like who is the best in the world to come execute some of these things? My success is not going to be from myself, my success is the success of helping other people that are the best in the world do other things that they love to do.
Jordan: That was fantastic. Final question time here, what great piece of marketing advice you’ve received?
Noah: Number one, most of the marketing things I do never come from me. I think that’s a good thing to remember for yourself, it’s generally going to be inspired by outside companies or other people. How are you making an effort to go meet other people or learn from other people, number one. Number two, learn how to type faster and increase your track speed. If you’re using a computer all day, then don’t let your computer or your typing or your mouse slow you down.
At the end of the day, it really just comes down to you got to do it yourself. If I have to be real about that, it’s like go and experiment yourself, go and promote something. The amount that you read from just a blog post or a book or some course is 1/10 the value of you actually going and doing it yourself and seeing what the hell happens. That’s what I’ve noticed for what I’ve seen with working on this stuff.
Jordan: Noah, you’re the best, man. Thanks so much for being on the show.
Noah: Jordan Loftys. How do you pronounce your last name?
Jordan: You nailed it.