Unlocking the Secret to Growth: Sean Johnson’s Insights on Product Strategy

Posted by Anant January 5, 2023

Sean leads product development at Digital Intent, helping companies like Groupon, Follett & Sittercity. He started Jelly Chicago and the Chicago Growth Hackers Meetup, and he teaches at Northwestern’s Kellogg School of Management.


→ His role at Digital Intent

→ The relationship between product strategy, growth

→ His responsible for leading the product and growth teams

→ What company educates clients on the importance of customer development and validating product ideas before building them

→ Different areas are interconnected and can be leveraged to achieve growth

→ Growth hacking involves combining marketing strategy

→ Educating clients and helping them develop their own internal growth teams is important

→ His background in Jelly Chicago and the Chicago Growth Hackers Meetup

→ His adjunct professor at Northwestern’s Kellogg School of Management

→ And a whole lot more


Sean’s blog website

Digital Intent



Bronson: Welcome to another episode of Growth Hacker TV. I’m Bronson Taylor and today I have Shawn Johnson with us. Shawn, thanks for coming on the program.

Sean: Thanks for having.

Bronson: Me. Absolutely. Shawn, you’re a man with quite a few things going on, so I think we’ll have some interesting things to talk about today. But let’s begin with your role at Digital Intent. So what is digital intent?

Sean: Yeah, we’re basically a product of a company. We we help companies build and grow new digital businesses. And so a lot of our clients are startups, but we also work with established companies that are looking to innovate internally. And basically what we give them is kind of a startup team in a box. So we have them from the very beginning of product strategy, trying to identify what product should be in customer development, trying to validate whether there’s something there. And then going through to the UI and the design, the development, the web and billable element and then increasingly doing user acquisition and growth.

Bronson: Yeah, that’s great. And Digital Intent is based out of Chicago, is that right?

Sean: Yeah. Yeah. We’ve been around for about two years now and then there’s 17 of us on the team.

Bronson: So, yeah, it’s a whirlwind.

Sean: Two years.

Bronson: In there. Yeah, it seems like it to get to 17 people, you gotta be doing something right and, you know, helping somebody make some money.

Sean: Here and.

Bronson: There. Yeah, yeah, absolutely. What is your current role at Digital and Talent? What do you do there specifically?

Sean: So I’m one of the three partners and then my director response that I lead the product team and the growth team. Okay. So product is I mean, really, it’s a lot, it’s the customer development stuff and the UI and then the growth is our vision.

Bronson: Yeah, I don’t want to talk about this a little bit, but you know, you talked about customer development already. When people come to you, are they already familiar with that world? Do they understand, you know, the Steve Blank entrepreneurship of figuring out what you’re doing or are they kind of clueless and they have an idea and a budget?

Sean: Yeah, usually they have. Yeah, it’s the latter. A lot of times what will happen is they’ll come to us with with like a 50 page spec document and say, but it’s largely an educational sale. And we say, hey, that’s you know, it’s great that you guys we’ve done a lot of thought work here. You know, we try to find out to what degree they’ve been talking to customers and they’ve been validating those ideas. But we we basically try to coach on to say that, you know, all of this stuff is just a bunch of guesses. Mm hmm. You know, you have a guess that a particular customer’s particular need and that you’re the solution to that and that they’re willing to give you money and that there are enough of those customers out there to make this whole thing viable. Those are all guesses. And so let’s try to, you know, want to lean candidates or whatever, write that stuff down and then let’s try to figure out which are the riskiest parts and try to start going out there and validating it. And so, yeah, it’s, it’s it’s definitely an educational sale to get folks to sort of back up a little bit. And sometimes they have done the work. I mean, we do run into people there that have met us at a networking event or something like that. And they are, they’re they’re all in on the whole thing. And they’ve already that’s what we want to see. We want to see a, you know, a keynote deck that says here, you know, here’s what I’ve learned so far, and I’ve got to talk to 150 customers. And this is what I’ve learned. That’s awesome. You know, we’re we’re we’re not it doesn’t have to be like it’s invented here or we have to have heard it directly from the customer’s mouth off. But we do try to coach customers through that process if they’re not already doing it.

Bronson: Yeah. Do you find the ones that are not familiar with that whole world of things? Are they are they brought into it kicking and screaming or the light bulbs go off? You show them the lean canvas and they think, wow, what a great tool. I mean, what’s their response to it? Because it take it took us a while to kind of understand this stuff. And we’ve been at it for, you know, a few years now with the lean stuff. How do they feel on first kind of initiation?

Sean: You know, we we do it through a story. We basically tell them, you know, we we’ve seen that movie a bunch of times. We’ve made those things ourselves. And there’s nothing that’s more frustrating than to go heads down and spend six months building something and then to find out that nobody wants it. And it’s frustrating for you. And you, you know, in their case, they’re spending a lot of their money and also they’re giving up six months of their life. But it’s and it’s also frustrating for our team, you know, for our developers to build something or designers to have worked on something that never gets traction is it’s frustrating for everybody. And so they. They, I think, resonate with it when we kind of do it that way and we, you know, where we we try to come at it with a very sort of humble approach. And we we say, you know, it’s not just that you don’t necessarily know what it is. We don’t know either half of our you know. Well, common thing that we’ll say it is, you know, 50% of what we’re going to talk about are guesses are going to be wrong. And our job is to try to write out which 50% as quickly as possible. So we don’t try to come in like we’re the, you know, the quote unquote experts with anything, try to come in and say, you know, honestly, you know, you know a lot more about your space than we do. Certainly, you know nothing. And so our job is to try to to learn as quickly as possible and try to find out what’s accurate and what maybe needs to be modified.

Bronson: Yeah, now that makes a lot of sense. Now, you said you lead the product teams and the growth teams, so it seems to indicate that there’s some sort of maybe overlap in what’s needed for those teams. If one person can lead both. It’s not like you’re leading a design team in a development team. So do you feel like they’re related in any way at all?

Sean: And honestly, everything that we do really is related anymore. You know, you think about what even just looking at growth like what is growth about? You know, growth is a function of the product strategy itself. So, you know, ideally you’re building something that does two or three things really, really well instead of a dozen things early. And you’re addressing a large enough market where you have room to grow. So it’s meeting actual needs that are the UI is certainly key in terms of how easy is it for it to use, how is it easier for me once I one when I hit, once I hit your site to convert and then to kind of activate as I’m starting to interact with your service, is it really easy? How effective are you in building, making it to where? It’s a habit that I want to come back and use on a consistent basis. How easy making it to share a lot of that stuff why decisions and then certainly the development I mean that’s where this you know, the whole growth hacker thing kind of came from is really a confluence of, you know, marketing strategy with development. And, you know, the someone from a with a dev hat on that has a growth mindset. You know, you say social, for example, and they’re thinking, how do I tap into the social graph to drive referrals and all those kinds of things? And you often will need somebody that has a development mindset to see those kinds of things. I mean, know the famous Airbnb Craigslist example that Dennis were necessary for that to even be possible and even really to conceive of that as an option. I don’t think a traditional marketer would have thought of that. And so yeah, all the all of that stuff is related. And that’s kind of why we try to, you know, we try to write a client with basically a small cross-functional team for people that work very closely together. And so you folks are going a customer development meeting steps are going to customer development meetings. The growth team is working very closely with DEV and with UI to kind of make decisions not just and they’re not they’re not just looking at user acquisition at the very, very top of the funnel, which a lot of folks do. But they’re looking at, you know, throughout, how do we make improvements throughout? So yeah, it’s all kind of come together.

Bronson: I really like the way you talk about the set up where, you know, it’s cross-functional teams because it’s so different than an assembly line where it’s like, okay, product’s done now we’re hanging after the growth, guys, go do your magic. You didn’t have any input on the product. I hope it works for you getting users and letting them stay in the system and retaining them and all that. But instead it’s all together they’re in at the very beginning because I think you’re absolutely right and I’ve seen that personally. The best teams are teams that actually can grow. It’s because of product decisions, because of development decisions, and then also growth decisions and marketing decisions, things like that. But there’s no one person or one thing that can just make it grow. If you made a bunch of really bad decisions with the entire project.

Sean: Right? Yeah. That’s, that’s, you know, the reason why we started the company was we or I guess why we. Structure. Our teams the way that we do is that we’ve seen you know, again, we’ve seen that movie where you hand the spec over and then you design the thing and you build with it. And the decisions are just made completely independently of each other. And there’s a reason why a lot of consulting type projects fail. And I think that there is a disconnect between the development team and the product stakeholders, which usually our client and what we’re trying to do is alleviate some of that where the product team is part of the product team in the dev team are really inseparable and the client is certainly a part of that and they’re very much involved in that whole process. And we we try to get that involved in as many ways as they’re interested. But yeah, I think that in order for you to increase the likelihood that you’re going to be successful on a project where you’re bringing in external resources, I think it’s really important that those teams work very closely together.

Bronson: Yeah, makes a lot of sense. And do you find that when clients come in that they have misguided notions about growth or do this have no notions at all?

Sean: They know a lot of cases. They don’t really think about it. You know, when we when we started, we haven’t we haven’t we weren’t doing growth from the very beginning. And initially we were doing, you know, we did see the need for the strategy staff and for the UI in the dev. But growth was more recent and it was really that we. I think we had this implicit assumption that because they were the the business stakeholder, that they understood how to get customers. And it was it was it wasn’t something that we, I think, even conscious that we were assuming, but it was sort of there in the back of there was this assumption that that was the case. And it just turned out to that. It almost is never the case. A lot of our especially a lot of our clients, a lot of our clients are they tend to be older. They either, you know, maybe they were working in the corporate world. And now they have they’re kind of trying to get out of that world. And so, you know, our client isn’t really the 22 year old with the idea. That’s more like the 45 year old with the idea or their existing companies that. They’re used to managing existing brands and their decision making is a lot more cautious and all of those kinds of things. And so in both cases, the the experimental kind of growth driven approach is just something that they don’t even really think about. And so a lot of times what would happen when we were first starting out was we would you know, we would do the customer development, we would design and build the thing, we’d put it up and then they would say, Now, what do you mean?

Bronson: What do you mean now? Why didn’t you have that figured out?

Sean: Yeah. Yeah. Or just, you know, they it just didn’t or AdWords were new AdWords and it’s like, you know.

Bronson: Yeah.

Sean: There’s a time and place for AdWords, but it’s definitely not a one size fits all solution.

Bronson: Exactly. You can’t just tag on every project. Well, that kind of leads into my next question is when you take on a new client with digital intent, do you find yourself having different growth strategies like wildly different growth strategies for every company? Or do they all kind of end up seeming like we look more or less the same or there’s a lot of crossover just because of what you guys are comfortable with? What are some of the strategies look like in terms of how different or similar they are?

Sean: I mean, there’s definitely things that we are more experienced in than others and we’re trying to continually get better each week. But, you know, at a high level, you’re tracking you’re tracking the same variables. I mean, you’re doing you know, we just follow the whole McClure startup metric for Pirates.

Bronson: Ah yeah.

Sean: So I mean, generally speaking, what we try to do is map. Matt metrics to those numbers and we try to establish a baseline for those what that looks like for a particular client. And then we start looking for bottlenecks and trying to address that. But then once you get into that tactical level, yeah, I mean, everything is different to the degree that you’re targeting, you know, from a content marketing perspective on acquisition, you’re obviously targeting different sites and different audiences that way in terms of, you know, platforms that you’re targeting, there are different people that use Tumblr, then use Twitter, then use, for example, you once they’re on your site, you know, you’re you’re you’re dealing with different objections and different hurdles that you’re trying to overcome to get them to actually convert the decision making for a free, you know, B2C social product is very different than the decision making process for a subscription meals plan where they’re spending hours a month, you know. So that stuff’s obviously different. And then, you know, all the way through retention strategies are different. Again, it’s free versus paid. Your menu litmus tests are different. There are certain types of of products lend themselves more to to sharing and referral than others, or at least flow through, you know, through social care versus sort of face to face or, you know, that kind of thing. So yeah, I mean, once you get into tactics, it’s, you know, there’s obviously different strategies and really and even like the difference between web and mobile, there’s a lot of stuff inherent in a mobile device that you can’t do on the Web. And so, you know, you try to take advantage of that stuff when possible.

Bronson: Yeah. So it seems like you have to have a wide breadth of knowledge about marketing, about the landscape to be able to effectively apply it to any project. It can’t be one of those things where, you know, I’m a hammer, so everything looks like a nail and I’m just going to apply this one growth trick I have to everything and hope it keeps working. You have to really know what you’re doing or you’re just going to get lucky every once in a while, right?

Sean: Yeah. Well, and I mean, you know, part of the nature of what we do, I mean, a lot of we’re looking at a lot of our clients do end up sticking with us for a long time. But a lot of what we try to do with the growth stuff is, is teaching them how to fish, I guess so to speak, is kind of like diving. And so we develop a strategy for them. You know, we develop content calendars, we develop a guest posting strategy, we develop, you know, etc., etc., etc. But we try to bring them along and educate them as they go along because we also know, especially, especially for our startup clients, at the end of the day, really from the end of the day, our goal is to be replaced. You know, we know that we’re succeeding. If we’re going to be replaced, if you’re raising a B around, it becomes it really increasingly even and around it’s become it becomes really important to your investors that you have an internal team. And so we know when they hire us that that is going to become a necessity. And so we try to try to organize ourselves from a debt perspective and then from our perspective as well to facilitate that transition, we make it as smooth as possible so that they are kind of left in the lurch. Because if too much of your if too much of your intellectual capital is wrapped up in a third party, then there comes a point. There’s there’s definitely value in it. And obviously, I mean, that’s why we exist. But we are naive enough to think that we are going to go on that whole journey with them. So.

Bronson: Absolutely. So I mean, that kind of I guess it assumes that you think growth is something that can be passed off and it can’t be taught. It’s not all of those things like, Hey, let the gurus handle it, you can’t even begin to understand it. It is something where have you set the strategy which they probably couldn’t do on their own, and you set up some tactics going to work for them, but it can be handed off like, Hey, here’s your content strategy, here’s a schedule that might work, here’s what I would do if I was, you run with this system so you think it is possible to hand off growth and let it still be effective if the pieces are in place initially?

Sean: Yeah. I mean, there’s a there is a there are I think there are two reasons why people maybe think that that it’s hard. And one is the. No, I would call it a knowledge arbitrage.

Bronson: Yeah.

Sean: It’s valuable. It’s valuable information to know how to do certain things. And so I think that not everybody is willing to share some of that. So if there was a conference, I don’t know where I saw it. It was on Twitter last week, but one of the guys was talking about the best growth hacks are basically zero day exploits. And the reason why people hear about them is because that’s, you know, that’s their sort of competitive advantage. And so a lot of that stuff is kept close to the chest. And then I think the other reason is that people. They think that it’s sort of about it because it’s a creative exercise, that it can’t be, quote, manufactured. And yes, it is a creative exercise, but I do think that it can be. I do think to our dream can be manufactured. So talking content marketing, for example. Well, I’m friends with a guy named Emerson Sparks here in town. He runs on that and on fax. It has lots and lots of properties and many visitors a month. And one of the things that he, you know, you often advise people on is to not don’t worry about trying to create all your content yourself. There’s so much content out there already that you can, at a minimum, learn and see what’s been effective in the past. So go out and look at, you know, you’re targeting the fashion space, go out and find 20 of the top fashion blogs and see what look at all of their posts and see what has been shared the most frequently was a good, I think, good signal that that’s something that would potentially resonate if you were to kind of take your own spin on it and try to publish it elsewhere, you know, all the way through to, you know, you look at a Pinterest or a Tumblr type of property, that stuff is all just, you know, reposted anyway. So like you don’t, you don’t necessarily have to be creating all of your own content. I think I think that the the the trick is, is having a deep understanding of who your customer is and having a, a framework for testing in place because you at the end of the day, you’re not going to know. We have this theory that this trick is going to work or that this campaign is going to be effective or whatever. But ultimately, you don’t really know until you try it. You know, a good example is infinite scrolling know Pinterest that worked really, really well for time on site was huge. Etsy implemented infinite scrolling like six months ago and they found that, you know, maybe time on site went up, but sales went down. And so, you know, but you’re not going to know really until you test and see how things resonate with your audience.

Bronson: Yeah, absolutely. Well, thanks for, you know, really diving in and telling us so much about digital intent for a couple of reasons. One, if people want to, you know, hire you, they know more about you and kind of where to find you in those kind of things. But also, just to give us an idea of how you see growth, because that’s what we’re trying to do is get inside your mind. You know, we talked about the arbitrage with this kind of stuff. I mean, that’s what I’m trying to do is just level the playing field. You know, someone won’t expose it, but someone else will. And if I find all the people that will expose what they know and their tricks and all this stuff, then it doesn’t matter if someone else holds it close to the chest, it’s going to be out there, you know? Yeah. Now, you’re also an adjunct professor at Northwestern’s Kellogg School of Management. Is that right?

Sean: Yeah. Well, I start in May.

Bronson: Okay. So you start in May.

Sean: Yeah. So I have my first course is in May.

Bronson: Well, let’s talk about the upcoming course a little bit. You’re going to teach a course, as far as I can tell, on entrepreneurial tools for digital marketing. Is that right?

Sean: Yeah, not my name, but yeah, that’s the goal.

Bronson: Well, yeah, you got to have a Kellogg name. You know, it’s got to sound a way. Official and stodgy. Well, from what I can tell online, it looks like the course is based on what they say or what you call the customer relationship funnel. And I know you mentioned a funnel earlier. Explain what the customer relationship funnel is to you or maybe in your own words, if that’s their term.

Sean: I mean, it’s really it’s you know, again, it’s the startup metric. So it’s actually acquisition activation, referral attention, rather. And so it’s we’re trying to structure that course to address excuse me, to get to get students thinking about each aspect of that. A lot of times when they think marketing, they think almost exclusively of the top of the funnel and they ignore a lot of the decisions that happen further down. They can have just as big of an impact. So, you know, if I have for example, if I have a home page conversion rate of 5%, I get that up to 10%. Mm hmm. That’s, you know, relatively speaking, that can often be much easier to do than to double my traffic at the very top of the funnel. And so just trying to get them into that mindset to think about it more holistically. Yeah. And really, again, understand sort of the, the, the intersection now where you are and the product and tackle kind of fit in.

Bronson: Yeah. Now I want to circle back to that what you just said because that’s really great advice and I never heard it put quite so clearly like when you said it, a lightbulb went off in my head and I’ve studied, you know, Dave McClure’s, you know, pirate metrics, all that. You know, you said if you can get one of the metrics in the funnel to go up from 5% to 10%, you’re effectively doubling all your conversions right from there on. And that’s the same as getting twice as much traffic in the top of the funnel, which would be the user acquisition. Like the end game looks the exact same if you go from 5% to 10% with, let’s say, retention or revenue as getting twice as much traffic. And would you when you said that it was so important when I heard it, because it is almost impossible to double traffic.

Sean: I’m sorry. Yeah. Yeah. Card. You know, and obviously it’s more nuanced than that because you can argue that the changes that you’re making, the double conversion, you know, potentially have impact further down the funnel. But the same the same argument can be made for acquisition, too. You maybe are targeting less less desirable travel, I think, or traffic is not going to convert as effectively. So I think that generally as a general way of thinking about it, I think it’s valid.

Bronson: Yeah. No, I like that. A That’s great. Now in this class and the, the kind of description of it on the website, it says that customer discovery and validation for web and mobile channels involves strategies and tactics that are faster and less expensive than their physical counterparts. Explain to us a little bit, what do you mean when you talk about the validation channels and discovery channels being cheaper, being faster? And what are some examples of those?

Sean: Yeah, I don’t think I wrote that out there, but. No, but yeah, we do. I mean, we are, you know, so an example would be AdWords. AdWords can be a really effective way for testing a lot of different kinds of things. You can test, you can test positioning statements, you can test offers, you can test, you know, to see kind of what gets people to click in the first place. But then you can also test what happens once they land on your page. And so it can be a really effective mechanism to prep for, for learning purposes and and really even all of our all of our strategies. I mean, you talk about one of the things that we tell our clients is when we put something out, your first thousand users are you’re really it’s an extension of customer development. And that’s not that’s not from us. That’s from I think that’s from from KISSmetrics. I don’t think nothing I say is original, but.

Bronson: Very few people have anything original to say. It’s just like, oh god.

Sean: Yeah. I mean, so even though, you know, even though we call ourselves technically a growth team, a lot of what we’re doing is identifying viable channels to acquire people. And so a lot of that stuff really is it’s testing. It’s testing different strategies at a small scale to kind of see what takes so that when they kind of go in and they’re trying to raise their Abraham, they can say, you know what, we have good visibility into, you know, our home page. The email conversion is 30% and 60% of those people complete our activation funnel. And, you know, 50% of those buy it was about an average. And if we can, you know that at that point, they know that if it you know, depending on what their customer acquisition costs are, you know, they can go into investors. And the argument is basically that this money is going to be just to kind of put gas, you know, put out on the gas pole because we’ve got to at least we have good we have good reason to believe that these numbers would scale to the degree that pursuing scalable channels.

Bronson: Now makes a lot of sense because an investor, if they can see the equation and they see where their dollars fit in that equation, and then they see the end of the equation, the dollars they get back or the company makes of it, it’s just an easier investment. We had somebody on the show before that kind of mimicked what you just said, that the first few users, the first thousand, 5000, 10,000, whatever it is to learn from them, you’re trying to learn. And he calls that the traction stage. This is Brian Balfour. And then he says after the traction stage, you go into the growth stage and that’s where you’ve already learned. Now you’re putting fuel on the fire, dumping the, you know, the money into whatever channels you need to because you’ve already learned enough to then go full speed and get to the moon, you know? Yeah.

Sean: Yeah. So, you know, a good example for for one of our clients is it’s a it’s a mobile app. It’s very it’s targeting the high school and college market and it’s definitely designed to to spread. And they hope that referral is kind of a big part of this. But there is no mechanism other than manually telling your friends about it right now to work with. And the reason was we wanted to find out what we’re testing at the present time, whether or not people will use the core experience in and of itself, whether or not sharing is kind of a proponent of that and trying to find out how valuable it is with a small group of people, how many users you know, how many friends do you need to have using in order for it to be valuable and that kind of thing? Yeah. So I mean, you know, you can, you can bake in a lot of the things that, that can facilitate referral or facilitate retention of all sorts of things at the outset. But yeah, it’s still here today. A lot of the stuff that you’re doing really hard is testing.

Bronson: Yeah, absolutely. Now ignoring your own upcoming lectures for a moment, how do you feel like management, schools, MBAs, that kind of world, do you think it really prepare students? And this is a loaded question for somebody getting ready to be an adjunct professor, but do you feel like it really prepares people that want to be entrepreneurs, founders CMO’s, or do you think there’s a better route and you know, what do you think? Nobody has their own opinion. I know there’s a right answer, but.

Sean: I don’t think there is a right answer. I mean, it’s, um. Yeah, that’s a good question. I don’t think it hurts. At the end of the day. I mean, you know, those were you with a variety of titles there to be a founder or an entrepreneur. Obviously, at the end of the day, there’s no replacement for experience doing it. And so I would argue that you would get your MBA and, you know, try to start something. I think that, you know, there’s obviously the accelerators of proving that there’s a lot of value to doing that. You know, one of the one of the historical arguments for getting your MBA has been the quality of networking when you would get out of it. And I think that those accelerators bring that to the table now. And so it’s different that way. And I think, you know, you definitely have one of the things I think that will remain to be seen as to what degree, what kind of pedigree do you get from coming on an accelerator? You know, for example, you know, obviously if you come out of a Y Combinator or something like that, that might, you know, in five years that might be the equivalent of or maybe it is now maybe, you know, the equivalent of saying, I went to Kellogg or I went to Harvard Business School or something like that. I do think that there is a stigma in a lot of startups that, you know, MBA is expensive and not willing to get scrappy and to get dirty. And and I think that there’s some validity to that. I think that you plowed all that money into getting a degree or you, you know, you you have sort of, you know, X and student loans that you need to pay off. And so you do have a desire to have the kind of income in the short term which can kind of start to whittle that down, which may or may not be, you know, feasible for that role kind of starting out. And I do think that there is something to be said for the the hustle component to it, which is why I would say, you know, both, you know both, if you can go in and you can say, hey, you know, I have you know, I got my MBA at Harvard and I’ve been working on this thing. And here, you know, here’s how it’s gone. I can demonstrate that I’ve had some traction and I’ve been able to make a lot out of a little that I do think that that’s valuable because, you know, the other side of it, one of my partners, Joe Dwyer, he has his JD MBA from Kellogg. He’s a he’s also an adjunct actually at Kellogg on how to create innovation teams, the logical place. But he he he runs our strategy side of the business and we have a number of clients that. Came to us for for a strategy kind of engagement where they were able to to open up. I mean, multimillion dollar opportunities for them that didn’t previously exist. And they were able to see that kind of through their, you know, his sort of classical, so to speak, background. Yeah. You know, we have a tell a pharmacy client that that they just did a project for that went in to a multibillion dollar company. It’s a 26 year old kid. And he went you know, he’s talking to their Cee-Lo execs about, you know, either a partnership or potentially an acquisition. And all of the groundwork for that was laid by a couple of MBAs that they gave and company needed. And he told them he came out of the meeting, told them, look, there’s no way I could have done that without you guys help. So. Mm hmm. I do think that there’s definitely validity to to getting an MBA. I mean, a lot of us are wasting my time speaking, but.

Bronson: Yeah, that’s right.

Sean: But, yeah, I mean, it’s it’s just it’s a difficult question. I mean, if you’re if you’re you’re saying if if there are going to be a lot of people that are going to say, hey, I’m trying to build a BDC startup and it’s all about kind of being scrappy. Yeah, you, you know, you don’t need an MBA to do that necessarily.

Bronson: No, no, I think that’s a great answer. I think it’s a balanced and wise answer because there is no one one size fits all and you’re going to have to really find the right people for your team. Just like growth strategies to find the right growth strategy for your product, you have to find the right people for your team. And your team might benefit, you know, immensely from an MBA and it might benefit it might actually be hurt by an MBA. Just who knows? It depends on, you know, the the direct scenario you’re working with.

Sean: But I think it’s good shorthand, too, for hiring. I mean, you know it when you get one more person with 500 resume, that is. Mm hmm. It does mean something, I think, you know, I think it at least puts them in indecision. Said, you know, it’s worth it’s certainly worth bringing them in and then seeing, you know, what are their what are their expectations? Are they are they willing to kind of get scrappy? And I guess not not st their pedigree is a sense of entitlement and to to get dirty just like everybody else. Yeah. Yeah. They’re, they’re, they’ve proven that they’re are working to prove that they’re willing to kind of do what it takes. They, you know, they’ve, they’ve made it through some pretty strenuous stuff up to this point. So yeah, I mean, I think that there’s definitely a lot of good things that you can say about.

Bronson: Yeah. And the onus is really on the person doing the hiring. Like they have to hire somebody that’s scrappy and has an MBA. You can’t just use it as a shorthand and that’s it. You know, it means their quality. You have to then do your due diligence and make sure they’re quality. You know, another thing, too, is I think people are surprised when they see the real statistics on how many people that found startups actually do have bachelor’s degrees, at least, and sometimes master’s and beyond. I think it drops down quite a bit because to have a Ph.D. mindset, you probably don’t have the entrepreneurial mindset, but bachelor’s and master’s. The correlation is much stronger than we would think by looking at Zuckerburg and Gates and these kind of people. They’re the, you know, the outliers and almost the exceptions, because a lot of people really do end up going through higher ed and learning a lot, building their network and then going and doing things.

Sean: Yeah, I mean, a lot of them are also older, too. I mean, that’s another and to your point, they’re not the 22 year old startup. You know, there’s definitely a place for that, I think. I honestly I think part of part of why accelerator accelerator is attract that demographic is because the the tolerance for risk is a lot higher. You don’t have kids there on the house. They’re looking at that stuff. Their income requirements are a lot lower. So you can make an investment for considerably less from an investors directive. I think it makes a lot of sense, but I think it’s really important. I think it’s it almost becomes critical at that point that you surround them with quality mentors and all of those kinds of things to guide them, because otherwise it can be a really good way to waste money. But I think it was yeah. I mean just, you know, you look at the success rate of Angel sort of of even though you see that some of those numbers are coming to life or not, it’s not like they’re amazingly successful at picking winners here. So yeah, there are a lot of be set for, you know, like you were saying, having your network being I’ll make a phone call and have a channel partnership with you know so you know with some massive company I mean I can that can there definitely advantages there.

Bronson: Mm hmm. Absolutely. Let me ask you also about a up that usually you lead the Chicago Growth Hackers meetup. So how did this meetup begin?

Sean: Honestly, it was you know, like I said, you know, we try to be really humble about this stuff and we wanted more than anything to learn. And and I have two kids and I thought I could either fly around the country and try to. People or I could try to bring here and so. And Chicago is kind of interesting. We have a pretty vibrant tech scene. But the networking there’s basically a networking event going on every single night of the week, and it’s usually like the same two or 400 people listening to one of the same tiny speakers. And so I wanted something a little bit different than that. And I walked in that was a little bit more tactical in nature, where folks come and walk away and immediately kind of go into their office, mix and implement some of the stuff that was top of the night before. So those were sort of my goals. And, you know, there wasn’t a, you know, we kind of leveraged the ground zero hacker term, which took off and, you know, some people hate it now and whatever. But, you know, I think that the time the time was right for it because people are realizing that it’s not ultimately whether or not you can get the product. It’s ultimately whether you get traction. So but at the meta page, really, it was you know, we had we had. A 20 minute conversation about it. And I put it in a paper and I just started emailing people and saying, Hey, you know, would you be interested coming out and talking and replying right away and said, Sure. And so we had our first meet up and so we’ve done our fourth is coming up here in a couple weeks. Yeah, it’s been fun.

Bronson: Yeah, that’s great. What does a typical meet up look like? Because I’m asking so that people can imitate it if they choose to.

Sean: Yeah. So we. So I only organize it when I can get a speaker there. They’re almost never from Chicago. So I try to fly them in. And so I don’t have like a we’re going to have one every single month. We basically have one, we have one and we cap it. So you have to be we’re not that picky about who we let in, but we we’d say, you know, you should either be a founder or you should be someone that’s actively involved in trying to write names or both. And so that that kind of eliminates a lot of the professional networkers or lawyers or whatever. It’s not that that’s it’s not that they can they wouldn’t add value necessarily. But there’s just again, there’s there’s dozens or hundreds of meet ups in Chicago and mingle and all that kind of thing. And so we wanted to try to keep it focused and keep the quality conversation high. And then we cap the meetings at around 60 people so that I can offer quality conversations, so that people can kind of interact. And there’s a high, high level of interaction between the speaker and the audience, that kind of thing.

Bronson: Would you recommend that other cities try to start something like this, or do you feel like they need to have a pretty well-developed tech scene like Chicago has?

Sean: Yeah. I mean, I’ve been approached by a couple of people looking to get advice on how to do the same thing, and they haven’t necessarily had the same success. I think that being in Chicago helps a lot. It’s a destination. I try to when someone’s coming out, I try to I try to see who that’s in Chicago would be interesting for them to meet with so that it’s not just coming in for me. And so I try to introduce them to different people that they grow coffee with or whatever. So we definitely have a concentration of people that a lot of smaller towns won’t necessarily have. But certainly the New York’s, the L.A. A’s, the Austin’s the boulder’s part of the world. Any of those Boston any of those places that have a relatively flourishing texture, I think would be a great fit for stuff like that.

Bronson: Yeah. And here’s kind of a fun question. What’s the what’s the best meet up you guys have had so far? Maybe who is the speaker and or what made it so great?

Sean: Oh, all of them are good.

Bronson: Good political answer.

Sean: Yeah. No, I mean, it was different. So no one came in. No, no. US was kind of unique because he came in and then he ultimately didn’t even talk about the topic at all. He just sort of asked people what they wanted to talk about and then put it up on a board and started going. But his energy level is really high and I think he really he wanted to communicate to people just the importance of scrappiness and so on. And he started asking people, okay, so what’s your idea? And I says, I want to do a gym membership where if I’m traveling, I can go to any number of member gyms or whatever. And he said, Hey, how many of you how many of you are traveling in the next 60 days coming to raise their hand? You know that work out. Where are you going? Give him you know, give me your email address and your phone number. And he stops the meeting. And so they get up and actually share their email address and phone number. So this is how you build a business. Don’t worry about the technology. Go out and find these people again so that when they’re traveling to Denver in a month, they have a place to go. And that’s going to be your business. Don’t worry about building this elaborate matching system and all those kinds of things, because that’s not ultimately your business. That’s a bunch of code and doesn’t do anything. So so it was really the energy level was really, really high there. The other talks were great, though. I mean, they were they were, I think, closer to what our vision was in terms of it being, you know, tactical suggestions for for, you know, driving different aspects of the funnel, all that kind of thing. Jenny Kwan came in from craft. Mm hmm. And so people how he was able to get 50% on page conversion, which is crazy, and his eyebrows that he was able to do that. So that was really cool that he wanted to have in how you how you go about doing that. Yeah. And it was awesome. Tailor. I mean he came in is you know he’s at StumbleUpon now. Mm hmm. He was actually Packer for the Romney campaign and, you know, talked a lot about how to build a team of purpose for growth and sort of the dynamics that are in play there.

Bronson: So, yeah, great. Well, this has been a great interview. I have one final question for you. Just kind of give back to the people listening for just a moment. What’s the best piece of advice that you can give to someone starting out that really wants to master growth? Where’s they begin? What’s she be doing? What’s the best advice you have for somebody like that?

Sean: I would go I would just start trying and stuff. I mean. You know, whether it’s whether it’s even if you don’t own a product, let’s say you just have a blog or something like that, try to play around with a lot of the tactics and strategies. You know, go to a place like KISSmetrics. They have all those sort of guides for how to do it, how to do whatever and just play around with stuff because a lot of that stuff is going to be relevant. What’s the one thing you want to you want to try to leverage free strategies versus paid strategies as much as possible anyway because they’re similar, you know, obviously it drives down customer acquisition cost and that’s a very good thing. So you don’t necessarily need to have a lot of money to try a bunch of stuff anywhere in a whole bunch of things. I mean, you’ll learn you’ll learn how to write compelling content. You’re going to have develop guest posting strategies, you’ll learn how to write posts that convert. You can put some sort of sidebar on the side of your page and collect emails and test out email marketing and do a whole bunch of things and test out your, you know, how to how various ways to build up a social strategy or some of that stuff. It’s not going to it’s you’re not going to get as much in terms of deeper in the funnel, you know, referral and retention and some of those different things. But I think it would be a really good start for somebody that’s kind of starting from zero. So just become familiar with the various sort of acquisition strategies that are out there and how to leverage them.

Bronson: No, I think that’s great advice. And it’s interesting when you say that because that’s kind of the trajectory my own career has followed. I started with the top of the funnel acquisition and I learned, you know, those kind of tips and tricks and tactics and strategies. And then the further I go in my career, the further down the funnel I go in terms of trying to master it, but I never really thought about it. So I think that’s great. If I start with the acquisition talk part and then when you have some acquisitions or you have a product that has some legs, then you’re going to figure out activation and you’re going to figure out all those other kind of pieces to it. Sean, thank you so much for coming on the show. I know you’re a busy man. You have a lot going on, but we really appreciate your time.

Sean: Oh, it’s a pleasure. I appreciate it.

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