8 Things I Learned at HubSpot

Alright, so I left HubSpot after almost 4 years. Joined a fast growing startup to run their experimentation program.

I like to do a post-hoc write-up on lessons I’ve learned (like this one from my time at CXL).

First, why leave?

My former boss, Peep Laja, told me in a podcast interview that if he’s not having fun and if he’s not learning, it’s time for him to do something new. I learned a lot at HubSpot and had a ton of fun. I would have kept learning and having fun if I stayed. But I felt the call to return to experimentation, data, and startups. And I really wanted to get a feel for running a team and a program, which would have been difficult or a long way off at HubSpot. So I took the jump.

Anyway, here are some lessons I learned at HubSpot that I’ll take with me:

  • A Little Technical Knowledge + Perseverance Goes a Long Way
  • Influence & Communication Supercedes Technical Know-How at a Certain Stage
  • Territorialism is for Losers; Instead, Help People
  • Do the Work, Show the Work, Scale the Work
  • Go Where the Fish Are
  • Remote rocks, but in person is irreplaceable
  • If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together
  • Maybe The Real Treasure Was the Friends We Made Along the Way

A Little Technical Knowledge + Perseverance Goes a Long Way

One of my favorite articles of all time is by Simo Ahava. It’s titled “The Myth of the Non-Technical Marketer.”

In it, he rants:

“The whole polarization of non-technical vs. technical is silly and artificial, and nothing irks me as much as this constant undervaluing of the human capacity to learn new things. Code allergy should be a thing of the past by now. Why not instead embrace the fact that our industry is rife with opportunities to not only understand more about the technology stack we work with, but also to combine this technical know-how with our marketing skills for some true hybrid insight?”

I’ve always prided myself on being willing to get my hands dirty and learn new things, from Spanish to R to BJJ (just learning the shrimp was hard enough). At HubSpot, I learned how valuable this is, especially if you’re in a “non-technical” role like a marketer or a PM.

(Note: read the Simo article. There’s no such thing as a non-technical marketer nor for that matter a non-technical PM if you’re working in tech/digital).

Here’s the truth: most people don’t want to wade too far outside their domain of expertise. But as Tim Kennedy said, “everything you want is on the far side of hard work.”

If there’s an A/B test you want to run, but you’re waiting on your development resources, could you simply learn a little CSS? Probably. If there’s a bit of user research you need to make a business decision, could you simply learn a given methodology and give it a spin? Probably.

I knew, for instance, that we needed additional tooling to scale the surround sound strategy at HubSpot. At first, I tried to garner resources and hire a freelancer to build them. When that was taking too long, I just started coding. And Googling. And coding more. It took me several weeks of doing this mostly in my spare time, and then, eventually, I had a functional script that did the bare minimum of what I needed.

Then I built more and refined the code. Then I worked with a code mentor to help me host it on Shiny and give it an interface. And eventually, I had built a custom tool with R and Shiny.

Most of the process sucked, but like a hard math problem, it felt great to persevere and eventually crack the code. Genuinely, it felt so fucking cool to have built my own internal data product. It’s something I’m still super proud of.

Then, I got to help build other mini tools. This was some of the most fun work I’ve had in my career.

There were many people at HubSpot that took control of their destiny, despite technical challenges. One of the things I’ll miss most about working there is working with Braden Becker on custom tools, optimizations, and automations like this.

But the learning remains: in a non-technical field, the slightly technical person is incredibly valuable.

Influence & Communication Supercedes Technical Know-How at a Certain Stage

Despite all that, the best analyst is going to have a lot of trouble if they can’t communicate, manage stakeholder expectations, influence without authority, and get buy-in for projects.

Before HubSpot, I had worked at startups. Super early stage. You didn’t “get buy-in.” You just did shit.

At a big company, even if they try to keep a sense of autonomy and speed, it’s just not the same.

You need to work with other teams, who have their own goals and may see your project as either a) not contributing to their goal or b) in direct conflict with it. In these situations, you need to lead with people skills, not technical skills.

To my chagrin, this means skills like writing memos (my favorite), building slide decks (my least favorite), and running meetings become super important.

If you’re interested in learning more of my specific lessons on influence and communications, I did a presentation on this for Forget the Funnel:

I couldn’t be more grateful to have worked with and learned directly from leaders who I think are *really* good at this, like Scott Tousley and Matt Barby.

Territorialism is for Losers; Instead, Help People & Solve for the Business

All those political lessons aside, my guiding heuristic is to choose the projects that are most impactful for the business. I make sure my goals are hit, but if my skills can help another person hit theirs, I’ll try to do it.

Obviously as a company scales, you need to draw lines in the sand for ownership, accountability, and clarity. In the beginning of a startup, you have a lot of generalists doing a lot of things. Later, you need specialists with specific domains.

However, if something impinges on my goals while simultaneously providing a net positive impact for the business, I’m going to take the hit on my goals. This is where experimentation and a true data-driven culture can help. Where arguments and territorialism traditionally reign, data can help you make these decisions (and despite your best hopes, sometimes the pie *is* finite and goals are in conflict).

Additionally, I loved helping out where I could even if it was on a team that was unrelated to my function (granted, my function was quite open-ended so it gave me a lot of room to choose what to work on). I got my stuff done, of course, but then had a lot of fun helping others out. This led to more and better relationships and a broader understanding of the scope of the business.

I talked to Tim Soulo during an Omniscient Office hours this month, and it seems that this attitude of entrepreneurialism, bias to action, and sense of ownership/responsibility in maximizing business value is the secret to the small but powerful Ahrefs’ marketing team.

Territorialism is boring.

Do the Work, Show the Work, Scale the Work

I had multiple roles while at HubSpot, one of which was working on freemium acquisition.

My job on the freemium user acquisition team was to find net new acquisition opportunities, validate them, and scale them through process documentation, education, evangelisation, and general support.

As such, here was my process:

  • Tinker
  • Hit on something promising
  • Scrappily do the work myself to prove the value
  • Share the initial promising results to get more buy-in
  • Repeat with greater scale
  • Share and evangelize your work. Recruit others.
  • Pass the baton and move onto the next project.

That’s how it went with the surround sound strategy, which is essentially a strategy designed to “monopolize” search results pages for high intent product terms by appearing on all product lists.

We saw that listicles (e.g. “best live chat software”) convert well. We didn’t have buy-in to write more of them because it didn’t fit with the existing content strategy. It would have been en uphill battle to simply persuade through storytelling at that point.

So we put pen to paper and just wrote a few of them, both on HubSpot’s blog and for content partners. We measured conversions, and sure enough, the results were replicated. Product listicles worked.

We shared these promising results and got additional leverage through a) permission to write a certain amount of these each month and b) budget to hire freelancers.

We scaled it to great results, resulting in thousands of portals a month. Then we shared this in a Wiki post internally to cement the strategy in the lexicon of HubSpot’s content plays.

The reins were then passed to Irina Nica, who scaled this strategy beyond HubSpot’s blog and onto partner and affiliate websites as well as to international properties. Meanwhile, I worked to enable the strategy through infrastructure and tooling (hence all the coding I mentioned above).

Do the work, show the work, scale the work, and then move on once you’ve provided the support and infrastructure to pass the baton.

Go Where the Fish Are

I learned a ton from Scott Tousley, but one of the most replicable lessons I’ve learned is the “Go Where the Fish Are” framework. I guess he took it from Ramit Sethi, but either way, we applied it to all of our acquisition efforts at HubSpot.

The premise is simple: if you want to catch a lot of fish, find a pond with a lot of fish. Fishing in an empty pond isn’t going to work, and fishing in a pond with many other fisherman isn’t great either. You want to find ponds with lots of fish and less competition.

The cool thing about this framework is that it puts the customer first. Doesn’t matter if your expertise is in content marketing, if content marketing isn’t going to be a good pond to fish in, it’s not good marketing.

Many marketers are holding on to old Maslow’s hammer (when all you have is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail). A better bet is to build structural skills in customer research, data analysis, and the meta-skill of validating and scaling channels. Then, you can pick and choose which channel or tactic to invest in based on what is actually the most impactful, not just the one you’re already good at or used to.

By the way, do you know how rare it is for marketers to actually talk to customers? PMs do it. Marketers should do it, too. Bucket this in the same category as technical skills (i.e. many people are unwilling to do it, so if you do it, you’ll be extremely valuable).

Remote rocks, but in-person is irreplaceable

Pandemic remote is different than normal remote. In normal times, I worked from coffee shops and coworking spaces and traveled to Boston or Dublin once every quarter to get face time with my HubSpot colleagues.

In absence of that, remote sucked. It was incredibly lonely and isolating to spend all day in front of a Zoom call.

Before this, I would have said I’d never work in an office again. Now, I’m craving it.

I think in the future, I’m going to strike a balance: spend 60% of my time working in isolation, 30% of my time working with others in Austin, and 10% of my time working with colleagues (either at my day job or at Omniscient) in person.

Those in person trips I took at HubSpot were awesome, not only from a personal enjoyment standpoint but from an effectiveness standpoint. Many times I would struggle to get collaborate work done *until* I had met someone in person for coffee. After we got to know each other, working together was seamless.

If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together

I tend to be scrappy and fast. I like it that way. I think most organizations move far too slowly. One of my favorite essays I’ve read in recent years was Frank Slootman’s “Amp It Up!” One of the pillars in it was advice to “increase velocity.” More:

“The pace has to be profound, palatable, breathtaking, order-of-magnitude type change. You want to go 20% faster? It’s barely discernible, and you will be back in your old mode before long.”

I still think this and I’m deliberately and consciously making this a part of Omniscient’s culture. Make decisions quickly, feel free to act autonomously, we trust you, etc.

However, in a large company, you need to get a coalition. You need leverage, and that comes in the form of a team, and sometimes cross-team work.

Sometimes, that requires slowing down to make sure everyone’s on the same page. This could be through increased documentation, process optimization, or even just more emphasis on persuasion and buy-in (yes, maybe an extra memo or slide deck).

It’s context dependent. When it comes to big initiatives that require many people working together, it helps to slow down to get everyone to come together.

Maybe The Real Treasure Was the Friends We Made Along the Way

I met my co-founders at HubSpot. I take trips at least once a quarter with current or former HubSpot employees. Working together was awesome, but I’m even more fond of the relationships built through the years.

I hope to make many more friends at Workato and through the rest of my working years. Otherwise, I’m just running A/B tests and looking at Google Analytics, and that alone is kind of boring.

Conclusion

I learned a ton at HubSpot. I’m going to keep optimizing for learning and fun and challenges.

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Alex Birkett
Alex Birkett is a product growth and experimentation expert as well as co-founder of Omniscient Digital, a premium content marketing agency. He enjoys skiing, making and experiencing music, reading and writing, and language learning. He lives in Austin, Texas with his dog, Biscuit.

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