I was half a decade into an agency job I was supposed to love.
On paper, that job was a great fit.
But in reality, there was this problem:
I didn’t fit in.
My work was my art. My coworkers, well, they couldn’t quite say the same – no one really seemed to care about what they were creating. It didn’t take long for my “dream job” to morph into a nine-to-five cage.
My (future) business partner and I were paddling in the same boat at this agency. After a couple beers one night, we decided to change our luck and build something we could run. Of course, we each had families, which meant we couldn’t just ghost on them because we were excited to get a new project off the ground. So every night, from 10pm to 3am, we hopped on a Skype call. Coffee pots sputtering in the background, we built Scriply, our first piece of software.
Today, I’m the cofounder and CEO of CoSchedule.
We’re a SaaS startup with users in 100+ countries around the world. In fewer than 4 years, we went from night-owl jam sessions to 8,000+ customers.
I share this so you know we didn’t go from zeroes across the board to thousands of customers by magic. (Or by dipping into the fat wallets of VC money.)
We bootstrapped this thing like you wouldn’t believe.
When we did our first demos with prospective customers to validate the product, it wasn’t even built yet. In fact, our “product” was a powerpoint deck with a UI and hyperlinks that jumped from one slide to the next.
The growth we’ve experienced hasn’t come by accident; it’s come by doing, shipping, creating, failing, learning… and never stopping.
How you take a 3 a.m. side-hustle to a growing startup
This is your inside look at how I grew CoSchedule with the One Metric That Matters (1MTM) framework, which is made up of two things:
When you’re starting something that desperately needs customers – whether a side-hustle, agency or even a SaaS company – you need heaps of both focus AND discipline.
… If you’re in the nine-to-five cage with hopes of a brighter, freedom-filled future, this article lays out a path for you to consider.
… If you’ve already made the leap to the startup stage, you can pull specific triggers with focus and discipline.
… If you’re in an established company – but crave the results you know you’re capable of – there’s something for you, too.
… If you want growth, pay attention (and take the quiz at the end).
Hey nerd friends, meet your one metric to rule them all
The 1MTM framework, popularized in Lean Analytics: Use Data to Build a Better Startup Faster by Alistair Croll and Benjamin Yoskovitz, is simply this:
Finding the right metric to relentlessly focus on at the right time that’s appropriate to your stage of growth.
Croll and Yoskovitz describe the 1MTM as “the one number you’re completely focused on above everything else for your current stage.” Fundamentally, you focus relentlessly on what’s most important for your growth right now. Not in 6 months. Not in a year.
When I worked at the agency, it did not operate this way. For clients, we were expected to grow every “important” metric at once. This meant simultaneously:
- Increasing social followers on every network
- Driving more web traffic
- Building a bigger email list
- Generating more qualified leads
- Getting a better click-through-rates
- Lowering cost-per-click
- Optimizing conversion rates
- Winning at direct mail campaigns
Those are all awesome things. But when everything is a priority, well, nothing is.
As marketers, many of us face the new normal of a 72-hour work week. We’re all tapped for time. So trying to keep every iron white-hot is a recipe for burnout. For me, working like this equaled meager gains in many areas. Instead, we need to focus on sizeable gains in the most important area. That’s why we used the 1MTM framework for growing CoSchedule. It forces you to prioritize ONE metric. If a given campaign, project or activity does not increase your one number to rule them all, don’t do it.
This is, also, how you – as a freelancer, startup founder or growth marketing peep – should view your growth, analytics and goal-setting activities.
Bottom line: your goal metric reflects the stage your team or company is at.
1MTM works because it encourages two things: focus and discipline
Ingredient #1: Focus
1MTM makes you focus with laser-beam intensity on the one thing that matters most right now.
It’s NOT about being myopic. Rather you save yourself from diluting your growth potential by tracking 47 popcorn KPIs, like the myriad of metrics I had to grow during my agency days. When you have one primary metric, your eyes are locked onto your goal AKA the one part of the business you’ve decided to value more highly than any other.
To get CoSchedule off the ground, we needed leads (trial signups, demo requests, etc) so people would actually become customers.
Our focus was to master 2 fundamentals:
- Traffic: drive it on demand
- Build an audience you have direct access to
In a recent survey of 1,600 pro marketers we conducted, we found that qualified leads are the number one KPI marketers track. In order to grow, you need leads. If you’re getting leads, you need a way to nurture them. As Chet Holmes points out in The Ultimate Sales Machine, only 3% of people are ready to buy right now. You want to keep in contact with the 97% who are in the “not quite yet” stage. Not to mention that nurtured leads make 47% larger purchases than non-nurtured folks.
To nurture those leads, you need direct contact with them.
Which means – *ahem* – email. Such as an email list filling up with folks in the “not quite yet” buying stage.
And, finally, to build your all-important email list, you gotta have traffic to your website. So, you need traffic (to get those leads) and audience building (to grow a relationship with those leads) which are these two fundamentals.
Bringing us full-circle back to our two fundamentals:
- Build an audience.
Ingredient #2: Discipline
At CoSchedule, we evaluated all projects through the singular lens of our One Metric. You instantly know if a strategy is good or not, depending on how well it serves your one metric.
For us at CoSchedule, asking ourselves, “Will this help us achieve our One Metric?” helped to evaluate new opportunities.
Maybe it will. Or not. Ultimately, focus and discipline allow for the necessary behavioral changes to take place. To achieve substantive growth, both your mindset and methodologies need to change. In Lean Analytics, Alistair Croll and Benjamin Yoskovitz explain:
“. . . if you want to change behavior, your metric must be tied to the behavioral change you want.”
For our purposes, I’ll paraphrase to this: If you want to change results, your metric must be tied to the results you want.
Because of my agency days – and focusing on 45+ KPIs to simultaneously grow – this approach appealed to me. See, it’s not doing more stuff. Instead, it’s focusing on less.
How CoSchedule used the 1MTM framework to grow
Step #1: Get Traffic
At CoSchedule, we had zero pageviews, zero email subscribers and no customers.
When I hired Nathan, our head of demand generation, I told him traffic was the only metric he should care about. In short: his job was to get pageviews.
Imagine you run a retail store and you need foot traffic, right? You need people milling around and looking at your products. To increase sales, you need people dropping by on a regular basis.
For us digital folks, this works exactly the same way. We need people on our sites because they’re our primary salespeople.
Your Step #1 could be one of these traffic-related options:
- New visitors
- Unique visitors
- Search hits
You can’t sell to people who aren’t there. To get more customers, we needed more traffic.
So, we worked our tails off to:
- Increase pageload speed which is an official search ranking factor for Google
- Optimize the user experience on our blog
- Delete any sidebars or distractions
- Create the best content we possibly could
- … Juice up that content with special SEO sauce
While learning to drive more web traffic is a science (and art) to its own, your foundation starts with amazing content. At CoSchedule, we set our focus on creating amazing content to drive traffic. In fact, killer content is so central to our growth and marketing that we boiled down our strategy to three principles:
- Pinpoint what positively impacts a huge number of people in your audience
- Find those topics by analyzing your competitors and strategizing a new angle
- In your content, unite your audience’s interests with your company’s value
All of that helped us grow from absolutely zero traffic to 1 million plus pageviews per month (and roughly 400,000 unique visitors).
Ever hear of a marketer named Noah Kagan?
But what about a guy named Julien Marion? My bet is you probably haven’t heard of him.
Noah helped him build a brand-new website and grow it from zeroes to over 10,000 visitors per month. Without a large following or existing brand, Julien worked an astute plan to get there the old-school way: blood, sweat and clicks.
How did he do it? He set a goal straight out of the holy 1MTM: 10k visitors in 30 days. 🙌
Step #2: Build an Audience
After the traffic is rolling in, you need to turn visitors into a loyal audience.
That means an email list!
In Step #2, choose your audience-related 1MTM for list growth:
- Email subscribers OR
- Community members
In the past four years, we’ve worked hard to figure out what works… and what doesn’t in email list building. Through copious testing, plenty of failures and eventual hockey-stick growth, we’ve learned exactly what works for us. Which are free software tools and content upgrades.
Today we grow by 20,000+ subscribers every month.
A 2014 study by VentureBeat found email marketing generates $38 for every $1 invested-catapulting email ROI lightyears ahead of social, paid search, display, and other traditional ad methods. In other words, your emails enjoy about 350% more visibility than organic social messages. And that’s just on a bad hair day.
Our experience proves those stats are true. Email has been the largest contributing factor to our growth by a factor about 300%.
Email signups are a lead metric for us, meaning they forecast profitable action that will happen. The more email signups (AKA prospects) we get, the more marketing qualified leads (MQLs) we get. Put another way, every $1 we invest in email turns into $3.
This is a key reason why 1MTM has worked to increase CoSchedule’s revenue growth from $0 to $5MM+ annually.
Over a 4-week stretch, our email signups grew by 317% and our MQLs grew by 392%. While not very fancy, this graph shows how our MQLs grew concurrent with email signups. When our most important metric grows, so does our downstream, revenue-generating metrics.
When we used a verbatim customer quote as our subject line, we’ve routinely seen open rates from 70-90%.
We measure the results of our email nurture campaigns. The higher our open rates, the higher our conversions. Not rocket science, I know 🚀
For instance, this 77.54% open rate is part of a campaign nurturing signups to become qualified leads. This campaign – also called a journey in some email marketing circles – averages a 26.1% conversion rate.
So, doing some quick math here: a little more than 1 out of every 4 people who get our weekly email takes the action we’re calling them to. Higher open rates also correlate directly to this stat. The higher our open rates? The more qualified leads we generate. Therefore, the more revenue we drive.
See the deep connection between our email list and our revenue?
TWO insanely-actionable strategies that helped CoSchedule go from 0 subscribers to 350,000+ in 5 years
Subscriber Strategy #1: Content upgrades
A content upgrade is a companion resource to content like blog posts. They’re also called lead magnets or opt-in bait. Often, they are things like:
- Any other document that helps your audience put what you’re teaching them into practice
To use them to build an email list, we gate them behind an email opt-in form. So, your new potential subscriber gets the resource by when they provide their email address.
I know what you’re thinking: “I barely have time to write a blog post, much less create a content upgrade.”
But… what if you just created one fewer post per week and used that time to create a content upgrade? That trade would be worth it, methinks, because your list will grow faster – even though you’re publishing one less piece per week.
Content Upgrade #1 – Give away something you know works (and that you have stats to back up).
- If you’re a copywriter, hand over a Word doc or PDF: “Grab these 5 proven formulas to rewrite your headlines for 347% more traffic.”
- If you’re a social media strategist, offer some inspiration: “Get 3 all-star Facebook ad examples with CTRs of 63.8%!”
- If you’re a freelance writer, offer a framework for your specialty: “[Case Study] Get the 3-part framework for creating high-converting case studies in under 20 mins.”
Remember the “10k traffic in 30 days” example I outlined above? After Julien Marion (and Noah) pulled it off, this challenge morphed into a beautiful content upgrade:
Give away what you know works, while simultaneously building your credibility, authority, and – most importantly – your email list!
Content Upgrade #2 – Swipe & transform your most popular blog post
At CoSchedule, one of our most popular content upgrades is from our most popular blog post of all time. In the last 12 months, it’s driven over 2.2MM pageviews. This is roughly 6% of all of our website traffic.
From this wildly popular blog post, we created an infographic: a content upgrade that has the post’s unique data and research. Plus, it includes three Google Analytics custom reports so you run your own data.
No longer a blog post, this content upgrade is a high-quality, actionable kit with quality graphics:
This content upgrade has generated 17,530 email signups alone – just from revamping a single blog post into a new format.
Best part? It was low effort to create. The Google Analytics reports were already created. And, so were the blog graphics, so we stitched them together to form the infographic.
Content Upgrade #3 – Free tools bring you free traffic
Alright, yes, you’re right: creating free software tools are a lot more work than blog posts. If you’re swamped for time right now, start with Content Upgrades #1 and 2 above, and work up to this one.
However, this one is a rockstar because we gate them behind an email opt-in. For example, our Headline Analyzer tool – analyzes headlines to optimize for maximum traffic – has driven 55,040 email signups. By itself.
Ultimately, every new email address is directly connected to our revenue. This makes our tools an incredible investment.
Subscriber Strategy #2 – Build your community with this “Dropbox crazy-growth” swipe
For us at CoSchedule, we focused on Subscriber Strategy #1: Content Upgrades. However, Dropbox is the perfect example of this second Subscriber Strategy.
You’ve heard the story of Dropbox’s meteoric user growth thanks to their early referral program. Whenever a user successfully referred a friend to use Dropbox, each person got 500MB of bonus storage for free.
But what you haven’t heard is… their dead-simple delivery mechanism that performed so awesomely was email. In fact, Dropbox’s Drew Houston credits 35% of their daily signups came from this program.
Not only can you show up directly in your audience’s inbox on a one-to-many basis, but your emails are on a one-to-one basis.
Because your audience forwards their “get 500MB” invite email to their own networks. Since it comes from a person they already know, trust and like, that invitee is more likely to say “yes” to signing up for Dropbox.
Ask yourself: “What am I afraid of?”
To make these simple stages work for you, you need to honestly assess which stage you’re in.
That’s what we did at the start of CoSchedule. Our answer informed our decision-making process and helped us focus on the metrics that mattered, like driving traffic and email list growth.
Once you master them, you will be able to deploy, adapt, and improve them as you go. Just like we did at the start of CoSchedule.