The Ecommerce Marketing Expert Tells All: How to Think Like an Entrepreneur

growth marketing pro - Hailey Friedman and Mark Spera
I'm a marketing expert, a chef-in-training and a San Francisco resident. Also, I started this blog, Growth Marketing Pro and built it into a 6-figure passive income business in 18 months.

A Lesson in Ecommerce Marketing Entrepreneurship

On Tuesday August 31st, our very own Mark Spera, cofounder of Growth Marketing Pro was a guest speaker at a BAMF fireside chat in San Francisco. The event was held at Trumaker, a custom-fit mens clothing company, who was also our sponsor for the evening.
We had over 100 people in attendance to hear about Mark’s experience as an ecommerce marketing expert — launching, growing and selling his own ecommerce clothing company, BeGood. Mark is currently the Director of Product Marketing at RealtyShares and the cofounder of Growth Marketing Pro (the blog you’re reading right now!).
We had wine, beer, appetizers, 360 photos and some badass speakers/music from Recreation Sound System. Our friends at YouCanEvent helped a ton to make planning this event a breeze.
growth marketing pro
First, let me give you a little background. 
Mark hired me at RealtyShares. But before I arrived, Mark was the 10th employee and first and only marketer. Today we’re at 120 employees with 8 people on the marketing team. Prior to RealtyShares, Mark spent over 4 years cofounding and building BeGood. 
Mark taught me a ton about marketing. He’s done a lot of awesome things, but at the fireside chat, we focus on the launch and sale of his ecommerce store, BeGood. Mark would be the first to tell you that BeGood was not a venture-backed success, but in the struggle is where we find the juiciest stories and entrepreneurial tips.
Here’s what we walked away with:
The Know: You can do anything you want do and learn anything you want to learn.
The Feel: Empowered.

The Do: Go test something. Go implement a learning.

The highlights (abbreviated): 

Hailey: Tell us more about how you got interested in marketing?

Mark: I started a company and when you start an ecommerce company you have a product and you have to grow it → marketing.

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Hailey: So you were a founder first. How did you get the idea to start your own company?

Mark: I studied finance, which is the only reason why I could wrap my head about the financials of starting a business. I was working at the Gap, so clothing was what I understood. I was inspired to incorporate a social mission into my company after reading a book written by the founder of Patagonia Let My People Go Surfing.” That’s what led to the mission of eco-friendly clothing.

Hailey: You had knowledge about finance and clothing, you had an idea that you could start a clothing store. What was the first thing you did to get started?

Mark: I was still working at Gap, while figuring out how the finances and business plans would work. I started by creating a website and opening a store. As soon as we got the lease on the store we got to work building it with our bare hands. Physically cutting down walls, went to flea markets, put the floor in ourselves, painted the thing for 2 weeks. Simultaneously we made a WordPress site where we would capture emails. We hired a guy named Dustin who wrote our landing pages in code, created an email capture thing that fired a Mailchimp, that made an email go to the person. We built a referral program like Dropbox’s – you had to refer a friend- and if they referred 50 friends, they’d get a t-shirt or free shipping for life. And it worked. We got 15,000 emails that way. Using our own personal social media and stupid Facebook promotions, that were not very well targeted. Mainly organic and a little paid.

ecommerce marketing expert event

Hailey: How many people are on your team at that point?

Mark: Just me and my cofounder Dean and a store manager?
Hailey: What made you want to have a store?
Mark: Because of Gap, stores were what I knew. I also knew financials and I was watching other brands with stores at the time like Bonobos, and they were doing pretty well. A lot of other ecommerce companies were starting to do it- stores give you cash flow at the start of a business. Old Navy was the fastest clothing brand to $1 billion — and they did it with stores.
Hailey: But building a store sounds expensive, no?
Mark: To build the store, hire the employees, buy the initial inventory and a little budget for marketing & engineering. We each put in $50k . A store is free marketing, you pay the lease on your store and the foot traffic on the street is your marketing spend.
Hailey: Is that better marketing spend then digital spend?
Mark: Well, it was 5 years ago. Up until the last years of running the BeGood store, it was worth it, but in my opinion stores are used as showrooms. The only reason to have stores now is for showrooms. If you’re planning to be an ecommerce first company you should start with no stores.
ecommerce marketing expert event
Hailey: What about a no store model like Glossier?
Mark: A no-store model is great for companies where fit is not a problem. Clothing and food and furniture are the only ones who and need to have a store. Makeup and jewelry are great for online. If I ever started an ecommerce again it would be some commodity product like Dollar Shave Club.
Hailey: Mark, I know you’re always talking about the concept of the “Lean Startup”
Mark: Yes- starting with an MVP (minimum viable product) is key. became so clear to me. Basically you have limited resources, limited time. limited money, in order to grow a company fast, MVPs have to work. You have to be able to test everything and test it fast or else you can waste a year of time on something that doesnt work at all.

Hailey: Can you give us an example of a time when you tested something first? There are a lot of people in the audience that probably have an idea — how should they test it.
Mark: When we started BeGood, we put up a landing to capture emails to see if there was any interest at all. It bought us time and allowed us to acquire customers while we put money into the store before the full-on website was created.
In order to build that email capture landing page at the time, we had to pay thousands to hire an engineer to build it for us. Now we luckily have tools like Instapage that make it cheap and easy to build email capture landing pages.
We were also constantly A/B testing. Different photos of different products. We literally went and made 3 different versions of every email and and when we Mailchimped people we’d send 10k to each.
ecommerce marketing expert event
Hailey: And this was only 5 years ago- this is why we love marketing tools. Instapage for landing pages, Mailchimp for emails, Optimizely for A/B testing. Its insane you had to build all that stuff manually back then. It’s crazy how much has changed since then and how little time thats gone by – and thats so exciting for the future of marketing. So no, Instapage, no Optimizely, no Ambassador what tools did you have as an ecommerce business that helped you?
Mark: Shopify
Hailey: How did you go about getting customers more consistently-
Mark: We got a lot from the store, capturing emails when someone made a purchase and then sending them through a Mailchimp nurture stream.

Hailey: How many is a lot from the store- how many customers a week?
Mark: At least 50 a week, theyre the most targeted because they’re your customers.
ecommerce marketing expert event
Hailey: How did you nurture those store leads?
Mark: We used email and Facebook retargeting (not that sophisticated) to convert them to online buyers and we could promote SF specific events and stuff. 27% open rates on those emails.

Hailey: How did you acquire customers aside from the store?
Mark: Organic, PR (the holy grail of online ecommerce), affiliate, SEM for the same keywords we were trying to rank for organically.
Hailey: Let’s talk about why you’re the king of organic. Tell us what the you did to make SEO work for you.
Mark: We hired a guy to do growth marketing for us. He was an SEO expert who worked in hotel industry his whole career (which at the time was so much about organic SEO). He was extremely diligent about setting up SEO best practices, I would take that with what I knew of clothing and implemented it.We went after long tailed keywords that included eco-friendly terms like “white organic cotton t-shirts”, and we made sure to include those keywords in the URL of the page, the description of the item, deep linking from page to page within the site. We ended up with a high domain rank for every one of those terms.
 ecommerce marketing expert event
Hailey: How many people actually search for those terms?
Mark: Organic clothing, eco friendly clothing etc. had about 2,000 searches per month. And then there were another 30 terms that had about 300 searches per month.Searches were big but not huge. We hit a certain point where the searches reached a ceiling, and people just werent searching anymore than they were already searching for eco friendly clothing terms.
Hailey: So SEO was the big unlock in terms of growth, but there was a limit to how far you could scale that.
Mark: Knowing what I know now about SEM, I would have just started selling a whole lot more products. We would have just started ranking for other organic things- eco-friendly lotion, organic bath towels. If we had been able to raise our last round of funding- that’s what we would have done. But in order to do that you need too much money.
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Hailey: Why do you think it was so hard to raise money?
Mark: Ecommerce was starting to look really vulnerable, Everlane and Bonobos were looking chill. Then Bonobos started to look less chill when they had to raise a ton of money to do anything, and Nasty Gal was going under. The temperature of the industry has a lot to do with fundraising so be careful with timing. I didn’t know what I didn’t know. If I were to start again, Id recognize that SEO is a very effective strategy and I’d double down on that. I’d use a tool like SEMrush to pull all the search terms around what I wanted to build.The same organic terms probably had plenty of SEM opportunity.

Hailey: It sounds like SEO was the biggest driver of traffic for your ecommerce site. What is SEO how does this thing work, can you teach us your ways?
Mark: [Talking about “GO,” the oldest game in the world, similar but more complicated than chess]: it’s the most played game of all time it’s like checkers on steroids. Geniuses play it. The smartest people in the world. Computers started beating chess masters. But now we’re actually losing to machines at the hardest game in the world that no one ever thought they could beat a human at. Google company, Deep Mind now beating a human at this game GO. The computer made a move that no one understood. The machine has now learned something that humans don’t even understand.
 ecommerce marketing expert event
Hailey: What the hell does this have to do with SEO?
Mark: If you think that you can outsmart Google, then you’re insane. The things they build have so much AI they can beat humans. Their search algorithm is as smart as it gets, you can’t black hat anything and outsmart google. But what you can do is brown nose google- and I’m the best brown noser. 
Hailey: You’re the self proclaimed best brown noser.
Mark: I was an obnoxious kid in high school but I would get away with more of it than I should have because I was on very good terms with all the teachers. Brown nosing comes naturally.
Hailey: Okay, so how the hell do we brown nose google
Mark: Domain names & URL structure. While seems so simple, URLs are still so important, they should have your target keywords in it. URLs are your “name.” If you want to rank for “growth marketing,” you’re much better off calling yourself than
Also- Prioritizing. You can rank for a billion different things but deciding which ones you want to rank on. Figure out what your goal is before you figure out what the keyword is.

Hailey: What about PR? How did PR come into play for BeGood?
Mark: I believe in PR so much that I want to spend as much marketing budget on it as possible. People underrate PR because it’s not as trackable. But its the best channel there is if you do it right, it’s the end all be all — free, infinite website traffic. Bill Gurley’s a huge fan of PR. 
Hailey: What does it look like to do it right?
Mark: Have to tell a story that people care about. Storytelling is everything. And nail your industry publications first. Get in the industry rags — that’s where the NYTimes editor will search when he/she is writing a story about your industry.
 ecommerce marketing expert event
Hailey: What advice do you have for us marketers and founders in the room?
Mark: The people that you hire and nurture end up being the best asset for what you’re building. Put people first, the people you hire will end up being the next Hailey. At BeGood it was our store manager. When you hold people accountable, it empowers them to take more initiative.
[Mark admitted he has a long way to go to becoming a really great manager and leader]

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