Over 2014 and the first half of 2015 I had the opportunity to lead growth at a small venture-backed startup called CircleCI . It was exciting, dynamic, extremely fast-paced, and at times very hectic. During that year and a half I was very busy and didn’t have much time to write about the actual work that I was doing. Now that I’ve been away from the job for almost a year I’ve had a lot of time to reflect, and this post is an attempt to synthesize some of what I experienced and learned being the first growth hire at a startup.
When I applied to work at CircleCI at the end of 2013 I had just shut down operations at Mobozi, the mobile search company I co-founded, and was consulting with a couple of clients while searching for a permanent position. My goal was to get a growth role at a promising early stage B2B SaaS company.
CircleCI, especially in the early days, had an extremely ‘developer first’ mentality and there was strong resistance to hiring anyone, even in a marketing or sales role, who didn’t have a software development background. The job description I applied for actually said ‘patio11 style marketer’ (patio11 is the Hacker News handle of Patrick McKenzie, a famous blogger, growth hacker, and software engineer). I had a background that combined product management, marketing, and software development which is what I think initially got me invited in to interview.
The interview consisted of two parts. The first was an interview with one of the co-founders during which I was asked to draw out funnels for what was a very convoluted conversion path and explain how I’d simplify it, propose ways in which I would solve an analytics/data challenge they were facing, and answer technical product questions around user management, pricing, and upgrade paths. I really liked that the interview was very practical, technical, and gave me a really good sense of the actual problems I’d be solving if I were to be hired. The second phase of the interview process was a week long paid contract where I worked in their office and was expected to ship at least one AB test to the marketing site while designing plans for several more. I ended up testing a signup button what made it much more clear that the user was going to be taken through the GitHub OAuth flow and the results were pretty good.
After the second phase of the interview they made an offer, and already having got a feeling for how they work and a sense of what their growth potential was, I was excited to take the job.
Freedom to Grow
When I started in January 2014 the company consisted of two technical co-founders, 4 engineers, 1 front-end engineer/designer, an admin, and myself. My role was very vaguely defined, basically ‘grow the monthly recurring revenue however possible’.
I’d never had such free reign to grow a startup that already had solid product market fit, it felt a lot like being given the keys to my first car as a sixteen year old. It was clear that the first goal was to increase our sign up rate; the two experiments I’d run during my interview had resulted in dramatic increases in the sign up rate and there were definitely more easy wins available. Over the first couple of months I focused the majority of my time running AB tests on the marketing page focused on increasing the sign up rate.
Once the returns on time invested on the sign up pages started to wane I began looking for the next area that I could make an impact, which I decided was driving the sign up to paid conversation rate. At the time we had a 14-day free trial after which users had to either start paying or stop using the service, so I started taking on projects which focused on increasing the rate at which people paid. This included experimenting with things like drip marketing campaigns, automated trial sizes (bigger trials for larger organizations), free trial extensions, and lots more. This part of the job was extremely fun and rewarding; I was gaining more and more freedom to take on any project I wanted and they were leading directly to increases in our revenue. It was the most exciting point of my career to that point.
Making an Impact
After several months on the job I’d earned enough trust so that I could start taking on bigger projects including changes to our business model and to the product itself. This was the point that I feel that I moved beyond ‘growth hacker’ and more to a ‘product manager of growth’ role. I was no longer a free agent making incremental improvements to our sign up flow, I was working with other engineers to implement much more impactful changes.
We had a strong feeling, supported by lots of evidence both in the data and from conversations with customers, that a bottoms up approach was our best go-to-market strategy. For us, bottoms-up meant getting the individual developer to use and love CircleCI, and then try to get that developer to bring us in to their workplace. The 14-day day free trial model that we had was very detrimental to this strategy; if a developer could not get his or her company to pay within 14-days, they would lose the ability to use the product all together and was thus much less likely to evangelize CircleCI at work. We decided that switching to a freemium model, where everyone got a single container for free, would likely lead to a lot more revenue.
This was a big project, with huge implications for the business, so it was really important that we did everything possible to make sure it was the right move before actually beginning to implement it. This included lots of conversations with customers, analyzing data to try to measure the costs (additional infrastructure, lost revenue, additional support tickets, etc.), as well as calculating estimates of what additional revenue from the switch could be. We were also able to conduct a few tests by giving some users an ‘unlimited trial’, which was essentially the same as the proposed freemium model, and seeing the rate at which they upgraded to a paid plan.
The data we collected and analyzed signaled that a switch to a freemium model, despite the higher short term costs, would have a long-term payoff in a lot more high value customers. We also had an enterprise product, which could be deployed to a private cloud, on the road map and the freemium model would be very valuable in gaining leads for that as well. The switch to freemium ended up being a big win and working as part of a growth team was a lot different and more enjoyable than the mostly siloed work that I’d done previously.
For my last 5 months at CircleCI I worked with one of our senior engineers to build out the early version of our enterprise product. I had dozens of conversations with customers, got a very good idea of the problems they were facing and what it would take for them to purchase a solution, and then worked with our engineer to build a viable product. The hope was that this product would dramatically drive our revenue growth for years to come and it was really fun to get to shape what the early versions looked like.
I left CircleCI shortly after we launched with our first alpha customers but this is the type of work I would definitely like to do more of in my career. It felt a lot like being an entrepreneur again.
As the team at CircleCI grew, and people were hired on with much more specific job titles, I remained the general ‘growth’ guy. The cool part of this was that I consistently got the opportunity to take on interesting and challenging projects. I served as our first ‘sales guy’ for a couple months even though I’d never done sales in my life, managed product, created marketing campaigns and materials, conducted lots of customer discovery interviews, and a lot more. The down side was that as more structure was being added to the company, with actual teams and hierarchy, it wasn’t clear where exactly I fit in. Also as the company changed and matured it became much less hectic, and I think to a large part I thrived on the chaos of the earlier days. In May 2015, after 16 awesome months, I decided to take some time off and travel around the world .
My time at CirlceCI was great. I got the chance to work with the smartest people I’ve ever worked with and on the most challenging problems I’ve ever worked on. I don’t think I could have learned as much as I did doing anything else and I have zero regrets.