Distribution Hacks

by Danielle Morrill

CEO & Cofounder of Refer.ly, formerly 1st employee at Twilio

Read this first

YC Demo Day, the Morning After

Apparently, this year it’s particularly in vogue to express a certain ennui about the batch of Y Combinator startups that presented at Demo Day.

As I checked in with investors and friends who attended the event, the overwhelming response was that there were tons of solid companies but nothing “amazing” or “10x”.

Even the tech press can’t seem to get behind one single company, instead making their obligatory “top 7” and “6 favorite” lists. This morning’s story in the Wall Street Journal confirms the overall sentiment:

founders are tackling “boring” problems that generate cash

Founders risk everything, move across the country or further, endure endless stress, damage relationships, sacrifice their health and pour their every waking moment into creating something people want — and they’re rewarded with a yawn.

If companies are too serious they’re boring, and if they’re too social...

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Why Advertising on Mobile Sucks, From the Marketer’s Perspective

This TechCrunch article contains a graphic comparing eCPMS of desktop vs. mobile advertising:

eCPMs on Desktops vs Mobiles

TLDR version of this post: buying stuff on mobile is a terrible experience and fewer people do it than on the full-size desktop browser. Things you can buy easily (games, apps, content) is all cheap and single serve (< $10 per purchase).

Mobile & Desktop Impressions Are Not Created Equal

Advertising to a desktop browser is a relatively standardized experience, and you can assume the user has her full range of actions available at any given time (to see your ad as it was intended, to click, to buy, etc).

On a mobile device these assumptions fly out the window. There are multiple form factors of mobile devices, so you have to design collateral for all of them, test all of them, and you still can’t be entirely sure your ad will look good or as you intended. So the view is messed up.

...

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Finding a New Voice

As I prepare my pitch for YC Demo Day I’ve found myself experiencing something that I haven’t felt in a couple years - a lack of clarity around telling the story. I spent the first couple of days frustrated with myself.

“Why is this so hard?”

“I thought I was good at presenting my company.”

But actually, I’m not good at presenting my company yet. I’m good at presenting Twilio. Getting to the point where that was a natural “look Mom no hands” process took a long time, and I need to keep that in mind.

And stop piling on even more pressure to make it perfect.

What Am I Even Talking About?

I’ve been going in circles about my deck and the delivery. Focus on consumer or business? Tell the whole marketplace master plan, or just explain what we’ve built this summer? Interject a lot of my personal story as a marketer or keep it more dry? Talk about about how much our competitors suck, or focus...

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The Best Advice My Dad Ever Gave Me (for Demo Day)

TL;DR1: I believe you can raise a $200M hedge fun, why not a seed round?

TL;DR2: You have the rest of your life to be a “fat and happy” finance guy on the fringes of the financial industry (or run any lifestyle business, like our family consultancy) – but GO FOR IT while you’re young and healthy, with tons of energy and little fear! You can come swim in our pool later.


A couple years ago I called my Dad and asked him what it would take to start a hedge fund. I was 25 and working on my second startup job after departing corporate America, and a college dropout. I was totally serious.

I wanted to create a company that would time the market around commodities and futures by evaluating the import/export manifests of ships coming into and departing U.S. ports. The information is public record, and the only thing in your way is parsing the EDI transmissions.

I considered applying to YC...

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Post Launch Checklist: 10 Tasks You Should Complete

Over the past week or so YC companies in my batch have begun launching in anticipation of Demo Day. Congratulations, your startup is in the news! Now what?

I’ve done 3 company launches and more than a dozen product launches, and contributed to many more. Through those experiences one of the most important things I’ve discovered is that what you do in the hours after launch is crucially important to maximizing the impact and total reach of your news coverage.

Not only did you spend an incredible amount of effort building the product you just launched, but preparing the news coverage from pitch to publish probably cost the equivalent of $10,000 to $15,000 in time (or money if you used a PR agency). Don’t go to bed. Don’t leave your desk. You’re on a mission - for this one day everyone on your team is either part of marketing or part of customer support. As far as “talk to customers”...

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So Meta: My Startup is a Tool for Distribution Hackers

It might not have been obvious before, but this morning’s announcement of the Referly API and corresponding launch of our “customer acquisition as a service” shopping marketplace should leave no doubt. Referly was built for distribution hackers. To be more precise, it was built to help people become distribution hackers.

The mission: you put in money, we output customers. ‘Nuff said.

The reality is that its a little more complicated than that, but the promise of CAaaS (ughhh!) is huge, and definitely worth building a startup on. Google Adwords and AdSense revolutionized how SMBs bought ads 10 years ago, changing the paradigm from CPM to CPC. Can we turn it to CPA?

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Who Owns the Website, and Why

Getting the Most Out of This Post: print out every single page of your website and tape it all up on a huge wall in your office or lay it out on the floor. Bring together key stakeholders from every department in your company and give them post-it notes. Ask them to place a post it on every page that drives a business outcome they feel/are responsible for.


In most startups, he who writes code makes the rules.

Historically, engineers have owned the company’s website and everything on it. Other teams like marketing, sales and customer support could produce content, but software developers were the gateway through which all content eventually had to pass.

More often than not, animosity would grow between engineers tweaking marketing content that had hundreds of hours of thought put into it, and marketing constantly creating more work for engineering with a rapid succession of...

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The Distribution Hacker’s Mission: Create an Unfair Advantage

More than any particular skill, like how to run an Adwords campaign or write a blog post, software developers struggle to accept distribution hacking as part of their professional repertoire because they find a simple fact, and its corollary, intellectually abhorrent:

Markets are not efficient or “fair” because people participating in the market are not rational actors.

Accepting and internalizing these two facts is particularly challenging for developers because they are used to performing their work with a machine that is supremely efficient and fair, while surrounded by people who are some of the most rational in the world.

Distribution hackers, on the other hand, disregard the reality of this statement at their own peril.

Distribution hacking is about understanding and accepting the conditions of reality, and then creating systematic unfair advantages that leverage asymmetry...

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Go Ahead, Feed the Trolls

“Dude, are you feeding the trolls with your Feed the Trolls post? This is so meta.”

Common Internet knowledge tells us “don’t feed the trolls”. This post is about when it is okay to give them some tasty snacks, while luring them into your trap to do your bidding. See this Hacker News comments thread as instructional material for this post.

Often when I put something up on Hacker News, or when I see a news story that I am invested in getting to the front page or top ranking you’ll hear me say, “Okay… now we need some trolls” in a tone of mischievous delight. But I’m totally serious.

Warning: This tactic is not for the faint of heart, or those with medical conditions triggered by adrenaline.

Bring in the Trolls

On Hacker News, any comments are likely to help your post be more interesting for clicks, votes, and additional engagement. A nasty comment (hence my desire for trolls), or one...

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Introducing the Distribution Hacks Blog

I’ve been asked a lot lately about being a growth hacker. People want to know how to become one, what one does, what one is. It seems to be the new startup job title du jour - possibly replacing the trendy “community manager” of 2007.

At first I wasn’t super excited about being labelled, but I’ve had “distribution hacker” in my Twitter bio for quite awhile, and I like it. It feels like decent shorthand for describing what I do. I just never thought it would be so trendy. So I’m over my backlash and ready to embrace spreading the word about doing work that is analytical, results oriented, and – gasp – winning the respect of developers who have traditionally been skeptical of marketing.

Part developer, part marketer, part analyst, part product manager, part social coordinator. What the hell am I? I stopped worrying about that awhile ago, instead I focus on the incredible things that...

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