Tye DeGrange, Founder and CEO of Round Barn Labs on Growth Marketing as an Agency

Founder & CEO of Round Barn Labs

Tye DeGrange is the founder and CEO of Round Barn Labs, a growth marketing consultancy based in San Francisco focused on providing “growth as a service” for startups seeking to generate traction.

Many marketers get their start in messaging, branding, and the qualitative components of delivering a value proposition to the right audience. However, Tye began his career working with direct response which forced him into thinking about the direct ROI of the ads that he was running.

Prior to starting Round Barn Labs, Tye ran acquisition for a number of high-growth startups in San Francisco. He also led motors affiliate marketing for eBay in 2010 and 2011.

Here are some of the themes covered in this episode:

Go Beyond the Data and Listen to Your Customers

With the correct implementation and proper testing of your data sources, granular data, analytics, and quantitative information provides tremendous insight to inform your hypothesis as a marketer and make science-based decisions.

However, the qualitative elements of customer feedback are still essential to creating a product and value proposition that resonates with their needs.

I think it’s extremely powerful in my opinion when those operators that are running the company and those founders that can have a passion for what they’re doing can also be really open to listening to the customer.

More importantly, listening to qualitative information about how your customers engage with the product can help you become a more flexible marketer when necessary.

Be a Flexible Marketer

Just because one channel is driving the majority of your revenue and other KPIs doesn’t mean that it’s guaranteed to perform that way in the future. As platforms and technology change, marketers must be willing to shift gears when necessary.

I think it’s hard for people to sometimes let go of certain held beliefs or assumptions. It’s fun when we collaborate with teams that are able to have a certain set of hypotheses and be willing and able to adjust and move their core beliefs.

It’s essential to be flexible and open to change, especially when the data and qualitative information available indicates the need for a pivot within your product and personas

Marketing is Always Changing

New marketing technologies, channels, and platforms are developing at an increasingly faster rate.

In some ways we’ve kind of reached the peak in PC, we’ve reached perhaps peak cellphone in terms of the features and the things that are coming out. But I think those platforms still, especially mobile, have a lot of room. The eyeballs and attention are there for mobile but the rates and the ad dollars have not yet fully flowed there yet.

Even though some platforms may appear saturated, a closer look at different pieces of data illustrates that the most significant impacts of a specific channel might be yet to come.


Note: This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.

Ander: Tye, it’s a pleasure to finally meet you. So happy to be here. Thanks again for coming on the show. How’s it going?

Tye: Doing great. So good to chat with you today.

Ander: Tye, you’ve got a really vast variety of experience and yes, Round Barn Labs is a consultancy, so I know you’re working with a number of different types of clients right now. You’ve been with eBay, you’ve been with a number of other companies, so even though in the introduction to this podcast I told our audience a little bit about who you are, what you do, where you came from let’s hear that in your own words – what I like to call the thirty second nutshell of your professional journey.

Tye: Yep. That’s a great question. I’d say it started in real direct response offline actually over twelve years ago. I really got a lot of experience doing DR with a company that was really innovative in software in a place where you wouldn’t expect it, in a very offline capacity. So even before online, I think I looked at things from a very DR, cost-per-call, cost-per-click, cost-per-purchase perspective as opposed to a very branding and imagery way.

But from there I was able to get into a start-up by the name of AdBrite, which some people are aware of. I got exposed to folks that went onto companies like ClearSlide, early folks at AppNexus, and others. I was really lucky to be around some very smart, capable startup minds at what I would call kind of that web 2.0 world, after the dot-com bust.

Ander: Right. Of course.

Tye: Phil Kaplan was very big, had a big following, and made quite a name for himself with his book. He also started AdBrite, which was essentially one of the first display ad networks and competed with DoubleClick, ValueClick, etc.

Being into early display and display marketing, helping clients and helping big advertisers navigate that world was a fantastic experience. From there, I got really pulled into the affiliate space which some people refer to it as the red-headed step-child of digital marketing.

It’s not always the most interesting or sexy, but often times it makes up a really big percentage of a large company, or even medium-sized company’s digital spend. And it can have very high return on ad spend, if it’s managed properly.

I was able to grow the StubHub program significantly while I was at Commission Junction, which is now Conversant. From there I was able to kind of get the attention of eBay and they brought me into their Internet Marketing team. And that really changed things I think for me, being able to see how eBay thinks about problems, how a company of that size and scope looks at things. And, getting access to the folks on the internet marketing team at eBay was pretty significant for me and my career and my development. I was able to work with folks that went onto Airbnb, Facebook, and other various companies now, as you can expect. I also got exposed to a lot of other channels. Affiliate is in its own way kind of this microcosm of various channels.

An affiliate can essentially drive traffic for a brand like Nike in a variety of ways so long that it’s abiding by the structures of that program. So in that space, you get exposed to a lot of other marketing channels and tactics. I’ve actually heard from a lot of marketing leaders out there that folks that come out of that affiliate space are thinking about things in a way that is beneficial to growth and is very growth-by-any-means-necessary in terms of its theory.

Ander: Yeah, it does. And yes, affiliate is very, very important. I mean, there’s a reason that we have someone managing our affiliate channel in Instapage full time.

Tye: That’s awesome. And yeah, I got exposed to just a lot of different areas of the space and expanded where and what you could do with marketing from a paid-search perspective, from a display perspective and from a SEO perspective. SEO became really interesting to me, content became more critical and interesting to me and at the time when content was starting to grow significantly. In the past five years, we’ve seen content kind of explode for brands like HubSpot. You’re seeing it all over the place. You’re living it with Instapage, right?

Ander: Oh, yeah! We are deep in content. Lots of stuff coming out every day.

Tye: Yeah, it’s awesome. For me, being able to take that experience and then go back into the startup world at a Kleiner Perkins backed startup where I was heading up acquisition was a sweet spot for me from a career perspective. I got to manage multiple channels and not necessarily be beholden to one particular tactic or one particular channel. But I really felt like you could own paid or own acquisition, but then also owning other areas and understanding other areas like SEO and content. And it was the early days of growth. I wasn’t saying the word ‘growth marketing.’
No one was talking about growth hackers in 2011 and 2012. It wasn’t quite that time yet. But I think that we were starting to do those things, starting to think about full funnel, and starting to think about not just acquisition, but retention as well. We were starting to think about on-board testing and A/B testing much more. So I think the innovative folks in the space were doing those things that were gonna become, you know, what Sean Ellis called ‘growth hacking’ and what Brian Balfour made famous with ‘coelevate’ and now ‘reforge.’ And so I think a lot of those things that we’re doing now as a company at Round Barn Labs, I think, had its naissance and, kind of, origins from those eBay days and those first start-up, kind of, running multiple channels.

Ander: And then you started this organization, Round Barn Labs.

Tye: Yeah, exactly. It’s kind of funny. It’s been three years now and it’s wild that it’s been that long. It seems to have gone by quite fast. Certainly rewarding to be able to say I kind of want to create our own little culture and our own little team with how we want to operate. That was one of the big motivations.

I’ve been so fortunate to work with so many great people over the years, you know 12+ years in digital marketing and you come across so many amazing people with so many great strengths and so the thought was, how do you pull together teams of really great people that you generally enjoy working with? You spend a lot of time working with people and you spend a lot of time in your working life so why not, you know, make it as constructive and effective and fun as possible? Because it’s not something, you know… it’s a big part of your life. And to be able to bring over a lot of complimentary skill sets, you know? Obviously one team or one person’s gonna have their objectives or their, kind of, perspective on how to grow a business or how to be an effective marketing team, and I think, you know, being able to pull in a lot of different, you know… someone with more technical skills, someone with more analytical skills, someone with more content skills, someone with a really deep SEO expertise. You know, the concept of kind of like a super team became really attractive and the concept that I wanted to try to create with this, and in some ways I think we’ve been able to do that. It’s been really exciting.

Ander: Yeah, and from what I hear from Eric and Lauralynn and a number of the other people that I know who have worked with you personally, that’s sounds exactly like what you’re doing. You guys offer something interesting – growth as a service. What was the impetus for that? And on a similar note, what was the impetus for really wanting to start this consultancy as opposed to working with one organization full time, and instead work with a number of different clients?

Tye: Yeah, great question. In a lot of ways, this wave of VC funding was quite exciting and kind of almost wild for some people. In 2012, 2013, and in the early part of this year, things started to calm down a bit. But the reality is, it seems like there’s this large wave of investment coming into innovation and startups. While I think there is a lot of interest and excitement around going in-house, and helping someone full time, I think that being able to help essentially provide the picks and the shovels in the gold rush has worked for folks in the past and has worked for folks now.

I thought we should give this a try. Let’s help them with the right growth tools. Let’s give them the right level of advice. Let’s guide them through this challenging period. And let’s work with the right partners for us and guide them through these challenging times of getting to that A round, getting to that B round, acquiring their first thousand customers, thinking about content, or discussing what do they should not do.

What are some tactics and strategies, given our state, given their business, given their customer persona, what do we not want to focus on? It’s the same level of focus that Brian Balfour, Morgan Brown and other growth practitioners like that really emphasize and talk about. It’s something that we try to help not only do well ourselves, but also help our clients with and make sure that they’re focused on the right things and not distracted by some of the things that we can all be easily distracted by.

I’ve worked with a lot of great agency teams, and hired a lot of them, managed a lot of them, and saw how a lot of them worked in different channels. It was always interesting to find ones that were focused on one channel and departments focused on one channel. And, I found that where I could be holistic and agnostic to channel and tactic and think about what’s best for the business from a spend revenue perspective, from an operational perspective felt like a better outcome to me for clients, and for businesses and for people then having the teams focused on particular channels and tactics.

I think there’s always gonna be certain channels that live on and continue and are critical to businesses and that’s just the way that works and there’s agencies that build businesses around one particular channel, whether it’s paid social or paid search.

We try to take a stance with Round Barn Labs and I’ve built the business of saying we don’t want to rely on one particular tactic. We wanted to be very pro-advertiser, pro-brand, pro-client and say, ‘If you need a certain solution, we wanna help guide that solution.’ It was more like growth by any means necessary.

And that has its challenges in its own ways as we build this business, obviously. So when we say, ‘growth as a service,’ or we say ‘channel agnostic’ or ‘tracking tool agnostic,’ we try to be very open to what’s gonna be best for the business ‘cause every start-up especially, but every business is very different and very unique.

I think the one-size-fit-all, as much as that works to grow and automate, is not really effective for the internal CMO, VP, CEO, founder, early-stage Director of Marketing, or even mid-stage. I think they need some level of flexibility and to hear about what they really need as we are trying to guide and help them with that.

The other distinction of ‘growth as a service’ is something that, I think, Brian Balfour has done a great job of articulating. I don’t think we’re really fully reaching the growth as a service model yet. Truly what that entails is what a modern growth team is, which involves your engineering skills. Yes, we have the analytical skills but also need data science sometimes and true product resources as well. We delve into some of those worlds but I think we’re, like, building towards growth as a service, to be candid. I don’t know too many that can say we’re an outsource growth as a service team.

Maybe I’m wrong. But that’s an exciting opportunity. I think it’s something that’s interesting and something I’ve thought about doing more of. We do have really great partnerships and close partnerships with engineers we trust. We sit in a room full of phenomenal engineers which we love working with and we’ve worked on projects with before. But, to be candid, we’re not yet that true ‘growth as a service’ which is defined, by Brian as having an engineer, having a PM lead who’s leading the project, having an analytics person, and having a data science person, a product person, and maybe some content folks. We’re doing elements of that but we’re trying to decide if we build towards that or if that is something that teams want to have in-house and then maybe work with us to do paid acquisition or analytics or a combination of content and funnel analysis.

I don’t think we’ve been able to really pull in the engineers yet. We were at LAUNCH Conference and being the growth marketing enthusiast and passionate person I am, I got a chance to meet Chamath Palihapitiya. He started the growth team at Facebook and I shared with him what we were building. One of his biggest things was engineers.

He said, ‘Get yourself some engineers.’ So, I think to be truly growth in the definition that we know it now based on your experience at Tradecraft, Instapage and talking to folks like Zack at Hired, and our knowledge of the space, having that ability and that buy-in from executive to have ownership over engineering growth in the code base, to make changes that improve revenue traffic is something that, you know, we’re getting into but we haven’t really delved into engineering yet.

Ander: In other words, you guys have plenty of room to grow.

Tye: Yeah, there you go!

Ander: Yeah. On a separate note, I had this conversation just the other day with Tyson Quick, our CEO, about advertising and really what that means. And a lot of people, when they think about advertising, they immediately go to this spending money, getting ROI on your digital display dollars or your SEM campaigns, whatever it is. There’s this bigger part of it, though, which really comes down to me as breaking through the noise. It’s also about just the message that you’re putting out there and how you’re articulating what your product and what your company is about.

But moving into this consultancy role and helping a number of organizations what was, maybe, your general philosophy around advertising – maybe around paid ad acquisition – but around messaging and breaking through the noise before you started here, and how did that change? How has that changed in the past few years?

How has that philosophy changed about breaking through the noise, about getting your messaging out to your segments, out to your personas – whether it’s through paid or through other means?

Tye: That’s a good question. We love the concept of being able to bring creative concepts, whether it’s a brainstorm around brand or a tagline, or whether it’s digging with a client around the customer personas and challenging some of those assumptions, or just getting more data for the client around what are some other interesting insights around the customer personas they’re going after.

A lot of times without truly understanding the customer persona, without truly understanding who you’re trying to really speak to, I think rising above the noise becomes really tough. I think it’s easy to fall into that trap of saying something bland, saying something that’s not gonna get people’s attention, saying something that’s maybe on brand but not really going to get your message across or achieve your goal.

Ander: And on that note, I think that there are a lot of organizations that determine their personas, and are really happy with them. But when it becomes necessary to maybe make an adjustment or to pivot or something like that, it might be hard to let those initial personas go or to get more granular with these personas. Is that something you’ve observed in your time doing this?

Tye: Definitely. And, I believe that in psychology, I think it’s hard for people to sometimes let go of certain held beliefs or assumptions. It’s fun when we collaborate with teams that are able to have a certain set of hypotheses and be willing and able to adjust and move their core beliefs. It’s also great when they able to take in data and quickly evolve and adjust their perspective on who they should be going after and why as well as how that customer should be spoken to and what the brand parameters and brand guidelines are.

I think CEOs and Heads of Marketing, that have their core guidelines and how they work, need to also be willing to be intellectually honest and really push themselves for a level of that stringent testing to say, ‘Hey, we’re going to let some of the data guide us in this. And, the data’s not going to control our every move or how we want build, or maybe who we’ve found to be the core customer. But we’re gonna let it form and guide, and let it be a part of this conversation.

That perspective is extremely helpful. Obviously data is talked about constantly within the growth marketing world. Data is talked about in so many different ways in our space and digital marketing especially. But, I think it’s extremely powerful in my opinion when those operators that are running the company and those founders that can have a passion for what they’re doing can also be really open to listening to the customer and listening to data points that help.

That helps to answer your question about ‘rising above the noise.’ And as much as that’s not easy to do, I think it’s important. Be willing to take some risks and break some eggs. I think that’s another one that’s not easy for people to get through. They want it to be perfect sometimes and that can be the enemy of rising above the noise, as well.

Ander: I think a lot perfection leads people to have this resistance towards the level of personalization that is possible now when you’re targeting a specific audience, when you’ve developed these personas and frameworks that are really powerful for driving all of your growth, you can still get more specific with how you’re targeting your ads, with the content that’s in ads based upon how they are targeted, whether you are using AdWords, Facebook, or whatever it may be.

Do you find that companies right now are taking advantage of the degree to which personalization can really be used in terms of getting your message out there to break through that noise?

Tye: That’s a great question. I don’t think they are. I think that it’s getting better quickly but in our experience, that’s the fun art of what we do. We get to look under the hood and do little mini-audits of what the current marketing plan looks like.

Paid social is a great example of the level of detail around targeting and custom audience, lookalike audience, targeting by employer, targeting by age, leveraging other data points that the teams have and using that in a multi-touch way so every stage of the funnel is getting some level of personalization or a message that’s unique to that stage that they’re in, whether they came back or whether they didn’t come back or they haven’t signed up.

It’s a low percentage of companies and clients, I think, that either know that or do that, and often times it’s just that they don’t have the resources to get to it yet.

But they plan on it or they know there’s this vast world of personalization out there that they’re not touching on. I think in a lot of ways people look to us for that. They look to us to say, ‘Get under the hood in paid social and let’s get the numbers going up into the right with your help and building a system of testing and isolating variables.’ In a lot of ways, the challenge and the lack of personalization happening is a great opportunity for teams like us that like going in and doing it.

Ander: That’s actually a big part of our mission at Instapage, which is to continually lower the cost of customer acquisition and one of the lowest hanging fruits by which to do that is attacking this personalization in a meaningful way.

I’d like to take a step back to the beginning of your career and how that relates to what you’re doing now. Ultimately, advertising is still advertising. And ultimately, it is about getting that message out there and breaking through the noise like we’ve been discussing.

And even though the amount of data we have and the technical abilities that we have both became so much more powerful in the last few years, what principles – from when you started doing this with some of the first display ads networks – what principles are still very, very important today and perhaps sometimes forgotten about?

Tye: That’s a great one. Great question. It reminds me of kind of like the Ogilvy on Advertising and some of the 70s, 80s, and 90s eras

Ander: Even the Mad Men days.

Tye: Yeah! I think tone of the things at eBay that really emphasized, is the power of having ten powerful channels or ten very powerful messages in a company of that that size. Beanie Babies, collectable cars, stereos, iPhones, whatever the thing was – it’s easy to get lost at a company like that in terms of what are you selling.

But I think it’s best if you can have a unified message across all your touchpoints and that brand message is consistent. That’s something that we’ve actually done with, for example, some smaller projects that we’ve worked on in some B2B space where we’ve really tried to continually showcase the logo in a way that you’re constantly seeing that same image across multiple touchpoints – even in something that minor and that subtle and that simple.

As part of the eBay Internet Marketing team, this was a big takeaway for me, especially at a larger company with so many marketing initiatives and so many marketing activity. How do you keep driving home that same message across? When it’s done right, that message becomes so much more powerful as opposed to creating noise in your own message or convoluting the message to the customer. Let’s be clear about what we are across all things so that when someone sees you twice, three times, four times, or just once, they know the message you’re trying to get across. That’s a big one.

I also think the concept of on-boarding and getting folks from one stage of a process to another, that’s something that I think have become more fixable and improvable, from a CRO and A/B testing perspective. That’s another thing we’ve found which is great about products like Instapage. It allows for that more effectively. It allows us to do that more effectively.

I don’t think it’s a forgotten principle but getting someone through that process more seamlessly is surprisingly forgotten in cases. Yes, there’s pockets of folks that are pros at A/B testing. And yes, there’s pockets of CRO people who are phenomenal. But I’m still surprised at how often that isn’t thought through or thought about in terms of ‘How are we getting someone through this, what is the user’s experience through this product, and how do we make it easy and helpful and more seamless for them?’

Ander: So, in the context of everything that we’ve talked about, where do you think this is all going? Where do you think personalization, advertising, and breaking through the noise with a unique value proposition is this all headed in the future?

Tye: Yeah, it’s really interesting. I think that the concept of, modern growth teams is something that’s happened at Facebook, and it’s happened at LinkedIn. It’s happened at a lot of companies here in the Bay area and Silicon Valley. I think that’s especially true in some ways if the Andreesen thesis comes true that is software is eating the world.

In a lot of ways, you and I and other teams here in the Bay area know it… I think those are principles and ideas that are gonna spread and are gonna grow. And I think they’re gonna be more prevalent. And I think they’re gonna become more standardized.

I think more large firms, large consulting firms, large Fortune 500s, are looking at ways to acquire and adopt these ideas. Typical marketing teams are going to evolve and change and become more growth-like in their capacity. And, I think that will impact how we rise above the noise and how we look at doing marketing well and measuring performance.

I think it’s gonna be interesting to see where it heads. You’ve got a next wave of platforms, right? In some ways we’ve kind of reached the peak in PC, we’ve reached perhaps peak cellphone in terms of the features and the things that are coming out. But I think those platforms still, especially mobile, have a lot of room. The eyeballs and attention are there for mobile but the rates and the ad dollars have not yet fully flowed there yet.

So, as much as mobile is been there done that for a lot of people, especially, in gaming and more mature mobile platforms like that, I think there’s still more to be done on mobile from a doing it right, catching up, getting the rest of the world’s mobile IQ up.

The top companies in the world have figured it out but I think there’s a lot more to be done. Think of all the consumer brands in the United States that haven’t yet optimized for mobile. It’s surprising how many are not doing that.

And, I think that there’s always new platforms. Think about Snapchat VR and what they’re doing with their little sunglasses. The VR opportunity is crazy and massive. So there’s all these emerging platforms that can then be used as the next wave.

I think Andrew Chen does a great job of describing this. If you’re the first at that new platform, you are going to benefit from such a phenomenal awareness. The first CTRs on banner ads were through the roof, right?

Now they’re brutal.

Ander: Yeah, yeah.

Tye: So, you know, being there early can help as well.

Ander: Awesome. Tye, before we wrap up, what’s the best way that people can check you guys out, people can follow you, as an individual, or as Round Barn?

Tye: Great question. We would love for you to check out our website at roundbarnlabs.com. Give us any feedback you have or drop us a note. We’re looking at adding a lot more to that obviously over time, products being one of them. And then for me, I actually do really enjoy consuming data and news and information and learning on Twitter. I’m on it a fair amount @tdegrange on Twitter, and also @RoundBarnLabs. I’m really enjoy connecting with folks there, learning, and following people, so it’s another way to follow us as well. Or, come on by our office. Come check out Thoughtbot at 2nd Mission and come check out Round Barn Labs down in SoMa. We’d love to have you here.

Ander: Right in the heart of San Francisco.

Tye: Yeah! Come visit us and we can introduce you to the team and chat about growth and then learn about what you’re doing.

Ander: Awesome. Tye, it’s been a pleasure coming to your office, been a pleasure meeting you, and I’m sure we’ll talk soon.

Tye: Thank you so much, Ander. I really appreciate it. Really enjoyed talking with you today.

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