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Traction Conference Notes

By callstats on October 22, 2015
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This October, the Traction conference was hosted in San Francisco. I represented callstats.io as the Growth Hacker at the event to learn more about different methods to drive growth. The conference hosts a set of talks about real world examples of getting traction. It is presented by people who work on products that are growing quickly, and how they hacked it.

The conference featured 18 speakers. This won’t be a full recap of each talk but simply a commentary on some interesting learnings that I took from the presentations. Also, I won’t go through each talk as some were more hands-on than others but you can find the full program here.

Ken Lin, CEO of Credit Karma: “Building a Customer Driven Growth Engine”

Ken Lin had a fireside chat about the journey of Credit Karma with Daniel Saks, AppDirect Co-CEO. Ken shared a lot about how their startup is doing, as well as some tips for everyday use. He emphasized the importance of understanding cohorts (a group of people with a shared characteristic) in the metrics to fully understand your customers and to be able to exclude the three Fs (friends, fools and family) that might be disturbing your metrics in the early stages. Patrick Campbell from Price Intelligently also emphasized the impact of the three Fs from a pricing point of view, be sure the check his comments in the following blog post.

Another interesting point Ken emphasized is finding the right marketing channels. For a generic product that can be bought by anyone, like Credit Karma, the best marketing channel can be offline ads, for example, newspapers and sides of buses (my personal view) because they gather most of the views.

Selina Tobaccowala, CTO of SurveyMonkey: “Revenue Disruption”


Selina discussed how to convert visitors to recurring users and paying customers, and how to decide when and what to charge. In my opinion this was one of the most insightful talks of the whole day.

There are three ways to go from free to paid: usage based, user based and feature based. If a product has viral potential, it is important not to limit usage as it will kill the viral factor. The feature based model is the hardest model to master of all three. Also, willingness to pay for a product plays a role and needs to be analysed when selecting the best model for going from free to paid.

At Surveymonkey they A/B test pricing constantly based on user intent, for example, pricing is different for people coming from a search engine and a viral channel as their willingness to try and pay are different. She also said that it is important to let users to try paid features. At Surveymonkey, users can add paid features to their surveys in the building phase (and they are labeled to require payment) but the users need to pay for the added features before the survey can go live.

Selina talked quite a bit about metrics in general and what they have learned about Surveymonkey’s metrics. She believes that every metric should recorded but it is important to have three or four key metrics that are followed and made accessible to anyone. In the early phases metrics can be volatile as N is smaller and it is important to know why changes happen.

At Surveymonkey they have noticed that conversion on mobile is only half of desktop conversion rates, which makes sense as people probably prefer a computer to create surveys over a mobile phone.

For Surveymonkey, churn is the most important metric. They have noticed there is two types of churn: accidental and intentional. Accidental churn happens, for example, when a payment fails due to expiration. Intentional churn happens when a customer decides to stop using the service and in Surveymonkey’s case there are two main reasons. When it happens early in the subscription cycle, the customers tend to dislike auto-renewing subscriptions and would prefer to pay by invoice. If the unsubscription happens late in the cycle, the reason tends to be that the people are losing interest in the product. Therefore, it is important to know where usage drops and to reactivate late unsubscribers with email or other methods.

A good source of feedback for Surveymonkey has been the Net Promoter Score feedback form on the logout page. Since the previous usage is still fresh in the memory of the survey creator, many are willing to provide feedback. The feedback can be used, for example, to optimize the purchase flow and to know if customers are going to move to a competitor. The NPS feedback also correlates very well with other metrics.

Linda Kozlowski, COO of Evernote: “Global Warfare”

Linda Kozlowski shared tips on global growth and how to scale products and marketing efforts accordingly for local markets. Evernote has been global from day one, in the first year 50% of users came from Japan. In Evernote’s case, to be global has meant that they build a product that can be used by anyone, for example, before a market entry, the team checks which type of devices are popular in that area.

At Evernote they have tried to make payments as easy as possible to their customers, even trying a model where users paid for Evernote premium at PoS with cash or card. Recurring payments are vital for the business but they are not always easy to make happen in every place. Some payment models require more effort than others and produce less turnover but you might still need them.

Perhaps the most important message from Linda was that sometimes going global means being local in many places.

Bill Macaitis, CMO of Slack: “Marketing Disciplines of Great SaaS Companies”


According to Bill, Slack has seen tremendous growth both in number of users and valuation of the company because they are trying to maintain the culture of the company as they grow at a rapid pace. On the product and marketing side they are trying to make sure that the experience stays excellent in all parts of the product and that word-of-mouth keeps spreading. One third of the personnel is currently working in support and the sales team helps people through the onboarding process as most users come through word of mouth.

At Slack they do a sign up survey and use Delighted for NPS surveys and Zendesk for support. Both are integrated with a Slack channel so that anyone can see what people are commenting. When talking about the future, Bill said that Slack will continue to build their communication application and add integrations to it. They will not start building new tools.

Aatif Awan, Head of Growth of LinkedIn: “Growth Hacking is Dead. Long Live Growth!”


Aatif started by saying that LinkedIn is full of self-proclaimed Growth Hackers but they do not know what they are doing and the real growth professionals have some other title. The pun was most likely intended but he works for LinkedIn which means he might know something about people we don’t know and he managed to keep a straight face whilst saying that at a growth hacking conference.

To get started with growth planning, Aatif suggested to look for first principles to define the fundamentals that form the basic principles of the growth strategy. When discussing startup success, Aatif defined that startup success = product + growth + revenue. A good product must come before growth as selling a bad product will not end well. A good product also leads to retention, which can be improved by gathering feedback and making corrective improvements in an iterative manner. Another good way to find retention is by finding segments of users who have good retention. Third way to improve retention is to getting users to experience the core value (a.k.a the A-ha! moment) sooner. Once retention is good, it’s time to start growing and use metrics to track growth.

In the early days, Youtube’s top metric was number of videos watched but they changed to minutes watched as number of videos watched essentially meant they were optimizing the product for watching short videos. They actually wanted a metric that would show if people use the product more and, therefore, they changed the top metric to minutes watched.

Just like many other tasks, managing growth is an iterative process of continuous prioritization and feedback. To finish the talk Aatif, provided some tips hiring for growth.

Morgan Brown, Co-author of Growth Engines: “Need for Speed”


According to Morgan, startups usually spend too much time on product and too little on growth and distribution. The story of how Everpix failed despite building an excellent product that was loved by almost all users gives a good example of not spending enough time on growth. Growth stories that you get to read are often branded and too glossy not telling what actually happened. Remember not to trust any stories that offer silver bullets!

Rapid experimentation is the key to driving fast growth and it requires discipline. You need to create a process where you: ideate, prioritize, test and analyse. Ideas are fuel for growth but remember to prioritize to stay focused and commit to a disciplined tempo of testing.

In case you are missing the motivation for going for high tempo testing, according to Morgan high tempo testing will make sure your stock options won’t be worthless. When he said it at the event, everyone was laughing. One could guess that some of the attendees own a pile worthless stock options from a previous startup job...

Joanna Lord, VP Marketing of Porch, “The Future of Brand”


Joanna Lord talked about the future of the brand and how to build one. Joanna presentation was perhaps slightly less hands-on than the previous ones and I was already looking forward to lunch, hence the relatively short notes.

To start, Joanna told us how brand has evolved over the years from a “trademark” to a “brand”.

According to Joanna, the three pillars of a brand are: product, team and community. Branding is often thought to require lots of outside help from marketing agencies etc. But, if a brand is mostly about the team, product and community and everything can be managed in house and it does not require piles of cash, right?

To create a brand that truly stands out it needs to “present a value exchange beyond the product”. For example, Patagonia clothing helps consumer to find out the journey of the product around the world and what is its impact on the world. Also, make sure to create a rally point worth of the customers time.

Meagen Eisenberg, CMO of MongoDB, “How to Create a Modern Customer Experience”

At this point it seems I was desperately waiting for lunch, which was just 20 mins away, as I had only one or two lines of notes from Meagen’s presentation. (Also, I really wanted to add letter H to the beginning of Meagen’s lastname!)

Even though my concentration was not at its best, I think this presentation gave an important learning that even the biggest companies have just started to systematically look for growth and it is very well shown in the picture below, which shows how MongoDB’s marketing stack has evolved over the years. So it is not too late for you to start your marketing experiments!

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