While Matthew Howells-Barby is known for his detailed articles and talks on SEO and growth marketing, one of my favorite posts that he’s written isn’t even directly related to either of those topics.
It’s about how he’s been able to grow a successful career in marketing.
The web is chock-full of stories about internet marketers who quit their miserable job and became millionaires. Those stories are great, but I’m willing to bet there are way more marketers out there who enjoy their job and are actually invested in accelerating their careers within a company. And that’s what Matthew’s post was all about.
So on the first episode of Demand Gen Chat, I (virtually) sat down with Matthew to dive deeper into that – specifically, how he joined HubSpot as the sole person on the SEO team and what steps he took to get promoted to Director of Acquisition (in less than 2.5 years).
Check out our chat here (full transcript below):
Here’s how to connect with Matt:
Emil Shour: So, welcome to Demand Gen Chat. It’s our first episode, so we’ll see if that name sticks. I’m Emil Shour, the Director of Demand Gen over at Chili Piper, and today I somehow convinced the very and all around awesome dude Matt Barby to join me on our first episode. Thanks Matt.
Matthew Howells-Barby: No, my pleasure. Great to be chatting to you, again.
Emil: So I looked at your twitter bio, and I’m going to read it off right now. You’re the Director of Acquisition at HubSpot, Partner at Traffic Think Tank and Litecoin Foundation, Co-Host of Decrypting Crypto, and the creator of The Coin Offering. You’re also a neurosurgeon, animal rights activist, professional wrestler…
Matthew: Part time professional wrestler, yeah. It gets in the way of the neurosurgery, you know?
Emil: So I started making some shit up there, but what’s your secret to having a very full-time job at HubSpot and doing all these other things on the side? I’m just constantly amazed at how you do all that stuff.
Matthew: I have a very understanding wife. No, I think, honestly … So, one of the big things for me has been whenever I take on new projects is making sure that I’m not just adding more and more and more and more and more things onto what I do. It has to deliver enough value for me to take away from something else.
Late last year I co founded with two partners of mine, Traffic Think Tank, and I only wanted to do that if I felt that one, I would actually enjoy doing it, which would be something that falls within that bucket is gonna be like economically viable for me to do, but also, my trade off that I decided was, if I do that, I don’t do any outside consulting for the whole of the year. That was the trade off and it actually worked out really well.
I made a lot of mistakes in the past when taking on new projects that ultimately I’ve kind of gotten midway through of, and have said, “Hey this is actually making me chronically unhappy doing this.” So, it doesn’t matter if it’s making some extra cash, right? Like, life happiness goes down, you’re not actually spending any time with of like quality, enjoyable time in your life, like that’s not a valuable thing to maintain.
So really, for me, it’s being really strict with my time allocations and the way that I dedicate stuff, as much as I can, because I am my own worst enemy in just starting new things. And making sure that it’s gonna have a positive impact on my wellbeing and life in the long term at least.
Emil: Awesome. So tell me more about, you’re Director of Acquisition at Hubspot, what is your day-to-day? What are you doing there?
Matthew: Yeah, that’s a good question. My typical day to day is not very typical. As you can imagine. Let me start by breaking this down a little bit. What I actually oversee at HubSpot is, I’m responsible for owning any way of driving free software signups into our products, and that involves all of our acquisition channels.
Now, within that I manage the SEO team, the affiliate team. We have a user acquisition team that’s full of really awesome people. We have then content strategy that sits within my team, and we don’t have the content teams reporting to me, but we have a strong partnership with them and the product and engineering team as well, that ultimately roll up into the numbers that we’re trying to hit for the year.
Honestly, a lot of time is spent thinking less about “what are we doing right now” but more about “what are the problems we’re going to face in the next three, six, nine, twelve months,” and how do we have a plan for dealing with those before they become a problem?
Emil: Gotcha. So are you running a lot of tests these days yourself or is it more-so your meeting with the team, strategizing, and your team is implementing a lot of the stuff?
Matthew: Yeah, my role really is about removing blockers and barriers to the team, and bringing in great talented people into the team that can think in different ways than both other people on the teams and me. Am I personally running a bunch of tests myself, right now? No. Are the team? Yes. We’re running a lot of tests.
I think my role here is to enable those tests to be rolled out for us to keep within some kind of guardrails and boundaries, and setup and structure the teams in ways so that they can actually be successful in some way, shape, or form, and get everyone rallied around the goals that we need to hit. Whenever you’re running big tests there’s a lot of people that need get buy-in to that, there’s a lot of areas, especially across a company of our size now, where we’re getting close to the 3000 employee mark. When I joined we were 700-800 employees, so it’s really, really started to hit new levels of scale. And with that come whole new challenges from a management and organizational point of view.
Emil: Yeah. So how did you get hired at HubSpot? I think I heard the story, but I’d love to hear it again from you.
Matthew: Yeah, it’s kind of almost like a cheesy story. It falls nicely into the whole kind of inbound marketing side of things a number of years ago. I run a marketing blog and have run a marketing blog probably since about 2012, and I wrote a post, I think it was in 2014, and it was an article all around the economics of acquiring Facebook likes through paid acquisition. It was kind of something that I put … I think I put that together when I was on a plane, and I really didn’t think much of it, published it, and I was like, yeah okay, that’s cool. Just wanted to get some thoughts out around it and that was that.
About a month later I get an email through from the then VP of Content at HubSpot, Joe Chernov, and he’d said that Brian Halligan, our CEO had came across this article I’d written, and thought it would be cool to chat. God knows how Brian stumbled across this random article on this blog that I’d wrote, that I was like, all right cool, this is good. I remember initially when I was actually getting a lot of phone calls at the time cause I was running strategy for a big agency in the UK and HubSpot was trying to sell me HubSpot.
I got a call through from HubSpot and I just hung up the phone at the time, and it was actually Joe Chernov, the VP of Content. Didn’t kick that off to a flyer, but then after chatting to the guys, was like, all right, this sounds quite interesting and they flew me over to the Cambridge office in Boston in the US, and I was living in England at the time, and I was like, whoa okay, this is now pretty interesting.
My initial focus was to come in and build the SEO strategy, which was what I focused a lot of my time around during that period of time in my career, was SEO, and build an SEO team. They had a ton of data, resources, we’d just done an IPO, so it was like, okay, now this is becoming more and more interesting. I moved over to the Dublin office to operate out of there, and I operated out of there for a couple of years. And then a couple of years ago I came over to be based out of our Cambridge office here in Boston.
Emil: Nice. So I actually want to dig in on that. So you came in and were working on SEO. Were you a team of 1 when you came in or did you come in and have direct reports?
Matthew: I came in as an individual contributor. I still remember when I came in for the first conservation with HubSpot, and they were like we want you to run the SEO team, and I was like, all right, cool. HubSpot have had a few million visits, most of it coming from organic search, how big is this SEO team, this is gonna be cool. And they’re like, Matt, you’re gonna be the SEO team. I was like, wait what? We don’t have a structured SEO team?
And really, that was like almost a blessing at the time because we had this content powerhouse. The content team at HubSpot are something that I have never experienced before in terms of talent and ability to produce consistently at a high level, and we’ve been doing that for a while, but it honestly, and I think the content team would definitely admit this as well, was there was not a whole lot of strategy, necessarily. It was kind of like a shotgun rather than a sniper, right?
The day when I first came in, my first thing was like, let’s go and basically do a complete deep dive analysis into everything we’ve ever done, find everything that we’ve done at scale, and find these inefficiencies, and go and see if we can make some tech wins that can get us some early traction on organic search. Yeah, that was, as you can imagine, a ton of inefficiencies that we had, and within the first five months, I was able to increase organic traffic by like 50%, which was a huge amount in terms of raw numbers. And to be honest, I really believe that a lot of people with SEO experience, that had spent a lot of time in SEO could have gone in and done something similar because of the situation, but what that facilitated was the ability for me to then go and start building this team.
We brought in a couple of people. One being a good friend of mine, Victor Pan, who had previously been one of the early team members at WordStream, I’d known him for a while, really solid technical SEO chops. Victor came in to initially kind of be one of the big leaders in the SEO team. He now runs the SEO team, still here today. Then everything kind of expanded from there. That’s when I began transitioning from okay, we’ve built the SEO team and we’ve added a few more headcount into it, let’s now get me to take a step back, think about broader acquisition, and how we can build whole new channels, new teams, and new programs to start scaling up growth.
Emil: Nice. So when did you start at HubSpot?
Matthew: The very start of 2015, I think it was? Yeah.
Emil: So coming up on 2.5 years.
Matthew: Well, yeah, it’ll be coming up to three years now.
Emil: Yeah. My math if obviously terrible right now. So you’ve obviously progressed. We read article after article about tactics and tips and things to grow your business. And I don’t feel like a lot of people talk about how they themselves grow within a company. What do you think has allowed you, you came in and you obviously kicked ass, but what has allowed you to move up, get a couple of promotions, now you’re a director heading up a team, what do you think was the reason for all that?
Matthew: Yeah, I think a lot of people go into a job, and in general, thinking about this from their career, and just think, hey, if I deliver results against my core goals, I will be given the next step, and I’ll earn more money, I’ll get promotions. The reality is, that is one piece of the puzzle here. Yeah, you gotta deliver results, but if you really think about this, hitting your goals, is like you’re delivering the bare minimum. You should be hitting goals, right?
Okay, sometimes the goals aren’t put in place correctly, but let’s put that to one side. What will get you to where you wanna be, I believe at least, in any role, is understanding the dynamic of the company that you’re in, and the people that you need to work with to facilitate things happening. Different roles you need to have different attributes, for someone like myself in an acquisition based role, you’ve gotta really understand as much detail as possible the trade off between risk and reward.
One of the things that I see a lot is, and these are always the types of people that you tend to lean on as being, hey, I wanna hire this person, right? They’ll just be super into high risk plays. They’ll have like a hundred different attempts, one thing hits, and it’s massive. It’s just such a huge win. The thing that I think that I’ve been able to do relatively well is know when to take a risk and completely back yourself. Put your neck on the line and be able to deliver, or at least show that you’ve been aggressive enough to deliver on what you’ve said you will, even if you don’t necessarily hit the kind of numbers that you were hoping.
But also, alongside all of this, is understanding how to form relationships with the people that are going to be influential in progressing you forward. The most important person for a lot of people is that direct manager, like you have a bad manager, you have a really tough time at being able to progress in a role, and this goes all the way through to like, having a bad founder, means it’s very difficult for you to learn well in a career because ultimately, the people that are the ones responsible for determining how successful you’re being are the ones that are championing you to the next, the other people in the organization, developing more exposure to you. So understanding that dynamic and how to navigate that.
The other thing is, knowing actually the path that you wanna take. This is always a difficult thing for people. It’s like, a lot of people that are individual contributors that are really good at like, rolling out tactics, they think that only next step for them in a company is to be a people manager, and I can tell you from personal experience, that 90% of people that become people managers should never be people managers, right?
And unfortunately, people figure that out too late. Now, people managing is something that I really enjoy, and would probably, I’d like to say I’m pretty good at, can definitely be doing more and learning more, but at the end of the day, you can’t be a director and not be a half decent people manager, right? That’s something that I spent a lot of time and energy really devoting my personal learning to.
That’s another piece, I think actually, we first talked, me and yourself, when it was like the inbound conference, and this is a big part, I speak to nearly every week, a new person from different company, in either a similar or a tangential position to myself to just figure out what they’re doing, challenges they’ve had, things that are working for them, and just generally get a sense of what’s happening outside of my own sphere, right?
That, I think has been probably the biggest contributor of anything else that I’ve done in my entire career towards me at least seeing some kind of level of success.
Emil: I actually remember that post you wrote on your blog about how you believe you’ve advanced in your career, and that was one of the big takeaways for me, was like reaching out to people who were in similar roles, and that was actually a huge catalyst for me, thank you.
Matthew: I’m glad. It’s something I push my team to do, whenever I meet with people, I always say to them it’s the simplest thing you can do is just drop someone a message, whether it’s via email, LinkedIn, Twitter, ask if they fancy a 20 minute conversation, a coffee, whatever. I went for a coffee yesterday with someone within the e-gaming industry that’s in a marketing position. I literally had zero agenda, I just wanted to hear what they are doing, what are the unique challenges that happen in that space, because a lot of the time these common themes, they come back to yourself and you have to figure them out, and it’s better to at least be aware of things that might happen, even if they don’t.
Emil: I’m gong to play devil’s advocate. People may be this and maybe they’re saying “Matt, well you’re Matthew Barby, you work at HubSpot, people know you, it’s probably easy for you to get meetings with whoever you want.” What would be your recommendation for someone who doesn’t have a personal brand and wants to get this going but doesn’t feel like they have the confidence to do it?
Matthew: Sure. Well, the first thing I would say is that one, I wasn’t always a Director of Acquisition. And two, I wasn’t always at HubSpot. I started out my career in a three person marketing agency basically operating out of a glorified shed with local restaurants as our only clients, paying us next to nothing, having no resources, and no kind of brand awareness. I think I had like five Twitter followers, and every few weeks though, I still met up with someone.
Here’s my advice, you don’t start the path of meeting up with people by dropping an email to Elon Musk, right? Like, you start with people in a similar position to yourself. If you have just began your career as a marketing assistant in a role, and you wanted to have a conversation with me to figure out some of the problems that you have. Look, I’m going to probably be able to deliver some problems, but I haven’t been in the weeds with the things that you’re doing on a day to day basis, for quite a while. You would actually get more value in speaking to someone either on the same level, or just one level slightly senior, maybe a couple of years experience into a role that can tell you some of the things that they’ve learned, but more important, the biggest challenges they’ve had.
What you’re not looking for in these conversations is answers, right? Sometimes it’s incredible difficult to even know what the questions are you need to be asking, and that’s incredibly relevant within acquisition and marketing in general. But my main advice is just to find people with a similar role at a company that’s kind of either completely different or at least similar size, and 9 times our of 10, those people will be like, whoa yeah, this is really cool. You wanna chat to me? Yeah, absolutely. Let’s go do it, right? It’s honestly as simple as that, and it’s a snowball effect from there.
Emil: Right, right. Cool, I know we’ve got a couple minutes left, I want to be cognizant of your time. My last question for you: The HubSpot Grader. Everyone know that it’s like infamous for you guys, what is something that was also a huge growth driver for you that maybe didn’t get all the notoriety and publicity?
Matthew: Honestly, we’ve had so many things over the years that have almost been like folklore in HubSpot. Like the Marketing Grader tool was one of them. The thing that I would say is like, whenever we do anything, we go in with the premise that, from the moment that we start working on it, and it starts delivering results, it has diminishing returns from that moment. So what we’re always trying to like find new things to do. We open up new channels, we’re focused super heavy on product virality right now, we’ve been building an affiliate program for the past year, and getting that just up and running now, to just build these new waves of channels.
Honestly, some of the biggest wins that we’ve had during my time at HubSpot over the past three years have been from relatively unglamorous, technical SEO wins, which has been a huge driver for us. A lot of the wins that we’ve had have less been like, hey we did this one big risk play, it’s like hey, we now rank for the words free CRM and we spent two years trying to do that, with just consistent, arduous, at times soul destroying link building …
The glamorous things and all the things I would love to say that we’ve done over the years, which has been a whole lot, 90% of them have failed, right? And that’s what you should expect when you’re in acquisition and you’re taking risks, but the core things that you’re focused on … It’s understanding what’s our biggest channel right now? And if it’s organic search, do we have the ability to scale this up much further? Is there existing search demand that we’re not tapping into that we could capture? If not, could we do a better job further down the funnel with conversion and dedicating some time into that.
When we started thinking along those lines, we brought in experts to focus on some of this. We brought in people with deep experience in conversion rate analysis. I brought in a good friend of mine, Joel Klettke to rework all of our product messaging and product page copy and that had huge increases in our conversion rate on our core product pages. Big signup flow boosts.
Reworking the user journey across the site and making sure that when we move to a freemium model, which we weren’t two years, how would we now manage and understand whether bringing someone in as a free user versus directly monetizing them is better or worse? And all of these things you need a long time to build up infrastructure, talent, and experiments within to then, before you try and start scaling.
But honestly, the biggest thing that’s kept us going has been, how do we diversify away from a reliance on organic search, whilst at the same time, growing organic search, which is kind of challenging, because you’re trying to do one thing that’s complete opposite of the other, but it ultimately stimulates growth. The only way you do that in my opinion is bringing in a fresh perspective from lots of different people and have them focused on very, very minute tasks.
Or, if you’re not a massive team, which you don’t need to be to get that kind of results, you should have at least a narrow focus of things. Sometimes teams will spread themselves way too thin trying to do all kinds of stuff, but a good marketer will be able to evaluate where the biggest opportunity is, and dedicate the large chunk of their time towards like tackling that versus going after things that are exciting, glamorous, fun, and would look really cool in a case study when you write about it, right? But that don’t actually deliver the kind of results that something that’s kind of the less sexy tactics might do.
Emil: Right. So you’re telling me it’s a bunch of little things compounded over time and not these big massive wins that we write case studies on?
Matthew: 100%. Yeah, we do a lot of stuff that’s really fun for the case studies, but if we had the SEO team just documenting their day to day of like, building out, heavy lifting, link building work into some of our product pages, it’s not as exciting to talk about. But within that, it’s the consistent, unsexy acquisition work that’s getting us to the level that we are right now.
Emil: 100%. No one wants to talk about it, but it’s true man. It’s the long-haul. So I know we gotta stop. Matt, where can people find you, connect with you?
Matthew: Bunch of different places. Twitter you can find me, you can hit me up on the HubSpot site. If you wanna also check out Traffic Think Tank, go to trafficthinktank.com, it’s a private marketing and SEO community where you can learn from experts. You can come join that, but if you just wanna hit me up, Twitter’s probably your best bet, @matthewbarby. So, yeah. You’ll be able to find me.
Emil: Cool man, yeah we’ll link to all your profiles on this post. Thanks again Matt, really appreciate you joining us.
Matthew: Cool. No, thanks for having me.