A Conversion Conversation with Coohom’s Kareem Azees
Every so often you meet someone who embodies growth so much you have to hire them on the spot. I met Kareem a few years ago during my time at Autodesk’s Consumer Group — leading growth for their SketchBook and Pixlr products. From the beginning, Kareem pushed the envelope, always working at Mach 10. He has since moved on to join a startup in China and learned many valuable lessons around growth and experimentation which I’m excited to share with you today.
Rommil: Hey Kareem — how are you? It’s so rare that we find time to chat these days — ever since you’ve become an international growth-super star, of course!
Kareem: Thanks for having me!
For the benefit of my very small handful of readers, tell us about yourself and what you do.
Sure! I spent the first part of my career at Autodesk focusing on business analytics and digital marketing. My job was to help figure out how to optimize our ads and e-commerce website as a means to grow our revenue. One day while at Autodesk, the opportunity came up to move to Shanghai and help a local startup there expand globally. While this was a bit scary, I figured it would be the only chance to do something like this.
Right now, I lead the marketing function of Coohom (parent company: Kujiale.com). I manage a small team to plan and execute on how to best enter the North American market. This includes many things but most commonly I focus on three areas: (1) defining which channels we should use, (2) figuring out our story and pitch, and (3) collaborating with product on what the global market requirements are.
So — you’ve spent a good time in China. That must have been quite the adventure! Can you quickly share some of the cultural differences that stood out to you from a growth perspective?
In China, companies grow aggressively through any means necessary. This means that they try to expand into many different industries and use many business models. If you look at the top companies in America, they generally fall into two buckets: (1) ad based, and (2) transactional/subscription. In China, the largest companies optimize for many different business models — it’s very common for ads to overlap with transaction based systems.
I’ve found it particularly challenging from a growth perspective to adapt to this. In America, the mentality is to focus on a niche and dominate that category. This doesn’t seem to be the same in China. The culture is very much to get the product in the hands of as many people, even if they have slightly different use cases. This makes it particularly difficult from a product perspective too, since each buyer wants the roadmap to go in a different direction.
You’ve had the enviable as well as the unenviable task of driving international market expansion. Can you share, at a high-level, the path you took towards success and how experimentation helped you along your journey?
When I joined Coohom, there was no international marketing function and I had to figure out the right audience, market sizes, and channels. Experimentation helped with this.
In the first few months, I was just trying to get some users to collect product feedback. I defined basic tracking plans, and put ads live on Facebook and Google SEM, measuring the economics. Facebook didn’t work, but SEM did. So we experimented with copy, landing pages, removing friction, etc. to drive down our CPA and continued to measure the funnel. We realized that our retention rate needed improvements, so I got on the phone with users to find out motivations, needs, and more. At the time, we learned that designers would use the product more if we had a broad 3D model library from local manufacturers, like we did in China. So we began to investigate how to do this, moving into B2B.
We went to our first trade show as an experiment. We didn’t know if our product would fit here, how the market was different than China, and what the ROI of trade shows were. It was really just a way to learn about the industry. We talked to many manufacturers and learned some of the major pain points our platform could solve. But we quickly realized the product needed major changes and I went back to China giving these requirements to our product team.
While the product team worked on building functions for B2B, I began pilot projects with leads on long-term trials. This gave us a better understanding of the local market requirements and what types of channels would work, such as more trade shows, outbound sales, etc. As the product firmed up, we began to build out these channels, experimenting with optimizing pieces of each part like the email copy, pitch deck, and the branding of our trade shows. Now, I’m at a stage where I’m hiring experts in each channel.
In retrospect, I wonder how much pain could you have saved yourself if you started by better understanding your users?
When I had first joined Coohom, we had almost no global users, so it was starting from scratch. I had an idea of where this could be applicable, and put some limited budgets ads live to see what would happen if they tried it. As soon as that went live (along with Product Hunt), I spent a ton of time talking with customers to learn if this was a useful product for them. Once we made the call to pivot to B2B, it was pretty important to be face to face with the prospective customers and living in Shanghai made it difficult. I spent 3 weeks during the summer of 2019 travelling from Las Vegas to New York City and finally through to Miami to meet with prospective customers and pitch our platform. It was during this time frame that I really got a good grasp of where we were lacking in our story and product. I wish I had done this ‘roadshow’ earlier as it would’ve saved myself a lot of time trying to figure out how to speak to our customer’s motivations.
I wish I had done this ‘roadshow’ earlier as it would’ve saved myself a lot of time trying to figure out how to speak to our customer’s motivations.
What were some of the challenges you faced when trying to run these experiments?
There were many challenges. Here are three.
- Being local is critical. As we moved upscale, I had to fly down to the US to meet face to face with prospects and really get a good feel for their requirements. It wasn’t enough to just do phone calls.
- Channels may not show opportunity right away, but you have to re-evaluate often. Our first trade show, I came back with a stack or prospects, but our product just didn’t meet their requirements. It would have been easy to just say trade shows wouldn’t work and throw it away there. But each trade show we have been to since has been providing a better ROI and more new pipeline than the last.
- Cultural barriers. There was a lot of pressure at times to sell to anyone under the sun, but each new industry required a different experimentation roadmap for new marketing channels. Selling into real estate or interior design was much different than selling into the furniture industry.
What advice would you give folks looking to run experiments in order to drive market expansion?
Before I joined Coohom, I thought experimentation was all about driving traffic online, optimizing websites, copy, etc., and seeing the results. I would remind people that while this may work in some cases — consumer, e-commerce, SMB SaaS, etc., it may not work at all. I could have run ads all day on Google, but we would not have been as far as we are in the industry without getting out and pounding the pavement. Once we figured out what worked, we then could experiment to optimize the process. For example, now I look at how we can tweak our pitch, our email copy and sequences, and trade show efforts, rather than our online ads.
It’s time for everyone’s — and by everyone, I mean mine — favourite segment! The Lightning-round!
What is harder: Growth in North America or Growth in China?
I can’t answer, they both represent different challenges. And I didn’t exactly do growth in China — they have a whole bunch of different channels like wechat, etc. My role is more focused on helping a Chinese company grow into North America. And I can say it is more difficult to do that sitting in China than it is sitting in North America!
What is harder: Growth at a start-up or Growth at a big corporation?
Growth at a big corporation, there are a lot of resources around you, which makes you way more focused at the task at hand. You don’t need to figure out a lot of the infrastructure like sales operations, legal contracts, proposals, analytics implementations, etc. It’s already out there sitting for you. In a start-up, you have to define all of that while you’re trying to figure out how to grow. When I started at Coohom, I was working on our Segment and Mixpanel tracking plan and just this week I have been working with lawyers on migrating our contracts to US law. Totally different tasks, but both required in some way to help us scale up. At a big company, this would be someone else’s responsibility.
How many Air Miles do you have now?
Haha, because I was working at a start-up, I always flew economy and picked the cheapest tickets. Airline loyalty was not a thing for me, but I think I got at least 25k Delta points.
In a start-up, you have to define all of that while you’re trying to figure out how to grow.
Finally — if you could time-travel — what advice would you give your younger self?
Read more often. I’ve learned topics just from books written by industry experts. I spent the first part of my career in SMB / consumer SaaS and heavily involved with product and marketing analytics. When we moved upmarket to enterprise in Coohom, I actually didn’t know much about sales. I read Predictable Revenue by Aaron Ross and Marylou Tyler which acted as a guiding force for how we structured our sales system. I feel books are literally literally someone who has spent (usually) 10+ years doing and learning about something giving their secret formula away. That’s an insane amount of knowledge to be learned in a short amount of time.
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