#11. How Len Markidan Successfully Transitioned from Individual Contributor to Marketing Leader

Len Markidan is a problem solver.

His life began as a marketing specialist in the political field, before transitioning into consulting and later running marketing at Groove.

Now, as the CMO of Podia, Len leads a team to help creatives make money from their art.

Here, he shares his journey, along with a few lessons along the way.

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Brad: (00:00)

Len, thanks again for joining me. Can you just explain a little bit about yourself, um, and kind of where you’re at now?

Len: (00:05)

For sure. Yeah. Thanks for having me. It’s an honor. I’m Len Markidan and so I’m the CMO at a company called Podia. Podia is a software platform for creators who create and sell online courses, membership sites, downloads, all sorts of digital products. Prior to that, I ran marketing at a company called Groove for five and a half years. That was a customer support software company. I’m probably best known for content and uh, yeah, I’ve also done some consulting and, been around the block a little bit. Um, have some scars, but uh, but yeah, these days CMO Podia.

Brad: (00:44)

Awesome. So one of the first things I want to start with is, this is kind of like our second interview. We’ve done like a lengthier one, um, with content that hopefully, one day should see the light of day somewhere. Uh, but essentially you went from like working I think with an agency that was focused on politics or around politics to working with a company that was acquired by IBM to, um, a couple other things like freelancing and consulting in there. And then, uh, then it was Groove and then more consulting and then, and then Podia. Is that somehow the route?

Len: (01:17)

I, I, yeah, I took the roundabout route to, uh, to SaaS marketing. Definitely.

Len: (01:23)

I started in politics as uh, as so many successful marketers do. If they make it out alive then many gone to have happy, very happy careers elsewhere.

Brad: (01:37)

Yeah, exactly. Somewhere far, far away. Um, so one of the, one of the first things I want to get into before we get into like some of the other tactical stuff, because I think there’s this really interesting shift that has to happen when you go from freelancer to consultant to running a team to agency to an in house to like lead to CMO that not a lot of people talk about where you become a really good, like individual contributor.  I even like classify myself as that. Like, if you pressed me on what I was good at, I would say, well, I’m going to just like writing or creating content, like not all, even though now I don’t do any of that or barely any of it. Um, so what is that transition like? Because it’s not easy learning and unlearning new stuff and I feel like a lot of times the things that you need to be working on and you’re not good at. So how has that transition gone over the last kind of couple of years?

Len: (02:23)

It’s all been a learning experience and it’s, it is really, really tough. And I mean, I know this is something that you’ve gone through as you’ve gone from being a writer to, or a content writer to, to running, you know, at the top of an agency. Um, it’s something that took a lot of deliberate practice to, to not suck at. And, and I think we all have this tendency to, and this is actually something I learned from, uh, High Output Management, an Andy Grove book the first time that I read it, but it didn’t really stick the first time I read it. It was only after reading it the second time after I started managing people, that it  really stuck. But we all have this tendency to when we have the opportunity to outsource, when we have people who report to us, when we have the opportunity to outsource something, we tend to delegate things that we’re not good at because we want to keep doing the things that we’re good at.

Len: (03:18)

We think that that’s, you know, that’s our core strengths. So we should be the ones doing it. And so we delegate the stuff that we’re not very good at and keep doing this stuff that we’re good at. And actually if you agree with Andy Grove’s thesis that a manager’s value or a manager’s impact on a company is, is literally just the, sum of the output of all of the people that report to them. Then that’s actually a terrible way to delegate because as a manager you don’t, you’re not really qualified to judge whether somebody is doing a good job at something that you’re not good at. It’s something that you don’t understand. Like, I’m totally unqualified to judge how good my Instagram marketer is doing, right? I’m terrible at Instagram. Um, and so,  I can’t really train somebody to do it. I can’t really judge somebody on doing it.

Len: (04:10)

And if I delegate that to somebody on my team, there’s no guarantee that that’s going to go well. Right? Whereas content, so content is something that has been really, really hard for me to let go of. I’ve always been a content writer. It’s always been something, even when I was doing like political ads and then as a consultant, like I’ve always really liked copywriting and content writing. And when I started managing a team, that was the first thing that was really, really hard for me to let go of. I thought, I’m not gonna do the content marketing, but, or I’m going to do all the content myself. I’m going to delegate everything else. What I realized was that that was a really, really terrible use of my time because I actually had built up the skills and built up the experience to coach content writers, to evaluate content writers, to make them better. Um, and to create a team of really, really exceptional, extraordinary content writers or you know, to, to be able to evaluate and edit work from outside resources or freelances or agencies. Um, that was like a key strength of mine. And so I should actually spend my time doing that, outsourcing the content side of things because I can scale that with much, much better, with a much better of a likelihood of success then taking like Facebook ads and just outsourcing that because that’s not really a core competency of mine.

Brad: (05:25)

Yeah. Yeah. It’s hard. It’s like, it’s hard because you need to know a lot about it to be able to delegate it successfully, but the things that you’re best at also become almost like handcuffs in a certain way. Um, and it makes me think of like everyone laughs in the office like, Oh, Michael Scott, he’s like a good salesman but a terrible manager. But like that’s what happens every day in most businesses where even like in content at tech companies where we are with a lot of people where they take like a good writer and then make them an editor and they’re awful editors like they’re off because everything changes. Writers to me like writers thrive on like creativity and, and more spontaneity. Whereas editors need to be more consistent and they need to think about like scaling stuff in a different way and  the metrics that they’re looking at and need to be completely different.

Brad: (06:08)

But you’ve got that backlash where they’re trying to like jump in and make stuff sound more like them and you’re like, no, no, no, that’s not the goal. Like the goal of this isn’t to make something sound more like you, the goal is to like get more of this shit out the door. You know what I mean? That’s at a certain level. So don’t, don’t spend half a day retaking screenshots like create a document, create a video, get it back to these people, we can train them and you have ten people under you creating stuff much faster and much better to scale than you would never be able to do.

Len: (06:34)

Totally. And it’s, and it’s, I mean it’s emotionally tough. It’s emotionally tough to hand your, you know, child that you’ve raised to be 10 years old to somebody else and say, hey, no, no, no, you now you’re the one that’s gonna take this to the next level. Like you, you people are going to be the ones that take the hand it to the school and hand them to the teachers and say, all right, you are all the ones that are going to take this child to the next level. It’s tough to do. It’s naturally just challenging to let go of. But I think it’s one of the biggest things that you can do to unlock your true potential as you go from being an individual contributor to a manager.

Brad: (07:04)

How do you get that self-awareness though? Because I feel like it’s one of those things where you’re just going to kind of like put your head down and keep doing it and screw it up 10 times. Do you have to kind of, I mean that’s usually I learned things the hard way. Like unfortunately, um, you have to hire like 10 people and fire all of them and be like, oh wait, they’re not the problem. I’m the problem.

Len: (07:21)

Um, so it wasn’t, yeah, it wasn’t, it wasn’t hiring and firing 10 people for us. Luckily. Um, it was spinning my wheels for a bit. Certainly. I mean it, it really was like you can always listen to a podcast and here’s somebody that has been through it and, and suffered from it, talk about it like this. Um, and, and hopefully take it to heart, but I’m not really like, I’m very stubborn and I’m not good at taking, you know,  taking things I hear on a podcast to heart and I will go and try it the way that feels right to me. And you know, very often like in this case, I will try and hold onto content for as long as I can and outsource other things. And what happens is you stagnate, your growth suffers, you’re not growing as quickly as you should be or as you believe you could be. And then you have to kind of get introspective and realize that, hey, remember that book I read 10 years ago? Um, that seems like this might be a good thing to review at this time. And then you re-read it and then you get slapped in the face.

Brad: (08:18)

Yeah. I mean, in fairness, you probably shouldn’t listen to a free podcast and expect a lot of, a lot of life-changing events.

Len: (08:24)

Well, we’re going, we’re going to do our best. We’re going to do our best in this session.

Brad: (08:28)

Otherwise we’ll, we’ll give them a refund. Um, so what’s, is there any like particular challenge you’ve faced, uh, in trying to scale and change the way you think about things? Anything? Has it been hiring, has it been content production? Has it been promotion? Has it been hitting goals? Has  it been thinking too small. Like a lot of times I get an idea and I’m like, oh, I want to run with it. But I’m like, no, no, that’s only gonna have like a 1% impact and I need to work on things like going to have 10 to a hundred percent.

Len: (08:54)

I think that you just hit on a really, really powerful challenge for anybody that is trying to grow a company, scale a company, scale a team. And that’s knowing the difference between a really clever idea and an idea that’s going to move the needle. Um, there are a lot of situations in which, you know, executing on a 1% idea can be a good thing, right? Because if you’ve executed on a hundred of those, you’ve grown 100%. Um, however, when you look at kind of the big picture and  when you, you know, one of your jobs as a manager is to look ahead and plan kind of on a yearly, timescale or maybe on a two year or three year timescale, um, and making sure that you’re thinking big enough and making sure that you’re thinking about projects that can have enough of an impact over time.

Len: (09:43)

Um, I think one of the big pitfalls that a lot of us, deal with certainly that I’ve, that I’ve fallen into is, um, coming up with lots and lots and lots of ideas  that, that aren’t really the best use of our time. Um, and that might mean that might be because they’re thinking too small, but a lot of times it’s also just because they’re not a core competency for us. Right? And so this kind of comes back to playing to your strengths and playing to your core, your core expertise. So for us at Podia for example,  content and SEO are by a large margin, our most productive channel. We have other really productive channels that we can talk about. Um, we’ve actually like done very well with events, surprisingly. Um, we have some other stuff that, that works really well, but like with no close second place, content and SEO are our biggest channels.

Len: (10:46)

And so for me to make a plan for the next 18 months and have it focus on these really cool ideas I have for Facebook ads or these really cool ideas I have for, uh, you know,  affiliate partnerships or, you know, integrations or something like that would be a huge mistake because if we’re really, really good at something we should, we should double down on that and continue playing on that. And so I think that’s actually one of the, uh, it’s kind of a tough balance and understanding that thinking in thinking big, but also not thinking necessarily too broadly outside of your lane.

Brad: (11:27)

Yeah, I mean, I think that’s a perfect point. Do you find, One of the other things like tricks I find is, is constraints. So one of the things we do with writers for example, is we push them to create a lot more content than they think that they can do. Um, so a lot higher volume stuff because we’re, we’re stressing systems, we’re stressing processes, we’re stressing,

Brad: (11:45)

putting together things in a certain way and doing research in a certain way and batching yourself in a certain way. Um, so that you’re hitting consistency and so that way you’re doing, everything’s going to be a 9 out of 10 versus like a couple of 9.8 out of 10 and then like a couple of sevens or sixes. Um, cause it, cause I feel like it’s one of those things where you can always, you can always make a campaign better. You can always make a blog posts better. Uh, but a certain point you kind of have to cut your losses. So in a way a constraint or like a volume, a higher volume metric, something to kind of push you and keep you going. Like, you know what, I’d love to spend more time on this, but I can, I need to push out the door and get on to  the next thing.

Len: (12:22)

Totally. And this is something that we deal with every, every week as a team. Um, I mean, I think that this, this is the one of the core blockers for so many, especially software companies. I mean, I know for your agency, this is, uh, probably a big challenge like you, like you just mentioned, but I think every software company deals with this, right? Because you can literally tinker on a product on a feature until the cows come home, right? You can, you can work on any feature for any amount of time. Um, but shipping, like you said, shipping five 8s  is going to do far more. There’s going to be, is going to be going to give you far more benefit to your business than shipping a single 10 or single 9.8. Um, so for us, I mean, I’ll give you one example on our team.

Len: (13:13)

One of the things that we’re doing, um, on the marketing side is building a new, like a new modal within our, within our app to help users onboard and you can literally go down a deep, deep, deep rabbit hole. With a product like this, you can have a million different detours that people can take a million different pieces of logic that can, that can  change how the app, the modal response. But the way that we’ve manage this project is by creating constraints that say, all right, we are going to work on this project for two weeks. We are going to scope, scope it down to have just the base base base version. If we were building a car, we’re just having, we’re just going to build four wheels, an engine, and a body and then we’ll have a prioritized list of embellishments that we can add. And in the remainder of the two weeks we were just going to tick, tick those off one by one by one, and then whatever’s done in two weeks, we’re going to ship it. So constraints can be absolutely huge. I mean you found that with your agency. We’re definitely seeing it with our team as well.

Brad: (14:18)

And it’s funny too, I feel like the smart people- technology is full of smart people. Smart people tend to like overcomplicate things where they’re like, oh well I’m going to list all these features. I’m going to list like the benefit and I’m going to list like the potential and the priority. I’m gonna like score them all and weigh them and it’s like, no, no, just fucking do it. Like just like do it. Just do this one thing right now and then tomorrow do the next thing and then the next day.  Like it doesn’t matter what order. You know what I mean? You don’t have to get bogged down by this.

Len: (14:51)

Totally. Like in the time, in the time it’s taken you to create that like data validation in your spreadsheet and and like color code everything and, and, and sort everything you could have just shipped your first quick win.

Brad: (15:03)

 Yeah. We, again, we see that like, when you boil it down to just one piece of content where a writer is like obsessing over like this one stat or example, it’s like, it doesn’t matter, just like get a different one, you know, like, just keep moving, keep moving forward. Like you’re spending time on something that’s not gonna have, like, it’s not gonna matter. So just keep moving. Um, so I’d love to get to  Podia now Podia was Coach, right or Coachme, coach.me Um, how long was it Coach before rebranding?

Len: (15:34)

So the company launched in 2014 and it rebranded in December of 2017. So about, a little over three years. And it actually has kind of a circuitous history where the company originally was targeting GMAT tutors. But then it turned out that, you know, a lot more people than GMAT tutors could benefit from having a place to put their, you know, educational content online. Um, so the, the rebrand happened in, uh, in December of last year. And there are a few reasons for it. I mean, it’s very, very challenging to compete for search, ranking, with the biggest purse brand in the, you know, on the planet. It’s also just challenging to brand yourself in people’s brains with, you know, with, with, with a name that isn’t really ownable. Uh, and so putting, it just felt like a much more memorable and, and uh, you know, I’m much  memorable name that people can latch onto.

Brad: (16:32)

Yeah, definitely. Um, one of the problems though I think is like as you start moving into the space is that it’s online learning is like becoming very crowded. I feel like, uh, you have so many other like brands and competitors and alternatives out there. So how do you, but one of the things I’ve always been impressed with is, is having, it seems like you guys have a very specific vision, um, and positioning and you carry that through to like content you’re producing. Even down to like the visual design aesthetic that it is, you know, consistent throughout everything you do. Um, how, how do you do that? Cause it seems it really difficult to do that. It’s easy when you’re like three people or one person. People think that when you add resources to something, it becomes easy or it doesn’t, it becomes more difficult to keep that consistent vision. So how do you, how do you do that?

Len: (17:18)

Totally. I mean, I think there, I mean, any market that’s crowded and I think there’s probably room for almost anybody. Um, I mean, how crowded is the, like the content agency space, they’re million and 10, uh, content marketing agencies and yet Codeless is, you know, serving the cream of the crop. Um,

Brad: (17:39)

But I hear they’re way less expensive.

Len: (17:42)

Right, right, right, right. Well, when you can get them for 5 cents a word. Yeah. Yeah. I mean the, I think the two key truths that I believe about crowded marketplaces are, number one- it’s less crowded than you think. And what I mean by that is a crowded market is like, a lot of people are scared of crowded markets. I actually really love operating in crowded markets. I mean Groove sold customer service software, that’s an incredibly crowded B2B market. Podia obviously like you said, is in a crowded market. Um, but it’s not as crowded as you think because a crowded market is not a million people in a room with you and all of your competitors up on stage vying for their attention in a, a crowded market actually looks a lot more like a million people spread across 100,000 different rooms and your competitors are not in all of those rooms, right?

Len: (18:35)

Some of those people might be in rooms where the rooms are full of people that are completely unaware that you or any of your competitors exist. Some of those rooms might be full of people who might be unaware that this industry even exists at all and they don’t even, like, they don’t even know that this is a problem you can solve with software. Um, so you have to be, I think, deliberate about who it is that you’re going to go after. Um, how you go, like, which of those rooms you’re going to go into. And for us, I mean we do a little bit of all three, but the tactics for all of those are completely different, right? Because there are people that are competitor aware. We can compare ourselves to our competitors, the people that are, uh, you know, problem aware. We don’t have to mention our competitors at all because there even know any of us exist.

Len: (19:18)

Um, but I think the key there is just to be really deliberate about who you’re going after and then have your tactics, uh, shaped by that. And then the other part of it is, I mean, like you alluded to and I appreciate the kind words about our brand is, is figure out what it is that you do five times better than your competition and really, really hone in and focus on that. Um, it might be your design and brand, it might be your customer support, it might be your price, and it might be some key features. It’s hard to copy. It might be your user community, something like that. Um, but it’s really, really important to just know what that is so that you can focus on it.

Brad: (19:53)

Yeah. So you’re essentially like slicing up the pie. You’re looking at like who are those types of people that are underserved or, or whatever, how you can do it better than that. And how do you line up everything else to help support that, like same mission and then you hit the nail of it or you hit the drum consistently? Right? You don’t, you don’t do a million things. You do one thing and you just keep saying it over and over and over again in different ways.

Len: (20:16)

Exactly. I mean for us,  you know, people can own robust, people can own, you know, all the features. People can own all these other things. For us, we believe that Podia is  the most creator-friendly platform on the planet and everything we do stems from that. That’s why we have really, really friendly, uh, design and illustration. That’s why we have 24/7 customer support. That’s why, um, that’s why we’ve put all of our products like online courses, memberships, downloads, email marketing , all into one product so the creators don’t have to use, you know, a bunch of different products and figure out a bunch of different tech. That’s why we don’t have transaction fees. Um, all of our policies, all of our features, everything is built out of that.

Len: (21:02)

And every six months we interview or survey all of our creators, I personally interview 20 to 30 of them and we are constantly asking, you know, what is it that when you recommend Podia to a friend, what is it that you say, what is it that your, how is it that you see us and increasingly it’s working. Increasingly people are saying, yeah, it’s really, it’s just really friendly. It’s really friendly. It’s really creator friendly. It’s just so easy. And they’re so, they’re so good to creators. And so that’s, I think that’s, that’s like anybody who’s operating in a creative, in a crowded market, you don’t have to be the most creative or friendly or the most blank friendly, but you have to pick something that you’re going to plant your flag in.

Brad: (21:38)

Yeah. And I think we’re, I’m kind of want to bring all this, you know, what’s going on with all this stuff is, is when you look at all, all the content more so than education, I think there’s this like consistent theme of empowerment for this type of people or these type of people. And then you’re, you’re telling that story in various ways from like how-to, so here’s how to actually do something to like the, the customer success stories where it’s like you’re in the life-changing events that other people have experienced being able to do these things, um, taking their skills or whatever and transforming it  through this platform. So at that point, you’re like the, you’re like the Sherpa. You know what I mean? Like you’re not, you’re not like the person saying like, oh, like I’m a genius. You just need to do this and follow this then you’re going to be like millionaires too. You’re just like, look, you can pay for your, you could make enough money to like pay for your kid’s private school or whatever. Or you could just, you could change someone’s life and that’s, that’s a much more powerful message I think.

Len: (22:31)

Totally. Yeah. None of our, none of our ads quite yet feature me in a Lamborghini. Yeah. The photos is your podcast with Tai Lopez after this? 

Brad: (22:41): 

Is your podcast with Tai Lopez after this? 

Len: (22:44)

Not yet. I have to go. I have to go to his- I don’t think he’s rented the house yet. We’re going to go next week. Yeah, exactly. I mean you’ve nailed it. It’s, it really is just how, you know, how can we help people, how can we empower people? And I mean, for us, when you talk about the content, it’s thinking about, all right, what are the various stages in the lifecycle of a creator before they get to the point where they are successful and how do we create the most creator-friendly, helpful content at each part in the life cycle, right. Because there’s going to be a part where they’re not even considering selling digital products yet.

Len: (23:27)

They are probably using other monetization channels. They’re probably trying to make money on youtube ads or with Adsense on their blog or something like that. Um, then, you know, when they move, as they move down the funnel and we teach them how to better monetize their youtube channel, or we teach them how to grow their, you know, grow their blog following how to become a travel blog or something like that, then they move into, okay, well now then might be thinking about creating digital products because they’ve been exposed to Podia. We’ve already helped them,  in that prior stage, but they haven’t yet taken the plunge. So now it’s a matter of where do they need help with? Well, most of these people need help with finding an online business idea, you know, finding that, that profitable idea that they can turn into a product.

Len: (24:09)

Uh, it’s overcoming all of those mental barriers that all of us have when we’re going to launch a business. You know, is this thing going to work? I have imposter syndrome. Is it, you know, how do I, how am I going to deal with people who don’t take me seriously when I say I’m launching an online business. If you can get them through that funnel, through that part of the funnel, they’re going to be looking for a hosting platform. And so we have to help them find that and then they’re going to be getting ready to launch their product. We have to help them with that and then they’re going to be ready getting ready to scale their business and we have to help them with that.

Brad: (24:38)

Yeah. So you talked about meeting with people personally to uncover all these things, um, like doing it consistently, so not just like, oh yeah, I talked to a couple of people a year ago. Um, I know I’ve talked to a lot of other people even on this, about the importance of doing that because a lot of marketers don’t, a lot of marketers are removed from actually talking to customers and clients or whatever. Um, the, we’ve worked on content together. You do a lot of really good customer success stories where you’re interviewing them. And you’re kind of telling their story and letting them, again be the kind of light as opposed to like just pimping your brand. Why don’t more companies do content like that? And, and I know they don’t because they would stop, we would do a lot less list posts about with the kids. So why, why aren’t companies doing more of that?

Len: (25:28)

Because it’s so much easier to assume and project, right? It’s so much easier to assume that the creators or that your customers are going to be way are going to be super interested in reading whatever you think is interesting or that your customers are going to be super interested in reading what you think they think is going to be interesting. And it’s so much easier to do that than it is to have an uncomfortable conversation to reach out and schedule 20 phone calls. Um, that’s not easy. I mean, it admittedly is really, really time consuming because scheduling a 30 minute phone call is not 30 minutes, right? Between all of the preparation and all of the notes you’re taking afterwards and all, you know, this entire project, you’re probably going to end up spending two to three hours for every single call that you do. Um, it’s tough. It’s really, really tough. But I really don’t think there’s a better use of a marketer’s time if you don’t have that insight yet. Because when you talk to your customers, when you talk to your audience, you are going to pull out insights that -I haven’t heard of a scenario where a marketer did this and it didn’t fundamentally change the way they thought about something.

Brad: (26:37)

Yeah, completely. Um, to that point you spend or, or you know, it’s gonna take you two, three hours just to just to do like the actual interview. But then of course you have all the creation and promotion after that. Um, you talked about creating different types of content based on funnel stage and everything else. But the question is, how do you organize or how would you recommend organizing content between like Tofu, Mofu and Bofu? I think, I think it depends a lot on where a company’s at and their maturity. So we talked to a company yesterday in the early stages like, and this is what I would love to hear from you, what your idea is, because I feel like when you’re mature, it’s different. We talked to a company yesterday that has like tons of bottom of the funnel stuff. So they’re looking at now scaling up top of the funnel like crazy because they already have the authority. They already have a lot of the kind of groundwork laid. Um, so how do you and the early goings, because you know, you’ve grown Groove now you’re growing Podia how do you, how do you look at organizing content and bet investing resources behind, I guess?

Len: (27:41)

Yeah, that’s a really good question. And I think it’s something, I mean it’s, it’s  such a big pain point for every new content operation. And I think that the answer for me, or at least my approach is I’m not, I don’t know that it’s the correct one, but has worked for me a couple of times now. But the way that I approach this is I think about our KPIs in stages for content operations. So in the, obviously it’s a marketing channel, so ultimately you’re gonna want it to drive revenue, but in the beginning it’s very, very difficult to derive revenue from content marketing that you’ve been doing for a month. It just doesn’t really happen. Um, and we’re okay with that. But what we need to do is optimize then for the leading indicators that tell us that the next stage of this operation will be successful.

Len: (28:30)

Right. And so what does that mean for me? Usually it means that, you know, those quote unquote typical like vanity metrics, like social shares and referrals and things like that. If that’s not an appropriate KPI for a content team that’s been going out for two years. But if I’ve just launched some, you know, my first, my first piece of content in my first few pieces of content and they’re getting a lot of social shares, they’re getting a lot of engagement, they’re getting a lot of content comments. To me that’s a greenlight metric that the next stage of this is probably going to, you know, be poised for success. And so if we’re optimizing for that kind of content at the very beginning, usually we stick pretty top of funnel just because you’re going to have a wider audience, you’re going to be able to drive traffic.

Len: (29:15)

I always try to drive traffic like through the top of the funnel. Especially in those early stages because you’re going to have a wider audience. You’re going to get a wider kind of test market for feedback for pulling those kinds of greenlights out of them. And then as your content matures, as you get into month two and three or two and four, you can turn your attention to the next leading indicator. Um, and so at that point, maybe your leading indicator is organic traffic, because you’re already getting a little bit of organic traffic and now you can continue to build on that because ultimately that’s what’s going to drive those leads in those sales for you. Um, and so they’re typically, we’re still pretty high at the top of the funnel at that point. Um, maybe we’re moving into the middle of the funnel. Um, but then in that next stage, usually after six months or so is when, when we have a steady flow of organic traffic going, that’s when we start developing stuff  for the bottom of the funnel or at least anything more than, you know, what was the placeholder before? Like we’ll always have some kind of email nurture campaign, always some kind of lead magnet or something like that. But, um, we’re really only now getting into super, super bottom of the funnel stuff.

Brad: (30:20)

Gotcha. So let’s, let’s stack some of these problems for a second. Cause  you redirected, obviously a rebrand and no small undertaking. Yes, you can redirect the domain, but you know, you’re gonna take a short term hit, you’re still going to have to build up your authority on that new name- a new brand. Uh, you’re trying to target top of the funnel content in a crowded space. Uh, you’re trying to look for leading indicators to give you some metrics of success, but you might have a customer and existing customer base cause you guys have been at it for a while, but a lot of times you might not. So how, how do you do it? You know what I mean? Like how do you target keywords? How do you start doing promotion when again, you have, you have a domain that you can’t really compete for much. Um, you don’t have the brand recognition down the space. Um, all those challenges start to kind of add up a little bit.

Len: (31:12)

Yeah, it’s, there’s a lot of moving parts. And so the very, very first thing that I did when I got to Podia was do that customer research project. Um, and I do this every six months now, but we did a, you know, basically just interviewed 20 customers, surveyed every customer that would answer a survey, tried to understand what are the, not only what are the challenges that these customers are facing, but what are the blogs they’re reading? What are the podcasts they’re listening to? What are the other products that they’re using that we could potentially align with. And then from that, we built out a number of channels that we wanted to test and see what would happen. Um, because at that point we don’t know necessarily what’s going to work for marketing. I had a really big hunch that content would work for us, but I think that I’m also been very biased because that’s kind of where my experience lies.

Len: (31:56)

But I also had hunches about some other channels and we thought at that point, all right, well let’s go out and test these channels. Now what I think will happen a lot of times, especially for venture-funded companies, is at this stage they will go out to build a marketing team and they will come up with a list of things they want to do and then they will go out and hire a team. And there are some benefits to that. You’ll get more done, you’ll have a full time staff. But I think the big challenge there, the big drawback there is yes, you’ll get more done. But what if you’re doing the wrong things, right? Let’s say you decide you’re gonna go do Facebook ads and you hire an in house Facebook ads manager, and then Facebook ads don’t work for you.

Len: (32:35)

Well now on top of the unpleasant task of, of letting this person go, you know, have the cost of developing that person that you’ve sunk. You have the cost of, you know, paying for that person’s salary and all their benefits and all of that. You have the very real culture costs of having a team that’s now lost a teammate because you’ve had to let that person go. And so for us, our approach was let’s validate the channel first and then hire for it. And the way that we did that was that we were able to execute on all of that is to use just some really, really good outside resources. Um, I think it’s incredibly valuable to be able to lean on a really good freelancer or a really good agency. So we did that across, um, you know, pay per click advertising. We did that across content, obviously. We did that with, uh, with SEO, and as we validated these channels and, and realized, all right, here’s where we want to double down. We brought them in house, um, or brought a lot of them in house. Um, and that’s basically the only way we were able to get so much done in, in, in just a year as is use is relying on a lot of really, really good outside resources.

Brad: (33:54)

Yeah. I mean is that, is that the best kind of strategy you’ve seen what it sounds like? Cause I think the other problem that it’s easy to run into is you, you’re like, okay, I’m going about try and validate the idea and like, try Facebook ads and then Oh, Facebook ads don’t work. And it’s like, well no, maybe you just suck at Facebook ads. Like maybe you just don’t know what you’re doing. Cause again, like you don’t have a brand, your audience targeting sucks. So that means any creative you throw up, it’s gonna suck  you don’t know how to do device placements based on like funnel stage. So like a lot of times it’s easy to kind of throw the baby out with the bath water to a certain degree. Like, is that the best strategy or alternative to that that you’ve seen is just like admitting like, hey, we don’t know what we’re doing in this space, like we need to work with or try a couple different, you know, expert options or,

Len: (34:35)

I think so. I mean, I think that it’s impossible. I think it’s really, I really do think it’s impossible, um, in 2018 or 2019 to do really well in one of these channels that we’re talking about without having an expert help you if you’ve never done it before. Because there’s just, it’s just so noisy and all of them, I mean, Facebook, you’re basically competing against very large companies that have full-time staff that are running Facebook ads, 24, seven for them. Um, and they’re bidding for the same clicks that you are. Uh, and so, I mean, unless you’re like, unless you really know what you’re doing and you’re running really, really efficient Facebook ads, um, and you probably won’t know to do that unless you have some help with it. And so yeah, I do think that having really, really smart people help you set those things up is a very, very smart play.

Len: (35:23)

It will pay off. And you won’t, you’re very unlikely to run into that challenge because, I mean, you see this all the time in content or in social media where you’ll say, oh, have you tried content marketing? And somebody will say, Oh yeah, no, I wrote a few blog posts, but you know, we didn’t get any traffic. So content marketing doesn’t really work for us. And it’s like, well, no, you wrote like this shitty blog post about like 10 reasons why somebody should buy your crappy products. Of course, that’s not going to work for you. That’s why I think it’s really valuable whether you’re hiring an outside resource or if you don’t have the budget for it, just going out and finding somebody who’s been there and done it before and can answer some questions for you or at least point you in the right direction.

Len: (36:02)

Really, really important to get an understanding of what it is that you’re getting into. And also to be honest about what an experiment is, right? Like an experiment has an end date and experiment has a hypothesis and experiment has, has a very defined way to determine whether it’s successful or not. And so for us, for example, for Facebook ads after, you know, after several months of it for us, unfortunately with our funnel, we looked at it and we would have to 8x our conversion rates in order to make it profitable. That doesn’t mean that Facebook ads aren’t going to work for us ever, but we run into the same problem that every kind of young brand does or without, you know, a ton of recognition. Yet over time that’ll become a lot more efficient in a lot cheaper for us. But for that time we tried to validate it and we didn’t end up bringing that in house.

Brad: (37:00)

Got It. So at that point, I’d love to dig into promotion, content promotion specifically a little bit. Cause I feel like it’s a, it’s a huge challenge where like we work a lot of big companies and um, they, the extent of their content promotion is like publishing it and like maybe tweeting about it a couple of times and like throwing it in their email newsletter. And because they’re already working at scale, this stuff ranks like next day, like most, you know, no one has that luxury. And then the other thing is where a lot of brands have this halo effect where it’s like, oh yeah, that person’s like, I dunno, famous for being famous. And like, there’s stuff, it’s shit, but it’s just like, you know they have followings. So, but you know, if you’re new, if you’re in a crowded space, like you gotta get scrappy. So you try maybe like pay distribution, you try manual outreach. Like what are some things that you’ve had success with, in terms of getting your content out there? Again, not just to like the low hanging fruit owned channel that most people are already familiar with.

Len: (37:55)

Yeah, totally. So a few things and um, you mentioned a few of them. So, so manual outreach I think has been, has always been really, really huge. Uh, for us. I mean, one of the things that we did when we were first launching our content machine was as we were writing the initial pieces of content, we would reach out to people who were influential in our space and say, Hey, um, I’m working on this article, or I’m working on this guide and I know you’re an expert on this particular topic within it. We’d really appreciate you, you know, your insight on it. Would you take a look at it? Um, sometimes we’d ask for a quote. Sometimes we would literally just ask for feedback and say, Hey, what do you think of this chapter? And people would respond. People would tell, you know, hey, this, this works.

Len: (38:37)

This works really well. This doesn’t work for me. I think you’re wrong here. I think you’re right here. And what was really amazing about that was by the time we launched our article, we had, you know, 35, 40 people who now all felt like they had a part in creating this content. And so of course they’re going to promote it. They’re, they’re invested in it. They did something to, to get it to fruition. And you know, I think that’s one of the most powerful ways you can promote content is get somebody who you know, is, is to not reach out to somebody after you’ve created it, but to reach out while you’re creating something because it’s, it’s, it’s a really genuine ask you, you really are trying to get good advice and good feedback on your content because it will make your content better. Um, but in doing so, you also now, uh, have graciously 

Len: (39:29)

brought this person into your inner circle and they’re probably a lot more likely to help you. Um, so we do things like that. We do paid promotion to,  our content. And we do, we do that pretty lightly, but we use like, uh, I mean we use retargeting, we use lookalike audiences on Facebook for, um, our highest LTV customers. And then the other piece that has worked historically really well for us, and then this is something that worked incredibly well for us at Groove, was to try and create the primary source material for other bloggers to link to. And at Groove, we did this by creating lots of articles on customer service statistics and customer service facts and quotes and things like that. And then every time a writer starts writing an article about customer service, they’re going to Google customer service statistics. And then what’s the first thing they see is, oh, here’s Groove’s articles. So they’re going to link back to that. And so we’re doing a lot of that at Podia as well with creator, statistics, creator, monetization, statistics, that kind of stuff.

Brad: (40:32)

Yeah, that’s awesome. I love that. It’s just like, that’s the low hanging fruit, uh, definitions, terms glossaries- like that old SEO hack. And then original research, obviously. I think that the key point is that like promotion doesn’t start after you published the post that starts like in the ideation phase. And again, I think it’s what most people miss is where you’re getting this habit or you have the luxury of whatever capitalizing on perfect market timing and having a brand where you can just like push stuff out and it takes off. But, um, otherwise you have to get a little more clever about working in, your like promotional hooks from the very get-go.

Len: (41:06)

Yeah. And it’s, it’s really hard to see that when you’re just getting started. Right? Like of course when Intercom publishes a post, it’s going to go viral, right? Or like, of course when First Round Capital publishes a post, it’s going to go viral because they have these massive, massive audiences. Or when Hubspot publishes a post, you don’t really see as the, you know, upstart content marketer that 99% of the work of the success of that article happened over the last eight years when that as that company was building out its content operation and if you’re just getting started, you’re going to  have to do all of that work before you get those you know, those crazy network effects that they get every time they publish a post.

Brad: (41:34)

 Yeah. I mean I think it applies to any, any new company in a new space to like you’re going to be dealing with this inertia essentially like you have to push through and it’s like rolling a snowball up the hill, all these terrible analogies, but like, the, the point is that like,  to do that it’s going to take some extraordinary efforts and resources in somewhere. Like you can’t just fire off the same old thing. You can’t just listen to what some influencers telling you and like copy it verbatim, send out the same outreach email, like you have to take what we’re talking about here and like amplify it. Take it  two or three degrees above. Otherwise you’re, you’re never going to kind of stick out.

Len: (42:28)

Yeah. There’s a, um, it’s a really good story in, there’s a book called Impossible to Inevitable. Um, and it’s by, uh, Jason Lemkin was one, it was one of the coauthors and I off Aaron Ross. 

Brad: (42:41)

Aaron Ross?

Len: (42:43)

That’s it. Yeah, exactly. Aaron Ross. Um, and one of the stories that I loved and it was, uh, about the early days of Zenefits, which obviously is a company that has run into a lot of challenges. But, uh, in the very early days of Zenefits, the head of sales would just sit on his bed all day with his laptop just like surrounded by McDonald’s wrappers. And he would have a spreadsheet and he would send cold emails every single day, all day to as many people as he possibly could. And he would change something up every time he sent an email. And in his spreadsheet, he would track what worked and what didn’t. And he would send thousands of these over the course of the month and eventually they hit on some cold email templates that started converting like wildfire, but it took them a thousand sends to get there. That’s really the work that you have to put into, to, to find some traction.

Brad: (43:32)

Yeah. It sounds like a combination of a few things we talked about where you’re, you’re doing legitimate experiments in a sense of like you’re not just sending 10 cold emails, you’re sending thousands, uh, and then once you start hitting upon it, then that’s where you take the quality scale like through the roof. You downgrade volume and you figure out how can I take a blog post or an article or a standard, whatever about this topic, uh, and turn it into a guide. Which I think is what you kind of do at Podia is you don’t look at individual posts as just like, again, another 500-word blog post on something stupid. But you like you take it into how can I this into like a, a guy like the one-stop resource for this thing.

Len: (44:10)

Totally. Yeah. I mean I think for anybody creating content online, especially at this stage of maturity in the content space, your goal with every article or every piece of content that you create should be to be the absolute best resource on the Internet for the topic you’re writing about.

Brad: (44:32)

Yeah. Cause I mean, there’s no other way, right. 

Len: (44:34)

Otherwise, yeah, it’s fatal. 

Brad: (44:37)

Especially if you’re not like the biggest brand in the space. Do you have any other tips or ideas for how you’d go about finding some of these experts or how do you, like how do you decide what the test in the very first place about makes sense? So if you’re looking at like 10 promotional activities, you’re looking at your budget, and you’re looking at like, okay, well I kind of know through, I have a couple of referrals to like, you know, these people in these spaces. But like how do you go about deciding what tests you’re going to start and how long you should kind of devote time to them.

Len: (45:13)

Yeah. There, there are a few things that I, that I would do. So the first thing, um, I would say, and I don’t want to be a broken record on this, but talk to your customers and see, you know, see where it is that they, um, hang out online. What newsletters do they subscribe to, what Facebook pages are they a part of. Um, and then you can use, you know, like Facebook audience insights to learn even more about the people who like those pages and try to find, I’m really just trying to find all those different fishing holes where, where people in their market hangout. Um, the other thing is look at successful companies in your space. There’s a good chance they don’t have everything figured out, but if there are companies in your space that are, you know, Intercom sized or Slack sized, that’s the kind of company where there are teams of people who lose their job if marketing doesn’t work right.

Len: (45:57)

And so they have invested a lot of money in figuring out where the customers are and what the messaging is and all that kind of stuff. And obviously you don’t want to copy because otherwise you’re just like a shitty clone of Intercom. But they probably have some interesting insights for you to learn about how to market to the audience that you’re, you’re marketing to. Um, and the other thing is, and once you’ve talked to your customers, once you’ve figured out where the fishing holes are, like for us, for example, we saw that when I was talking to customers, one of the things I learned was that a lot of our customers actually attended the same in person events. And I wasn’t thinking at all about in person events as a channel for, for Podia when I started. But it turned out that there was a lot of overlap with a lot of our customers that we were attending our events.

Len: (46:43)

And so it made a lot of sense because those events could become great fishing holes for us. And so we decided to test sponsorship of these five events and it’s done really, really well for us. They’ve all been ROI positive. Um, and so I think use what you learned from talking to your customers. Use what you learned from researching where the people in your market hangout, uh, and then create some device in real experiments. I mean like don’t just say, all right, we’re going to try this. And then 18 months later you’re still puttering along at that channel and it’s not going well. Say, all right, I’m going to give it x number of months and um, here are the greenlight metrics that we need to see. And if you don’t know what those should be, talk to an expert. Talk to somebody who’s been there before, talked to somebody who’s, you know, a real expert in that channel and say, all right, if you were going to devise an experiment to see if this channel was going to work for my business, how would you do it? And they’ll probably be able to, you know, if they’ve seen hundreds of campaigns, they’ll probably be able to say, all right, you need to spend, you know, based on the size of your market, the size of your list, whatever it might be, you need to spend x number of months. Here are the metrics you should be looking for if you hit these metrics. No, keep going. If you fail to hit these metrics, maybe try the next thing on your list.

Brad: (47:53)

So you just, you just ask them for a bunch of RFPs and then steal that shit and do it for free right?

Len: (47:59)

Yeah, pretty much. And then, well, what I do is I, um, I say, well, you do this for free and then maybe they’ll be paid work for you later.

Brad: (48:08)

Yeah, that’s my favorite. Um, that’s my favorite. I had an angry email today cause I, I was messing with some stuff on our onboarding and uh, I came up with this like snarky reply. So it’s like, if you don’t have a budget or a timeline or any of these things spelled out, then like I can’t help you. You know what I mean? Like you and me jumping on the phone, is not going to help. Like I’m just going to make shit up and then we’re both gonna waste time. Uh, so this guy got really mad because the answer basically said, if they don’t fill that stuff out, the answer says thanks for nothing. You know, it’s funny, like your point about events is, is I think a key point because it’s a gap analysis, right?

Brad: (48:48)

Like if I’m looking at Hubspot, if I’m creating marketing content and Hubspot has created marketing content, I know, but I’m not gonna be able to match their volume or output. Like they’re gonna- all their stuff’s going to be like a six out of 10. And I can’t keep up with them. So I have to either do a 10 out of 10 or I have to do the reverse where I’m looking at like, I don’t know, I’m blanking on another example, but like this is like a 10 out of 10, but they only publish once a week or once a month. So I’m going to bury him. Like I’m just going to bury him and six out of 10 or whatever. Like it’s not that you should do that, but it’s, it’s figuring out what that person is lacking or not doing or can’t do.

Len: (49:25)

Totally. Yeah. I was, I was talking to a company, um, a few weeks ago, uh, a CEO of a company that’s in a very crowded space and all of their competitors do all of the greatest hits, right? They do all the content marketing, all the Facebook advertising, the Youtube advertising, the Youtube Channel, all of the, you know, event marketing. This company’s most effective channel by a long shot, and it actually is very profitable for them, is traditional radio.

Brad: (49:53)

Hmm.

Len: (49:54)

And they have found that that is an incredibly underpriced channel in their market. And they managed to move a lot of product that way and kudos to them for  you know, figuring out where their customers are that their customers are probably, you know, commuting somewhere and listening to the radio and they’ve been able to, it’s a, it’s a physical goods company and they’ve been able to ship a lot of product just by being on terrestrial radio.

Brad: (50:21)

Yeah, it’s funny and it, it all comes full circle though because even like your in house event, we talk about promotion and everyone thinks that like content roast never thinks of like, oh yeah, like paid distribution, uh, whatever outreach, um, cheesy,  hey, I saw this resource, you should link to this resource. But it’s like, no, no, you do like you do something else to get the visibility, to get the awareness to get the audience and then you go circle back and then you promote, now you have your audience promote content too. So you’re still doing it, but you’re doing it differently in a way that’s going to actually resonate and give you something besides just like firing off, you know, the same listicles that everyone else is.

Len: (50:59)

Right. And then you won’t get you and you’ll be in a position, where you’re no longer emailing people saying, Hey, I’m Len from Podia and they go, who from where? Because once people, I mean if I got an email from, you know, Len at Intercom, I’m probably opening that email.

Brad: (51:15)

Totally. I mean, like we said with the halo effect, like that marketer probably sucks. I mean, I’ve seen like there was one time I was at a conference, uh, and there’s a marketer at a big brand and like the stuff they were talking about, I was just like, this is the dumbest talk I’ve ever heard. Like none of this stuff would work for anyone else. Like they’re just, you know, like the Pepsi Cola of  your industry or Coca-Cola. So it works for you. But like

Len: (51:37)

All I have to do is put out a press release? That’s amazing.

Brad: (51:41)

Press release distribution sites. We get backlinks from them, all these journalists just pick them up and write about them. That’s my favorite thing is when people talk about, especially link building, you know, cause it’s so uh, you know, whatever controversial or difficult to do. And they’re like, yeah, you just need to like work with journalists. It’s like no journalists cares about you. Like no journalist cares about any of you like get that in your, um, and again, look at what big companies are doing. They’re sponsoring dinners, they’re hosting events, they’re inviting journalists for free so they’re not paying them, but they’re giving them free booze and they’re not making a lot of good times. And then guess what? That person’s going to write something favorable about it. And if they don’t, they’re going to stop inviting them to all those events. So it’s like you’ve got to like rethink how you’re doing it. Cause the whole like, oh yeah, just be really good at what you do. And then like, people will like you. Unfortunately it’s not going to happen.

Len: (52:34)

Yeah. That’s the sad reality. 

Brad: (51:41)

Well, Len thank you again. Really appreciate your time. Is there anywhere we should send people? Anywhere you think that people would get kind of more valued from based on what we’ll talk about today? 

Len: (52:44)

Sure. Yeah. Appreciate you having me on. This has been a lot of fun. Uh, if people want to check out Podia, if you wanna sell some digital products, check out podiums, podia.com, and you can find me on Twitter just at LenMarkidan and I’m generally pretty useless, but sometimes you’ll find something interesting in there. 

Brad: (53:04)

Perfect. I’ll publish his email too, so you can just mass email him all your pitches. 

Len: (53:08)

Excellent. I’d love to promote every piece of content

Brad: (53:09)

For sure. For sure. I will. Thanks again. I appreciate it. 

Len: (53:13)

Of course. Thanks Brad. Have a great rest of your day. 

Brad: (53:16)

Thanks. You too.

Highlights 

6:34 Len on the benefit and challenge of delegating tasks that you excel in to others on the team.  It’s tough to do. It’s naturally just challenging to let go of. But I think it’s one of the biggest things that you can do to unlock your true potential as you go from being an individual contributor to a manager.

9:44 The importance of focusing on ideas that move the needle.  I think one of the big pitfalls that a lot of us, deal with certainly that I’ve, that I’ve fallen into is, um, coming up with lots and lots and lots of ideas  that, that aren’t really the best use of our time. Um, and that might mean that might be because they’re thinking too small, but a lot of times it’s also just because they’re not a core competency for us. Right? And so this kind of comes back to playing to your strengths and playing to your core, your core expertise. 

18:15 A fresh perspective on what being in a crowded market truly means.  but it’s not as crowded as you think because a crowded market is not a million people in a room with you and all of your competitors up on stage vying for their attention in a, a crowded market actually looks a lot more like a million people spread across 100,000 different rooms and your competitors are not in all of those rooms, right?

34:38 The reason hiring experts for content creation is crucial. I think that it’s impossible. I think it’s really, I really do think it’s impossible, um, in 2018 or 2019 to do really well in one of these channels that we’re talking about without having an expert help you if you’ve never done it before. Because there’s just, it’s just so noisy and all of them, I mean, Facebook, you’re basically competing against very large companies that have full-time staff that are running Facebook ads, 24, seven for them. Um, and they’re bidding for the same clicks that you are. 

39:00 A powerful strategy for improving the quality of your content and getting others engaged with it.  And you know, I think that’s one of the most powerful ways you can promote content is get somebody who you know, is, is to not reach out to somebody after you’ve created it, but to reach out while you’re creating something because it’s, it’s, it’s a really genuine ask you, you really are trying to get good advice and good feedback on your content because it will make your content better

45:19 How do you go about deciding what tests you’re going to start and how long you should kind of devote time to them? talk to your customers and see, you know, see where it is that they hang out online. What newsletters do they subscribe to, what Facebook pages are they a part of. Um, and then you can use, you know, like Facebook audience insights to learn even more about the people who like those pages and try to find, really just trying to find all those different fishing holes where, where people in their market hangout.