After building 20 side projects that nobody bought, Asher decided to learn the principles of growing a business, and now trains Y Combinator startups how to grow.
Davis Baer: What’s your background, and what are you working on?
I’m Asher King Abramson, partner at Bell Curve and head of its growth marketing training arm. We teach founders and new marketers how to get more paying customers.
Multiple startups have raised their next round directly because of us, and Y Combinator brings us in to lead sessions on growth.
As far as background: before Bell Curve, I worked a software engineer for a few years. Then, I joined the leadership team at App Academy as we grew from 20 students to 80 students per cohort.
As far as Bell Curve itself: we’ve been bootstrapped and profitable since day one. We’re at eight employees and growing.
Let’s jump to what hackernoon readers really want to hear. What’s your advice for entrepreneurs who are just starting out?
This advice is for entrepreneurs who have exhausted their network and can’t afford to spend even $1,000 on ads:
If you’re B2B, cold email 100 people who urgently face your problem using Clearbit Connect. Exploit the free trial. You should be able to get around 100 emails for free.
If you’re B2C, message the people who urgently face your problem in the Slack/Telegram channels and subreddits they live in.
If you can afford to spend $1,000, gain traffic through Facebook and Instagram ads to start — to understand which demographics resonate most strongly. Then refine the product based on those initial learnings.
Do you have any good growth hacks?
We have some fun stories. A couple good ones:
Growth Hack 1
We sent TaskRabbits into offices to demo high-end electric bikes for one client. We had seen that people were interested top-of-funnel: they clicked on ads, read the landing page, and filled out their information. But most people didn’t buy the bike.
We realized that for an expensive purchase, customers needed to be able to experience the bike itself — without putting in any effort. Because the price tag was so high, it was feasible to pay a TaskRabbit to bring them a demo bike. This got Facebook and Instagram ads to work.
Growth Hack 2
One of our clients sold a WordPress plugin. All the competing plugins were horrible. They were hard to integrate, poorly designed, and just a pain to work with. So we programmatically scraped blogs and determined whether or not they were using a competing plugin.
Then, we used a VA to pull the name of the company behind the site, looked up the owner’s email address on Clearbit, and sent them a cold email referencing exactly the competing plugin they were using.
This drove a lot of revenue for them.
Here’s that email.
Many people hear these stories and think of them as the keys to growth.
Most companies really grow through a combination of well-targeted ads, clear landing pages, and frictionless onboarding flows. You only hack when you’re desperate.
Let’s change gears. What motivated you to get started with Bell Curve?
When I was an engineer, I built a lot of things people didn’t buy.
Like, a lot of projects — I’m talking 15 or 20 projects here. Fully built, coded, tested…and no customers.
I actually keep a list of all my dead projects on my phone. It was everything from a recruiting tool, to a news annotator, to a service that emails craigslist apartment listings for you.
I only ever got one customer. He Venmoed me out of his own pocket because he couldn’t convince his boss to buy the tool I built.
Thankfully, I never quit my day job. In fact, I worked four days a week at 80% salary for two years to have the time to do these projects. This schedule sounds great in theory, but it’s pretty flawed in practice. (A whole other discussion.)
Anyway, after an embarrassingly long time, I finally realized, “Hey, I need to actually solve this problem. I need to learn how to get real customers.”
Around that time, my friend Julian was starting up a growth agency. He used to be an engineer, but had worked in growth for a couple years, and he was looking for another cofounder. He scratched my itch right when I needed.
Most of our early clients came through friends, VCs we knew, and the Y Combinator network; Julian had written a growth guide that investors liked, and they started sending us leads — pretty much out of the blue.
Bell Curve was actually a traditional growth agency for its first couple years. We were writing, designing, and building landing pages, making ads and running them on Facebook, AdWords, Snapchat and other ad channels, sending cold emails, sponsoring podcasts, brainstorming referral programs, etc. Whatever it took for a startup to scalably get customers.
How did you end up launching the training program?
As we grew the agency, two major things happened:
- We wanted to launch some products of our own. Our agency arm was generating a solid cash flow, but we were making some of our clients tens of millions of dollars. We wanted to capture more of that value for ourselves. We started brainstorming and worked on everything from high-end men’s sweaters to greeting cards targeted at accountants. (You don’t want to see the puns.)
- I systematized a lot of the things we had been doing on the fly — so that new employees could follow step-by-step instructions. For example, I made checklists on how to review Facebook ads, how to write ad copy that converts, how to look at funnel data. That sort of thing.
During one of our brainstorm sessions, Neal (another Bell Curve partner) pitched launching a training program. It instantly made sense. It didn’t require as much ongoing labor on our end — which meant we could charge less than an agency arrangement — and we could repurpose our internal training docs to work for outside companies.
People sometimes talk about finding your “unfair advantage” when you’re picking a business idea. It applies here; I’m exceptional at setting up systems that teach people valuable skills. I know more about code bootcamp operations than almost anyone, and students were telling me they were their favorite instructor when I was at App Academy.
This naturally lent itself to teaching growth.
What went into running the first cohort?
It took me about three months to write the initial curriculum, even as I pulled heavily from our internal docs. It also took a few weeks to find and close our first students. So, overall, it took about four months. To keep money coming in, I also managed two clients on our agency side.
Our first cohort was mostly founders who couldn’t afford our agency prices. We were able to email them directly to pitch the program. But we went through that list pretty quickly; the majority of our students now come to us through various forms of sponsorship.
When I wrote the curriculum, the goal was to take someone who knew nothing about marketing and have them do all the onboarding work our agency would do, condensed into four weeks. A senior Bell Curve team member would supervise and give feedback, just like they would in our agency arm.
A big motivation for us was to distinguish ourselves from the other marketing “education” programs out there: you’ve probably seen those scammy prerecorded courses that someone makes to generate passive income. Most of them are a waste of time and money.
Same goes for brandy lecture series on growth: they bring in some famous speakers and make for a good community, but they don’t actually teach you how to grow step-by-step. That’s no help if you’re a struggling founder.
I knew from my App Academy experience that any training program worth its salt had to be entirely project-based with live, deliberate feedback, that people could directly apply to their business. Based on what we knew to work in the field from our agency arm.
What’s your business model, and how have you grown your revenue?
We charge a flat fee for the four-week program. It’s roughly a tenth of what we would charge for a yearlong agency engagement.
What are your goals for the future?
My goal for this year is to see how many students we can take without sacrificing the quality of the training.
Down the road, I’ve always been interested in aligning incentives around vocational ed.
App Academy was the first coding bootcamp to really do this. They charge nothing up front. Instead, they take a percentage of your first year’s salary after you get a job. This model forces the trainer to have skin in the game. I’ve seen how successful this is firsthand. And other bootcamps are catching on.
Put this another way: what would a growth training program look like with perfect incentives? We’d probably charge nothing up front and take a cut of future revenue.
It’s much, much easier said than done for a variety of reasons. But I think that’s the correct way to do vocational ed.
What are the biggest challenges you’ve faced and obstacles you’ve overcome? If you had to start over, what would you do differently?
On the training side, we argued for a couple weeks about whether to charge our initial students so we could get feedback on the curriculum. We had a couple founder and VP marketing friends look through the initial curriculum, but we quickly realized they weren’t putting in the amount of time a real student would — because they weren’t our target customer.
Our customers were founders who urgently needed to grow, and who demonstrated this by paying for the program. Not founders who were trying to take advantage of free content. It’s a very different audience.
So we bit the bullet and charged from the get-go. It was the right decision. If I was starting over, I would have skipped those debates and launched a paid version sooner.
Another thing I’d do differently: we gave our first cohort of students access to the curriculum too late, so many of them fell behind and had to work weekends. We send out the curriculum much earlier now, so students are more prepared.
Have you found anything particularly helpful or advantageous?
Being extremely explicit on our website about the next steps in our application process — this has massively helped our conversion rates.
After you fill out a short application form, we drop down a paragraph saying, “Hey, we’re going to email you soon to set up a phone call. Here’s what’s going to happen on that call…If you don’t want to wait for that email, you can schedule it yourself using this calendly link. Oh, and here’s a video of things we might talk about as well.”
On a similar note: moving our application form really far down on our landing page. This forces people to read our FAQ before they apply, which means the people who fill out the form really understand what we do and are higher intent. So we have fewer bad leads.
Where can we go to learn more?