Lessons from a year at Germinal and next steps

Design by Léo Machabert

The past year has been very intense. I got into Germinal without being operational at all (read here to understand how I have educated myself in approx. a month). After a year of hard work and great training, my learning curve has skyrocketed way more than I imagined. Among other things, I have worked for 15+ start-ups and scale-ups (in various industries e.g. E-commerce, Mobile App or SaaS, incl. top ones like OpenClassrooms, Peanut App or Kazidomi ), offered 1o1 coaching sessions to 10+ entrepreneurs and given Growth Hacking classes in business schools and incubators. I have eaten up a lot of paid marketing, outbound marketing, landing pages, tracking, scrapping, data enrichment, workflow automation, acquisition funnels and other stuff.

I have learned to see Growth Hacking as a three-part work: test-and-learn, data and automation. During the past year, I have built strong convictions about those topics, and I would like to share today some of the important lessons I have learned in my journey (they can appear sometimes a bit counterintuitive given my situation). The following advice are mainly designed for start-ups. The style may be a bit harsh from time to time, but the aim is rather to help and warn entrepreneurs about what to avoid than being judgmental. It is quite the opposite, everybody learn by doing mistakes (incl. myself first). In short, no offense intended!

This article ends with a quick blurb about my next steps at Silvr.

Note: All views are my own and do not reflect those of the ventures I have worked or will work in.

Please find below my top 5 lessons (not hierarchically ranked).

(1) Focus on Product-Market Fit before doing Paid Marketing

(2) Data is key: don’t do anything without being sure it is rightly tracked

(3) Do things that don’t scale is OK if manual tasks provide more value

(4) Don’t massively invest in a single paid acquisition channel

(5) Try things out by yourself & challenge what you read on the Internet

(1) Focus on Product-market fit before doing Paid Marketing

As a start-up, achieving Product-Market Fit (PMF) should be your one and only obsession. Find your first clients manually, talk to them, understand their needs, improve your product, iterate on your value proposition, validate your business model, etc. but please do not rush into Paid Marketing (Facebook Ads, Google Ads, etc.). Finding your PMF before investing in paid channels is pivotal as you need to know first if people are interested in your product / service and if they are willing to pay for it. I have honestly seen too many entrepreneurs trying to counterbalance their lack of PMF and traction with Paid Marketing. Besides, the ROI of your Paid Marketing actions will be much more interesting post-PMF. I am not completely ruling it out and saying that it never works (if you are a paid expert with a stellar product designed for ads, yes why not), but it is very likely that you will simply end up burning all your cash (and cash is scarce when you are a start-up). At this stage, do not outsource your path to PMF to a consultant, freelance, agency or whoever will try to sell you PMF through paid ads. Someone from outside your company will never be as involved and committed as you. You are the only one who really know your product and your market. And you do not want to waste your money foolishly. I am overstating the point but I would even go as far as to say to forget Growth Hacking before you validate your PMF.

(2) Data is key: don’t do anything without being sure it is rightly tracked

I am telling you: data is one of the core challenges any start-up is facing today. Nobody is able to tell doubtlessly where their leads / customers exactly come from and at which cost. I have been shocked by how many start-ups take actions without tracking what they do. The typical example is doing Facebook Ads without tracking the outcomes and when you ask them if this channel has proved fruitful or not, they assuredly answer you without data “We know they come from Facebook Ads because this is the only marketing channel we use. And we systemically ask them how they have known our brand”. Man ok, but analytics tools and dashboards exist for a reason. You can tell me how many people have clicked on your ads, fine, but can you tell me the ROI of your campaign and take data-driven decisions based on that? No. More to the point, do not do Paid Marketing on advertising platforms you do not master. For instance, doing a traffic-driven campaign on Facebook Ads while your goal is to make conversions (e.g. a purchase or a form submission) is tantamount to wasting time and money (and lose data). Be sure to understand the ins and outs of the algorithms in order to leverage on data appropriately. Another example is doing LinkedIn influence to sell your product / service without adding UTMs to your URL link. How can you measure exactly the ROI of your posts? Honestly, better not take actions than take actions without tracking them.

(3) Do things that don’t scale is OK if manual tasks provide more value

First, I love automation and hate spending time on manual and non-value added tasks. But you do not do only what you want in life. It is ok to do manual tasks at the beginning all the more as you want to understand things deeper and experience the pain before thinking about automating them. Validate hypotheses first, then scale by automating. Automate tasks when you have spent enough time doing them and you know that automating them will not largely compromise on the value created. In the end, it is always a question of trade-off (e.g. pros and cons of quick and dirty vs. long and well done). One of my favorite example is the scrapping-to-cold-emailing path. Once I have scrapped my list of target companies and found the relevant decision-maker contacts, I still spend hours cleaning my file (or have someone do it) because I know there will be lots of mistakes in it. Why? Because scrapping and enrichment tools are flawed. There is no way I will fully automate my workflow from scrapping data to sending cold emails to scrapped contacts without manually checking the quality of my file at some point. So yes, I am losing time but I truly believe it provides more value in the end (it keeps brand image unharmed, helps book more demos, etc.) than going 100% automated. The level of automation in your workflows also depends on your target (company size, decision-maker, sales cycle, etc.).

(4) Don’t massively invest in a single paid acquisition channel

This one is for post-PMF start-ups (congrats!) and who have found a scalable paid acquisition channel (e.g. Facebook Ads). I reckon it is tempting to invest massively in a single paid acquisition channel that is working wonders. However, I recommend diversifying as much as you can your paid acquisition channels, because the day your holy grail will not work anymore (and that day will arrive sooner or later as paid acquisition channels are limited and unpredictable), you will be in trouble. Typically, I think that a single paid acquisition channel should not contribute to >30% of your revenues (and honestly, 20–30% is already a lot) as relying too much on a third-party platform you do not control cannot be viable in the long run. Besides, organic channels like SEO, word-of-mouth or product-led marketing are much more reliable and sane for your growth. I am not saying at all you should not do Paid Marketing: of course, you definitely should if it is done well and if it works but do not allocate too much cash on this (and even less on a single channel). The day your Facebook or Google Ads account will be somehow randomly shut down or when Apple will release a blurry iOS15 version or whatever, good luck to offset losses!

(5) Try things out by yourself & challenge what you read on the Internet

When trying to level up on Growth Hacking and do acquisition the right way, you will read a lot of things on the Internet, from blog articles to so-called experts on LinkedIn. Do no ever take anything for granted as it is likely that the examples / advice you will read (a) could not be applied to your business (e.g. it is not because someone has got great results on Facebook Ads for his B2B SaaS business that it will necessarily work the same way for you), (b) are biased (e.g. How to get 90% open rate, 30% reply rate and 10% conversion rate” → man ok, but you are doing cold emailing to have coffee with peers based on a sample of <100 contacts so there is absolutely no relevancy here - or “Cold emails should be 100% personalized with images and stuff” → yes but please no, you are not a boomer) and (c) is not necessarily backed up by data (or at least you cannot verify it by yourself — and today, people are ready to embellish the truth to get more engagement). If I pick up on my previous example in (3), it is not because you will read everywhere that you can automate every steps from scrapping to cold emailing that you must do it. Likewise, it is not because everyone is using a marketing automation software to do lead nurturing that you cannot try with a cold emailing tool in specific cases. Do not believe blindly everything you read, but try things out by yourself, collect data, discuss with peers, and make your own mind about it.

Bonus: Why am I joining Silvr?

I discovered Silvr ≃4 months ago while reading Alexandre Dewez’s newsletter Overlooked (the best one on the market by the way). I was immediately convinced by the potential of the start-up. It gathers everything I am looking for in my next adventure: FinTech, e-commerce, marketing, ambitious founding team, post-Seed stage, European vision, etc. A week later, they posted a Head of Growth / Growth Manager job offer, so that I knew I would regret it if I was not applying (even if I was not particularly in active job search mode at the time).

In a few words, Silvr is a FinTech (created in March 2020) who is funding e-commerce companies (especially for their marketing spendings unlike banks) in 24h without any dilution (unlike VCs). They are operating in the revenue-based financing (RBF) space which is already well developed in North America but is still to be developed in Europe, so that this blue ocean situation requires building strong defensibility asap. They have also been targeting SaaS companies recently, aiming to transform their MRR into ARR.

So if you run a e-commerce (and you are profitable in ads but do not have the financial resources to scale) or a SaaS business (and you are already making >€10K of MRR and looking to get non-dilutive funding to grow), I will be happy to connect and help! :)

Special thanks again to Grégoire, Paco, Benjamin, Kévin, Rémi, Christian, Alexandre, Robin, Cécile, Laura, Adrien, Claire, Camille, Théophile, Thomas, Mathieu, Lucie, Anais, Mathilde, Clara and the all Germinal team for this amazing year! 🖤

Passionate about entrepreneurship, start-ups and tech.