Build A Growth Machine

I'm Brian Balfour, Founder/CEO of Reforge, previously VP Growth @ HubSpot. I've started multiple VC backed companies, and grown user bases to millions of daily active users. I write detailed essays on growth and user acquisition that have been featured in Forbes, Hacker Monthly, and OnStartups to help you build a growth machine.


How To Become A Customer Acquisition Expert

If I Can Do It, You Can Do It

I started my career out as a “product guy.”  But about 4 years ago I realized that product was a small piece of the startup puzzle.  I became fascinated with how products were growing.  Thus, my journey on learning growth and customer acquisition began.  

I have a degree from the University of Michigan (Go Blue, btw!), but not in marketing.  I am completely self taught.  As a result of my learning, I have started multiple companies funded by tier 1 investors, held VP Product Marketing and CMO positions, grown consumer products to millions of daily active users, and advised/consulted numerous others on growth.

I’m not here to brag.  My point is, if I can do it, you can do it too and I want to share my tips and lessons learned.


Where You CAN’T Learn Customer Acquisition

First thing is first.  Let me clear the air on a few things so you don’t waste your time.  

1.  There is no one unicorn course/source that will teach you everything you need.  So stop searching for the one. 

2.  You will not learn digital marketing and customer acquisition in college. The realm of digital marketing is changing extremely fast, and the rate of change is accelerating.  Universities/colleges are too slow to adapt.  There are some foundational things you will get from college courses (that I will cover), but even those you can get in other places faster and cheaper.   

Going to college doesn’t hurt.  But our education system, plain and simple, is not teaching the things to to make people productive in the work environment.  Filling the gap between what you learn in college, and the skills to make you productive in the work environment is up to you!

3.  You will not become a customer acquisition expert by exclusively watching/reading endless courses and blogs.  At some point you just have to jump in and get your hands dirty.  More on this later.  

4.  Certifications are bullshit.  You will probably run into a bunch of online courses promising “certification for Google Adwords” or “certification for social media” or “certification for being xyz schmuck.” Ignore them.  Certifications provide little to no value and you are going to end up paying a premium.  I have also found that those courses are often worse than other material out there.  

The best employers in todays market don’t give a crap about these certifications.  They want to see examples of what you have done which is why my point below about getting something to experiment with is so important. 

Learning Plan - Shape Yourself Like A “T”

The world of digital marketing is HUGE today.  It is easy to get overwhelmed.  Having a plan and path is the most important part.  I have tried to simplify the path as much as possible.  There are three layers:

1.  Base Layer

These are non-marketing specific subjects that provide a base to build from.  Subjects in the base layer are used throughout the subjects in the next two layers. 

2.  Marketing Foundation

These are marketing subjects you should know that are used across almost any channel you use.  

3.  Channel Expertise 

The third layer is where you will need to make some choices.  Channels are all the different ways you can reach your audience.  It is near impossible to become an expert in all of the online marketing channels AND stay up to date on the latest changes.  Each channel is changing unbelievably fast in addition to new channels emerging.  

That is why I recommend a learning plan that will shape yourself like a “T” [See picture below].  Go broad by knowing the basics including pros/cons of most channels.  Then choose to go really deep on a couple channels.  Generalists are useless in most work environments.  As an expert in certain areas you will be able to build a brand around yourself and stand out from the crowd.  


Learn About Growth.  No Fluff.  One Email Per Post.

Which Channels Should You Go Deep On?

Ultimately this is up to you.  The key is to just choose.  But I’ll give you two things to consider as you are deciding.    

1.  Your Preference and Skills

Think about the type of person you are and where you are strongest.  Some channels orient more towards creative skills (i.e. Content Marketing, Social, etc).  Some are more quant focused (i.e. viral growth, paid acquisition, etc).  The closer the channel is to your strengths and passions, the better chance you have at becoming an expert in that channel.  Personally I am more of a quant person.  So I have tended to go deep on paid acquisition and viral mechanism.  

2.  Take A Bet On On An Emerging Channel

If you are just starting your digital marketing career and have many years ahead of you, I highly suggest leaning towards emerging channels.  Four years ago the emerging channels would have been Facebook and content marketing.  

If you are one of the early players in a new channel that becomes popular, it will accelerate your career.  Being early positions yourself as an “expert.”  For a period of time while the industry catches up, there will be low supply, but high demand of people like you.  This puts you in a position of many options with negotiating leverage.  

The safest bet would be to choose two channels to go deep on.  A proven channel that you know will be around for awhile (Search, Content Marketing, etc) plus one emerging channel.  

Some General Tips

Before I dive into all the different pieces, here are some general tips as you begin your learning.  

Get Something To Experiment With

In learning digital marketing, nothing is more valuable than hands on experience.  The courses I will list are useful.  But I really really urge you to find a product/company to try out what you learn as you take the courses.  Maybe you are already in a company.  If not, volunteer as an intern somewhere.  Or use yourself (via a blog, mini website, etc) as the experiment.  

Learn From Others

One of the best things you can do is follow other awesome marketers who produce content online.  Here is a list of just some of the guys that I follow:

Noah KaganAndrew ChenRand FishkinAndy JohnsAvinash KaushikDave McClureHiten Shah

Oh yeah, don’t forget to follow me as well :)

Learn From Other Companies

Once you have chosen the channels you want to go deep on, identify a few companies that are executing in those channels really well.  Follow their tactics like a hawk.  For example, in content marketing I would pay attention to companies such as Moz, Hubspot, KissMetrics, and Buffer.  Use tools to research and follow their strategies such as Moz Research Tools, Followerwonk, SEMrush, WhatRunsWhere, and SocialCrawlytics.  

Keep A Scrap Book

No, not like the one that your mom has with naked pictures of you as a baby.  Keep a digital collection of examples and resources from other companies that provide inspiration and ideas.  I use evernote and every time I come across a great marketing email, landing page, ad creative, info graphic, on boarding technique, etc, etc I store it and organize it in Evernote.  That way when I’m designing a new email campaign down the road, I have numerous ideas and examples to refer back to.