A Conversion Conversation with HubSpot’s Alex Birkett
Experimentation is an amazing tool, but just because you have a great hammer, that’s not a reason to see everything as a nail. I recently chatted with Alex about validating ideas cheaply, figuring out who your target market is, using Experimentation once you have your content strategy nailed down.
Rommil: Hi Alex, thanks for taking the time to chat! How are you?
Alex: Hey Rommil, thanks for the opportunity to chat. I’m doing well! Currently, I’m on a layover in Frankfurt headed to Amsterdam as the last leg of a long nomadic winter. I put my stuff in storage and lived out of Airbnbs all winter, so I’m pretty excited to get back to Austin soon and have some delicious tacos again.
You’ve had quite a career. Could you share a bit about your journey and what you do now with our readers?
I joined an early-stage startup out of university. I mean, really early stage — they had just graduated TechStars and hadn’t raised a seed round yet, so it was me and the founders sitting around a table doing the scrappiest things we could think of to grow. Some of this was foundational — i.e. working on the outbound sales process and customer success function. Some of it, though, was highly creative and growth hack-y, which I loved. I still love startups more than anything.
I went to CXL after that, where I worked on content and growth. CXL was like an elite graduate school for data-driven marketing and technical skills, especially working alongside the legend himself, Peep Laja. When he wasn’t throwing pencils at me to get my attention, he taught me quite a bit about experimentation, clear thinking, and leadership.
Now I’m at HubSpot, where I work on freemium user acquisition. This is quite a broad role, where we’re really incentivized to tinker and find the highest leverage projects and channels that no one is currently working on, or that are at least untapped or undervalued, and to scale them out. Right now, that channel is something we call the “surround sound strategy,” which is basically a reinvented version of SEO where we try to map out the highest intent keywords and touchpoints on the customer journey and appear at every place on those sites.
“…there are many ways to validate ideas cheaply, like the coffee shop usability test, usertesting.com, copytesting.com, fake door tests/smoke tests, etc.”
Speaking about early start-ups, you often don’t know who your customer is. Not exactly, at least. Are there any ways to leverage Experimentation and Paid channels to help paint that picture?
You can certainly get very rapid feedback loops by running limited scale ads testing. That doesn’t tell you everything you need to know about your ideal customer, but it can tell you whether or not a message resonates with whom you’re targeting — which, in the early days, is some really useful information.
This is a classic validation method. I think I heard about it first when I read the 4 Hour Workweek years ago (back when it was much cheaper to test things via search ads). You set up a quick and dirty landing page, spend $100 targeting who you think is worth targeting, and see what happens. It’s a fast way to test product validation as well as messaging and design.
The specifics have changed over the years (again, it’s not as cheap as it used to be to test things out, though targeting is much better), but the overall idea is the same: fast learning feedback loops allow you to cap the downside of any suboptimal investment.
For what it’s worth, beyond finding your target audience, there are many ways to validate ideas cheaply, like the coffee shop usability test, usertesting.com, copytesting.com, fake door tests/smoke tests, etc.
Similarly, in the early days, what role does Experimentation play in figuring out product-market-fit?
Experimentation in the broad sense of the word likely has a direct tie-in with figuring out product-market fit. “Experimentation,” in this sense, is less literally focused on controlled experiments to improve your UI, and more philosophically on optimizing for discovery, seeking rapid user feedback, and iterating to the optimal action. I think this aligns well with the whole idea of the Minimum Viable Product.
I’m not sure though, I’ve not focused a lot of my specific career on product-market-fit, at least in the traditional sense. I’ve spent more time on product/channel fit, which is completely driven by experimentation and trial and error (and doubling down when you hit a pond full of lucrative, proverbial fish).
Freemium is a huge tactic for subscription services. What are some of the biggest mistakes that people new to growth should look to avoid?
A few preliminary thoughts here:
- I’m not necessarily an expert on freemium as a go-to-market strategy. I work on freemium at HubSpot, but generally speaking, I use many of the same tactics I would if I were generating leads.
- Hiten Shah wrote that “freemium is an acquisition model, not a revenue model.” That’s a good core assumption and way to look at it.
- Freemium isn’t a silver bullet and you can’t just plug it onto any business model or product and make it work.
So all that said, freemium is a great way to widen the top of the funnel, as you’re essentially lowering the barrier to entry to zero for new customers to try your product out. This means, however, you need to have a great product that actually stands out from the competition, a major distribution channel to actually leverage the increased top of funnel (which comes with the tradeoff, generally, of less specific target), and a very obvious activation and monetization strategy.
In short, you’ve gotta think through this stuff.
Again, I’m not a thought leader here, but I think if you just look at flops vs great examples you can see some commonalities. For example, Headspace and Duolingo were able to build up massive user bases and have (in my opinion) very clear monetization paths (I’ve been a paying customer of both). On the other hand, I’ve used Evernote for years and have never felt a single reason to upgrade or pay. I get everything I need on the freemium version (I do pay for Notion though, so they’re an example of a better freemium motion).
I feel this. When we used to do Freemium during my time at Autodesk’s Consumer Group and 500px, we struggled a lot in trying to figure out how to gate features so that many users try them, yet feel compelled to pay for better versions of them.
Changing gears. Could you explain what is, as well as the importance is of, a solid content strategy? How does Experimentation factor into that strategy?
Content marketing is one of my favourite acquisition channels. You’re able to build something you largely own (at least if you’re collecting emails), and it’s, for the most part, totally dependent on your own time, effort, and quality. In other words, if you start writing fucking excellent content that speaks to your customers’ pain points, it will be only a matter of time before you get results. When you do start getting results, it will be very hard for others to compete with you, at least in a short time frame.
The jargon-y word for this is a moat.
If you grow via Facebook and Instagram ads, and especially if you don’t have a very differentiated product, any and all competitors can reach parity in a very short time frame (just ask most DTC mattress companies, or really, the vast majority of recent DTC shooting stars).
Experimentation doesn’t actually play a huge role in content strategy, as you have to double down on a strategy in order for it to work (at least for a given time frame, typically broken apart into the immediate 1–2 years, followed by 2–5 as a medium outlook, and 5–10 and beyond being very long term strategic). This is elaborated in a great book called the Strategy Paradox.
Where experimentation does come in is once you have a content machine established, you can run the same sorts of A/B tests you can with any other marketing action, including on your blog reader experience, SEO title tags and meta descriptions, CTAs to sign up for your email list, etc. In that way, there’s no huge difference in the role of experimentation here — it’s a methodology for discovering improvements to what you’re currently doing, allowing for increased innovation while capping the downside and risk of any given action.
“…just learn SQL”
You have some serious data science chops. How important are languages like R to Experimentation?
Learning R and SQL (and more recently Python) have sort of changed how I think about data.
Previously, I used data to make marketing decisions. I looked at Google Analytics reports. I was pretty good at understanding how the data was collected and using the advanced features of the platform.
However, when I learned to code (again, primarily using R), I began to learn about data at a very fundamental level — how it is collected, the underlying structure of different data types, and how data can be cleaned, manipulated, or analyzed, given those constraints.
You can clearly run A/B tests without learning R, but if you’re serious about data and data-driven decision making, I can personally highly recommend learning R or Python. It’ll change how you think.
Or actually, just learn SQL. My colleague Begli Nursahedov told me it’s easily the most transferable and universal data skill, and I totally agree.
I’ve been checking out your blog — it’s such a great resource for those passionate about Growth. What inspired you to start writing?
I started writing in college because I didn’t know how else to get attention or get internships or jobs. It began as a way to showcase what I was learning from books, internships, and conversations. I want to say this was advice given to me or that I read somewhere, but I can’t pinpoint the exact source since in hindsight it seems so obvious.
Additionally, all the thinkers I followed were writers. In college, I loved reading Tim Ferriss, Ryan Holiday, and other marketing writers. Still to this day, I love reading the thoughts of smart industry experts like Ronny Kohavi, Andrew Anderson, Claire Vo, etc. when they write (or speak).
To date, blogging has been the biggest source of leverage for my career, helping me meet people, get jobs, and get clients for my content agency. It’s resulted in a ton of serendipity, or more technically, optionality. It has also helped me become a clearer thinker (writing and coding! The two best ways to become a clearer thinker).
Changing gears. It’s time for the Lightning Round!
Sean Ellis vs Brian Balfour?
Reforge is awesome but so is Hacking Growth & everything that Sean works on. Tie.
Where do you start: Profitability or user-base growth?
Depends on how much money you’ve raised and what your core business model and monetization strategy are.
I’m going to say a phrase or word and you tell me the first thing that comes to mind:
- CAN-SPAM — email
- GDPR — frustrating
- Facebook — engagement at all costs
- Retargeting — low hanging fruit
- SEO — growth
- Alex — Birkett
With that, Alex, I want to say, thank you for joining the conversation!
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