SaaS Breakthrough – Featuring Sid Bharath

demio discover sid bharath About Sid Bharath:
Sid Bharath is a marketer and previously the VP of Growth at Thinkific, an online course platform that he’s helped grow to the leader in the industry. He’s also a marketing consultant and has worked with other software companies to help them grow.



Show Notes:
02:44
How Sid Become VP of Growth at Thinkific
06:04
Balancing Long, Medium and Short Term Strategy
06:32
Using Competitor Ads
07:46
Growing Onboarding via Very Good Support
08:43
Content and Partnerships Using Webinar With Influencers
10:23
How to Find Strategic People For Partnerships
14:31
Building Up Team and Systems For a Self-sustaining Company
16:14
How Systems Free People To Be More Strategic
16:56
The Gains of Setting Up a Webinar Full System
17:53
Scaling: Optimization, People and Leadership
19:48
KPIS and Tracking Per Channel
22:19
Using Campaign Briefs
23:17
Defining Expected Outcomes
24:30
Creating Campaign Playbooks, Rinse and Repeat
26:37
Marketing in 2018: Storytelling
28:09
Learning More On An Avatar From Current Customers/Users
30:36
Lightning Questions
Transcript:

DA: 02:37
Hey Sid what's going on man. Thanks so much for joining me today. I'm super excited to be here.

SB: 02:42
How's it going man. I'm glad to be here.

DA: 02:44
I know I'm excited. I'm excited to have you on. You're an incredible incredible marketer and I think you have a ton to share today. So I don't want to waste a lot of time, I just want to jump right in here. What I would love to do first though, before we even get into kind of the future of marketing, what's happening right now, is I want to know a little bit about how you got started and I guess a bit more about your journey at Thinkific. Maybe tell us a little bit about when you got started with them what the company was like at that time, MRR, customers and stuff like that.

SB: 03:27
Yeah sure. I got started with Thinkific I think it's more than two years ago. So what year are we in right now... 2018... So it was late 2015. I think it was the end of 2015 when I started with them. And at that time I was a marketing manager at LemonStand which is a Shopify competitor. So a really tough market to be in. And I was creating online courses at the time around content marketing because I was using content marketing as a strategy for LemonStand and I put them on Udemy and I was like whoa you know Udemy is, they control a lot of the stuff, I wanted my own platform and my own branding to control and grow that side of the thing. And I was just searching around and I found, happen to find, a meetup group in Vancouver which is where I live, on online courses. And the speaker was the CEO of Thinkific, Greg. So I went for that, I mean you know I heard is talk and I was like being impressed by the platform. And I started chatting with the CEO and the markets for you know e-commerce platform and an online course platform are very similar in terms of how you approach to marketing, like you're talking to new business owners and you're setting them up with a platform that enables them to sell a product in one case it's a physical product and the other is a digital product. So sharing ideas with him and he's like well we kind of need someone to sort of do these things in our company because you know these ideas are great but we don't have people, right at that point there were like 8 people, half engineering the other half was like support you know. So he offered to bring me on as a V.P. of growth and sort of build that marketing channel and marketing demand and that's kind of what happened and so I started there late 2015. It was you know I am not sure if I can say the exact MRR but it was low you know very low sort of MRR happening at that point.

DA: 05:30
Just getting started low five figures.

SB: 05:33
Exactly.

DA: 05:35
So really you're starting the flywheel from scratch, kind of like really getting things moving.

SB: 05:39
It was pretty much they had reach product market fit. And they just wanted to sort of expand that, which is a good time to bring in someone in growth.

New Speaker: 05:52
When you're on that low five figure of MRR that's a great time to come in especially for someone with your talents. What was kind of the first initiative you're giving, you're kind of coming in at this time, you have a lot of work to do but you have a lot of different directions you can go. What do you start with doing?

SB: 06:04
Yeah exactly that's like the dilema of the first marketer at any small companies. What do you do, what do you do when you have people to answer to. Your CEO who is expecting big things out of you. Right. And you have the small company that's sort of depending on you to help them grow so that they can continue working there and continue building products. And so I'm trying to balance long term vs medium term with a short term strategy.

SB: 06:32
So one of the first things I did was set up some competitors ads and they instantly started bringing in, because our competitors at the time, when I joined were far more popular than Thinkific. Today Thinkific is right up there with them so a lot of people when you say online course platforms they think of Thinkific and two other competitors. Back then they were only thinking about those two other competitors and no one had ever heard of it. So I started putting Thinkific ads on some of the competitors and I mixed the ads so other competitors didn't know what was happening. I mean initially started getting a lot of, you know people checking the platform out and signing up, so the trials and the customers started immediately increasing.

DA: 07:17
From a market perspective that sounds like a huge win, the product you said was already at product-market fit. So was there a lot of things were that objection to or comment was. What were you learning with those campaigns or was it just felt like you literally just found like a goldmine of traffic there.

SB: 07:32
Yeah we were, the product was on par with the competitors I'd say in some cases we had a better offering. It was just there was no market behind it so no one knew about it. Right. Putting out these ads where people were already aware of other products and they were ready to make a decision and suddenly they see this third option that opened up. You know that allow them to explore our platform while exploring other platforms and then make a decision on their own. So we had a lot of people coming in and then because they'd ask questions how are you different from this other platform. You have this feature, or that feature. A lot of people were frustrated with some of the existing platforms out there because of the limitations that they had at that time and we did not have those limitations, so you know through a mix of those ads and then our support people, which as if you recall I said, half the team was support at that time so we had very good support. We were able to sort of onboard these people and get them using the platform regularly

DA: 08:31
That's fantastic. So that sounds like the competitor ads worked right off the bat, really helped grow anything else. The other big wins were those initial initiatives. Obviously again you sort of scratched all those directions the long term, the short term and medium term.

SB: 08:43
Yeah exactly. And so what I felt like was you know once I got the competitive stuff out of the way we're just I'm just focusing on two competitors. I could start looking at some of the more medium term and long term stuff that doesn't involve paying for clicks right. And so the top two on my mind were content and partnerships. So I started off with partnership first because it is more middle term right and I could sort of see returns within the next couple of months. So I'm thinking of this as a way of you know, how do I keep these wins consistently coming, if the ads are up and running now, you're getting a big bump but then at some point it's going to sort of flatten out. Like what, the next month what is that going to be. Right. And that's going to be two months and what does that look like. So we started doing partnerships and basically webinars swaps with influencers. Or actually not webinar swaps but it was just, the influencer would promote us and it would be sort of like an affiliate partnership where they'd introduce us to their list and say we're running a webinar on how to create an online course and invite everyone over to our website where we do the webinar and then we'd have a bonus at the end and then we sort of pay out commissions to each affiliate and influencer based on how many sales we got from that webinar.

DA: 10:09
That's an amazing strategy. Any specific kind of tips or tricks you would give to people who are looking to set those up? Obviously it takes a little bit of time to create those relationships, how we can open the doors and find those strategic people that had the right prospects for you guys.

SB: 10:23
Yeah it does take time. So the first place we looked at were people who are already using our platform, or had come across it, because they were more likely to engage in a conversation and do it quickly, because they know about us, they like the product. So we found a couple of people for example Dorothy Clark. She's a NY Times best selling author, has a big audience of people who are building brands online. So she was one and there were a couple of others that we, were sort of quick wins in this space because we already had that relationship with over a product standpoint. It wasn't a lot to get on the call with her, chat and ask more about her business and then start talking about partnerships. And so what we do with these people is you know, it's not just saying hey let's do webinars and you'll pay your commission. They don't want to be treated like that right they don't want to be treated as a channel. We try to make it more of a personal connection, so we say hey what are you up to in your business. What is the next big launch. How can we help you with that. So we go, we will help promote your next upcoming book aside as well as like from you know the commissions, and in some cases we sort of just didn't even ask for the webinar. We just straight up say look we will promote your book no questions and nothing asked. And we just build that up as a relationship. For example John Lee Dumas has a very popular podcast with like millions of listeners I suppose and you know, it took two years or one and a half years for us a close relationship with him. The first thing we did was just promote one of his books that he'd come out and we didn't ask for anything in return.

DA: 12:13
I love that. You know it's like value first and I think it's a really smart way to build those relationships, which is you're not trying to get something from them first, you're trying to give value first. Just start the conversation and build it as a real relationship not like you said as a as a marketing channel for your business.

SB: 12:28
Yeah exactly. One story that really highlights this is when I was in Boise for a conference representing Thinkific, one of our big competitors was there as well, at the same conference. We both had booths over there. And this one influencer who we had, you know we wanted to get to build a relationship with, was around and he went to the competitor's booth first and they had a long chat and they showed him the platform and you know it seemed like it was really going really well from where we were standing. And then as he was leaving, we sort of just you know called him over. And the first question we asked him was more about, because we already knew his background so we know, OK when's the next book coming out. He's an author. And so we started talking about his book and I just shared some marketing ideas and you know stuff and that's it. There was no pitch no demo. And we did exchange contact information and then he came back to us later and said well you guys seem more interested in my business than they did. And despite them showing the platform and me being impressed by the platform, I was more impressed by your commitment to just helping me out and offering to spread the word about my book without asking for anything in return. And so let's work together and create, do something more.

DA: 13:46
It's incredible what relationships do for business, that's really true the essence of business, building great relationships giving value. So I absolutely love that it's an amazing story. Let me let's move forward let's jump forward to to nowadays. Obviously now you're no longer with Thinkific, you're running your own consulting agency which is just an incredible agency if people will get a chance to work with you. But where is the company at now, where did you kind of take them to over time.

SB: 14:12
Yeah I took them to a place where I felt like the company was self-sustaining and I and I could step away without harming the company. You know for the first year if I had removed myself, it would have been I guess disastrous right.

DA: 14:30
You were running everything at that point.

SB: 14:31
Yeah. And I slowly started hiring people into different roles. So when I found out that the partnerships and the webinars are working and we hired someone full time just to connect and build relationships with influencers and set up partnership with us. That was his entire job. Right when when I realized that the ads were working really well and wanted to scale, we hired an ad agency and an ads person. When I realized the content was working then we hired a full time content marketer right. So I slowly started building it up and we started putting in place processes and systems. You know once you once you identify these channels that are working and you have, you want to start scaling up, scaling them up, you want to build upon that right. And to build up on them you need A you need people but you also need systematized processes where it's not, you know you're not sort of trying to reinvent the wheel every time. You've got like a set of a playbook so to speak, where the person you hire for that channel just has that playbook and goes OK here's step one, here's step two and goes through that process right. Because once you have that that down, then it's smooth flowing and then you can focus on the optimizations every time.

DA: 15:51
I love that. Really that's so smart. And the fact that, I think the mistake a lot people make sometimes is to hire before they have that system or they hire before they've done it themselves and proved it. So they're bringing someone in there trying to figure out what they're paying someone to do versus you guys are already kind of said, OK this does work, here's a system to do it, now is put the right person in place that could kind of scale quickly.

SB: 16:14
Yeah exactly. And when putting that person in place doesn't mean that you know they're a robot and they just follow the stupid system step by step. Having the system that allows them to take, do sort of look at a bigger picture and be more strategic about what they're doing vs you know figuring out the nitty gritty details every day, because that's already set up in the system right.

DA: 16:33
A hundred percent. I think one of the greatest things about bringing in great people is the system is there like we brought in people and we've had the systems and what they've really done is they've taken that system and supercharged it, they made it ten times better than anything that we did because they were in it. They were able to think about it. They were able to reflect on it and build it up so it wasn't like they followed it step by step that they took all we had built upon and that's really what you want from most people.

SB: 16:56
Yeah exactly. Like you know for example if for all our channels in fact the people we hire are amazing people, they are amazing people. They were able to for our webinar channel for example, we with the people who we partnered with and they do webinars with, They were super impressed by how everything was just like one person said, you guys are like a well oiled machine, because that's what it was. We build a well oiled machine where it starts with connecting with any influencer and ends with a webinar and you know e-mails going out and everything's automatic and set up. And you know there's nothing to think about it, just use it, was easy load to run. And so the guy who was doing it was able to take a step back and say OK what else can we do over the top of these webinars as well, what can can be awesome. What else can we make it big or how can we really you know do more promotion on the web browser, how can we bring people together like a summit that kind of stuff.

DA: 17:51
Yeah that's that's genius. That's scary stuff. So taking the lessons that you learn there like what would you say were some of the surprising results or outcomes from scaling up, from you know where you guys were to I guess multiple, multiple seven figures in ARR. What did you guys do to kind of, what major things were you blown by that works so well.

SB: 18:16
Yeah it was yeah, so when I left it was like yet you know multiple midterm figures ARR and this is insane growth. I was blown away by was, what I think a learnt more was like that there's always these growing pains, as you bring on new people. It was a lot around the people and leadership aspect of things where I personally learned a lot. Because I think marketing is you know there is a lot of creativity involved but there's also a lot of math and logic involved. And so once you figure that out, it's you know it's like a set of logic gates, it's an optimization problem. Right. And so it's it's it's a solvable problem in that there are a set number of outcomes. Whereas with human you know managing people in leadership, there is there is no like it's it's an intangible outcome right. It's like hard to, there's no set of instructions telling you how to deal with a certain situation, because there are a number of these situations infinite right. So I think what we learned most was just like kind of deal with managing people, managing different campaigns at the same time, and channels running, and expectations from you know the CEO to the people who reported to me, you know and in the end they're just like me, making sure that people are satisfied while productive, happy doing what they were doing.

DA: 19:48
Yeah I think the people side of that is so tough. But let's look at maybe I guess some of the systems that you were like, how did you kind of control the KPIs, what things were you looking at from the quotas from the different marketing initiatives, do you have a little system put in place for that stuff, so you know while you were handling the people side of management, the marketing numbers themselves kind of grew?

SB: 20:10
Yeah. So we had each person in the team sort of own the channel right. So the people who were brought on for the content, that guy content person on the content channel. There was a person on the Webinar and influencers and partnership channel. There was someone who own the affiliates channel. And what we had was a weekly meeting, where everyone would input their numbers into a spreadsheet and we had set goals at the start of the quarter for the number of free trials and MRR we wanted to hit right, so that was a big sort of North Star metric I'd say was the MRR, and what led to MRR was the free trials. So that was kind of like what we were aiming to optimize or grow. So this spreadsheet would have that goal and we track our progress towards that goal and each channel had sort of decided upon a growth rate a week for that channel. So we had those growth rates mapped out, adding up the goal in the end. And then we tracked the actual numbers and see how it could compare to the growth rates. And so if the channel is beating the growth rate, well I mean either case whether it beat the growth rate or not, was we'd ask why did this happen. And if it didn't hit the growth rate, we would say what happened that we cannot hit our growth rate? Were you stop? What were the roadblocks? What can we do to make things grow faster here? And if beat the growth rate we go right, what went right there, how can we double down on that and make sure that keeps happening.

DA: 21:45
Right. So I think it sounds you did analysis by a per channel basis for marketing, trying to figure out what worked what didn't on a growth scale, that you're looking at from an overall growth perspective then the individual channels. And I'm sure you learned a ton as far as you know what individual things cause problems, which ones were really great for growth. If you're starting a campaign from scratch you, obviously you had a bunch people in at that point, you guys had kind of scaled your marketing, What would you do now, looking at building out a campaign from scratch, if you were starting again.

SB: 22:19
Well the first thing I'd look at is the idea for the campaign, where's that coming from. Like have you done something like this before or maybe in a smaller scale, that shows that it actually works? And should we be investing more resources, time people money, into creating this campaign. And do we know, I mean like do we have any previous data that it might or it will work. The next thing is setting actual goals. So saying alright this campaign and, so we had this thing called the campaign brief which we created at the start of a campaign or before a campaign, which would basically lay out this is what the campaign is going to be. This is the duration of the campaign. This is how much time money effort is going to go into it. These are the expected outcomes. This is why we expect this outcome, because of the previous data point or whatever. Right. And these are the actual steps needed to execute the campaign.

DA: 23:17
Let me just pause for a second, that is super important. I just need to ask you, how do you define, you said you define some of the outcomes based on previous data. How do you define what's like a win or a loss or you know, what expected outcomes should be of those. Or do you just kind of base it on some level of previous experience?

SB: 23:37
Yeah it's based on some level previous experience. Obviously there's a lot of like additional variables involved that you can't really tell. And so the prediction in many cases just happens to be pulling a number out of your backside, but you know you should try as much as possible to base that of from like maybe past data sources, or industry standard. If you have that data right. And of course again at the end of the day you do want to maintain a certain ROI. So if you say all right we're going to put in, you know this campaign is going to be X number dollars then you want to make sure you've got at least 3 x dollars coming back.

DA: 24:23
So OK, you have a campaign. I didn't mean to interrupt. So you have your briefs, you're outlining your brief, outlining the goals that are coming. So what's next?

SB: 24:30
So you've got, you've got all that down. And you know like who this campaign is for, and the next is like understanding OK who exactly this campaigning is for. What are they going to get out of it. What are we delivering to them. What is the final call to action and really just like creating all the assets of the campaign. And again this is where playbooks come in handy. So you know it can be, maybe if they all have a landing page, then we have playbooks for typical branded landing pages we want. We may be probably built templates for certain types of campaigns and landing pages, so we would just it would make it easier for us to copy it over. We had e-mail templates, landing pages templates and guidelines for design and copy. And all this stuff will develop as you're building up the system and processes you have all that set so that later on when you do another campaign, it's call the day, you know one quarter of the time around the campaign than when you did it the first time.

DA: 25:32
I love that. I love that you had you know this and I can imagine these playbooks in my head. So if you just said hey we're going to a new webinar campaign of a past playbook be able to kind of duplicate and move into pretty quickly. Look at what worked already. Maybe the landing page types you want to use, stuff like that so it also helps you really again to scale that marketing team because you now have people come in and learn from past efforts instead of try to figure out all over again.

SB: 25:55
Yeah exactly. We had a shared Google Drive and we had folders for every campaign that we build out. So for example, one campaign that worked really well was a black Friday deal that we did in 2016. So when we repeated in 2017, it took a lot less time because all we did was just sort of copy over the strategy and templates and then just really execute on it. Right. We had all the e-mail copy and the landing pages and everything, we just changed the dates around and we change like some of the bonuses of the offering and that was it.

DA: 26:31
That's a killer. That's just doubling down on what works and just learn from it every time.

SB: 26:34
Yeah yeah.

DA: 26:36
Love it. All right so let's take a look at what's upcoming, what do you think is changing here in 2018 as far as marketing.

SB: 26:48
In like overall like in general marketing, I think it's in, it's important to become more, to add more story behind the marketing, to sort of be more relevant to people. To understand your customers better and then sort of engage with them in a very, in a more human manner and a storytelling manner. Because I think that the companies that do that and I've only seen a few companies do that, they start to stand out a lot more. Right. So if you think big brands, it's easy for big brands to stand out because they have the marketing budget behind it. But even so like you know Burger King for example recently did the net neutrality thing right. And so they are telling the story about that through Whopper which is a creative. And it talks about a very trending topic in today's world but then also of course it's, it's promoting the brand subtly right. So that kind of marketing I think is just because it's just so much happening right now so much content being produced, you do need to, you've got to be more human and storytelling about it to reach everyone's lizard brains.

DA: 28:09
What advice would you give to marketers to learn more about their demographic to learn more about their avatar?

SB: 28:18
I think it's important for marketers especially when they're joining a company to spend a few weeks just understanding the customers that the company serves. So understanding not just the product, but who uses the product, how they use it, how they found out about the product... You know one of the things that they like, where they hang out online. What channels are they most active on, what books they read, what podcasting they listened to, all of that stuff, because all those are areas, are channels for you to start exploring to reach more of those type of people. Right. I see, you know even today I see in many of these Facebook groups for example the SaaS group: What is the best channel to market on? That's an impossible answer. That's like asking you know how long is a piece of string. No, it depends on where your customers are. Some companies have customers who exist you know mostly on Snapchat and others have customers that are mostly on LinkedIn. Right. So you can't, a) you can write off a certain platform and b) there is not like one platform or one channel rules all kind of thing, it depends. And it all depends on your customers.

DA: 29:34
I'm not sure if anyone's created this but I think this would be an amazing product, something like a marketing playbook where basically you create a big like almost like a baseball card break down these stories of your customers and people on your team can come in and just read these stories and get a really in-depth understanding of who these people are in your company. That way anyone come in and just learn about the customer. But like in a visual or like story told way so they could understand, that can be really cool.

SB: 30:02
That's a good idea. You know I've actually been thinking of productizing like the how book with a spreadsheet right now. Well like creating a product of that in terms of more of a Kanban kind of product and then having a section for cust,omer research which you know that section feeds into the idea section which then feeds into the prioritization section. So that's a good idea.

DA: 30:26
I think people would love that kind of stuff because it's just easy to use it just and it helps again with the scale stuff which is a big problem for when you're, you know growing your marketing side.

SB: 30:32 Yeah.

DA: 30:36
Cool let's get into my final piece here which is our kind of our lightning questions. Typically with these questions I just want you to think about it for a quick minute. Just give me the first topic that comes to your mind as a fun question. It's kind of a little brainteasers, but what would be advice for early stage companies starting marketing, what would you give them?

SB: 30:55
I'd say run a bunch of experiments. First up to to understand where you can put your resources because starting companies you have limited resources. Of course every company does. But you in particular have very very limited resources, maybe one market at most. So kind of identify that one thing that it would like I did with competitors ads. And then just work on that for the first couple of weeks a month and then expand from there.

DA: 31:24
Love that. What marketing skill do you think is vital for marketing teams to improve and build on today?

SB: 31:29
I think. I don't know if this is skill but it's sort of like logical and mathematical thinking and ability, I'd say.

DA: 31:41
Yeah like data specific thinking.

SB: 31:42
Yeah being able to understand numbers and think in a logical manner you know.

DA 31:50
Rather than emotional gut feelings.

SB: 31:51
Yeah yeah.

DA: 31:53
Love that. Best resource that you recommend for marketing?

SB: 31:59
I think the best teacher or the best way to learn marketing is to do it yourself. And I mean that's got, that's kind of how I got my start. I'm actually an engineer by education.

DA: 32:13
Wow.

SB: 32:15
Yeah. Which is why I like I'm not talking about the logic flaws and the mathematics, I understand that very well. When I look at numbers I can see what's going on and that's definitely helped me in my career. But the marketing side of it, the best way to learn that is to just do it yourself and try things out. So I've done like you know I marketed. I've created my own e-commerce stores and blogs and a startup in South America, a Travel shop and I've marketed all of these on my own and learned and failed and gotten better at it.

DA: 32:46
So not conceptual marketing, actual in the trenches do it, test it, fail, see what works.

SB: 32:52
Yeah I think that it's especially important because I've seen these conceptual marketers come out of you know masters and MBA programs with a degree and no actual work experience and they fail in a startup environment, in a SaaS environment, because it's you have to move a lot faster than you know the vague branding thing that they teach you, which takes you a few years to set up right.

DA: 33:19
Totally and you have the right resources for that. What's your favorite marketing tool you can't live without?

SB: 33:26
Good one good one.

DA: 33:27
Demio.

SB: 33:38
Demio for sure and you know maybe Google Analytics.

DA: 33:40
Oh yeah definitely Google Analytics is the right one. Yeah. What's a brand, a business or team that you admire right now?

SB: 33:57
You know nothing jumps to my mind like I kind of admire the Hubspot and Shopify brands and Shopify specifically because like I went up against them right. And so I could see how, what a massive beast they'd build with the marketing. So that's kind of like a really good brand.

DA: 34:20
Well that's a really good choice. I think they are right there in Canada as well, on Toronto.

DA: 34:29
Well awesome. I just want to thank you so much for jumping on this call and giving so much great content. I learned a ton. I love the way you think about marketing. What you're looking for when you do marketing, the fast experiments and really looking at things from you know from the customer persona perspective, like everything you do is based on that first and foremost. So one that I really took away from this is really dial in on that, get to know that and then base marketing from that and make quick experiments and I think that's an amazing way to look at marketing and you know you have a real huge experience, that has shown that that works taking a company from literally you know beginning to scale. That's amazing.

SB: 35:10
Thank you so much David and I really love what you guys are doing at Demio and am so excited to see how the platform's growing and expanding and all the new features that are coming out, it's amazing.

DA: 35:21
I appreciate it. Really appreciate your time and thanks everyone for listening and I'll talk to you soon. (...)

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