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What to do when your company stops growing?

Andrej Csizmadia

Andrej Csizmadia

Last modified on January 11, 2022 at 1:29 pm

“As an entrepreneur, you have to be OK with failure. If you’re not failing, you’re likely not pushing yourself hard enough." – Alexa Von Tobel, Founder of LearnVest

No new email sign ups. Search traffic has hit a wall. Only your aunt likes your Facebook posts.

Your online business has flat lined. A wave of doubt sweeps into your mind.

I’ve been there. I feel your pain.

There comes a time when your growth will slow down and it’ll probably happen sooner than later. Steve Blank, a Silicon Valley serial-entrepreneur, calls this first wall in a startup’s life the "trough of sorrow”.

the startup curve

The hype of the launch and the newness of the product is gone. You’re old news. Don’t be surprised. It happens. Here’s what to do when things stop working:

1. Dive into the Data
2. Talk to Customers
3. Data-Driven Experiments

Dive into the data

What’s working and what is not working? Where are the signs of life? What user groups are power users? Here are some questions to ask yourself as you’re looking at Google Analytics or your company dashboard.

  • What sources of traffic get the best users? Social, search, referral, email, etc.
  • What are behavioral characteristics that the power users have in common? (Desktop user, mobile user, certain blog content, etc.)
  • What channels result in actual customers?
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Data doesn’t just mean your data but also your competitor’s data. Here are some tools that allow you to understand the data of your competitors:

SimilarWeb: Uncover how much traffic your top competitors get per month, the average session duration, the percentage of traffic they get from social media and search, their top social media platforms (Facebook, Reddit, Twitter, Pinterest, etc.) and the top referral website (blog or online publication). This snapshot could help uncover opportunities for new channels.

Adbeat: Learn about all the ad networks that your competitors are using to post ads and the different ads they are using. Get a feel for their ad campaigns and their positioning.

SEMRush: Here you can see the page authority and domain authority score for your competitors. This shows you how strong they are from a search engine perspective and what’s driving those results. Additionally, you can see all the keywords that they’re optimizing for, both free and paid.

These three tools and an audit of their social media channels allow you to piece together their marketing playbook. It’ll help you understand what they’re doing to give you inspiration for your own campaigns.

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Survey your customers

Let’s get to the source: your customers. Break up your users into power users and users that abandoned the product. Reach out to each group and really understand how they view your product. Here are the questions to ask each group.

Power users
What do you like about our product?
When do you use the product or service?
What improvements would you like to see?

Abandoned users
Why did you initially start using the product?
Why did you stop using the product?
What improvements would you like to see?

Take your feedback and summarize all of it to see what conclusions you can draw from their feedback. Is there a common theme or common language that these groups are using? Are they all using it for the same purpose or did you learn about a new application?

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Prioritize growth ideas and run experiments

Now that you have your new-found knowledge on your customers and industry, list out every possible marketing initiative to acquire new customers or activate old customers – that is your main goal. For marketing campaign inspiration, here is a chart on ideas from the book Hacking Growth.

Chart of growth ideas organic and paid

Next, you’ll want to prioritize these ideas in order of potential impact and ease of execution. Here are some things to factor in as you’re prioritizing them:

Free vs. paid

With most experiments, you’ll want to start with free channels and leverage what is working and apply that knowledge to paid channels. For example, you could be looking at paid keyword ads vs. a content marketing initiative. After doing some keyword research (using the Google Keyword Planner tool in AdWords), you could see a strong demand for keywords around topics related to your industry.

Yes, you could start tossing money into Adwords or you could start blogging about topics around those keywords. Both will cost you something (money or time) but let your business model drive which one.

Fastest feedback loop

The most successful startups are the ones that can iterate the fastest. That means launching something, getting feedback, learning from that feedback and then iterating on that knowledge. How fast can you get feedback to drive your next iteration of tests?

With every failed experiment, you get that much closer to finding the right growth opportunity. Imagine you’re a startup that has an idea to build a new tool that you believe will be great for user acquisition. However, your product team says it’ll take six weeks to go live. Then you need two weeks to see if there is any demand for this tool. That’s 8 weeks. The other option, you use one developer to launch a landing page in two days to see if people would sign up to be notified when this tool launches. Then you can get feedback in 2 weeks about whether people would even want this product.

What segments are you targeting?

Which users are your targeting with your marketing? Not all users are created equal. Are you going after new users? Are you targeting your most active users that spend the most money? Or are you going after doormat users?

For eCommerce companies, people that have already spent money with you are much more likely to spend money with you tomorrow than a stranger. You already know what they like and they have already given you their credit card information. What have you done to reactive them?

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Just know that you’re not alone when it comes to hitting a plateau with growth. When Paypal was trying to grow, they focused on paid ads and partnerships with banks. They quickly learned that a broad ad campaign would be too expensive to get the conversion numbers they wanted. The bank partnerships weren’t moving at the speed they needed. (Sadly, big companies, especially commercial banks, aren’t exactly fast moving startups.)

After testing and failing with these two distribution channels, they started testing a referral program to give users money for creating an account. The referral program (their 3rd option) proved to be the marketing initiative that lead to them getting the traction they needed to reach millions of users.

As you run these growth tests, know that lots of them will fail. That’s okay. Embrace these glorious fails. But, once something starts to work, allocate the right amount of time, money and resources to those channels. At our growth marketing agency, GrowthHit, we’re constantly reminding clients that it only takes one marketing channel to work for you to be a break out success. You cannot find it without testing.

Jim Huffman

Guest Post Author

Jim Huffman

Jim Huffman is the Cofounder and CEO of GrowthHit, a growth marketing agency. Jim is also a Techstars growth mentor, a digital marketing instructor at General Assembly and a speaker for the ANA. Jim is an experienced growth marketer that has successfully grown two startups to 7 figures in sales.

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