Sujan Patel is one of the biggest names in the growth and content marketing world. For the past 13 years, he has led digital strategy for clients such as Salesforce, Mint, Zillow, LinkedIn, and several Fortune 500 companies.
By working with a variety of clients over the years, Sujan has a variety of growth strategies that can take a company from startup to scaleup. Plus, he’s also an entrepreneur himself — founding WebProfits, ContentMarketer.io, Narrow, Quuu, and Mailshake.
In this episode, we’ll deep dive with him on brand, user experience, and customer obsession. We’ll cover pivoting a company, buying businesses, and his decision to run a SaaS billboard in the middle of Iowa.
In This Episode You’ll Learn:
0:01 — Introduction
5:24 — Sujan chimes in on trends in growth; “it’s harder than ever to stand out”
7:00 — Buying remnant billboards
7:55 — How to build a brand to stand out
9:15 — Which Test Won?
17:32 — The story of MailShake’s growth
18:22 — Failing to hit PMF and the rebrand
19:26 — What worked really, really well in the early days
21:15 — Marketing before you have a product
22:10 — Buying and acquiring tools as a growth channel
23:55 — The Salty Six
DR: In this episode, we’ve got special guest Sujan Patel. We’ve got a lot to talk about. Sujan’s one of the growth experts behind the scenes of startups like Zoho, TurboTax, Mint, and LinkedIn. He’s also the owner of three fast-growing SaaS products including Mailshake, Pick, and Norbert. And when he’s not obsessing over marketing, he’s jumping out of airplanes, racing cars, and trying to avoid breaking his 18th bone. Sujan, welcome to the show, man.
SP: Thanks for having me. Actually, 18th bone has been broken–
DR: You had not when I saw that.
SP: It’s the lamest one possible. I broke my pinky toe. It’s like, that doesn’t count.
DR: I was creepin’ on your Instagram here and I found this picture of you racing motorcycles. When you said you race motorcycles I thought okay, he’s got a Harley Davidson, he kinda putts around town looking cool. You’re like an actual motorcycle racer. But tell us, what is this like? What is your motorcycle career, what do you do there?
SP: So I don’t actually race professionally or amateur. I’m not racing other people, I’m doing more just lap times. Still, lots of people on the track just like this.
There are still people cutting you off. It feels like you’re racing even though you’re not winning anything. It’s scary. I think part of the reason I like it is because it’s scary and it’s fun. It’s probably the most, I would say, this is the most the physical version of entrepreneurship as you can define. There’s kind of a path. You can take many routes, because the track is really wide, so you can go into different lanes and you can still make it through the same way.
Some exit faster than other paths, and you can still fall but sometimes you get back up. So I don’t know, I feel like it’s the most physical way of saying entrepreneurship, that’s kinda why I like it because you’re kind of in there and you have to get better, and you don’t know anything but no one knows anything and then you’re riding, you get some experience and you get some ROI out of it, meaning you get more thrill. So it’s a lot of fun.
DR: That’s cool man, well I’m super impressed. I’ll have to go out there with you sometime, check it out.
DR: Cool, let’s dive in, talk about scaling up, talk about SaaS pro. You’ve been doing this about 14, 15 years now?
SP: Yeah, I think 14 years, I stopped kinda counting.
DR: I was gonna ask you:
What trends are you seeing in growth right now that maybe weren’t happening five or 10 years ago?
SP: Yeah, so I think one is saturation and competition. I would put those kinds in the same bucket. It’s easier than ever to build a business, so it’s harder than ever to stand out. And so I think a lot of folks focus on marketing, and there’s a lot of companies doing it well, or doing it poorly but still getting decent results. So I think the issue or the thing I see is just a lot of competition and thinking about how to stand out.
Another thing I see is what’s old is new again. And I feel like I’ve been long enough so I see two or three cycles of this happen, where things were really hot. I remember when I first got into the industry like 2002 podcasts were just starting to be on fire. And then they completely died.
And then they came back sometime during the iPhone, late iPhone, when the iPhone launched in 2010 or something like that when they had podcast apps.
But essentially, now there’s podcast advertising, that’s a really awesome channel because you can get the equivalent of radio ads but for way cheaper and the same or more controllable ROI. So you will get companies like Bluehost or like FreshBooks, Grasshopper, they’re all targeting SMBs but they’re doing it using podcast ads.
DR: So that channel is starting to actually develop–
SP: Yeah, I don’t know how far it’ll go.
DR: To be more predictable?
SP: I don’t know how far it’ll go but it’s controllable. I can buy remnant billboards for pennies on the dollar, right? I actually have two billboards right now in Iowa, I think. I don’t know where really. They’re just like the cheapest ones I could find because they just wanted it and it just says we’re hiring engineers, Mailshake. And so it’s just a website.
DR: How much does it cost?
SP: That one costs me about $150 for that one billboard.
DR: Per month?
SP: Per month, yeah, and we have a three-month contract. And I just did it just to screw around.
DR: I just wanna have a billboard.
SP: Yeah I just wanted to have, I mean now I just wanna freakin’ take a picture of the billboard. I just don’t know where it’s at. I know the zip code and the city, I just don’t know where the heck that place is. Yeah, so stuff like that is coming about.
The other thing is building a brand, whether it’s a company brand like Proof or it’s a personal brand or community, those are things that can help you stand out.
Like Mailshake, we have 64 known competitors. Known being I’ve actually seen them, scoped them out or whatever. Probably a lot more I don’t know about. We all kind of do the same thing. I mean, some of us better than others and some of us have more bells and whistles. We could do a lot more, a lot less, buggy, not buggy, whatever. But there’s 64 solutions to a problem. If you’re a consumer, which one do you choose and why?
Usually, start with what comes to mind or what you see out there. So yes, good marketing, but let’s say everyone is doing good marketing. And then it’s really about which one do you think does the best job? And I think that’s where brand comes into play.
I think that’s where UX is really, really important, and then also this small thing of giving a crap. And I think that’s combined with customer support and customer success. We actually, at Mailshake and Ramp Ventures, which is kind of the parent company of all these SaaS companies I’m in, we have success into rolling into the marketing department.
Which Test Won?
DR: I see, now we’ve got a recurring segment of the show called which test won? It’s a game show in the interview where you get to make some money for charity. That sound good?
SP: Sounds awesome.
DR: So how it works is you are going to be able to make $20. I’m gonna show you three different marketing experiments. For each one that you guess the correct variation, you’re gonna make $20, and the third one is gonna be double or nothing, and if you win, it’s gonna go to charity. The charity that you picked today was called TreeFolks. Tell us about TreeFolks, why’d you pick that?
SP: Yeah I just chose it, it’s a local charity in Austin. They plant trees. More trees, more oxygen, can’t go wrong with more oxygen.
DR: Everybody loves trees.
SP: Everybody need oxygen.
DR: Everybody needs oxygen, and everybody loves trees, very cool, alright, well you ready, you feelin’ confident?
SP: Let’s do it, I’m nervous but I’m ready.
DR: Alright, well these are hand-selected by me and I think you’re gonna like ’em. Which test won?
So for the first one here, we’ve got basically a welcome tour in an app versus an app without a welcome tool. So our goal here was we were trying to increase launch campaign. People signed up for Proof, they go into our app, and on the left-hand side we just got a checklist. They kinda go down and they can see kind of what to do next.
On the right-hand side we used a software called Appcues to go in, and it kind of walks them through click by click how to set up a campaign. Which one do you think increased the number of launched campaigns? The number of people that launched a campaign when they signed up?
SP: Huh, I would say the welcome tour.
DR: Okay, and why do you say that?
SP: I think it’s just more helpful. On-boarding is a really critical part of activation and just actually customers using the software successfully. I think sometimes it requires slowly someone down and showing them exactly what to do. Maybe a little bit of hand-holding. So that’s kinda why I think the welcome tour probably won.
DR: Alright, and the answer is the welcome tour.
DR: Actually so we launched this campaign for ourselves and 77% more campaigns were launched within 24 hours of starting proof, which is pretty significant for us. It’s funny, I’m kind of the person that exits out of those things when I go in. I wanna figure it out myself, but I’m also an early adopter and I like that kinda thing. I like figuring products out.
SP: Yeah, absolutely.
DR: I think for us we need to remember that like, we weren’t the ones using our product. A lot of not early adopters, people that want help going through a product, and it was big so, $20 for TreeFolks.
Alright, the next one of which test won. So here it’s basically on our homepage.
We were trying to increase our new trial conversion rate and sign up rate, and so on the left, we have no exit intent pop-up. On the right, we added an exit intent pop-up where we offered 30 days for free if they just entered their email and it just was kinda hitting people that they were leaving the page. Which one do you think increased our new trial conversion rate?
SP: I would say the exit intent pop-up.
DR: Okay, and why do you say that?
SP: I just, another touch point.
DR: Alright, let’s see what the answer is here. The answer is actually the no exit intent pop-up, And so adding the pop-up, this is kind of an example where something outside of our scope happened.
So actually it decreased new trials by 37%, and what we found is that when we added the pop-up, it increased page load time from four seconds to 10 seconds.
SP: Oh wow.
DR: Which is not good. And that wasn’t something that we had expected, it wasn’t something we were testing for, it was kinda this like extra variation of the test that we weren’t planning on, and because the page is loading so much slower, nobody could sign up, people were leaving early and all of that.
This isn’t really a test per say about whether or not exit intents are good, but it was an interesting part of an experiment realizing that hey, you’ve gotta watch the load time for us.
SP: Oh absolutely, I had something similar happen when we added a few monitoring tools. I think it was like HotJar a couple other tools to see the user videos. Conversions went down and we were trying to figure it out for two weeks, and it was like, what’s happening?
DR: I know.
Okay, in this one we are testing the same thing. How to increase new trial conversion rate.
And so this is Groove on the left-hand side. We’ve got the headline SaaS and eCommerce Customer Support. Now what they wanted to do was test that headline and figure out how to beat that to get more people to sign up.
And so on the right-hand side, they basically they asked their customers, how do you describe our product?
We think it’s SaaS and eCommerce Customer Support, but they asked their customers and the customers said, this is everything that you need to deliver awesome, personal support to every customer. And so they used their customer language to create the headline instead of what they thought it was. So they ran these two tests against each other. Which test won?
SP: I would say landing page number two. Most of the time you can’t go wrong repeating what the customer says as a way to describe yourself.
DR: Kind of a copywriting hack.
SP: Yeah, it’s simple. Let the customers do all the writing for you.
DR: Alright, well let’s see which one won. Okay, actually landing page number two had 87% more signups by using the real customers’ verbiage to describe their business.
SP: Absolutely, it’s a little bit of a cheat because I’ve done this test so many times for my companies, and in clients. I’ve never had landing page one work better than–
DR: Where you try to create it versus asking your customers, hey, how do you describe the product?
SP: I always kinda paraphrase or revise, and I can spice up what they say, but they’re usually always winning when it’s new words.
DR: Totally, very cool. Alright, another $20 for TreeFolks.
DR: Alright Sujan you got $40. We’re going into the final money round. The double or nothing, you ready?
SP: Yep, let’s do it.
DR: Which test won? Our goal here was to decrease cost per acquisition. So these are our two Facebook ads that we were running to our homepage to get people to sign up for Proof.
On the left-hand side, we’ve got kinda a standard well-written, we spent over $400,000 on paid advertising, and this landing page template got our average conversion rate to 82%. Kind of a nice call to action, nice description of what we offer, and then we’re trying to get them to click here.
Ad number two we thought, well what if we try to call people out a little bit more, be a little more specific to them, to get them to click a little bit more?
So we put at the beginning for all of our ads in Canada, we started off by saying marketers in Canada. Our converted ad clicks had an average of 82%. So we just tried to add a little bit more personalization into the ad to see if people click on that more and sign up for proof more often. Which one of these do you think won?
SP: Man this is a tough one. I personally like ad number one, I think because you have a dollar amount, and it shows that you guys have done a lot more effort. It just feels like you spent $400,000, a big number. But I have a gut feeling the Canada one actually won.
DR: Why so?
SP: Just because you’re targeting people specifically to, maybe marketers in Canada think differently, think of themselves as different — we’re marketers in Canada — it doesn’t work in Canada, or it works here. So I’ve seen that kind of reaction from folks. I’m gonna go with two just for my gut but I like number one better.
DR: How many trees can you plant with $80 do you think?
SP: I can plant a whole lot. I think trees are expensive. You know a palm tree costs like $30,000?
DR: I didn’t know that.
SP: I’m working my way up to a palm tree.
DR: So you have to play a lot of which test won.
SP: There you go.
DR: Alright so ad number two is going for. And the answer is ad number two.
SP: Oh sweet.
DR: Which is sweet. We actually say 166% decrease in cost per lead. Originally we were getting $4 on ad number one cost per lead and that went down to $1.50 on ad number two.
Do you guys do any sort of personalization, trying to call people out like that?
SP: Absolutely, I think this is a great example of just how you should be running advertising. Personalization and really tight segmenting.
If you’re targeting maybe digital marketers versus marketing managers, they may think of themselves differently. So I think it really gets in the minds of the customers.
DR: Yeah, it’s difficult to do. And it takes a lot of time.
SP: It’s a lot of work, yeah.
DR: Put people in buckets, but the results are generally there.
SP: Generally when you put more work and more granularity into ad campaigns they work better. It’s very rare that it’s, oh yeah, target all marketers in North America, it’ll work.
DR: Yeah, no totally. Alright man, well I’m gonna give you another $20 bucks there. That is gonna go to TreeFolks, which is gonna be exciting. We can actually donate that, oh yeah, show the camera there.
SP: Yeah that’s right.
DR: That is it
SP: 80 buckaroos.
DR: Yeah, yeah, that’s gonna plant, maybe not a lot of trees.
SP: It’ll plant a couple dozen trees but not a palm tree. You gotta work towards that. You gotta invite me back.
DR: Very cool man. Alright, let’s dive back into marketing, growth, and scaling up. Let’s talk about Mailshake. I’d just love to hear the story from you.
What is the growth of Mailshake look like? What have been the ups, the downs, what’s worked for you over at Mailshake?
SP: We’ve been around since 2015. And a lot of stuff has not worked for us. And it was really upfront.
DR: That’s always the case.
SP: Yeah, a lot of it didn’t work up front. And then we figured something out and then we rebranded and it started growing from there. Because a lot of our growth is from word of mouth, all the stuff happened because we were just trying to make something work.
I think I put in like $150,000 of my own money. So we’re bootstraped, but $150,000 of my own money. Of that money, some of is revenue that we generated at Mailshake.
We were selling a content marketing course, so we started as ContentMarketer.io. Failed to hit product marketer fit. The thing is, we actually got traction, but just not enough to grow, and not enough, it was generating enough revenue not to die. And that’s the worst, I feel like. It’s like, it’s kind of working. Kind of working sucks.
DR: Oh I know.
SP: That took us two years pretty much. Rebranded, we pivoted over. Anyways, long story short, we rebranded. We found out that one part of our tool, the email part, really people loved, and so we just rebranded everything to that.
DR: And that’s Mailshake?
SP: And that’s Mailshake.
DR: You kinda ripped that out of there?
SP: Yeah, pretty much we were this content marketing tool that did all this outbound to find emails and find social media information. Funny enough, we pretty much did what Voila Norbert, one of my companies, and Mailshake do independently, but when you put them together they don’t work. I don’t know why.
But when you pull them apart they work really well, and when you integrate them together they work well, but they can’t be one product, at least from my testing. But anyways, what worked really, really well was focusing on that customer, focusing on our competitor’s weaknesses.
My co-founder and I, he’s the dev, I’m the marketing guy, kind of the business guy, really. He went to go build it, and he’s like, it’s gonna take me six months. That’s a long time. I was just working a full-time job during that time, so I was like, what do I do?
All I did was review our competitor’s reviews and talk to customers of theirs. Because we had like five at the time, or 10, something like that, of that product that we were gonna pivot over. We just focused on building a product that was the exact opposite of what people were complaining about. And what that resulted in is easy to use and low cost. So we started off–
DR: So when you read the reviews you saw they were saying this is too complex, too difficult, don’t wanna pay the price, it’s overpriced. And you kinda said, great. Here’s our entry point.
SP: I also, I talked to customers.
I talked to people. I was like, hey, how do you do outbound sales or how do you do emails? What’s your process? And I was like, what are you using? The whatever tool they’re using.
They walked me through it. And when they were walking me through it, I saw them hesitating. I’m like, you use this tool and you’re still having a tough time describing it to me. And it wasn’t like I was putting them on the spot or anything.
I was just casually asking and they knew, they just took a while to go to where they needed to go, and so I was like oh wow, there’s actually a problem here. If the guy who’s using the tool can’t explain it well. They were using the tools for a while. I won’t mention the name of the competitors but ultimately we just built exactly the opposite of that.
I was like, why don’t we just keep it simple and when we did our beta test thing, we did it live and we tried to go fast, but we launched, and we just put it up there, and during that time what really worked for us is building out marketing.
So we marketed a landing page. We marketed before we had a product. And so we were able to build up a big audience, big relative to how many customers we have. We were able to build up 4,000 or 5,000 email subscribers and maybe 3,000 or 4,000 visitors a month to the site before we had a product because I was just doing marketing on something that people couldn’t sign up for.
And that was a really big thing because as soon as you launch a signup form and allowed people to get in, a dozen initial people did in the first week.
And those dozen people I got on the phone with them. I found out what they love, what they didn’t, what not, and so we just stuck with that. So I would say like, build pre-launch marketing. Really, really important looking at competitors and figuring out how you can carve out something of your own, and then lastly is talking to customers and actually getting their feedback.
DR: Very cool. And one thing I wanted to ask you.
It seems like a lot of your growth strategy has been around either building other tools or buying and acquiring other tools to kind of complement your initial tool. Tell us, what’s that been like? How has that helped growth?
SP: Yeah, in terms of helping growth, it’s been a good way to keep customers around longer. It’s increased LTV, increased retention a bit, or quite a bit actually. So it wasn’t more of a marketing initiative, it was more of a how can us as a company, so we’re in the sales tech space.
How can we own more of the flow?
So what do people do before Mailshake?
What do people do after it?
What’s the whole cycle like?
If we send emails, we’re sending emails to sales prospects or whatever, how are they finding these folks? How are they prospecting? What are they doing afterward?
So afterward would be a CRM. Beforehand would be like more list building and prospecting. And so we just thought about what can we create?
And then with a company like Pick, very strategic in the sense that Pick is a calendar-scheduling tool. We know that if you include a calendar link and you make it more convenient for somebody to book a meeting with you, it just reduces friction and therefore increases conversion. And so it’s like, why not offer that as well?
And so we just kinda offer that as an add-on or what not. Now, these are all different brands. I would say we’re really early stage of I don’t even know if we’ll ever combine them but I can tell you that by just adding valuable tools for our customers, and either giving it a discount or for free, or just by mentioning it, it has helped the stickiness of our core product.
The salty six
DR: That’s awesome. Alright, Sujan, we’re rounding third, we’re heading home. This has been awesome. And we’ve got the final segment, which is what we call the salty six. Six rapid-fire questions for us to get to know you better, and hear what you’re all about. Some business, some personal, mostly they’re just meant to have some fun and get to know ya. You ready?
SP: Let’s do it.
DR: Alright, salty six question number one:
What do you do for fun?
SP: I ride motorcycles and skydive, and just kinda hang out.
DR: What motorcycle do you have?
SP: I have an Aprilia RSV4, I have a couple bikes, and a KTM RC 390. One’s really powerful, one has no power, so I’m faster on the lower power one.
DR: Alright, very cool.
Question number two, what’s the best business conference that you’ve gone to?
SP: Personally, ConversionXL, the one here in Austin. ConversionXL Live actually it’s called. Peep Laja’s conference. Really good group of growth people. Conversion. I like the fact that he puts a conference on in the middle of nowhere at some resort, and so you can’t go anywhere but that resort, and so the fact I’m just stuck with a bunch of people because if it was me, I would hang out and just kinda go away for a bit and kinda come back. Get my little clicks with people. I love the fact. I met my business partner there two years ago, so best $1,500 I spent.
DR: Alright, very cool.
What podcasts do you listen to?
SP: Reid Hoffman’s. Really high-level scale.
DR: Masters of Scale.
SP: Masters of Scale, I should know it. Really helpful but I get all these nuggets from uber-successful people. And all in life I’m looking for is little nuggets that change my perspective or worldview.
DR: Yeah, Masters of Scale. They’re kind of a competitor to Scale or Die. Two heavyweight podcasts punching it out.
Cool, what book are you reading right now? What’s on your nightstand?
SP: I have a kid on the way, so I’m reading a book called Sleep 12 Hours in 12 Weeks.
DR: Love it.
SP: More sleep means I can work harder.
DR: That’s on your mind, I love it.
Michael Jordan or LeBron?
SP: Michael Jordan.
SP:I don’t know, he just, his tongue out, old school. I don’t know.
DR: The tongue out.
SP: LeBron is probably a better human being it looks like it’s coming to be but, and I’m from LA, so you’d think I love the fact that LeBron is going to LA, but Michael Jordan all the way.
DR: Love it.
And then what one person would you invite to a dinner party, dead or alive?
SP: Dead or alive? That’d be a weird dinner party with dead people.
DR: They’d be alive at the, they’d come back.
SP: At the– oh, but they can be dead, I see what you’re saying. Not a dead person?
DR: They wouldn’t be dead at the party.
SP: You see how I think though. Anyways, I would probably bring Trump. I just would like to just get inside his brain, whether you hate him or love him, his decisions are rash, his decisions are pretty out there. Sometimes I just wanna understand what he’s thinking through, maybe get some perspective. Not that I agree or disagree with anything, just like, that’s interesting because he clearly has a different take on life in a really unique way of looking at things. Again, good or bad. I just wanna know what the heck, on why. Because that would be interesting. Could change my perspective.
DR: The guy is clearly a wild man. I’ve had a couple friends who have gotten time with him or been at the White House or whatever, and a couple people, all the stories I’ve heard back have said one on one, he’s actually a pretty nice, normal guy, which is shocking to me. But anyway, that’d be an interesting dinner party.
SP: Absolutely, and I would say he’s one of the better marketers in the world right now. That guy crushed it on social. And he found that channel that won the presidency.
DR: That’s true.
SP: And he knows how to rally people up, which is exactly what he did.
DR: Alright, well there we have it, folks. Sujan, thanks so much for being on Scale or Die. If people want to find out more about what you’re working on, your companies, where can they look you up?
SP: Yeah, thanks for having me. I had a lot of fun. Probably the best place to reach me would be my personal website, sujanpatel.com. Or Twitter, I’m always ranting, raving about tools I’m trying out or new productivity tips.
DR: Love it, man, I think I looked on your Twitter the other day and you had like 28,000 Tweets or something.
SP: I talk a lot.
DR: That’s a lot. Love that man, thanks so much for being on.
SP: Yeah thank you.
DR: It’s been great.