Word-of-Mouth and Referral Marketing Blog

Shopify’s Growth & Marketing – How Shopify Grew 10x in 3 Years

The following are our takeaways from an interview Hubspot’s CMO Mike Volpe (with Meghan Keaney Anderson) did with Shopify’s CMO, Craig Miller. Check out the interview, among others, on The Growth Show.

Our summarized takeaways:

  1. Marketing is vague, growth is precise. Craig internally rebranded Shopify’s marketing team as the growth team. Once they did that, it became super-clear what everybody was supposed to be doing every day.
  2. The bigger challenge is to make growth a company-wide objective. It’s an internal education process– helping everyone see that growth is achievable through small tests, and that everybody benefits for it.
  3. There’s a weird demarcation in companies between marketing and product that customers don’t care about. The growth team is regularly changing things inside the product.
  4. You have to prove yourself over time– small wins with the data. There was a demarcation in Shopify early on between product and marketing, but they eroded those over time by asking for small changes and demonstrating results.
  5. Prioritize the easy wins. Craig has signed up for Shopify over 1,000 times, just looking for all sorts of opportunities to tweak and optimize the flow.
  6. Use analytics to get insights on where and how to allocate resources. Craig actually has an engineering background, and has never read a marketing book or taken a marketing course in his life.
  7. Go the extra mile and be a little different. Shopify had remarkable Terms of Service and a remarkable Logout page, and people would tweet about it.
  8. Work fast. What can you do today, tomorrow? You don’t want to fall into the trap of coming up with lots of nice, elaborate powerpoint presentations of what you’re going to do next year.
  9. Focus. If your job is to grow the company, grow the company.

Full transcript:

“In your own words, what is Shopify?”

“Shopify started out as a online shopping cart–we’ve morphed over time, we’re now more of an ecommerce platform.

What that means is– if you’re looking to sell your products online and you wanna have your own website, you can just sign up with Shopify, you get a fully customized website that can exist on your own domain, and you can use it to sell your products online, and now in stores as well through a point-of-sales system.”

“Tell us about the growth that you guys experienced.”

“I joined Shopify a little over 3 years ago. ANd at the time I joined, we had 13,000 paying customers. We powered 13,000 online stores.

Today it’s 130,000. So in 3 years we’ve done 10x growth.”(V: Now over 150,000.)

“What do you think about when you’re putting together a growth team?”

When I joined the company there was an existing small team of people that did marketing. When I joined, a lot of them didn’t really know what they were supposed to do. They knew that they were supposed to do marketing, but they didn’t know what that actually entailed.

So early on, I made the effort of rebranding the team internally– instead of calling it a marketing team, we became the growth team. And as part of that, it also made sense that you didn’t necessarily  need a marketing background to be a part of the team.

In addition to the 3 people that were there when I started, we started adding more people to the team– the 2nd person we added to the team was actually a designer.   The 3rd person was a developer, the 4th person an analyst. So we had an atypical marketing team very early on, simply by rebranding the team. And I think that effort was to make sure sure everyone knew exactly what we were trying to do day in day out.

When you call yourself a marketing team– you’re supposed to do marketing– what does that mean? Who knows, right?

But when you say growth team, you know exactly what you’re supposed to do, every day.

“My marketing peers have often tried to hire developers, designers into the marketing team, but those people often then get pulled back into the core software development team. How do you avoid that?”

Over time the bigger challenge is to make growth more of a company-wide objective, so that people actually want to join your team instead of you losing those people to other teams.

Simple things you can do– as with the designer who joined the team early on– once you show them the power of A/B testing, and give them the sense that they can actually make a big difference in the company, all of a sudden, you don’t have a problem of losing people, you have the problem of, if anything, having too many people signing up and wanting to join the team.

It takes effort– it’s challenging especially in the early days– because the company as a whole really didn’t necessarily see the importance of marketing. Marketing is often thought of as something other companies do, “Our competitors are really good at marketing and that’s why they exist.”

I think it comes into the sense of “If you build it they will come” mentality that’s more typical for people in technical roles. To educate them, show them that they can have an impact. It’s not as simple as building a great product. You actually need to go much more beyond that to get people sign up and start using product. I think it becomes an educational effort just within the entire company.

“Have the lines blurred between growth team and product team? Sounds like a lot of what the growth team is doing is reducing friction in onboarding and in using the product…”

“Absolutely. In most typical companies there’s this weird line that exists between marketing and product. Marketing gets people to the website, gets them to sign up, and at that point it becomes entirely product. To me that’s this weird demarcation point that I don’t think actually should exist.

People on the growth team at Shopify have full access to the product, are regularly changing things inside the product– again with that singular goal of growth. Because ultimately the customer doesn’t see a clear difference between marketing division and product division– they just see it as one entire entity.

So it’s important that inside the company it’s seen the same way.

“So how do you break down that wall? There’s a marketing department, a product department… is it just small projects that erode the wall? Or is there a real cultural shift that happens?”

“My experience has been doing it in a more incremental fashion. A lot of this didn’t happen overnight. When we started the website itself, Shopify.com, it was considered the design team’s domain. For me to ask for anything was, well you know, they’ll consider it…

You ask for a few small things and then you show that you’re adding value. ‘Why don’t we just change the title tags and some content on the page’– they were fine on that, and then they see that you make a big impact because you get more traffic to the site– so you you show them Google analytics, here’s before and here’s after.

And then they start to gain a bit of trust in you, and they ask you, so, what else can we do? A/B test the copy, great results.

Same thing with product– there was a clear demarcation inside Shopify. We kind of pushed them and just said, “Why don’t we just start testing some different things in the onboarding– the first thing you see when you signup?” We tried that out, had some good success there, and then tried more things.

I think you have to prove yourself over time– but I think it’s very easy to do if you have a lot of data. Because that will show the way.”

“Do you want to talk about your framework for growth, re: different stages of growth / in the funnel… start experiments higher up in the funnel, where they touched product less? How do you think about optimizing each of the stages, either overall, or independently?”

“The way I think about it is often a question of lowest hanging fruit. If you look at your typical funnel– there’s get people to the website, once on the website get people to convert, get inside the product, get people to convert. Each step you have people you’re losing out, there are things you can optimise.

So for example on that first step, let’s do different creative ads, change your adwords copy, bid on different keywords. Example– once you get to the website, you have different landing pages, different calls-to-action, all these different things.

What ends up happening is most companies end up really being very strong in one area and absolutely shit in another area. You might have a great AdWords strategy bidding on all the right words, all the right copy, you click on the AdWord and then it ends up on the wrong page. And so they’re not going to fix the landing page.

It’s really important to look at the funnel as a whole, and ask, Where’s the lowest hanging fruit? What’s the next easiest win? Instead of looking at it in a very segmented way and saying “All we can do is optimize the first part of the funnel.” Because then you don’t really have a funnel.

Really this concept of looking at the traffic sources to the website, and the product growing through, and then just constantly chipping away– What’s the lowest hanging fruit? Where have we had some wins, and where can we get more wins? What are the untapped opportunities, what have we not done yet? Very iterative process.

I’ve probably signed up for Shopify about a thousand times this year. You’re going through the entire flow looking for new opportunities to tweak, to optimize, to convert customers.”

“When you find something that works, there’s a risk of hitting repeat until you run it into the ground. Sounds like you’ve got a nice strategy for how to figure out why something worked and really iterate on it. What’s your approach to building on past successes but not necessarily repeating them?”

Some important context– my background is not in marketing. I’ve never taken a course on marketing in my life, never actually read a book on marketing either. Background is engineering, I’m more of a numbers person. I’m very analytical, very quantitative. I’m constantly looking at numbers, dashboard reports. So for me, a lot of this actually becomes a numbers game.

As long as you have really strong instrumentations throughout your entire funnel, at every single point, if you take a very analytical approach, that’s when all of a sudden everything becomes obvious to you– as opposed to saying let’s keep doing this over and over again. You can see the point of diminishing returns– and you can also see the opportunties in other areas.

You can say, look, this is where there’s a drop-off of 50% -that becomes a clear opportunity for you– drop that down to 10%, and you say– well, if we spend additional work on it, it might go from 10% to 9%, which isn’t as much of a step change.

So analytics give you insight on where you should spend your time, and also what’s your potential returns in terms of time, effort and money.

“What are the things that people don’t think of as marketing… that you think can be marketing? Give us some examples of that.”

If you can infuse a sense in the entire company, the importance of being a little unique, a little different– everything you do could potentially bring in more customers– then you end up having really amazing results. I’m talking about strange things like…

People have tweeted about our Terms of Service, because our TOS has the stuff written by a lawyer on the right hand side and someone actually took a crack at trying to explaining all the legal jargon means on the left. Most people don’t think about it, but we took a little bit of effort and created something that we thought was a little bit different, a little bit better, and we’ve literally seen people tweeting “OMG, Shopify has the best TOS I’ve ever seen in my life.”

shopify-terms-of-service-tos
V: Would love it if more of the Internet did this.

I think the way to get at that is using the culture through the entire company– thinking a bit differently about things, go a bit further, do something a bit unexpected.

Another example: You logged out of Shopify, instead of simply saying “You logged out of Shopify”, it would say have a good afternoon/morning/evening. Literally just 3 lines of Javascript, but people comment on that, that’s so cool, I love logging out of Shopify.

shopify-logout
An example of a Shopify logout screen. Love the relevant plug of one of Shopify’s own stores– marketing their users, to their users!

Really important that you don’t just put all your effort into the homepage, just these few things– put it through the entire company. How can everybody help getting your company on the map? The great thing is that it really doesn’t take any effort– you’re doing something anyway, just make it a bit more interesting, put in a bit more effort.

“Did marketing work on these efforts together with other groups, or did those groups do it almost independently?”

“Some of them were things that we did– we’ll go through into projects that exist, pages that are already done, we’ll go on and try and infuse a bit of creativity.

Another aspect is– since we’ve done this enough, other people just do it on their own. It really doesn’t take that much effort to just be a little different, just do something a little more remarkable.

Luckily we do hire a lot of people who are ex-entrepreneurs, who have that in their DNA anyways, and we celebrate those wins internally. So it’s a combination of both.”

“There has to be a comfort level with trying things and having them not working, right? How do you approach failures, how do you recover from them?”

“When we first moved into our office that’s based in TO, we had some big white walls that we needed to put some art up on. We had a designer who said, “Why don’t we stick up our cultural values?”  Which forced us to think about the cultural values that we wanted to instill in the growth team.

One of the ones that came out of my experience- a line I heard a few times when I worked at eBay– was “Beg for forgiveness.” It’s based on this idea of… do what you think is right, if it doesn’t work, just apologize- chances are you won’t really blow things up.

As companies grow and things get more mature, people lose their tolerance for risk. That’s why you have larger companies that fail and smaller companies that succeed. Smaller companies just don’t have much to lose. They’re just hungry. And that’s a sort of cultural value that I wanted to install in everyone.

People never get in trouble if they have good intentions and something doesn’t work. We’ve wasted money, wasted time, wasted effort- but as long as the thinking was right in doing it, there’s really no fault in that.

When people do get in trouble inside Shopify, it’s literally when they don’t do things. When they overthink, hey, should I do this or should I not, and spend weeks doing something that they literally could’ve  done in 5 minutes, and spend weeks implementing it– stop overthinking.

Just do it. You have the data, if it doesn’t work, undo it. It’s really important to have that culture, because otherwise over time it just gets to be that people spend all their time creating presentations about these great plans- “Next year we’ll do this, next quarter we’ll do that…”

Any time I hear that, I ask, “What about tomorrow? What can we do next?” I think it’s really important that we maintain that culture.

“Any summary advice? A good friend is about to take a head of marketing role at a mid-sized company looking to grow. What’s your 1-2 lines of advice?”

One word: Focus. It’s so easy to be distracted. People are gonna ask about brand strategy, voice and tone. A lot of that stuff doesn’t matter.

If your job is to grow the company, just grow the company.

“If people want to learn more of this type of stuff, are there other companies you think are doing well, blogs that you tend to read online, or things you think people should go check out?”

I spend a lot of time on Twitter reading and getting ideas but ultimately I think every company, person, team, etc is gonna be different. So learn as much as you can, try everything that’s possible. The things that work, do more of them, the things that don’t work, learn from them.

Follow @mvolpe and @craigmillr on Twitter. Tell them we sent you.

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Visakan Veerasamy

Visa is ReferralCandy's former Blog Editor [2013–2018]. He also co-founded Statement.sg, a fashion ecommerce label selling witty t-shirts. He's mildly Internet-famous for his elaborate Twitter threads. He hopes to enjoy a glass of scotch onboard a commercial space flight someday.

3 comments

  • I’ve always been curious and concerned about the “silent evidence” problem, which is that most of the things you’ll read about marketing are from people who spend all of their time writing about marketing (rather than DOING marketing).

    So I’d pay extra close attention to anything someone like Craig says. I think it’s especially interesting to pay attention to what he says about internal rebranding, internal education, hiring. I think the human element is severely under-discussed (in my limited opinion) in general marketing circles. The most important thing is getting the right people, immersing them in the right culture, getting them focused on the right goals.

    Focus on the data, fight for small wins. Makes lots of sense.