Six things I learned launching a MarTech startup

In February 2015, two co-founders and I launched Phrasee – a subject line optimisation company – and little did we know we were embarking the wildest ride of our lives.  

Phrasee started as a conversation in a pub in Camden Town, London over a pale ale or three. And now we’re all over the internets. But it hasn’t been easy.

It’s my first time starting a business. I’ve worked for big corporates and small tech firms, and it’s long been a dream to be the boss. But I was never in the right place at the right time, be it personally or professionally.  

I’m a pretty quick learner. But, doing something for the first time is always hard. And you mess up. And you learn a lot.

For anyone out there who shares my dream – starting a disruptive technology company from scratch – then here’s a bunch of lessons I’ve learned along the way: 

1. There’s no textbook on launching a business 

I bought The Lean Startup, The Entrepreneur’s Toolkit, and about five other books and read them cover to cover. And gosh darn, I was sure I knew it all at that point. 

And guess what? Most of it was theoretical, and sounded like a good plan, but didn’t actually work in practice. 

For example – the “minimum viable product.” This is a concept that says you should launch to market with the most stripped down, minimal product possible and make revenue from it. Then build it up from there. 

Here’s the thing: selling an MVP is hard, because it’s very limited. And, the MVP is inherently buggy. Further, getting people to use it is a challenge… because it’s limited and buggy. 

And, philosophically speaking, I didn’t launch Phrasee to be a minimum product. I launched it to be the best. Sure, we couldn’t build everything we plan to build from day one. But the advice was to build something that’s barely fit for purpose, then gradually iterate on it. 

I followed the advice and launched a beta version in February. It wasn’t very good. We got a few people signed-up, so by MVP standards it was a success. But it felt dirty to me.

Startups are a meme these days. Just look at ProductHunt. A million MVPs coded by a million monkeys will eventually become the next unicorn. But the one-in-a-million odds are pretty depressing.

What I learned: What I should have done was avoided the initial MVP beta, and built the feature set out more… and then launched. This set us back by a couple months, since we were so focused on shipping the MVP and compromising on feature sets.  


2. A bunch of people said it wasn’t going to work. I ignored them

Before I launched, I bounced the idea off a bunch of people. And lots of them said, “That’s a bad idea, have you thought of this instead?” And “this” was always a boring, minor-iteration on what someone else was doing.

Or, some people just said, “There’s not a market for that.” And basically made it their mission to tell me it was a bad idea. 

I ignored them. And am glad I did. 

See, I believed in our concept, technology and company vision. I still do. What we are doing, however, is actual innovation, not iteration. And this means 1) lots of people don’t understand it; 2) lots of people are risk-averse; and 3) and a few people are just negative assholes. 

So let’s break down these three reasons:

  1. Lack of understanding. Nascent, innovative technology is, well, innovative. So people don’t really understand what it does. And, things like artificial intelligence and machine learning are buzzwords right now, and few people actually know what they mean in practice. All the clutter in the space makes it hard for an actual innovator to stand out.
  2. Risk aversion. This came mostly from people who’s ideas were ingrained perpetuating the status quo. They are so focused on minuscule iterations on what is happing now – not tomorrow – so seeing something innovative scares them… and they respond to it with negativity.
  3. Negative assholes. There’s been a few of them… and I think it boils down to Schadenfreude. Some people love to see people fail. Like seeing a man get hit with a football in the groin. But, I have always thought of myself as an anarchist at heart, and I love proving people wrong.  

See, one of my first bosses used to say, “if you do what you always did, you’re gonna get what you always got.” And that’s perfect for people who want to perpetuate the status quo. But not for me.

The main thing I learned is to only listen to people I trust, and ignore the risk-averse, non-understanding, negative assholes.

The guy who gave me the best advice? My dad. Not only is he a handsome devil – but he’s also innovated in his field, launched and ran a company, and been through it all. (He’s quite the dude actually – check out his profile on his alma mater here.)  

He taught me to never be constrained by old ways of thinking, and it was the best advice I’ve received, ever in my life.  

What I learned: Find people you trust, and speak to them open and honestly. But don’t get downtrodden by negative people. If your idea sucks, that’s one thing. But if you truly believe in your idea – then go for it. And prove people wrong. Haters gonna hate, so embrace it.  

3. Lots of people were curious. Which was great for everyone except Phrasee

After we launched, hundreds of people got in touch, super curious to find out more. And, perhaps naively, I assumed each one of them would become a qualified lead. 

So I scheduled calls and meetings and coffees and pints. And ran around the country meeting everyone. 

And for the most part it was a big old waste of time. 

When we first started, I was super keen to become an INSTANT BILLIONAIRE and so I thought I’d just speak to a load of people and make a bunch of super quick sales and then sell for £4bn and do dope shit because my life is dope. 

But that’s not how things went. What actually happened is I spend so much time trying to speak to everyone under the sun that it deviated me from what I should have been doing – focusing on product market fit. 

Now, with that said, a few of those early meetings are bearing fruit now in terms of revenue and partnerships. So in the long run there has proven to be some serendipity. But this is the exception to the rule.

What I learned: In hindsight, I should have been more picky about where I spent my time. Now we operate a strict triage system when scheduling meetings, and that’s proven much more effective. 

4. I failed fast a bunch of times, and probably will fail a bunch more times. Basically, I’m a failure

Our initial beta product had lots of issues with it. I won’t bore you with the specifics, but it wasn’t what the market wanted. 

So we’ve pivoted. About 10 times. In the last 10 months. So we average about one pivot per month. 

The thing is though – through these failures we’ve learned so much. We’ve taken on huge volumes of data, both quantitative and qualitative, which have allowed us to supercharge our product development. 

You know that Donald Rumsfeld quote, you know the one I mean, “known unknowns” and all that? The quote that was made for lovers of 2-by-2 matrices? And somehow has become a huge meme in management speak? Well, and I hate to be that guy jumping on a management meme, but it’s true.

What old Rummy was actually saying is that the world is filled with uncertainty and random variance. The question is never “what is the best path” – you can’t predict the future. The question that you need to answer is “what is the least bad path.” 

See, here’s the thing – predicting the optimal course of action, out of effectively limitless possibilities, is a virtual impossibility. But – predicting the worst course of action, and avoiding that, is soluble. 

What we’ve started doing is listing questions we have about the market, about our product, about our customers, and then actively testing out ideas to answer these questions.

This fits with our ethos. Our entire business proposition is that in a marketing environment one needs to define hypotheses, test them, and learn from the results. And this philosophy is deeply ingrained in our business practice.  

What I learned: Failure is inevitable when doing something new. But plan your failures to minimise uncertainty. Because minimising these uncertainties is how you grow a business.  

5. Marketing works when it doesn’t suck, and when you stand out from clutter

Hey, let me ask you a question. When’s the last time you downloaded a whitepaper, and it actually taught you something? Let me guess the answer – pretty much never. 

See, MarTech is a competitive, rapidly advancing space. And so the normal marketing method is to write a whitepaper (which used to be called a product brochure), or do a case study, or write a blog of 128 tips about something. And wait for the huge volumes of leads to come pouring in.  

Erm… right. 

The thing is, even if you have the most incredible product on the planet, it’s going to get lost amongst all of the clutter in the market. Another whitepaper? Great. That’s exactly what your customers want right now, right? 

The problem is this – more whitepapers actually confuse the market. It offers more options, but fewer solutions… and makes the information seeking stage of the purchasing process more stressful. And in the end, whilst whitepapers are intended to highlight innovation, the end effect on customers is the opposite. It creates anxiety and inhibits purchasing.

So, early on at Phrasee we decided to buck the trend. See, we don’t have millions upon millions of dollars to spend on every advertising opportunity out there. So we had to be smart.  

We decided on three things:

  1. Focus on a small number of channels. We operate in the email marketing space – so we decided early on to focus on marketing via email. Sure, we send out a tweet here and there, or whatever, but email made intuitive sense. We started a weekly newsletter that now has thousands of subscribers – and, according to feedback from the market, is awesome. People tweet about our newsletter. What the what?!?
  2. Only do reports/whitepapers that are chunky. The last thing we wanted was to further clutter the MarTech space with more thinly-veiled brochures disguised as whitepapers. So instead of a huge volume of stuff, we instead focused on a small volume of useful, chunky stuff. This allowed us to stay focused, and position ourselves as thought leaders.
  3. Use voice as a differentiator. Most company blogs, whitepapers and newsletters are boring. A few of them push the boat out and use a gif from Game of Thrones or something to make a tenuous link with their product. And this is spammy. Instead, we spend hours upon hours writing our copy across all of our channels. Our main voice strategy is to be irreverent, memorable and, at times, controversial. We’d rather be remembered than be forgotten in clutter. 

What I learned: Marketing works when it’s done well… and to do it well (and on a budget) you have to be willing to take risks. Forget stupid phrases like “growth hacking” – just be awesomely authentic. 

6. It’s an exhilarating ride. And also terrifying. And I wouldn’t change it for anything

In the last year, I’ve never slept so little. Half the time I’ll wake up at 3am and lie there, heart beating faster than ever, brain racing, not knowing what to do.

On those mornings I’ll take the train to work, and break into a cold sweat. “What if it all goes wrong,” my internal negative voice will say. 

But – the other half the time, I’ll wake up in the morning, bound out of bed, and my internal positive voice says, “Today’s the day.” 

And there’s no days in the middle of these emotional extremes.

See, running a startup is viewed as a glamourous thing to do these days (well, glamourous for nerds.) It’s the dream – build technology, monetise it, and become an instant billionaire. That’s the dream, right?

What no one tells you about is all the sleepless nights. The incredible levels of stress. The inherent uncertainty that permeates every aspect of your life.

So my theory is this – if you start a tech company, or probably any company, chances are you are nuts. But not One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest nuts. Nuts in the sense that you exult in the consistently unpredictable highs and lows.

That feeling happens when something goes right. It’s better than any drug on the planet. It’s equal parts pride, surprise, excitement, and avarice.  

We’re still very early in the Phrasee journey. I believe with every shred of my being that we are building a special company. My gut is bullish on the future of our business.

But, those mornings when I wake up and lie awake, uncertain of what the future will hold… my head keeps me grounded.

The coming months and years are going to be a roller coaster, that’s for certain. It’s going to be hard. It’s going to be stressful. And it’s going to be insanely gratifying. 

What I learned: Starting a business isn’t easy. If it were, then everyone would do it. 

2015 has been a year of incredible change for me, both personally and professionally. Not since my early 20s did I live in such a world of uncertainty. Perhaps one day things will calm down, and I will relax. 

But until then, I’m going to enjoy the ride. Because the ride is awesome, and isn’t something you can buy.

For anyone out there who’s thinking about binning their job and starting up a company – I would recommend it… but only if you’re willing to deal with both the good and the bad. They come in equal parts.

Without lows, you can’t experience highs. And the highs are what make it all worthwhile.

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