Rob Schutz is the Head of Growth over at BarkBox, which now has over 200K paying monthly subscribers. In this episode we cover what skills, experiences, and tools he’s used to explode their growth in the “subscription box” business model.
TOPIC ROB COVERS
- What skills, experiences, and tools he used to explode their growth in the “subscription box” business model
- He is the Head of Growth over at BarkBox
- He has over 200k paying monthly subscribers
- How does he become interested in growth hacking
- His role in Grow Hack
- His background in Udemy
- A true growth hacker testing his courses on Skillshare
- How does he define growth hacking
- How does he see it related to the whole Lean Startup movement as well
- His first thing would do to access their current position and to access where they are at in the marketplace
- And a whole lot more
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Bronson: Welcome to another episode of Growth Hacker TV. And rather than Taylor in today, I have Rob Schatz with us. Rob, thanks for coming on the program.
Rob: Thanks for having me. Bronson It was also a Benji.
Bronson: Yeah, looks like you’ve a friend there. So this is Benji, the dog. It’s a first. We’ve never had a dog in growth. Actor TV.
Rob: Dogs are the original growth hackers.
Bronson: There you go. They somehow found a way to from being a stray wild animal to living in human homes. If that’s not a growth hack, I don’t know what is. That’s awesome. So in case you’re probably wondering why you have a dog that actually goes along with the theme of the interview here, you’re actually the head of growth at Barkbox. So start by telling us what is Barkbox.
Rob: Sure. Well, Barkbox is actually part of our umbrella company, Bark and Cub. So we have three different kind of main core products under Bark and CO, all devoted to dogs. As you can imagine, Barkbox is a monthly box of treats and toys for shipping to hundreds of thousands of lucky dogs across the U.S. and Canada. And then we also have two other properties. We have Bark Shop, which is kind of our retail ecommerce store, where people can buy products and pass boxes. We’re also producing our own products and manufacturing those now. So those are available exclusively on Bark Shop. And then our product is the Bark Post, which is actually kind of started as the blog for Barkbox and now has really morphed into its own media company. So we have about 15 people that work exclusively on Bark Post producing content. Alex called all the hard hitting dog news comes through Bark Post, and we’re doing about 10 million units a month right now and really, really putting time and effort into growing that as a as a true media property.
Bronson: Yes. So you have the subscription business, you have the e-commerce business, and then you have kind of the community media business internally. What’s most important to you guys? Is it just all three equal or is one of them the real big play and the other ones kind of support it? How do you guys see that business internally?
Rob: You know, traditionally to date, the box business has kind of been the engine that keeps everything moving. And I think it’s it’s unique in that, you know, people know the box business now. You know, they understand Birchbox for dogs or as I call it, the first box actually barkbox for humans. But it’s an easier foot in the door for folks and then kind of introduce them into our community. And we’re really focused on building the brand for dogs. We don’t really feel like there are any brands out there that are specifically dog focused. There’s a lot of players in the pet space, so we’re really focused on kind of defining and owning a dog brand. Yeah, initial along with kind of the products there, we we also have a lot of other kind of side test products that we try out. So we have one called Bark Buddy, which is not on the App Store, which is Tinder for dog adoptions and kind of swipe left, swipe right. See dogs that are in your area available for adoption, blew up, got featured on the app store got a couple of million downloads of crazy but gone really well and we have a couple other properties in addition as well as sorry to.
Bronson: Put him down has been doing these the interview.
Rob: And she’s actually got another one up here. We also have Launch Bark Live, which is kind of our live events portion of the company. So we’re doing lots of live events on a weekly basis here in New York and then branching out into other cities as well. So do we do like Valentine’s Day, speed dating? Bring your dogs, get them to meet each other as well. We’ll do small ticketed events. Our hike we did last weekend as well as kind of big buzzy event as we run out like a big park in the middle of New York and do a a movie screening for you and your dog. So yeah. Yeah. So all things related dogs all these are that we’re trying are based around how to keep your dog happy and healthy and we’re always open to to try new things.
Bronson: Yeah. No, that’s awesome. Right. A couple of follow up questions based on what you just said. First, you said there’s a lot of people in the pet space, but there was nobody owning the dog brand. And so you guys kind of niche down one more level. I think that’s a smart play because I think that a lot of people watching this, obviously they’re not in the animal business, they’re doing their own thing and whatever vertical they’re in, but sometimes just niching down one more level is enough to own a position and isn’t owning a position infinitely better than being another player one level higher?
Rob: Yeah, for sure. Right. I agree with that. I mean, there are challenges certainly that come along with that. There is a you know, it does limit somewhat of what you’re able to do, like on the content side or you know, we get asked all the time, are you really out of box for cats? Very well and out of Horsebox. You don’t really get that all the time, but are you broadening out into other animals? And because we’re staying very near it, you know, it does forces you to focus on those areas. So yeah, I agree. It’s certainly helpful in that it doesn’t get you too involved in like traditional players in the space. But at the same time it, you know, it has its own set of challenges as well.
Bronson: Yeah, for sure. And then the other thing you talked about all the events you’re doing, you know, the live events and the meet ups and those kind of things. And it reminds me a lot of like what Salesforce did back in the day. They were all about like outside real people, humans coming together and making noise, making an event, just, you know, the hoopla of the whole thing. And it seemed to really work for them, for you guys. Do you do it because it’s a good marketing play or do you just really enjoy hanging out with dog people like or is it both? I mean, bottom line, does all this stuff actually matters? My question.
Rob: Yeah, no, that’s a fair question. You know, the live product is actually profitable for us right now. We sell tickets to all of the events. It was really born out of more kind of customer requests and demands than anything like the events started with. I think one of our first events at our new office was like we did a meet up, a goldendoodle made up. So we have like I’ll talk more about it. We, we have a lot of famous dogs on Instagram who, who kind of work with the company and help represent us. So we have one golden doodle is like get 50 golden doodles together and we said, let’s do the office because it’s pretty amazing for like social. We did the campaign on content pieces around it, so it kind of grew out of that. And then eventually as we got more requests, like we want to do a, you know, we want to ship zoom, meet up in L.A. We want to get together in Central Park at 9:00, you know, before unleash our start. And and then we’re fortunate enough to get some really, really smart folks. The lady who is our events team led events at Kickstarter and Foursquare prior to that. So really knows how to engage a community and as you would imagine. The dog. The dog parent community is very passionate. And so that is has going very well so far.
Bronson: Now, that’s awesome. I just wondered because, you know, both are fine answers sometimes just do it because like the community, sometimes, you know, it’s good for business and both can be valid. You know, I notice that you call yourself the head of growth or that’s the position you were hired for there. Is that in your mind different than being a marketer or something else? Is there something specific that you have in mind when you say, I’m the head of growth as opposed to something else?
Rob: Yeah, that’s that’s a good question. So, I mean, growth in our in our minds really means more than like managing channels. It’s really, you know, my main priorities are growing our subscriber counts, building revenue, getting new, new viewers to the content sites, etc.. But overall, it’s about growing also like the presence of the company and the brand. So we invested a lot of time and money and resources into certain channels and certain programs that don’t necessarily bear fruit right away but are just great overall for the brand. So like those are things that are much harder to do if you’re like a pure play CPA driven marketer. So, you know, a good example is with our with our Instagram account. When I started that back in 2012, actually, my wife started in 2004 and she will remind you, you know, there wasn’t like a direct you should buy a barkbox go to barkbox. I can use coupon code Instagram. It was kind of like if we want to own the dog space, which is which is really our mission, we need to be present in these areas where our potential customers are. So in a lot of what we do, we are just trying to kind of entrench ourselves as the people who know dog doesn’t understand our dog parents. So, you know, Instagram, we, we build that account over the course of two years without really doing anything in terms of monetizing it, but by just kind of being very organic and being very honest about what we’re doing and not pushing like our own product really, really quickly grow that account. And so I think we have like 750,000 plus followers right now, and a lot of people know us because of our Instagram account. They’re like, Oh, I know you guys saw that. You know, that silly dog video you put up and we’re like, Great, you know, do you have a dog or you should buy a barkbox. That’s kind of those soft those like soft introductions, which sometimes are harder to like substantiate upfront, but that eventually can kind of pay dividends for down the road. So I think growth for us encompasses a lot of that too. So there are outdoor campaigns, there are partnership apps, there are, you know, direct mail campaigns that we do that we hope results in, you know, subscriptions and revenue. But because we have this long term goal of being the people who own the dog space is important to get the word out about that, about ourselves that way.
Bronson: Yeah, it it seems like in a lot of companies the things you’re telling me are two different teams. They have the direct CPA, you know, that team focused on channels and then they got the community, the brand marketing, you know, kind of over here. And they may talk they may not to depends on how well the is ran but it seems like you’re kind of embodying both in the sense that you actually see all of that. And I like that. I think that’s rare, but I like that because I feel like that’s the way I am. I understand brand owners that positioning, but I can also jump in and run a Facebook campaign and I feel like that gives you just a leg up because you don’t put too much emphasis in the wrong spot. You know, if you have a hammer, everything is a nail. If you do direct response, everything is direct response. If you do marketing the branding, everything’s branding like, but really both matter. I mean, the best companies have both.
Rob: Yeah, I think part of it is a byproduct of how the company has grown. I was lucky enough to be a very early employee and you know, brand versus channel market, that’s all under one seat. So for us, even when we do some of these broader campaigns, we do like to anchor things back to like targets and goals and things along those lines. But there’s, there’s more tolerance for like a higher CPA or spend that doesn’t quite get us where like a scalable acquisition channel with and I think you’re right it gives it gives you good flexibility because you can see the bigger picture.
Bronson: Yeah, totally. So yeah. Right. Right now, how big is the Barkbox subscriber base? Or what news can you give me? I don’t know what’s public, but what can you tell me to give me an idea of the size?
Rob: Yeah. So we’re shipping hundreds of thousands of boxes a month right now, and you know that that only continues to grow, especially as we get closer to the holidays. Barkbox makes a great gift. Anyone looking for a gift for their mother in law and.
Bronson: There’s a direct answer is coming.
Rob: Out. Yeah, that’s right. There are a coupon code in there. So, yeah, growing really rapidly and as we’ve grown, also spend a lot more time and energy on retention and kind of plugging the leaky bucket when it comes to subscriptions. So yeah, hundreds of thousands on the subscription side. And as I mentioned on the content side, we’ve grown from, you know, a few thousand a month now to over 10 million uniques on Bark Post.
Bronson: Yeah. And you said you got involved early on. So was it kind of just a handful of subscribers when you started and you kind of watched this rocket ship or.
Rob: Yeah. So when I joined 2012, we were shipping it was early, probably doing a few thousand a month. Yeah, the founders had the story over. They said they, like walked around with iPads and got people to sign up. I don’t know if I believe that or not, but but yeah, I mean, it was a very friends and family to start. And then we were lucky in the sense of being early to a lot of channels and a lot of tests that that really helped us scale.
Bronson: Gotcha. So what were those? I mean, you got to tell us now, what were the the things you got lucky with their.
Rob: Sandwich boards and skywriting? No. You know, I come from a background of daily deals. That’s what I had my own Daily Deal company prior to joining Barkbox. And so the first couple of things I did were trying the things that I know, like any and a good marketer do, like try the winners and sell the other space. So, you know, two things like got search and display going and retargeting, optimizing the email, sign up on site and then started playing in some more paid channels. So did some dedicated email blasts, like reached out to all the dog publications and pet publications. And you know, you can pay your way into a dedicated class with those guys and then started tinkering around with a lot of different channel tests. So the big one that we latch on to early in 2012 was was Facebook, which I’m sure your audience is very familiar with. But we were we were very lucky in the sense that we were early, there was a bit less competitive. And that was the first one where we’re kind of ran a campaign, said, okay, there’s something here, like let’s put a let’s put some serious money against it and see how it’s for us. Yeah, yeah. And luckily, dogs plus Facebook has been a fruitful combination for us.
Bronson: No. And also, you know, it’s interesting that little kind of a spill of all the things you wrote off, you tried, you know, the the banners, the retargeting, the email marketing, just all that stuff. And then, you know, eventually the Facebook ads, it’s a very like tried and true list. I mean, that’s kind of where you started with those kind of things. It’s not like there’s 100 things to try on day one. There’s about five, you know, and and you name them. Yeah. But your story, you know, I see that so often. Some of them matter, some of them don’t. But one of them really matters. Like one of them is the channel that you’re rated, you know, put more money in to put more time into. Do you feel like the first job of the growth person is just figured out? The thing that’s working way better than everything else? Is that kind of a good first goal for somebody in a startup?
Rob: Yeah. I mean, I think I think there’s a there’s a step maybe prior to that where you make sure you kind of get your baseline in place where, you know, you have an email where the sign up is there. Like before you start actually paying or driving any site you want to make sure you’ve got, you know, your retargeting tags in place from, you know, even if it’s just Google display, you want to make sure emails there and is optimize want to make sure you have a welcome series to people who sign up. There’s a few pieces you definitely want to want to have in place, and then you kind of slowly start layering in the traffic and see see what kind of comes out of it. And I’m a big fan of like planting lots of seeds, you know, you’re trying lots of tests. Many of them will fail. You have to be kind of comfortable with that and comfortable with the fact that you’re paying for this stuff. That may not work out, but you’re paying for the education that comes along with it. So for me, I’m always looking for like bright spots. Did we get anything out of a campaign? Like, there’s a lot of campaigns, you’ll try it and you get almost nothing out of it. So being aware and just vigilant of like, there’s something here, maybe we’re at four X, what our CPA needs to be, but if we, like, spend more time and focus on our energy, on optimizing it, that it could become something meaningful.
Bronson: Yeah, it almost seems like grit and resilience is such a big part of the package when it comes to growing a company because there’s so many things that are not working, but they’re telling you something, and if you can stay with the whole thing long enough, you go, you know, you look at year two and three and four and all of a sudden you’ve built up this body of knowledge and this body of experience. And you know what to try when not to try. You have hunches that are actually based in data you’ve seen before, but they just feel like hunches now. Like I feel like if you can get through that hump of nothing works, that you can actually get something going as long as the product itself is good.
Rob: Yeah, I mean, that’s a good point. On a few levels, the product’s got to be good. Like you can be the best marketer in the world, or ideally you’re not going to be able to sell like the product’s not good. You’re not going to get support from your team. Your actual support team is not great. So we’re very lucky that there’s been investments in those areas. But I think to your other point, you also have to kind of expectation set with your CEO wherever you’re reporting to early on, like we’re trying these things and they may not all pan out, but being on the same page, they’re pretty important because, you know, you walk through your end of month, you’re like, we just spent how much I’m learning, making sure you’re alive there. Then eventually you do have to find something that’s that’s bearing fruit or else, you know, try again to get that resume in order.
Bronson: Yeah. So as you look back, you kind of everything you’ve learned and barkbox, you know, the campaigns you tried, it succeeded or failed the things you did with live events that work or didn’t work or whatever. I mean, you know, broad spectrum here. What are the big, big lessons like the things that in five or ten years, when you’re on to another gig, starting your own thing again, doing whatever, like you’ll take these lessons with you. They’re that kind of fundamental ideas. Anything you’ve learned like that so far at Barkbox?
Rob: Yeah. Well, one is don’t bring steak into the office because you get attacked by dogs. You know, I think I think what you were talking about before were about trust. Your gut is is definitely true. I think I’ve found as a take away, though, that sometimes I rely on that too much and I should not be trusting my gut because there’s actually some really good examples. Like we ran a campaign with Amazon Display Network when they were in beta and it was like tailor made for us, you know, only targeting people who had bought dog food the last month on Amazon Live in the U.S. It’s like, how could that not work? Right. And it was a pretty hefty buy and we saw almost no results out of it, really. And so that was disappointing. And my gut said that should crush it. And the same when we actually did a sponsored headline, a campaign on Reddit and that was very interesting, very vibrant community there. We all socially.
Rob: Yeah, I’m a I’m a renter myself and I wasn’t sure if it would work. But, you know, we’re taking some swings. And so we sponsored the Subreddit R, which has a ton of traffic, a lot of cute pictures of us. We get a good engagement out of it, but not nearly what we needed on the site. And I felt really good about those two at a time, some sort of qualified audience, but they just didn’t pan out. And on the flip side of that, you know this we call them Bark Park. We’ve built this huge community of dogs on Instagram and Vine and Facebook who are you know, some of these guys have millions of followers which which is incredible and amazing. And luckily, we’ve been able to tap into it. But instead of building like a traditional affiliate program where you’re working with Commission Junction and skim links and basically kind of playing the coupon game and a burned that down and put a lot of effort into like individually recruiting these guys into our ecosystem. And that has that has been really strong and given the the issues with trying to get people to click out of Instagram or go from Instagram to somewhere else, that was very surprising to me. I did not think that was really going to work for us long term, but it’s turned into now there’s there’s a team of three people on growth who exclusively work with our Instagram community, and it turned into a really major channel for us in terms of revenue and subscription. So I guess the first lesson is sometimes be willing to go against your gut and just see what the data tells you instead of being doing what I normally do, which is like, Oh, we’ve tried that. It’s not gonna work. Let’s move on to something else, because there can be kind of dynamics of the roster.
Bronson: Yeah, no, that’s awesome.
Rob: Yeah. And then I think the other thing that I always tell people is don’t underestimate the value of content, super time consuming. You know, as a startup, you don’t always have the ability to just like bang out a blog post or two every week, but being able to be the leader and kind of establish your voice through your blog or a newsletter or whatever is, is really valuable. And it helps you lead clout and build your kind of warm leads without being too salesy right up front. So getting that email address is still super valuable. Email is email is alive and well.
Bronson: Yeah, it is. I know. You know, it’s interesting. Two of the things you just mentioned that you’ve learned are things that are very time consuming, building these strategic relationships, not just going to commission junction, clicking on a few people and blasting out links and coupons, but actually building a relationship that takes a lot of back and forth, a lot of emails, a lot of time, a lot of knowledge of each other. And then the other thing is content. Well, you said there’s no shortcut it. You know, it’s hard to bring out a few blog posts. I mean, yet those are the two things you’re saying. They work, they matter, we double down on them. And I think that’s good to hear that growth is very time consuming. I mean, end of the day, if you want to grow a decent sized business, you’re going to have to put a lot of effort into things that you don’t want to put a lot of effort into. And there’s not really a way around that yet.
Rob: Someone someone’s got to put in that sweat. I guarantee you, all these startups and a lot of the folks on your show have put in the time and effort and dealt with kind of the nitty gritty of responding to influencers or shipping a product in order to get a review. Like there’s no shortcut to building a strong, robust community. So whether it’s you, whether it’s someone on your team, whether you get a junior person who’s kind of looking to cut their teeth, you’ve got to go through some of those steps and you learn from it, you build on it, and it helps in the long run. It’s hard to see that early on. In addition to those things, in parallel, you have to be tried in your traditional tests as well because you’ve got to kind of be showing results at the same time. But that’s why you need to always kind of be testing your channels that are going to produce today and then finding your channels that are going to produce tomorrow. That may not be doing that right now.
Bronson: I like the way it is built in because that’s what I think. But I’ve never really like put it into words that you’re doing things for today. But then you got these other things kind of going. They’re not in the back burner. They’re just not getting as many resources. And you’re just kind of seeing, you know, what what takes that’s, you know, going to be profitable in six months, a year or whatever. And then you’re never a spot where you wake up and you’re like, our growth is dead. We have no plan. Nothing’s, you know, on deck like this is it.
Rob: You get to kind of build out the levers you can pull in case of emergency, right? It’s like if all else fails, you get to break the glass and you’re like, all right, we’re doing this dedicated email. I’ve got these partners that can promote a campaign for us. I, you know, I’ve got these intensity and put stuff together because you never you never do want to find yourself in a position where you don’t know what’s going on, you don’t know what why, and you don’t have a plan for it because that’s it’s a scary spot to be.
Bronson: And I think that’s a mature way to think about growth. I mean, I know when I talk to my team, we look at, all right, what matter we in what levers are pulling now, what do we want to pull this month if things go south, what are we willing to pull this month? And you kind of plan it because you can’t do everything today. It wouldn’t work. You wouldn’t have enough time to respond to all the influx of things happening. You have to really, you know, have a pace that works with customer support, a pace that works with your infrastructure, a pace that works with your time, a pace that works with your investors. Like you really are managing the levers. I mean, I think what you just said, there’s a big insight there. I’m trying to, you know, put my thumb on it that someone that’s the head of growth there. The the the head of levers. The manager of levers. Like what? When, why? These are the levers. When do we pull them? You know, I feel like that’s a really a big part of what we do.
Rob: Yeah. And I think another piece for, you know, for us and for anyone that has a physical product is that a coordination with production and operations and merchandizing because, you know, our our merchandizing team is ordering for December, January of next year right now. And so they’re like, Hey, how many new users are we going to get in December? So I don’t know exactly, but you kind of see, you know, you kind of round things out and you figure out what your what your projection model looks like and there’s going to be misses. But you need to have some sense of like, okay, well, even if my regular channels don’t perform in November, then I’m going to pull this referral lever over here that I know can result in X number of new users. They can get us closer to where we need to be in case we’re not there. And so it’s a good thing to do for a growth perspective, but also from like not having everyone hate you at the company perspective as well because a lot of people’s jobs are rely on you performing on your team performing as well.
Bronson: Yeah. No, it’s a crazy thought how dependent everything is on you and how little you’re in control of your own world. You know, like those two things don’t go well together, and that’s where we find ourselves.
Rob: Right? It’s true. I got to be comfortable with some ambiguity.
Bronson: Absolutely. Here’s the last two questions I’d like to end on. These two is a kind of fun. The first one is, what are you working on today? As soon as this interview is over and I ask that not because the answer is cool or clever, it might be like I’m going to a meeting and it’s super boring, but it just gives us a window into like, what are you actually doing right now? And this is over, you know?
Rob: Yeah. Well, first thing is, I’m going to eat a salad. A salad waiting for me. That’s pretty exciting. All right.
Bronson: One more about Rob now.
Rob: Yeah. So later today, looking at the calendar, I’ve got a few. One on ones with people on the team are walking through some some planning and promotions with our park good team. So they handle kind of all our relationships with shelters and rescues. So the campaigns we’re putting together that are going to drive Barkbox and Berkshire purchases. So we kind of calendar that out at least a month or two ahead of time checking in there, got a couple vendor calls, do a lot of vendor calls, many of them results in nothing but, you know, figuring out tomorrow’s channels today. And then I’ve got to check in with finance to look at projections for Q3 in terms of media spend and inbound revenue. Got to manage that cash flow. Mm hmm.
Bronson: No, it’s awesome. And then last question. It’s been awesome interview. So leave us with some words of wisdom. What’s the best advice you have for any startup is trying to grow? What would you say to them? And maybe it’s something you’ve already said, maybe it’s something different. But what advice do you have for them?
Rob: Yeah. I think the most important piece of advice is test a lot and expectations set so kind of like a touchdown before expectation said that when you get into the role that you’re going to be trying a lot of things and there will be a learning curve. But you need to kind of find that one channel or one series of events you can hang your hat on at some point. That could be a weekend, that could be a month and it could be three months in. But what you’ve learned in one industry is not necessarily going to translate into your other vertical. What I learned deals very, very small amount of that actually translated into wins for for Barkbox. So you got to be just comfortable with the data analytics set up that you’ve got your, your base line of email and retargeting and all the tags set up and then be comfortable testing and, you know, comfortable when those things don’t necessarily pan out.
Bronson: Yeah. Well, Rob, thank you so much for a great interview. I feel like this is the kind of interview that if you want to see how growth is supposed to be ran, if you want to see the basic operational insights, I feel like this is a good, solid, fundamental interview on just how to think about growth. So thank you so much for your time, Rob.
Rob: Yeah. Appreciate it.