Powering past things that didn’t work and the importance of focus

Emily Lonetto

A Conversion Conversation with Voiceflow’s Emily Lonetto

Growth, particularly at start-ups, is a tough but exciting domain. You often don’t have a lot of traffic, a product-market fit, or resources. I had the pleasure of chatting with Emily to pick her brain on avoiding shooting blankly into the dark, the importance of prioritization, and building on past learnings.


Rommil: Hey Emily — great to catch-up again! How’ve you been?

Emily: Hey Rommil! Great to see you again. I’ve been great.

Cool cool. For those who aren’t familiar with you (and shame on those who don’t know you yet), can you share a bit about yourself and what you do!

Hi, I’m Emily — during the day I head growth and partnerships at Voiceflow, a company that’s bent on making it easy for anyone to design, develop, and prototype voice apps with little to no code. Outside of that, I’m the co-founder of GrowthTO — the largest community of growth practitioners in Toronto. So in short, I really like growth.

I’m a data and design-driven problem solver that’s fallen in love with SaaS. I take companies looking to scale and discover new channels and opportunities to explore. I’m a serial experimenter that adds value by building and optimizing for user growth and retention.

First growth and marketing hire. Built the foundation for product growth, onboarding, program launches and partner messaging. Worked closely with customer success, product, development, and sales to create new channels and features for both partners and companies. Created new channels for marketplace promotion and engagement, while helping shape the culture for new hires at GrowSumo. GrowSumo (YC ’15) helps companies like Evernote, Intuit, and SMBs quickly and cost-effectively generate leads and close new business through advocate and reseller channels.

First growth and marketing hire. Built the foundation for product growth, onboarding, program launches and partner messaging. Worked closely with customer success, product, development, and sales to create new channels and features for both partners and companies. Created new channels for marketplace promotion and engagement, while helping shape the culture for new hires at GrowSumo. GrowSumo (YC ’15) helps companies like Evernote, Intuit, and SMBs quickly and cost-effectively generate leads and close new business through advocate and reseller channels.

https://www.growthtoronto.com/

Obviously Growth leans very heavily on experimentation — but in the early stages of growth, you don’t have much traffic. How do you go about running experiments to generate enough information to make decisions with?

The truth is, startups are always short on data. And when you’re short on data, you need to supplement with quality and people (i.e. find ways to back up and strengthen your gut instinct as a team with your customer feedback).

In the early days, it’s all about getting your first few “followers” or “loyal users.” By opting to find the first few customers/users I always recommend looking at active communities online that could match your potential user. For us, when we first started growing Voiceflow (at the time Storyflow), we were creating interactive children stories for Amazon Alexa, so naturally, we wanted to find parents that were early adopters of voice and most importantly had an Alexa + children. Facebook targetting and online audience filters weren’t going to give us that, so we turned to Facebook groups and found a series of parents that lived in Alexa groups online. Outside of that, we looked to Reddit communities, Alexa forums and other communities that might benefit from our product. This strategy continued to work as we expanded beyond “creating and enabling people to create interactive children stories on Amazon Alexa to democratizing voice app building for anyone for both Alexa and Google.”

These early users continue to be some of our most engaged and biggest power users to date. By creating these genuine relationships and creating a space for open feedback, we’re able to make up for the lack of ‘#s’ in our community by creating a space to actively gauge and engage our user base. Not only is this a great way to actually humanize the customers you’re targeting, but also help shape your early product roadmap, get beta feedback, and start building evangelists in the future. This strategy is still very core to everything that we do at Voiceflow, and previously at Clio, PartnerStack and Tilt.

“…when you’re short on data, you need to supplement with quality and people”

While each business is different, how do you decide where to start focusing your experiments, in general? How do you prioritize?

Prioritization is always hard, especially when you have a passionate team and exciting problems to solve. Although it sounds cliche, prioritization is one of the most powerful tools you can have as someone in growth. There’s always going to be a million things you can or want to do, but what will make the most impact where you need it when you need it? And what are you giving up on if you choose that over another idea?

One of the ways that we try to prioritize at Voiceflow is by setting clear OKRs and KRs for the quarter and future of the company. For instance, right now, we’re bent on figuring out more ways to push the # of signups and activated users we have on the platform. Although there are a ton of different aspects of the funnel that we could tackle, i.e. increased revenue (monetization), referral, or even brand — our major focus on owning signups and defining our early verticals of users are helping us dial in on what projects will make the most impact, right now.

However, it’s important to note in early startup days — prioritization can be hard, so really just like everything else — it’s an experiment.


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Because runway is a concern for every startup, how fast do you need to iterate on your experiments?

This is a tricky one. On one hand, you always want to find ways to maximize your ROI, extend runway, or expedite product-market fit — but rushing a test can be a waste of your resources and time. In the early days, it’s hard to hold back from shooting a ton of bullets in the dark and hoping that one sticks. Instead of thinking about how ‘often’ you need to iterate on experiments, I’d challenge you or anyone to think about what metrics do we want to experiment with and then create a few targetted experiments per month or quarter to keep things a little more focused. For instance, if $MRR is a concern; then take some time to map out what are some existing channels that you have on hand, what levers or campaigns can you run to potentially influence those channels to increase $MRR or metrics that impact $MRR? Alternatively, if the focus isn’t on generating revenue right now but instead of user growth or proof of concept, focus on ways to test out your hypotheses on which user bases fit best with your flow, which have higher LTVs, ideal activation times etc. And most importantly, keep track of your experiments. It’s one thing to start a ton of different experiments and maintain a ‘quota’ of how many you should run at a given time, but an experiment isn’t worth much unless you’re reviewing your findings and proving if it’s sustainable or not.

“…keep track of your experiments… an experiment isn’t worth much unless you’re reviewing your findings and proving if it’s sustainable or not.”

Are there lessons large corporations can learn from how start-ups experiment?

I mean, I’m totally biased here — but in my opinion, yes. One of the things that I really admire about startups is their willingness to drop ego in exchange for experimentation or growth. In a lot of larger corporations, new ideas and experiments get lost in layers of hierarchy, presentations, and procurement — in startups, given their need to innovate and compete on a faster; more agile timeline, you see more collaboration, speed, and regular tests. This methodology, although doesn’t always prove to be successful, does allow for a greater deal of ownership amongst your team, culture around failing and experimenting, and I believe creates a stronger bond between team and vision. Lastly, I think one thing that really stands out to me from a startup vs. large corporation solutions standpoint is the bias of finding a way to build or get the most impact without using resources. In large corporations, I often hear of people resorting to agencies or hiring to fix problems — in startups, we don’t necessarily have the luxury of outsourcing or hiring an agency to solve our immediate issues. This results in an extreme push to find strong communicators but also strong operators — people who are able to level up those around them while putting their own skin in the game, finding creative and scrappy ways to get things done, and those that aren’t demotivated by lack of resources.

“What works for one company might not work for yours, so don’t beat yourself up for trying something that seemed to kick it out of the park elsewhere…”

What piece of advice would you like to share with our readers about leveraging experimentation when it comes to growth?

When experimenting with growth, it’s alright to seek inspiration from examples you find online, in books or by talking to someone — but the best experiments that you can run for your company will be a combination of the best elements of all your learnings. What works for one company might not work for yours, so don’t beat yourself up for trying something that seemed to kick it out of the park elsewhere and didn’t stick with your current audience or product. As someone who’s looking to experiment, regularly brainstorm, regularly talk to people and collaborate when coming up with ideas, and don’t fixate on things if they don’t work — focus on what could have made it better and try again or try something else.

“As someone who’s looking to experiment, regularly brainstorm, regularly talk to people and collaborate…”

Finally, it’s time for the Lightning round!

Grow your user base or drive for profitability?

Ideally, both 😉 but a strong community of users can help you reach more users… and therefore increase the # of users you’re likely to convert to paid.

User base and community — hands down. Obviously it’s important to find ways to monetize, but in the early days, find your first followers — your first believers — your power users and establish your feedback loops. I cannot stress the importance and value of building a strong community. Not only is a competitive moat that’s incredibly hard to mimic, but it’s an invaluable data pool of users that care about your product and care to share their opinions. A strong community will eventually lead to a greater chance of converting paid users in the long-term.

Andrew Chen or Sean Ellis?

Brian Rothenberg. He’s a brilliant operator, is extremely articulate and really understands the mechanisms behind not only monetization but understanding userbases.

Nice dodge LOL. OK, Growth Hacking? Outdated term or Outdated practice?

Outdated term, but important to practice

Growth Hacking is outdated but has its place. “Hacking” together something tends to equal a quick fix or something that yields fast results, growth isn’t sustainable solely on hacks; and its the growth practitioners that understand how to balance both short term and long term growth experiments that will build more sustainable businesses in the future.

Growth — is it a young person’s game or can you make a career of it?

Anyone can make a career of it. Growth is all about creative problem solving and a knack for experimenting. It boils down to a mindset, not an age or a particular educational background — that’s one of the reasons why I love meeting other people in the space. Everyone has a different approach, so what will yours be?

Emily, thank you for joining the conversation!



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