I sold my agency and went all-in on a startup

This is the story of a little startup called Hello Mellows.

My goal with this post is to share my journey on what launching a startup looked like and hopefully paint a more realistic startup story!

It's time we put the overnight unicorn startup success stores to bed.

How It All Began (May 2013) ⏱

The journey of Hello Mellows started seven ago when I was running my marketing agency.

I was continually finding that following traditional digital marketing processes didn't quite deliver the results we craved for our clients.

Doing search engine optimisation for results in 6-month's time is great, but working mostly with small businesses, our clients needed results ASAP.

We found that the more established an agency became, the more they tend to focus on larger clients.

That's usually because these clients can afford more, and are generally way more chill.

But helping big companies get bigger was not who we wanted to serve.

Our clients were also desperate for a sense of empowerment; they wanted us to help them learn from what we were doing, so they didn't need to repeat the same mistakes in the future.

This led us down a journey of testing many things to see how we could help our clients grow better. We experimented with things like:

  • Partnering with HubSpot to bring their software and processes to the table,
  • Trying nearly a hundred different tools like Basecamp, Asana, AHREFS, and Moz. You name it, we tried it 😂
  • And attending conferences around the world to figure out a process that could help us and our clients grow faster than ever before.

Inspiration struck during my trip to SaaStr Annual in San Jose back in 2018.

Thanks to Callaghan Innovation, I got to travel with a cohort of remarkable Kiwis. As you can see in the photo below, we took America by storm. Unfortunately, the photographer managed to get everyone in the picture except for me (red arrow). 😂

At least they got my good side!

During one of the panels, they were talking about experiment sheets.

It was a mixture of design thinking & marketing, and I wanted to see what could happen when we launched marketing campaigns for our clients purely through these sheets.

The goal was to get clear on exactly what result you wanted to achieve before you launch your marketing campaign. 🤯

Sounds simple but in practice it's quite a rare process.

We did this by writing down what success and failure look like before we began, and then created a clear to-do list, and time-frame in which we'll start and end the experiment.

The ideology is rather than launching big 3-month marketing campaigns, you should break it up into little bit sized experiments to shorten the feedback loop, learn faster, and grow quicker.

Think The Lean Startup but solely focused on marketing.

The results were phenomenal, but also a bit confusing.

By creating more constraints, we managed to deliver better results?

We kept them on the wall while we ran them, then uploaded them onto Basecamp for clients once we finished each experiment so they could learn as well.

These sheets were a game-changer.

Fast-forward a few years, we sold the agency, and I'm wondering how we can bring these simple experiment sheets to the world.

This question led us to interview Jake Knapp, the creator of the Design Sprint at Google Ventures. He had a ton of ideas on how to incorporate design thinking into marketing and inspired us to build our MVP!

Launching The MVP (Feb 2020) 🎉

There were many versions of our MVP (minimal viable product) on our journey to get to where we are today.

The first idea is to create a list of growth experiments that anyone could copy-paste into their business to grow faster than ever.

The feedback from this first version was fantastic. This was back in February when COVID was starting to hit the world, and I wanted to create free resources to help businesses thrive.

After a bunch of user testing, we found that we could make the process clearer.

We also had feedback that users wanted more in-depth content. While our growth experiments were great for inspiration, lots of companies lacked the know-how to launch them.

So on our next launch, we added even more value by creating a do-it-yourself workshop, a step-by-step growth marketing guide, and more.

On top of this, we experimented with our first checklist, where we broke down complicated marketing activities into simple step-by-step guides.

And we started sending out awesome emails full of GIFs!

This process was around 3-months in total, and while it was exciting having users on our website, enjoying our content, there were no champagne parties or VC investment.

In fact, it was a little more like this...

At this point, the team was just me.

And while I was amazingly enthusiastic about what I was doing, when launching the product to the world, it was a bit disheartening that the world wasn't as excited as me.

Which is one key thing to note, most 'overnight successes' take years if not decades.

And all that time is spent slowly chipping away, one day at a time until the world starts to take notice.

Lessons from our first MVP

While we shipped a lot and did more user interviews than you can shake a stick at (weird saying), there was a lot we could have done better.

The first key lesson was that we should have gotten way more clarity on whom our target audience is and focused our efforts on getting feedback from them.

While we did get lots of feedback, we primarily got it from people who weren't our ideal users, which sent us on a wild goose chase (another weird saying). 🦆

Another massive learning at this stage was that having an unclear North Star mission and metric leads to a lack of momentum.

Our users kept asking for things, and like a happy human, I kept building them.

And while sometimes this can be super useful, unless it's building towards your mission, you can end up with a very convoluted product.

Launching The MLP (June 2020) 🙌

The biggest downside of what we created is that is our users couldn't do anything with the experiments or checklists.

They couldn't save them, monitor how effective they were, tick items off or anything like that.

So we levelled up and turned our MVP into a MLP (minimal lovable product) using Notion!

We took the content from the website and created a Notion board which users could duplicate the template and use themselves.

It cost us $5 p/month to host since we were using someone else's technology, but this was such a simple and easy step to help us understand if users would actually use the product.

After moving all the content onto the Notion board, we also created a template inside each experiment that showcased the experiment sheet!

So now, users could fill out themselves and document the whole thing.

And we validated what we wanted to build in just a few months for... $10. 🤯

Lessons from our MLP

You don't need to have a developer to validate your idea. There are so many no-code solutions that can help you get started.

We managed to hack together the initial MVP using Webflow & Memberstack. And then used Notion to validate the engagement side of it.

The other critical lesson for me personally was to make sure I kept the joy alive every step of the way. It was around this point where I forgot the whole point of what I was doing.

I launched a whole bunch of stuff, made a variety of users happy, but my motivation took a massive hit.

One thing I make sure I do now on a daily basis is reminding myself of why I do what I do.

An easy way to set this up is creating a repeating calendar event every morning and have the name of the event be your mission statement. That way every morning you wake up, and instantly you get clear on your why.

Making sure you incorporate some self-care into your startup launch, I reckon could be one of the most significant factors to your success.

Building Our App (August 2020)

Now we had some form of validation, I brought in some backup in the form of an epic developer & co-founder.

The idea was starting to take shape, and with our constant user tests, we knew what problems people were facing, and we knew we could build something to solve those problems.

And after a few months of development, our growth marketing software went live!

On top of what we could do with Notion, we built a dashboard show track metrics, created a growth marketing guide to help users build the agile practice into their companies, and a workshop that any company can run to create a backlog of world-class experiments.

And below is our experiment sheet than a user must fill out before they begin working on the experiment.

Now we've launched, and we have some users, the interesting problem now is, how do we communicate our solution in a way that our users get it.

That's the part we're working on so far, so I'll let you know when we can answer that question. 😂

I'd love to know what you're working on! Feel free to slide into my DMs on Twitter.

I love writing little stories like this, so I'll do my best to document the journey from here.

Thanks for reading!

PSST: I'm currently documenting the journey of opening a cosy plant store, helping the online world become more accessible through Hello Access & the growing as the marketing director at Sunobi.
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Steven Male

Written by Steven Male

Hey I'm Steven, and I'm the Marketing Director at Sunobi. ✌︎

I have 10 years experience in growth marketing and currently helping the digital world become more accessible through my passion project, Hello Access! We've worked with teams at Stripe, Meta, and more.


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