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Startup Growth Marketing: Interview with Trevor Sookraj

An Interview with Trevor Sookraj, Founder of Divisional on Growing an Early-Stage Startup

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Parthi Loganathan

Mar 21 2022

10 mins read

Divisional was founded by Trevor Sookraj in response to his experience in acquiring growth marketers in highly verticalized outsourcing situations, where it can take as much as 6 months to find a good fit.

Divisional offers a growth-marketing stop-gap to startups, embedding a growth team early-on so that the later transition to a full-time head of growth is smooth, and can ramp up quickly. They've worked with around 40 B2B SaaS companies: Seed to Series-B to Series-C, helping them do growth marketing at scale.

Trevor was kind enough to join me for this interview.

How Does an Early Stage Startup Get Started with Growth Marketing?

Early-stage startups often have a demand-generation bias, which means more channels. They'll hire agencies and freelancers for paid social or email campaigns. But that leaves the customer out. Wide growth should be central to their thinking.

Divisional takes a deep interest in the customer—we have the client fill out an ideal customer profile (ICP), and then we do a deep analysis of customer needs for a few weeks to inform our channel focus.

We start with an open mind, trying to understand customer pain points, which informs our channel strategy.

Then we start growth experimentation, developing hypotheses about specific campaigns for our target market—iterating on success. This creates a track record, giving a picture where you know you're getting the right results.

Once You Understand Your Customers, How Do You Translate That To a Channel Strategy You Can Execute?

The big question is how does a channel affect the user journey?

The lowest hanging fruit for B2B SaaS companies is that the sales teams are already built out. But a gap appears in getting buy-in for growth marketing from sales, so bridging that gap is one of our first priorities.

Another low hanging fruit is having the email inboxes warmed up on day 1, because it's going to take 3 to 4 weeks to get that going. Mailreach or Warmup Inbox can help.

Then we want company-specific goals. General goals don't matter. We dive deeper, asking questions like "what about this company makes a difference?" or "Can I cull a targeted list that is tightly coupled with the email campaign?"

On the SEM side, once we have a good understanding of the customer, we look at the entire space the company is playing in. You look at competitors in the space and use a tool like SEMrush to see what they're bidding on right now and in the past. This helps test our ideas—how is someone else doing what we're thinking about? This avoids some easy mistakes and defines your targets. It's usually more important for SEO, so you can build pages aligned with popular searches. But it's equally important in SEM, avoiding a disconnect between a high-intent search and your pages not coming up.

Many founders believe they need to index on SEO early, but that can take 4 to 6 months to get good data on your hypotheses. You can validate a lot of your assumptions about SEO using SEM. Once that's validated, you can tailor your growth marketing strategy. Companies can be successful focusing on SEO early, but it's a long game. An SEM focus accelerates that timeline.

This approach works for the vast majority of B2B companies. Thinking through the problem sets of customer profile, email, SEM, and competitor space results in early success in growth marketing.

What If Your Assumptions Turn Out To Be Wrong? How Can You Tell If a Campaign Is Working?

What sets great companies apart in how they handle their growth marketing is their methodology and framework around experimentation.

Companies will have success and failure in campaigns, but one overlooked idea is milestones. Experiments can take a fair amount of time. It can take a month or more to get a valid conversion-rate number.

Setting up leading indicators—milestones—can give us data after a week on whether we want to double-down and iterate on success, cut off a channel that's failing, or iterate on something that's "getting there." But it's less about tweaking things to get 2% more conversion rate at this stage than about taking big swings. This can help early-stage startups see if their hypotheses are correct much more quickly. Then we ask questions about how to take this from "good enough" to driving a key amount of traffic.

At this point we return to channels we previously overlooked and retest them. Marketers often iterate on a single channel that worked early, but the assumptions you had 6 months ago may have changed, so it's worth revisiting those channels.

Can You Give an Example Of Revisiting a Channel Successfully?

Email functions really well with sales early in giving you data about your customer, especially with enterprise SaaS or sales-led companies. After a few months of gathering information, SEM can become the focus: culling your list, adding negative key words to get a sense of the customer journey. Then, instead of saying, "here's a pain point I'm targeting," SEM informs you about the specifics of your customer base—getting you better qualified conversations. Now you can revisit email and convert.

One company was building tooling to support ecommerce companies, helping them think through the FP&A side of their business. Initially we targeted them for email, but it didn't perform well. Through experimenting initially via SEM, and then paid social, we discovered that they were trying to find the right model to apply to their company. We asked if there was a template we could use.

We took it to the sales team and said "start using this in your email campaigns as your hook." Now they had this helpful template that solves the same pain point you originally had, and we know it works. Email channel conversion rate increased meaningfully. It was more effective than a typical sales-demo approach, but if we had tried to do it from day 1, we would've wasted resources. Email became viable by testing through other channels after already scaling things up.

Who Should Be Responsible For Growth At Early-Stage Startups, And How Should They Think About Hiring?

Emily Kramer is a marketing advisor who used to be head of marketing at Asana. She's built a system called MKT1 and has a great post on this topic that advocates for product marketing being your first marketing hire. Growth marketing isn't separate from product marketing, especially at the early stage.

The CEO or some other business-focused founder typically owns growth for an early-stage company. For that first hire, focus on getting someone with an understanding of product marketing to build insights about the customer journey and use that to power growth. That's more important than a tactical or channel-oriented hire.

Startups are raising seeds earlier than ever. They'll have 4 to 5 pilot customers, and a lot of founders think "I need to scale this up." The product marketing person is going to think about what the common thread between these 5 customers is—how do they experience your product? How do we test that at a higher velocity to onboard companies that are closer to your ICP? That's a more repeatable engine. Often, your first 10 customers are just word-of-mouth, especially with YC. But that's not necessarily scaleable and repeatable, which is where the product marketer comes in.

Experimentation is key in making that first growth hire, especially how they solve problems. Many companies put too much emphasis on whether someone has channel experience, whereas what's really important for an early-stage growth marketer is whether they can think through problem sets and improve that company's marketing function.

If you hire someone with a heavy paid ads background, and then they realize that a podcast influencer is the best option to grow your company—that's where a growth marketer is going to pivot to tackle the problem. But someone who has a demand generation or paid ads background will probably shy into problems they're comfortable with and run experiments on those. They'll miss that big opportunity that's going to help your company hit scale and raise your future funding rounds.

The two major skillsets you want for your head of growth:

  1. They have a product marketing sense, (they care deeply about your customers and understand what that mapping looks like).
  2. They have a good idea about experimentation and problem solving in thinking through growth problems.

That's more important at the seed stage than whether you have a really good channel or performance-marketing background. At seed stage, you have to be willing to put your eggs in different baskets and experiment rapidly.

What Are Common Failure Modes At Early-Stage Companies When It Comes To Growth?

Not focusing on who your customer is and what their experience looks like. Often there's too much early attention on attaining qualified leads and not enough on "how do I build this out as a proper product engine."

Founders who come from product or engineering backgrounds don't typically think in terms of "I just want to hit X revenue," but ensure that their growth rate and their product experience are really good. Founders on the sales and marketing end may overlook that in favor of leads through the door. That's one of the biggest mistakes we've seen for early-stage companies trying to scale.

Another mistake, especially with product-led growth companies, is a lack of emphasis on data. There's a lot of assumptions, especially in the early days, and then when responsibilities get handed off from the founder to a new hire, that new hire doesn't have any data on what that journey looks like, creating a massive gap. This means that decisions are based on what's happening right now rather than what's historically made sense.

Having a good understanding of data is important because it doesn't just make your company work in the short term, it also makes new hires a lot more comfortable navigating this journey with you. That data gap is a lot harder to retroactively fill for a product-led company once it's scaled-up. A head of growth needs a clear track record to look at.

And that's the whole idea of growth marketing: you're trying to create a clear landscape of "I don't know what's going to work, but I know who my customer is and want to understand them better, and here's the experiments that got us there, and here's the end goal of what our current marketing engine looks like versus the spiky growth of reactively feeding channels."

Is There Anything Else You Think Early-Stage Founders Should Know About Growth?

It's about customer focus.

Also, founders often have a bias to hire because they have a lot on their plate. There's a danger: make the wrong hire, and you won't see the outcomes for 3 to 6 months, burning X amount of pipeline plus a hire you've paid and now have to offboard. Then you have to find a new person. Growth is holistic, so you want to bring someone on who doesn't just fill a seat but has a deep understanding of your business, who will make the difference as you're scaling your company. Bring someone on who can take that ownership.

This is an interview by Parthi Loganathan, the founder of Letterdrop. We help companies grow their top-of-funnel and accelerate sales with content. Our platform and added services help companies create content that convert leads to customers. If you're a company considering an agency like Divisional, one of the channels they might have you look into is content. Letterdrop can help you execute effectively on SEO, email, and social media marketing.

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