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October 2021

Building a Growth Engine From Day 1: Advice from Early Marketing Leaders at Headspace and Zillow

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For early-stage companies, there's nothing more important than nailing your go-to-market strategy. In this new series, we’re sharing hard-won wisdom from Canvas Go-to-Market Council members. First up: Early-Stage Growth Strategies.

At Canvas, we launched the GTM Council to help our companies stay ahead of the growth curve by learning from the smartest operators around. The paid acquisition landscape has shifted dramatically in recent years. There are fewer players when it comes to advertising networks, forcing companies to compete more than ever for user attention—which drives up costs. A decade ago, only 17% of global ad spend went to the top five ad sellers (Google; Viacom and CBS; News Corp. and Fox; Comcast, and Disney). Today, the ad networks are much more crowded, with 46% of global ad spending taking place on the top five networks (Google, Facebook, Amazon, Alibaba and ByteDance). 

They’re also more expensive, evidenced by growing dialogue about rising CPMs on Facebook. Not only are ad platforms more crowded, but targeting has become harder to get right. This past year alone, Google decided to phase out third-party cookies and Apple limited advertisers’ access to device identifiers on their new iOS update. And as brands replenish their advertising budgets post-COVID, they are flooding the programmatic auction markets, increasing competition and costs even further.


We’d be hard-pressed to find two more qualified people than Declan Schweitzer and Ash Blackmon to talk about how to navigate these challenges and come out the other side, building and scaling a marketing organization for efficient growth. 

Declan Schweitzer was one of only 30 people at Headspace when he joined in 2015, and after jumping in to take on just about anything (conducting market research, uploading content to the CMS), he ultimately helped grow the company’s subscriber base to over 1 million. From then on, growth was in Declan’s bones; he joined Bird as its first digital growth marketer and today serves as VP of Growth at Albert. 

As the 5th marketing hire at Zillow, Ash Blackmon built out the company’s growth strategy and accompanying 35 person team, which scaled revenue from $30M to over $1.3B. She took her GTM expertise for launching and scaling cost-efficient user acquisition campaigns to Pathstream and is currently the CMO at Restream. 

Declan and Ash recently co-hosted a session for Canvas portfolio leaders on growth and channel strategy. Here’s some advice they shared based on common scenarios every early-stage marketer inevitably faces.


It’s your first day on the job, and there’s no obvious data to work with

“This is something that's probably intuitive when I say it, but I definitely had to learn over time. Start testing things that you really, truly believe in. It can be tempting when you’re trying to be thorough to test a broad range of things. Instead, start with the premise that you need to have high conviction in what you’re testing. You’ll end up filtering out a good number of those things… Of course, the best reason to test something is actual hard quantitative data, but that's not always at hand. Maybe you have information from your customer experience team about a feature that isn’t working. Or maybe you see your competitors scaling up a certain channel and that gives you conviction that something is worth testing. Use that as a filter to start.” – Schweitzer

You have no real tech stack to speak of

Declan and Ash shared their go-to tools for a growth marketing tech stack.

You're unclear on who your customers are

“In the early days of growing a company and building up a product, don’t overlook the importance of truly understanding the motivations and emotions behind your user. It’s not just understanding WHO they are, but WHAT they do and WHY they do it. The “why”  is so important… If you don’t understand what’s behind the psychology of your user, it makes it hard to pull them in and build that affinity. It's so important to think about what they are going through and how they feel—and then. . . how your brand solves that for them.” – Blackmon

“ At Headspace, when we surveyed prospective users who hadn't really thought about meditation or downloaded our app yet, most of them said things like, “hey, I think meditation is watching Netflix and zoning out,” or “listening to ambient music.” This was so far afield of how we at Headspace had talked about meditation sessions. It radically changed the way we onboarded folks, to give them a sense of what they were getting into from the get-go in our ads. When you talk to users, you'll ALWAYS find things that are super valuable nuggets.”  – Schweitzer

Every. Single. Stage of the marketing funnel feels equally important

“The way that I have prioritized this in the past is by asking, ‘what’s our comfort level with control?’ At the bottom of the funnel, you have channels that can be very tightly controlled, like search engine marketing, with keywords, and bidding and CPCs. And at the top of the funnel, there is less control with channels such as radio, print, and TV. You have to think about where your users are, what their decision points are, and then also what your comfort level is in measurement. One  way to get to the right mix in the funnel is thinking through your tolerance for tight control versus less... and then how much you're willing to experiment and learn from the results.” – Blackmon

All of your channels have stopped working and CPMs are climbing up, up, up

With CPMs rising, I’ve found it valuable to look at some of the channels that do not have ballooning CPMs. Two of those are direct mail and affiliate marketing... This allows you to insulate yourself against infinitely rising costs, given the market.” – Schweitzer


The Canvas Go-to-Market Council is a select group of marketing leaders sharing their hard-won expertise at early stage companies with the Canvas community. Learn more on the GTM council page and follow Canvas on LinkedIn to stay in the loop on future insights.

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