Our special guest on this week’s episode of Performance Delivered is Kenneth Burke, the VP of Marketing at Text Request, a software company that helps businesses increase profits through powerful text messaging software. He’s received awards for his work in psychological research and sales, and has helped dozens of businesses, from pre-launch startups to billion-dollar companies, achieve their goals.

Kenneth says, “At the end of the day, the North Star should be what’s bringing you the most new sales opportunities. If you’re in marketing in particular, a lot of times you can’t control the sales conversations, but you can control who you’re targeting, how you’re bringing them in, and where you’re choosing to spend your time and effort.”

We chat about bootstrapping a start-up, as well as:

  • Honing in on marketing tactics that actually work
  • Steps to finding your first customer
  • Optimizing the evaluation of KPIs
  • The best tools for a young company
  • The differences in approach between start-ups and venture-backed companies
  • And more

Mentioned in this episode:



Voiceover: This is Performance Delivered, Insider Secrets for Digital Marketing Success with Steffen Horst and Dave Antil.

Steffen Horst: Welcome to the Performance Delivered Insider Secrets for Digital Marketing Success podcast. Where we talk with marketing and agency executives and learn how they build successful businesses and their personal brand. I’m your host, Steffen Horst. Today we’re going to talk about how to make your first million without spending much on marketing. Here to speak with me about the topic is Kenneth Burke, who is the VP of Marketing at Text Request. A software company that helps businesses increase profits through a powerful text messaging software. Kenneth has received awards for his work in psychological research and sales and has helped dozens of businesses from pre launch startups to billion dollar companies achieve their goals. Kenneth, Welcome to Performance Delivered.

Kenneth Burke: Yes, Steffen, thanks for having me.

Steffen: Well, Kenneth, before we get started talking about today’s topic, tell listeners a little bit more about yourself. How did you end up at Text Request and how did you start in marketing?

Kenneth: Yeah, so it’s a it’s a bit serendipitous. I actually went to college for music, and ended or really found my niche in psychology, but then even got out. And I said, You know, I don’t want to spend another five years in school to do something with a psych degree. So I went into financial planning have a family full of CPAs, it made sense for me, like I started earning a paycheck. And I kind of burned out, I really liked helping people create strategies. But but burned out on some of the other pieces of that role. 

And a friend of mine who I’d gone to college with was close with, he had been for months telling me about this company, he was helping to start and called Text Request. And whenever I was looking for a transition, and my wife and I were looking to move back to Chattanooga, where it was being started, and I said, that sounds really good. Let me let me do that. And that’s it started there. And it’s, you know, it was a startup from scratch it in. So there was there was no one else to take on, or to be the marketing lead. So there’s a lot of learning on the fly and, you know, things of that nature. But that’s how I got both into marketing and into Text Request.

Steffen: Well, that’s quite a switch from being an accountant to marketing. I actually have the same, the same, the same journey, I used to be in Germany, and accountant and tax assistant before I ventured off into digital marketing. But when you when you started at Text Request, and had to take care of marketing, did you start there with knowledge already in hand? Or did you have to go out and learn on the fly?

Kenneth: Mostly it was learning on the fly. I mean, I was back to middle and high school, I was interested in marketing more from a science of persuasion perspective, you know, how can you position something in such a way are marketed or advertise it? So that people say, Yes, I want that. And at the time, you know, from that, you know, you do some extra reading, you talk to people about it, it’s in the conversation. So there was nothing formal, but it was something I’d spent some time on. And then coming out of college too. And getting into Text Request. 

I had also done some some freelance writing, and I wouldn’t say it was marketing so much, but you know, companies or brands would want some blog content on X, Y & Z topics. So I’d write four or 500 words. So there was some of that, but most of it, most of it was learning on the fly. And that’s really, that’s how we got into how I got became focused on the topic we’re talking about today is, you know, we were learning marketing, we didn’t have a budget to start with, to get our company out there to bring customers in to create demand and capture it. And so, you know, there’s a lot of figuring it out. And it was figuring out how to do all of this marketing for free basically.

Steffen: You know, obviously, when you bootstrap something, you got to find other ways to get noticed at the end of the day. So where did you start getting noticed and getting the first customer in getting the word about Text Request out?

Kenneth: Yeah. So it well, what we actually did, I don’t know that I would recommend, but we, well part of it I would. We started with friends and family for our first few customers to get our beta customers and then a first few paying, and it was it. There were just three co founders, two other people on the founding team, and then a few really early hires. So I was I was basically not technically the first but the one in a batch and the only one at that batch to stay on. But so there was let’s say there were eight of us. So you know, we all had had friends and family who were part of businesses so we would talk to them about it and get them going. But that word of mouth that you know, kind of using your network to get your first customers. And then we started cold calling. 

So I mean Text Request, it’s a text messaging software, right. And the idea in the beginning was, if I’m a, if I’m a customer, if I’m a consumer consumer, out in the world, so to speak, there are cases where I would much rather text a business than to have to call them or have to, you know, wait for a live chat on their website or something. And so we started as a tool, a customer service tool for hospitality, thinking restaurants and hotels, I’d much rather just, you know, book a reservation or ask for room service through text. And so that those were our first companies that we started cold calling. And so we cold call hotels all day and say, Hey, here’s something we can do, you know, for you and your guests. 

And then we started looking at other industries for the way where the same concept could be applied. And we actually turned it on its head a little bit started to or we looked at colleges, and we said, you know, colleges are having to communicate with teens and teens only text, they don’t even have email addresses. They’d never answered the phones, if you call them, you know, sleds cold, call colleges and get them to it to come to a demo that we did every day. And follow up with them from there. And I wouldn’t recommend that necessarily. I mean, it worked for us well enough, but I wouldn’t necessarily recommend it. But what did start to work? We tried everything. 

I mean, there’s a book called Traction by it’s two people, I think, Gabriel Weissenberg is one of them, I can, I can double check that for a source of whenever this is shared, but you know, they’ve got 19 or 20 tactics in there. We tried everything, you know, kind of throwing spaghetti at a wall to see what would stick and two things that really worked that were marketing specific that weren’t just, you know, ask your friends and family were one, believe it or not cold email. So we, you know, over time found our product market fit. And we said for us, it was home service. So home service companies like cleaning services, moving services, they needed to coordinate with customers to, to nail down scheduling appointments to actually follow up with leads, because they would have a lot of leads coming in. But then whenever they call them, no one answered, there’s a lot of reasons for that. But that’s what what happened. So they saw, you know, they could use Text Request to to improve that process. And so as we found product market fit, then we said, okay, we work well with this one audience. So let’s look for a type of company. 

So let’s search for all those types of companies in each city. And let’s start with you know, the ones around Chattanooga. So let’s go with Atlanta, Knoxville, Nashville, Huntsville. And let’s look for all of the cleaning services in that company. Okay, well, let’s just shoot them an email and say, Hey, here’s how we help someone else do you want to see a demo. And we would set up a demo and go from there. And that that one tactic, we found ways to improve it and optimize it every time but that one tactic really helped us shoot up. 

And then the other one was, this was more for for blogging and content creation, but was leveraging not quite partners, but other companies in the same ecosystem as us. So you know, if we were going for local, we would do something just like, like this podcast, we would interview another company in town and you know, find some way for us to fit together, we would find another company in an industry we were targeting and do the same thing and create a blog post with them and have some co marketing there. So those two things work pretty well from the get go.

Steffen: Yeah. Obviously. I mean, when when you started out, I would assume it was more like a, it sounded more like a little bit of a frantic approach. Like we’re not quite sure who we should target. You said, we were going after universities, friends and families network. That was back then. How would you recommend someone approach finding their first customer? Now with all the knowledge that you have collected over the years?

Kenneth: Yeah, I think whenever you’re starting a business, you are starting out to solve a problem for some person, or for some, you know, situation, right. And so, I mean, the first step is pretty basic, although a lot of entrepreneurs in particular new ones, do skip this. But whoever you’re solving the problem for, you need to go talk to as many people who had that problem, as you can find as you’re interested people who might have that problem. 

You know, I was just listening to an older recorded session of Jeff Lawson, who’s the CEO for Twilio is this massive company, you know, 10s of billions of dollars in market cap and a partner of ours actually. And I remember he was saying that, whenever he was looking around for different companies that he wanted to start or he knew he wanted to start a company, he wasn’t sure what to do. He would. Whenever he got to Twilio, he would would talk to people and share the idea. And you could see it click, they would ask more questions about it. They wouldn’t just say, Oh, that’s nice, but they would ask questions about it. 

And so if I was that, that’s the starting point is find people who’ve actually experienced that problem. Talk to them, get them interested, have been fleshed out your idea, and things like that from there. I’m almost always going to lean organic search. If you can solve one problem, or solve the problem for one person or one company, and then you can communicate that, here’s how I solved that problem. There’s a lot of people who are experiencing that problem, there’s a lot of people who are probably searching for a solution to that problem. And so if you can, you know, optimize your website to show up to rank high in Google search results, or Bing or whatever other search engine, you stand a pretty good chance of starting to bring in customers without having to pay anything?

Steffen: Yeah. And obviously, as the topic today is to talk about, you know, how to make your first million without spending much on marketing, you know, you’re really relying on sweat equity at the end of the day, right? You have, you have a lot of time, but not much money. So you need to use the time you have available to develop or create, in this case, content that your target audience might be interested in consuming, right. And if they’re, if they’re interested in what you have to say the likelihood of them reaching out and finding out more about your company is much higher.

Kenneth: That’s exactly right. And everyone, whether you’re, in our case, you were a startup company, and you had $0 in revenue, whenever you started, whether you’re that or whether you are a even if you’re you know, making $100 million a year, your two main assets are time and money, right? Either you can spend time to get something done, or you can spend money on it. And particularly in the early days, you have an abundance of time, but very few dollars. Yeah. And so you need to spend more time upfront, right? And then, as you figure things out, you know, you can you can make that decision, do I want to spend money to save up or to free up some of my time, so I can put that elsewhere?

Steffen: Yeah, I mean, probably to summarize, this part is like, I believe a lot of founders, they forget the friends and family and network part, right? I mean, those are usually the easiest sales that you will have. You have a relationship with those people, therefore, you know, starting a conversation about your product or service, etc, should be much easier. It also gets you some feedback on what what they think about your product or service, right, so you can fine tune things. 

And then as you said, you know, identifying who, who would benefit from your solution, who has the pain points that you are solving, and then starting to reach out to them. Now, Kenneth, there’s still obviously a number of solutions that you can do even if you don’t want to spend money and just spend your time. How do you prove that marketing tactic is worth spending? I mean, I’m doing air quotes, spending money or spending time on in this regard.

Kenneth: Yeah, great question of some of this goes into how, how we think about what we do day to day at Text Request, I guess, just our philosophy for the work we do. And so we, you know, we have goals, we have revenue metrics we want to hit we have other KPIs along the way, or key performance indicators. But the biggest thing that we look for is that there is progress. So many of the things you work on, you talk about organic search, you talk about trying to get referrals, you talk about how long your sales cycle should be all these, there’s a lot in there that particularly when you’re young, you don’t know what your your benchmark or baseline is or should be. 

And so what we look for is progress within a given tactic. And so whenever I remember, early days, you know, we were targeting SEO and kind of leaning on that, as we know, if we create content, we get it out there, you know, over time, it will work. So for our search, we had, you know, our SEO we were targeting and it wasn’t like, hey, Kenneth, you know, you need to hit 10,000 new visitors to our site by three months from now. But we were putting in the work and we were seeing that yes, traffic is going up over time. And yes, okay, we are getting a few more leads, coming in a few more leads a few more leads. And that’s, that’s pretty much our mindset for everything we do still. 

And now even though we’re well past the 1 billion mark, thankfully, as we’ll put it, we’ll put a program in place or a strategy or a tactic in place. And we’ll say, here’s what we think could happen through this. But along the way, we want to make sure that we are just making progress towards the goal. It’s not so black and white. Does that make sense?

Steffen: Yeah, you basically what you’re doing is you’re you’re creating hypotheses, right? You’re saying, you know, what, this is what we assume when we do something, the outcome potentially could be, and then you you got to check against your assumption, basically, and then have to adjust it if if you need to.

Kenneth: Exactly and a lot of times, I mean, you just you just don’t know what the assumption should be. Whenever you start.

Steffen: Yeah. And I mean, you know, that’s, I think that’s a it’s a general problem again for for new companies to identify what what are the KPIs they should be focusing on because you’ve got to make a decision on whether to continue something or not, you have to put a stake in the ground and say, okay, cost per lead or cost per sale, this is the max, I’m willing to pay at this stage of the company, and then you have to see whether that’s realistic or not. And along the way, you might have to adjust up or down depending on the information you collect on a day to day basis, basically.

Kenneth: Exactly. And that’s one reason I’m, I’m a big advocate of saying, always try to do something for free, and prove that it works before you put money behind it, particularly. Because when you’re yeah, you start with a hypothesis, and you’re going to have to change that, or adjust and adapt, I don’t know, five times three dozen times, you’re gonna have to make a lot of tweaks along the way. And so if you said, Hey, whenever I’m first starting out, I’m gonna put 10,000 behind this, I want to put 200,000 behind this campaign. If you’re off one degree, you know, you might waste all that money. 

But if you find a way to do it from you know, you find a way to do it for free, you’re going to realize through that manual process that you have missed a couple of things, or customers aren’t resonating with such and such phrasing or what have you. Or it would actually be better if you do this thing over there instead. And then once you iron out those details, and you can have something work on a small scale for free, then yeah, there’s some dollars behind it, you know, pour fuel on that fire? You got to build the fire first?

Steffen: Of course, of course. Now, are there certain KPIs that you would recommend a company should definitely look at in order to make decisions on whether to, as you said, put money behind the activity?

Kenneth: Yeah, for us, it’s primarily for us. And just in marketing, it’s primarily deals created. So it’s really easy to get caught up, I think, in marketing qualified leads and sales qualified leads and traffic to your website and social media engagement or followers. But at the end of the day, you know, the North Star for for you should be heading is what’s bringing you the most new sales opportunities. If you’re in marketing in particular, a lot of times you can’t control the sales conversations, you can’t control the the sales cycle or the cadence after that you can help some but you know, you’re not the one on the phone calls. 

But you can control who you’re targeting, how you’re bringing them in, and where you’re choosing to spend your time and effort. Right. And so too many people, I think, I mean, Steffen, we were talking about, you know, marketing agencies before we started recording and kind of different pitches they have, and a lot of people you see are really good at, quote, unquote, capturing leads, but what they’re really just doing is gathering contact information. And a lot of times gathering in contact information is worthless, right? So So in these, it doesn’t matter if you have someone’s contact info, if they’re not actually interested in your product or service. And so a lot of times you can cut out, in my opinion, you can cut out the top, I don’t know, three to five stages of your funnel. And focus on that that low level capturing the demand that’s already there.

The interest that’s already out there, you know, where are people that have the same problem you’re, you’re providing a solution for? Where do they spend their time? What are they searching online? Who are they talking to? There’s a lot you can you can skip over. And so new deals created is what we that’s the primary one we pay attention to.

Steffen: I mean, what you wouldn’t, you wouldn’t have been able to look at, you know, leads at the end of the day, because that’s kind of an intermediate goal, right, a lead at some point, if it is a quality lead becomes a sale. Right. But I think what you’re just saying, and I’m totally with you there is, you know, there’s a difference between just engaging with someone or maximizing the lead as a single focus, compared to saying, hey, know what, a lead is not a lead, I rather have half the amount of leads, but twice the amount of sales. 

Kenneth: Exactly. 

Steffen: That’s what at the end of the day is important to a business is to get a sale. And to do that, you know, and I’m, you know, again, due to our conversation earlier, you need to feed back information for the entire cycle marketing sales cycle, you need to bring it back up into the marketing realm, which audience which message, and which channel helps you generate sales.

Kenneth: Mm hmm. Exactly. Where I see people make mistakes and where I think it’s worth people shifting their focus a little bit as I see a lot of people who do focus on leads captured and they say, if I capture these leads, then I can nurture them along the way I can put them in an email funnel you know, and they’ll engage with that or and I can do whatever follow up process to them and they will move farther down the funnel and eventually become become a paying customer. 

Which is I mean, that’s a that’s a great necessary piece of a robust marketing plan. But I see people put too much focus there where they get caught up in the lead nurturing aspect and so they end up particularly young companies, you know, we’re talking about getting your first million, and they spent a ton of time and effort and money on marketing automation software, and creating really sexy and engaging content. And it’s fine to do that. But a lot of times I think you can cut the fluff and still end up with, you know, you can have fewer leads, like you were saying and get twice as many sales and and that’s ultimately what everyone wants.

Steffen: Yeah. What you just said in regards to technology. That’s a great segue to my next question is like, what tools do you recommend to use to keep an overview of all of that, right? I mean, again, as a young company, as a startup, where money might be tight, what are the minimum tools they should have, in order to keep an overview of all.

Kenneth: It depends a little bit on a few things. One, how many people are involved in the sales conversation. So if you are, for instance, if you if you’re selling a product to new startups, there are one, maybe two people involved in the sales conversation. But if you’re selling, you know, to enterprise sales, there may be 10, or 12, that you come across throughout the process. So there’s there’s kind of that piece to consider. 

But I’m amazed at how much you can get away with just using the G Suite. You know, so most new companies start with a Gmail account and Google Drive and, you know, most goods, software, CRM, or marketing and a lot of marketing automation anyway, and that stuff is, is just putting in an effective skin on top of a spreadsheet. So I would say just start there. But from there, it’s you know, you do you will want something probably that’s a full Customer Relationship Manager tool or some way to keep up with customers and segment them more easily into different lists. And to automatically send them emails and text messages or to just keep all that in one place. 

So I mean, like HubSpot is a great tool where you can start free and kind of start not free. You can start cheaply and scale up. But then there’s, you know, there’s a ton of others, depending on what you need. Canva is a great tool to help you with creating content. And getting that going. Trello can be a great, free tool for keeping organized, with different projects and tactics you’ve got going on. And then again, you know, if you if you prove out something that works, there’s always a SAS for that, right. So if you have a problem, and you’re looking for a software to help you do it more efficiently, or more effectively or faster, there’s gonna be some tool out there. But again, I always start as cheaply as possible.

Steffen: Yeah, yeah. So obviously, there’s a general consensus out there, you have to spend money to make money. What do you say that?

Kenneth: I don’t like it. I don’t agree with it. I think it I think it is true that oftentimes, there is a threshold to play the game, right? Like, it’s hard to get into the stadium if you don’t buy a ticket. But often, you can still, you know, I mean, keeping that analogy going, you can still play a game outside outside the stadium, you can do something for free, prove that it works, and then put money behind it. 

More often than not, what I what I don’t like is the default response that you have to spend money to make money. I disagree with it. But there are times where you know, if you are, let’s say, for example, that you are targeting mid market to enterprise customers, and you can’t get through their gatekeepers, you can’t get their emails for whatever reason, or phone numbers to call them, you know, you might have to pay for a software that pulls that contact info for you in some way. 

Or you might have to pay for a, you know, a booth at a conference to get in the door. But I don’t think it’s true that you have to go out and drop money on Google ads, or advertisements in general, or to hire an expensive consultant or things like that, to get off the ground.

Steffen: Yeah, yeah, I think I’m in full agreement with you. And I’ve seen often enough that companies even with money, that decide to spend money, because they think, Hey, you know what, I can accelerate my growth and burn the money because what they miss out is kind of the base work, that a lot of companies that start out without any funds, right, that we really have to grind out things that the day go through. 

Why do you have to think about who’s my audience, as you said earlier, like, what are the potential channels and you start small, and test a lot, and then identify what works and then when you identify what works you put money against it. What I’ve seen a lot of companies that they have money and they just blast things out. It’s like let’s let’s make this work, let’s, let’s grow as quick as possible. And they put their money everywhere instead of being focused on having at least a proper strategy behind that approach.

Kenneth: Yeah, you’re right. And I will say there’s a distinct difference between the perspective I come from which is a B2B, bootstrap startup, it’s very different than the approaches you would take or need to take if you’re a venture backed company. And that’s a lot of times there’s some kind of animosity between the two, because the approaches are different. And people typically don’t like one or the other. But if you’re a venture backed company, investors have given you money. And they’re pretty much pressuring you to spend it so you can grow as quickly as you can. 

Whereas if you’re bootstrap, you don’t have really the cushion to fall on, if you make a mistake, and so you have to be a lot more careful, you do need to go slower. So just to make that distinction, there are some cases where it’s not necessarily that you have to spend money to make money, but in order to hit the velocity, that’s expected of you sometimes you do need to spend more. Yeah,

Steffen: Yeah. So earlier you already mentioned. And then I think a second ago, we talked about that the situations when, when you would recommend putting money behind an activity. From your experience, and maybe this is more for your particular industry or your sector. What other marketing tactics that you definitely would recommend a company to look into, when they start out are there other two three tactics or activities, that you would say check these out, they definitely will be able to, they will help you.

Kenneth: I would say search engine optimization, SEO and that’s always my favorite my go to because they’re just so many people searching for what probably for what you you provide, there’s that that is big, and then kind of a one two punch of content marketing and organic social media, you will spend a ton of time on social media, people are having to engage on social media, it’s really easy if you do the right things, to build a personal reputation or personal brand and to parlay that into a reputable business brand. And I think people underestimate that, because there’s a lot you can do for free. Again, it takes time. 

You know, you can’t you can’t make one post twice a week, and that be it and then expect good things to happen. But if you create quality content, distribute that through social media, create quality content for your website, or that’s native to social to different platforms. I think there’s a lot you can get away with. And also just ask, I mean, you know, networking is just making friends for adults in a way. So you know, go and make a bunch of friends and then askthem for advice or ask them for who they know, you know, who should you talk to. And again, these things take time, but they’re they’re incredibly powerful for for what you can do for free.

Steffen: Yeah. And time you have a lot when you when you when you launch or found a company, you know, exactly doesn’t cost much. Listen, Kenneth, thank you so much for joining me on the Performance Delivered podcast and sharing your thoughts on how to make your first million without spending much on marketing. Really enjoyed our conversation. If people want to find out more about you and your company, how can you get in touch? 

Kenneth: Yeah, so the easiest way to reach me is to just get on Twitter. I’m Kenneth Burke. My handle is KennethBurke423. If you want to learn more about Text Request, you can actually access you could DM me from my Twitter account or go or visit our website from there as well. But textrequest.com if you want to learn more about about Text Request, or if there’s a particular customer engagement customer communications problem you’re trying to work through. Feel free to just ask me, I’m happy to play problem solver to help you brainstorm. You know, and if we happen to be a good fit for you, then we’ll go from there.

Steffen: Sounds good. Well, thanks everyone for listening. If you liked the Performance Live podcast, please subscribe to us and leave us a review on iTunes or your favorite podcast application. If you want to find out more about Symphonic Digital, you can visit us symphonicdigital.com or follow us on Twitter at Symphonic HQ. Thanks again and see you next time.

Voiceover: Performance Delivered is sponsored by Symphonic Digital. Discover audience focused and data-driven digital marketing solutions for small and medium businesses at SymphonicDigital.com.