The Hustle You Need to Grow Startups, As Told By Those Who Have Done It

The web redesign was working great for Yummly—at first.

The Palo Alto, Calif-based recipe recommendation app had embarked on a strategy to drive more conversions through its home page. This largely involved removing a lot of elements that might otherwise clutter things up. In the end, though, the company may have removed a little too much.

“It did well, but after a year we started looking at, ‘Why don’t people understand the product?’” recalled Ethan Smith, chief growth officer at Yummly during a session at the Canadian Innovation Exchange (CIX) in Toronto on Tuesday. “We got to the outcome we wanted, but it ultimately wasn’t the right one.”

For Yummly, and for other startups meeting with investors at CIX, Smith’s story reflects an ongoing challenge for early-stage firms: how to experiment with ways to acquire and retain users that deliver long-term, scalable results.

At San Francisco-based Udemy, which provides an e-learning marketplace, the first growth strategy involved scraping e-mail lists and forming alliances with daily deal firms that had consumers demonstrating an intent to purchase an online course.

According to Archie Abrams, Udemy’s VP of product growth and new markets, this worked well but needed to be followed up with paid social campaigns and many other tactics. That does’t mean trying to juggle every growth hack at once, however.

“The mental shift to enforce on the team is yes, there are all these great things, but we are going to pick one thing and be hyper-focused and shut everything else out,” he said, suggesting startups review such tactics on at least a quarterly basis. “The metric is, if it’s not within a five, 10, 15 percent optimization range, it’s not going to move.”

Kai Fortney, senior director, marketing programs at in San Francisco agreed, but added his own twist: the “test and pass” approach.

“If you find something you test and it works—pass it on to a channel manager and give them a six month or one-year target,” he suggested. “They’re better at than you. They know what they’re doing.”

At, it’s not simply about testing new ideas but focusing on medium or long-term strategies, such as refining its SEO and building an internal database of possible leads.

“These are things that take engineering resources, that require executive buy-in,” he said. “These are long-term things you do in collaboration with your sales and product team.”

After hitting critical mass, startups should also take a closer look at areas like onboarding, Smith said. Yummly, for instance, is working on developing better FAQs that speed up the process of training users and helping them get the most of key features.

Abrams, meanwhile, said Udemy currently hustling beyond Canada and the United States and looking to expand internationally. It’s also trying to grow engagement on its platform by looking at the relationship between its two customer sets: instructors and students.

“It’s about how to create a better connection—how to inform an instructor to create the right content and incentive them, then create quality content based on information from demand side,” he said. “When we get that flowing, the whole business moves.”

CIX continues with its public investor day on Wednesday.

Shane Schick tells stories that help people create value with information technology.

Wattpad Named Innovator of the Year by CIX