Episode 2 - Mariel Davis - Spokn (YC W21)
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📝 Podcast Transcript
Aditya: [00:00:00] Hi guys. Welcome to episode two of What The Growth. Today I have Mariel Davis with me, who's one of the co-founders of Spokn.
They're part of the Winter 21 Batch of Y Combinator. They've raised slightly over four million till date, and let's hear it from Mariel. Mariel what does your company do?
We're very excited to know.
Mariel: First of all, thank you so much for inviting me to be here. I'm excited to have this conversation and to put it simply, Spokn is the easiest way for people and talent teams to create authentic employee videos.
Aditya: Mm-hmm. That's awesome. And how big are you guys? Like, you know, talking about teams.
Mariel: We're pretty small. We're just under 15 right now, so I think, yes, I think we're 14.
Aditya: Got it. And how's that split across departments.
Mariel: We are very, very engineering heavy. So we actually started the company in Egypt. That's where the heart of our company is, and that's where our engineering team is. Outside of the engineering team we've just got myself and my co-founder who are sales, marketing, customer success, product and we have a great ops lead as [00:01:00] well.
Aditya: Got it. That's awesome. And how did you get started on this problem statement? Like, what's the background?
Mariel: I want to not bring you into the deep, deep weeds of the many twists and turns this took, but very briefly Spokn, actually started at
Aditya: I think now we have to go there.
Mariel: No, believe me, you don't. I don't I mean, maybe you go there. I don't know if I want to revisit all those twists and turns. But briefly Spokn started as actually a B2C app.
What we were trying to do was create, kind of bite-sized audio from existing underappreciated articles from outlets like the New York Times, the FT, the Wall Street Journal, et cetera, and offer that to listeners on an app. And we actually created all those partnerships, did all the human narration of this.
And frankly, we just found it really hard to crack growth. And what we did is, you know, as we were kind of spinning our wheels and not getting the kind of growth that we wanted, we took a look at the data and just kind of trying to crack like, what is it that people actually want to listen to in their free time?
And we noticed that people really gravitated [00:02:00] towards audio content that related to their professional development.
You go like, hmm. people love podcasts, right? And people definitely need to learn for their
Aditya: I mean, we're doing one right now.
Mariel: Hope they love podcasts. We're on it.
Mariel: You know, but also like people are busy. They need to learn for their jobs.
And wouldn't this be an interesting format, an interesting way for people to learn at their jobs? And we kind of assumed that this podcasting company for work already existed. Sort of a way to learn through audio. And we discovered that actually it didn't. And so we pivoted a little sort of, kind of started to narrate content that was more related to professional development.
And this was right when the pandemic was starting. My gosh, I haven't like told this story in a while, and so I'm getting flashbacks of it. But basically what happened is we were trying to bring this product, this audio product to market right as Covid was happening. And you know think about the moments in time when you listen to audio.
It is probably when you're running an errand, you [00:03:00] are going to the gym, when parents are doing school pickup. It tended to be all of these things that all of a sudden disappeared. And we had this sort of momentous crisis moment in the company thinking, did we just, you know, do we have an idea that's just not going to fly?
Because the world has completely changed and everybody is home.
Aditya: Talk about bad timing, right?
Mariel: What ended up happening really surprised us. You know, we, our first customers kind of, instead of turning to the library and catalog of narrated content that we had instead started abusing our platform and uploading their own content to it, and it was basically podcasts for their company.
Its internal podcast. Maybe it was the CEO trying to, you know, update the company on what was going on. People had zoom fatigue. People didn't want to sit in front of computers anymore. And so it turns out that podcasts are a really great format for keeping employees who are remote, updated and engaged without making them sit in front of screens.
So we went with that idea to Y Combinator. It had just been something [00:04:00] that almost was like something we had observed our customers doing. YC said, oh no this is really much more interesting than your original idea. We'll back you for either idea, but we think the podcasting is the one. And that was our first product.
So that was, you know, how we got our first customers, which I know we might dive into later on in this conversation. And from there, I think we started looking around at other formats that really resonate with people in their personal lives. Because when we think about, our lives as employees, all of us have lives who we are not employees and what we're doing in those lives are often looking at things like Instagram or TikTok.
We're consuming a lot of content in short form video and sort of those insights led to the next set of products that's Spokn. Which really make it much easier for companies to take the good parts of bite-size, authentic kind of peer created content. And make it more appropriate and doable in a company context.
So I think I gave [00:05:00] you a much longer explanation than you asked for, but hopefully that gives you the gist of how we got from point A to point C.
Aditya: I love that. I love that. It's been, yeah, it's quite a rollercoaster, like especially with what you started with. And I love the fact that you're making it, you know like bringing a new, authentic way of sharing, you know, information within the company, which would typically be in like,
I don't know, like captured in docs or in long emails or in other sort of traditional boring ways.
But yeah, like dialing it back to growth for a second. You mentioned that, you know, there's you and your co-founder and one other person who's primarily looking after growth. Like, let's dig into that a little bit. Like, how did you get your first customer? That's what I want to know.
Mariel: I think honestly our first, our first handful of customers, this is not surprising for most companies, came through our existing networks. But we had very, very small, relevant network for the product that we were selling. And so we ran through that real fast. For context, I mentioned we started the company in Egypt.
My [00:06:00] co-founder spent his entire career in Egypt. He is from Egypt. I had been living in Egypt for a number of years. My background was in a completely different industry, and we really didn't have a network of peers to sell into. And so when it came to getting, you know, like the second and third customers and then all the ones that came after that. I took some kind of unorthodox steps. We found that specifically for our ideal customer profile, we're selling into HR and people teams,
LinkedIn was incredibly, incredibly useful. We were also trying to build a customer base at a time when no one was doing in-person events. You could not go to a conference and meet people and have conversations, and so you had to get very creative about building that network in the absence of any kind of in-person opportunities to do that. And I can share a little bit more if you are interested on like, some of the hacks for doing that, which I think would still hold today.
Aditya: Let's get into it. I mean, I did have a question lined up about growth hack, but let's just jump into that. Yeah. Let, let's [00:07:00] talk about how you guys hacked growth in the early days?
Mariel: My big thing that I would say is I ended up hijacking other companies webinars, or work like online workshops.
Mariel: What I did was I, first of all, let's set the context. A lot of this was still in the early enough days of the company where we were still able to reach out to people saying,
"Hey, we've got legitimate research questions."
And so it's of course, always helpful when you are genuinely not reaching out for a direct sale. When what you're really trying to do is learn, kind of like really evaluate does this idea have legs. In the hopes that, hey, if it does, eventually these people might become customers. So you know, again, it's Covid.
Everything has shifted to being online. We're talking about early days of Covid and what I noticed is a lot of the companies kind of breathing the same air,
targeting the same I C P or ideal customer profile as us. They were starting to shift from, of course, their in-person events to not just webinars, but specifically a workshop style webinar [00:08:00] where, and this is the crucial piece of advice.
Mariel: You want to find online events.
That are not being held in a format where only the hosts see the attendees. And so looking for things like workshops or like learning circles, et cetera. Industry conversations, peer discussion groups, those are the types of events that you want to look at if you're going to take this strategy. Because what you do is you show up to the event and you act a little creepy.
So what you're doing is you're looking, you know, if you, if it were on Zoom for instance, I would sit in these events and I would, as the event was going on, I would sort of take a picture of everyone's name who was in the event, and I'm pounding out during the event LinkedIn messages to every single person who is on that phone call and I'm saying,
"Hey, it was so great to cross paths at you at this event. Like, so interesting that you're also struggling with X topic, insert the topic of the event, would love to stay in touch."
And I found that the response rate on that was [00:09:00] absolutely phenomenal. I know there's a lot of controversy.
Aditya: And this was during the event?
Mariel: Always did it the same day because the next day is weird.
Who would remember that? I took notes on who asked questions and what people said, and I tailored those, those outreaches like
"Hey, loved your point on X. Thought your point on Y was really great. I was also wondering the question you asked, thank you so much for bringing that up."
And I just found that people were incredibly welcoming and incredibly eager to talk to someone who was clearly, you know, in that space. And from there, I would just run campaigns of pinging people on LinkedIn saying, you know, tailored personal message. Hey, we crossed paths a couple weeks ago at this event. I'm, doing a little bit of research on X topic.
I thought you'd be the perfect person to talk to because of Y factor. Do you have 20 minutes? I'd be so grateful. And I found connection of personalization and true gratitude to be very, very effective. And I just want to thank all the hundreds of people because it was literally hundreds of [00:10:00] people who were willing to get on the phone with us.
And that turned into a huge pipeline for us. Many of the people who were with us when we were basically pre-product helping with research are still customers today. So that was my growth hack.
Use kind of workshops online sessions, et cetera, because if you do it well, it can have huge, huge outcomes.
Aditya: That is so cool. And let me say this, Mariel, you know, as far as growth hacks go, this is like a very authentic, wholesome growth hack. You know, you're actually generally making connections, and I love that by the way. You know, you might find it interesting. I was recently talking to a client who wanted to leverage LinkedIn more.
So one of the things you can do is if you have a LinkedIn event and you join that event, like you just click that button which says, I am attending. You don't even have to attend the actual event, but you can actually go back to the search screen. And now you can filter by that specific event, which you've marked as attending, and now you can see the whole list of people.
Mariel: That is fascinating. I am going to go and try this now.
Aditya: So yeah, it's a little less wholesome than [00:11:00] yours, but yeah, it also works.
Mariel: I want to keep this really brief, but the authenticity and genuineness though, like attending those events made me speak in the language of my ideal customer profile, so much better. I did not come from the space that I was selling into, co-founder did not come from this space.
And we're also selling to folks that are very, very attentive to really nuanced messaging, and we could not have done it without actually putting in the time to attend these events and hear how people talk about their problems.
Aditya: No, totally. I think like you really need to immerse yourself in the voice of the customer. If you want to capture those tiny little nuances of positioning and messaging and words and phrases. So totally get that. So Mariel, you told us one growth hack that worked. Now I think I want to ask you, what's the most ridiculous thing you've done in the name of growth, that failed?
Mariel: I don't know if it's ridiculous. I mean it is ridiculous because it hasn't worked and any time you do things that don't work, it kind of feels ridiculous. I think, honestly pursuing people that clearly weren't ready to buy, like not knowing when to back off. It's [00:12:00] honestly something I'm still trying to teach myself as I'm, you know, a go-getter and I, I really genuinely believe in this product and I hate giving up.
And I had to kind of reframe it to myself as like, you know, getting a "no" is such a helpful message because there are thousands of other people that I should be approaching to get the "yes" from. So I'd say that the thing that has failed spectacularly has been being too persistent and, you know, not saying you know what, I got to move off.
Like I got to go onto another cohort.
Aditya: Makes sense. Actually on that, maybe I'll have a quick follow up question, Mariel, like, so when you are looking at like connecting with a specific person, how much, how many touch points do you think are too many? Because, you know, I have now seen people set up like 15 step sequences where you know you're going to hit somebody 15 times, which I think it honestly should be criminal.
I do not recommend it. But then there's also the other extreme where you maybe hit a person like two times and just abandon it, which [00:13:00] I think is too early. So I think there's some sweet spot, but we would love to know like how that is in your space and what do you think about that?
Mariel: First, I'm going to say I'm not an expert in this. I'm still learning myself. My hunch would be that there are a couple of variables that are really important. Number one, do you have any kind of preexisting relationship with this person? And you know, I think that in some ways that gives you a little bit more license to keep asking. But in other ways, it also means that at times you just want to back off because maybe it's just not a good time for that person, but because you have a preexisting relationship, a couple months down the road might be a better time.
I think the second variable is what are you asking for? Is this a light lift? You know or are you asking for something that's like, quite big? Because I think if you're asking for something that's quite big and you're not willing to change what it is that you're asking for like eventually, like after three or four times of outreach, like I don't think someone's going to say "yes" to the live demo.
Mariel: Might they say, okay, it's like, I'm fine with you emailing me every, you know, month or so, like adding me to your [00:14:00] mailing list, maybe.
Aditya: Yeah, I agree with you. Totally. I think, yeah, if someone has not replied for the first eight emails you send, it's, you know, get the hint. Cool. So Mariel, let's switch gears for a second. We have a lot of listeners who are you know, thinking about joining Y Combinator or planning to apply or interviewing.
So would love to know, for Spokn, how did Y Combinator change your growth trajectory and what was the one most important thing you learned.
Mariel: So, I mean, YC for us, it completely transformed our company. We had, again, like, we were living in Egypt at the time. Having a really hard time fundraising in the region. And frankly just the clarity that comes from applying to YC. And we applied multiple times.
I think we got in on our third time. It may have been our fourth, but every time we were sitting down to do the YC application, it was a real like, come to Jesus moment. Right. The one of the brilliant things about the YC application is they've made it very hard to hide, [00:15:00] and it's a really great moment to take with you and your co-founders and going like, let's get real with each other.
So yeah, I mean, just in terms of growth, the structure that it adds was very, very helpful. Also, the leverage that it created, we sold to a lot of YC companies during the batch and YC founders get other YC founders. Like they worked with us, you know, and we were able to close really quickly because we could say,
"Hey, listen, like we're already talking to investors right now. We'd love to be able to tell them that, you know, we're working with you." And they get it, and that's great. So I think also just the leverage it gives you when you're raising, especially in an environment like this, very, very helpful. In terms of the most helpful thing during YC, I actually can't tell you exactly what it is, but I will say they've got a lot of really great resources that you can go back to in the aftermath.
Mariel: As we've kind of re-examined parts of how we do business, I've found myself going back to those resources in the same way that I did during the batch, going like, I need a refresh like on cold outbound.
Let me go and see what Bookface says about that. So I found that to [00:16:00] be really, really helpful.
Aditya: Yeah, absolutely. And, I think PG talked about this in a Twitter post somewhere so we can, we can discuss it, but there's a lot of like YC founder only resources that a lot of people who are not in yet don't know about. So there's like bookface, which is a private forum for YC founders. There's a knowledge base on there which has like some of the best guides you'll read on anything related to growth, hiring, fundraising, et cetera.
I mean, there's millions of dollars worth of software deals, et cetera. So it's, I think the ongoing value add is also very spectacular.
Mariel: I will add one more thing. This is very different depending on the background that you bring coming into YC. For both my co-founder and I, the brand was really important. Because we didn't have brands that would typically have been associated with, you know, startup success in the US.
And so having that was both important in terms of the message it gave to other people, and also it helped increase our confidence.
Aditya: No, absolutely. I mean, even for us, I think the YC brand is, it's like they've built it up into you know, such a [00:17:00] captain of the industry sort of thing. You know, it's really the gold standard for anything related to startups. Cool. So Mariel, now I think this is one of my favorite parts, favorite segments of this podcast.
So we're going to ask you first for what is your favorite digital tool or resource, your go-to thing when it comes to growth.
Mariel: Gosh, a little hard to answer. I mean, I've been just getting the sort of pieces together. We've sort of changed our go to market recently. And so I've been working more and more on cold outbound strategy and I've been very impressed with the types of tools that I think a lot of your users would be familiar with, Apollo has been great.
We've just started working with Rift and had a good experience with them, and so those are two tools I'd recommend.
Aditya: Got it. Apollo and Rift. Yeah. One is, one is the standard everybody uses, and I think Rift is up and coming generative tool that actually I'm hearing a lot of companies talk about. So, love that. And Mariel, when it comes to growth resources, like what's your favorite podcast or book?
Mariel: [00:18:00] Founding sales is phenomenal. I think, I hope they've made an audio version of it. I remember like having to go through the whole thing. Clearly I'm an audio fan having to go through the whole thing in text right before the batch trying to cram it all in and being like, why won't they make an audio version of this book?
But it is a phenomenal, phenomenal book. I mean, it literally brings you from A to Z I'd never sold before, really. And I felt like I walked away with a much better sense of exactly went into that and some of the sort of pitfalls and traps to avoid. But I'm also a huge fan of Lenny's. Right. Lenny's newsletter and the podcast.
Aditya: Yeah, yeah, for sure. Yeah, love both of those. Like Lenny's Slack community is, it's a massive resource. It's one of the communities, I’m pretty, I mean, I'll check it pretty actively. Cool. So Mariel maybe one, maybe two last questions from my side. So first one is if you could go back in time to when you were first starting Spokn, what is the one piece of advice you would give yourself about getting customers?
Mariel: I want to answer this carefully. [00:19:00] It's a good question. Don't take it personally. All of us have been in positions where sometimes it feels like a better time to buy and it's other times it's not a good time to buy and sometimes it has no reflection on the value that we perceive a product to bring. It's just there are other things going on, and so I think don't take it personally is a really helpful piece of advice.
Aditya: It's so powerful. So powerful. I mean, I think most of a startup is just facing rejection on a day in, day out basis.
I think most of life is, don't take it personally. Cool. Mariel, so our last question for the day, let's end it on a fun note,
what's the strangest piece of customer feedback or complaint that you've received, and were you able to use it to drive growth somehow?
Mariel: Okay. I've gotten some interesting complaints. None that I have used to drive growth. Actually, no, some, sometimes people complain. I will then follow up with them, like after we've resolved their issue and be like, would you mind hopping on the phone with me? Like, I just want to hear the voice of [00:20:00] the end user and get like other things you don't like about this product or other ideas that you have.
So to the extent that that can inform your product and just make you a better founder, that's helpful. I once had someone, I don't know how,
like get our contact information for our help desk asking questions and it seemed like really odd. No one's ever asked this stuff before and I couldn't figure it out.
And she was experiencing issues on a different platform on like a different app, not our company. So I don't know how she got our help email and I'm going back and forth like, what has she been seeing? And I'm like, could you share a screenshot? Would you mind? Like, is it possible for you to do a screen recording so I can follow?
And then afterwards, she shared a screenshot with me and I was like, this is not our interface, this is a different app.
Aditya: Love that. Love that. Yeah. It's almost like, you know, somebody asking for PowerPoint support with Google Slide engineers. Cool. Cool. Awesome. So Mariel, that was our time. Thank you so much for doing this episode and I really appreciate it.
Mariel: Thank you so much for having me.