Almost six years ago, when I was at Treehouse, I saw growth stall out at a large scale for the first time. Treehouse had 50-60 people back then, but we only had five months’ of cash in the bank.
Before I came on to help with marketing, growth had already been for two years. Our business was teaching people how to code online, how to do web design, how to ideate a great product, how to build a great team, etc. But for whatever reason they couldn’t make marketing work.
Dave McClure said, and I’m paraphrasing, that the biggest issue startups face is that most of them absolutely suck at digital marketing. They have a ton of cash, but often misspend it wildly. This wouldn’t be as big of a problem if digital marketing weren’t absolutely crucial to growth.
Worse, there still aren’t many schools that teach you this marketing stuff. There are good message boards out there like:
There are also a lot of courses out there, too, like:
Anyway, going back to Treehouse. When I first got there, I said to myself, “Okay, I need to stop the bleeding right now.” So I decided to shut down the ads. Not too long after that I got promoted to lead the marketing team and the original marketing lead of two years instantly quit. So there was literally no onboarding and no knowledge transfer.
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I had one month to both onboard myself and figure out what was going wrong. The CEO even pulled me aside and said, “If we don’t figure out numbers this month, we’re going to have to let you go.” So less than a month into my brand new job, I was already almost on my way out. For that entire month, I was just trying to figure out, “What the heck is going on?”
When your back is up against the wall, how do you react? You can either piss your pants or you can do something about it.
At the time we had a 4-day work week and I was putting in 7-day work weeks. Moral of the story: when you’re trying to figure out why growth is stalling, you might have to put in the extra effort. You might have to say goodbye to some of those weekends and goodbye to spending a lot of time with your friends. This is your baby right now, and you’ve got to save it.
When growth stalls, you have got to be willing and able to pull out all the stops and put in the time. I shut down advertising. I was working a lot. I didn’t ask my team to work overtime. I was just putting in the additional hours myself.
In hindsight, that was probably the wrong move. I probably should have told my team, “Hey, guys, it’s on us to save the company. We’ve only got five months worth of cash left in the bank. Let’s buckle down and do this together.”
After cutting down on ad costs, I started looking at the numbers. I pored through the analytics, AdWords, and every ad campaign we had been running. Facebook ads weren’t good at the time.
What I found was that we were seeing some semblance of traction with YouTube advertising. Based on the numbers, and because I really had nothing to lose, I decided to double down on YouTube advertising. And that’s exactly what skyrocketed our user growth and took us to the next level.
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We also started looking at SEO. I kept asking myself, “How can we improve our SEO?” The first thing I did was bring in a managing editor. We hired a bunch of writers from a bunch of different web design sites, too. At the same time, we didn’t want to rely 100% on YouTube, so we diversified our ad channels and did a site redesign.
It all ended up working out for us and within that first month we were able to double our numbers. The month after that I think we were able to double our numbers again and we just kept growing and growing. Today, Treehouse is a $100 million dollar company.
Long story short, if your growth is stalling and your marketing is failing, you really only have one option: look at the numbers and act accordingly. You have to be willing to shut things down, stop the bleeding, and hire and fire as needed. You have to be willing to believe in what the data is telling you and stick things out until good things happen.
Fast forward to Single Grain, a digital marketing agency that I run. When I came to Single Grain, it was doing even worse than Treehouse was. It was actually in the red. I had to figure out how to turn things around dramatically, and fast.
Keep in mind that the Treehouse turnaround happened in about eight months, though things started to really turn around in my first three months there. When you have a good product and a good team, fixing the marketing isn’t that hard.
But before I came to Single Grain, there were a lot of issues with their internal processes and deliverables. It was primarily an SEO-focused company and Google’s Penguin Update basically stomped all over their services.
What Single Grain did in the past just wasn’t working as well anymore. Clients weren’t seeing the results. So when I came to Single Grain, I decided we had to shift direction. We had to add services like pay-per-click and content marketing. At the same time, I decided to shut down our primary lead source (ads) because we were becoming too reliant on it.
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I wanted us to become self-reliant, so I started to diversify our lead sources and our organic traffic began to grow.
I started the Growth Everywhere podcast at the same time, and fortunately I was meeting a lot of great people. I also joined Entrepreneurs’ Organization and Young Entrepreneur Council.
Basically, I did everything I could to not put all our eggs in the same basket.
And it was tough. Making too many drastic changes is never a great idea—especially if you have a lot of people on a team. It can ruin the culture and that’s exactly what happened at Single Grain.
In hindsight, although things still worked out in the end, I probably should have done things a little slower. I probably should have gotten people’s feedback and spent more time talking to the team. But I just figured, “Hey, we need to move really quickly.” And so we did.
We already knew SEO wasn’t going to cut it for us anymore, so first we bet on content marketing. That didn’t work out so well. But when we bet on pay-per-click—that’s the main service we offer today, paid advertising—it worked out really well for us and today it’s our biggest service.
We had a lot of process-oriented issues to fix, too. Operationally speaking, there was no documentation for a lot of the things we did. Financially speaking, it was a house of cards. Overall, the Single Grain turnaround took a lot longer than the Treehouse turnaround. I took over Single Grain 3 years ago and we didn’t really start seeing very positive results until about 1 year ago. So the turnaround took 2 years total.
Long story short, double down on what’s working and ignore the rest until you’re profitable. Move faster, too. I should have moved faster on a lot of important things. In hindsight, I probably should have let people go faster instead of trying to let them hang around and protect their paycheck.
What I learned is that as a business owner, you obviously want to protect your employees. But you can’t try to play God or anything like that. This is why layoffs are a thing. Sometimes, you have to do what’s necessary to preserve the company. You may have to let people go, and you will definitely have to make tough decisions.
My advice: make the tough decisions faster. Don’t be afraid to do that, because there’s no silver bullet that’s going to get you there. It’s all about persistence.
At many points at Single Grain, during that 2-year turnaround period, I could have chosen to give up. Even in the first year when I didn’t own the company yet, I could have chosen to give up. I could have thrown in the towel.
Ironically, before I came to Single Grain I wanted to see if I could save a company that was on its way down. This wasn’t the smartest move on my part.
Think of it this way: if you want to go from -$100 to +$100, you have to make $200. But if you go from $0 to +$100 you just have to make $100. From an investment standpoint, it’s far easier to start from zero and get into the green than it is to start in the red and do the same thing. When you do that, all the momentum is working against you.
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That’s what happened with Marissa Mayer and Yahoo. She was very well equipped to run that company and she turned it around a little bit in the beginning—but it was too little too late. Eventually Yahoo was sold to Verizon and it was a pretty significant loss at the end of the day.
Even though Single Grain is now successful, my recommendation would be to start from scratch as a business owner rather than buy and try to fix a failing business. But if you’re going to try to save something or grow something that’s stagnant, you’ve got to power through it. That’s ultimately the best recommendation I can give as a fellow business owner.
Most people give up too quickly. Most people throw in the towel too easily because they can’t take the pain. But if you can take the pain and you can weather the storm, you’re going to be that much better at business than 99% of the competition.
This post was adapted from Eric’s Facebook Live videos: Growth 90 – DAILY live broadcasts with Eric Siu on marketing and entrepreneurship. Watch the video version of this post: