Highs and Lows of Early-Stage Startup Marketing with Landon Howell

Written by: Laura Johns

Laura Johns: Welcome to the Know Grow and Scale podcast, where I, Laura Johns founder and CEO of The Business Growers interview business leaders to uncover secrets of how to know, grow, and scale their organization effectively. Let’s get started with today’s episode. Today I have Atlanta based tech marketer, Landon Howell on the podcast. Welcome Landon.

Landon Howell: I am excited to be on the podcast and you’re, we more times, we have more questions and more catch up than we have time today. So-

Laura Johns: I was just gonna say, Landon, I want to hear your, just pretend I don’t know, but your personal story and really how you got to where you are cause you’ve really found. A unique place in technology, and you’re we have the same degree I think from Mississippi College, so I think-

Landon Howell: We do.

Laura Johns: I always love hearing success stories of MC grads. So tell me about your path into this tech world.

Landon Howell: Oh my gosh. When I went, to Mississippi College I did not know, actually, I do know what I wanted to do. I wanted to be a youth minister, and that changed pretty quickly because at the time, just before I went to school, I’d started selling video games on eBay. I we had this giant, it was, it was like a goodwill or secondhand store in my hometown in Alabama. And I went in there one day and found some old video games and they were selling them for 50 cents, 25 cents a dollar.

And, I thought well I need some extra money, what if I take these home, polish them up and put them on eBay and you know the first one I bought for 50 cents it sold for $50. The second video game I bought for a dollar it sold for a hundred dollars and I thought this is, these are good returns. And if nothing else is paying for, for my gas and yeah. And for like the Friday night runs over to Sonic. This is good money. So when I went to mc, when I went to Mississippi College, I thought, I’m gonna be youth minister, but I’m gonna do this eBay stuff on the side,

Laura Johns: On the side hustle.

Landon Howell: And pretty quickly I realized, yeah, a little side hustle. Who among us, who among us didn’t start with the side hustle and so when I got to Mississippi College, I realized I didn’t wanna be a youth minister and I really liked to talk, and so therefore communications. But when I chose the path, I went into speak to my advisor and said, what do I need to graduate to get a piece of paper? Because I’ve got this side business these side businesses running and they said you need a 3.0. And so I graduated undergrad with a 3.07.

Then, after that went to grad school they said the same thing. You needed 3.0. I graduated with a 3.12. They don’t put your GPA on that piece of paper. Which is pretty good for me.

Laura Johns: And I will say, and my dad has always said. If you’re really good at your job, you should only have to show your resume one time. And then from then on you get grabbed from other places. Yeah,

Landon Howell: Yeah. It just you quickly realize how importants that degree is in the beginning, but at the same time how it becomes important in different ways. And then I have, I’ve worked now at probably 10 different companies and I can’t say the last time where I went to school was like, the focus of what I did but it was, you know, a foundation in the catalyst, so anyway, that’s where we met. That’s where we became friends and what really bit me was probably the same thing a lot of the people watching this or listening or a lot of your clients and customers have which is like an obsession. An obsession over solving some sort of problem. And I didn’t realize it at the time, but the best way I put it is like obsession, is an unfair advantage. And for me, in the early days, the obsession was there’s a lot of different ways to make money.

And the obsession transitioned into, oh! There are other founders, other creators of businesses out there who have an obsession. But there’s things they don’t know, because there’re 24, 25, 26. You know, they, this is their first job, much less their first managerial role. You know, they’ve never hired or fired before. They don’t know what it’s like to go out there and fundraise or to build up a team.

And so in the last few years, my obsession has really shifted towards like how can I be an enabler of these builders of businesses, these founders. And typically what that looks like is I come in as an executive lead marketing and growth, build foundational marketing and operations at companies, and for two or three years, kind of find my path to move on.

And it’s been fun. It is something that took me a few years to get over because it was so different and so odd, and because my wife and I had to move literally every two years, from Seattle to Boston to San Francisco to Birmingham, to now Atlanta. But that’s how we got to where we got.

Laura Johns: Do you feel like, going back to moving really quickly just because I’m curious, do you feel like, you know, 10 years ago when you and Chelsea, your beautiful bride, started moving to be where the work was, now, post COVID. Do you feel like you could stay in Atlanta essentially forever. Is is your company headquartered in Atlanta?

Landon Howell: Yeah.

Laura Johns: Are you headquartered?

Landon Howell: I think anyone can be in- we are headquartered in Palo Alto, California. So just south of San Francisco. But we will have marketing and, some operations, focused here. I think that in 2023 you can be based in Atlanta. I think you can be based in Laurel. I think you can be based in Boise, I think you can be based in Bangladesh, so long as your business aligns really depending on, at the end of the day, not everyone is shipping computer code like we are. Some people are making donuts. And so, it really depends. I, we can get into this in a minute, but I do have a strong conviction about what it, me looks like as you build the team and as you do or don’t meet in person.

But yeah, when we actually moved to Atlanta just a few months before COVID, and one of the reasons was, Hey, I was consulting at the time with early stage startups, early stage venture back startups, and I said, Hey, I, if we’re in Atlanta, I can fly direct to anywhere at any time. If my clients need me, I can just go.

So there was a lot of thoughtfulness there, but at the same time, as I’m growing in Atlanta, there is a pool of talent, in the backyard versus like having to go and look elsewhere. So, I think that their pluses and minuses obviously it’s more expensive in Atlanta, than it’s where I grew up in Alabama. But it all gets down to personal preference and really what the founders or the business owners where they wanna build what they wanna do.

Laura Johns: So, let’s start back when you were looking for your first job. Like, is the technology component? Or like how you got into all this experience, particularly in tech. Was that just because, you were on Indeed and applied for a job and it happened to be tech and then that started your path, cause that’s kind of how it happened. I was babysitting for the CEO of a tech company and then all the

Landon Howell: That’s right.

Laura Johns: And then all of a sudden now I’ve got a tech marketing agency, so it’s. You know, but that’s what I’ve done for the last however many years and that’s what I feel like I’m best at. How did you kind of pave your way in the, in technology?

Landon Howell: I totally forgot that story, and I love that story because, I think it speaks to, what we think careers will look like versus what they actually look like, so what we think careers look like is when we are 18, 19, and we’re going to college or even we’re getting outta college, I’m going to take this step, I’m going to do the work to get me to the next step. I’m gonna do the work to get me to the next step. So on and so forth. And then, you know, when I’m 60, I will become c e o and I will do that for five years and then I will retire, and then you know, I don’t know, go to Europe,

Laura Johns: Right, play golf on it.

Landon Howell: Doesn’t really happen that way. Yeah, wrap a backpack and go. It doesn’t really happen that way. And I think that’s fine and I wish we talk about it more. I tend to view it more as, instead of incremental steps, where everything is equal and you get what you deserve exactly when you deserve it. I kind of view it more as Tarzan swinging through the forest on vines,

So like, I like you were moving forward sometimes, and sometimes you were not, you were regressing, but sometimes you’re going this way, sometimes you’re going this way. But regardless, you are actually over time making for movement through the forest. And I think that that is, that’s a totally fine way, and if you ask people what their career paths were, very few would say, I did X, I did Y.

And some people would actually say, I don’t want to know what’s gonna happen, I want to just kind of pursue my passions. And so, for me it was, I grew up in a town of 10,000 people in North Alabama, and I love my life there, but I thought like, what’s a fun challenge I can have, and I’d always wanted to move to Seattle.

So I found a room on Craigslist and moved out. Didn’t have a job, had a little bit of credit card debt and so to supplement while I interviewed. I, this is not a joke, this sounds like a bit, I did. You know when you go to the supermarket and they have the tables and there’s like the free taste testing you can do. I did that for a granola. I did that for a granola company, so I moved to Seattle. My car died on the way there, and so I get there with literally no money cause I sold my car for 500 bucks. Took the cash to rent a card to finish the trip to Seattle. I get there and broke a little bit of credit card debt, living with these strangers whose room I found on Craigslist and so I’m just going to Whole Foods and putting on my North Face vest and like giving away samples. And through that, I, there’s no like deep learning there from the granola company. But what I did learn was, like, you know, I really I want a job and I want to make some money. And there weren’t a lot of jobs in communications. Especially ones that paid well, in Seattle and that that cost of living. So, a tech company by the name of Kim Point said, Hey, come in, you’ve got a comms degree, master’s degree in pr.

You can work here for six months, and, what we will do is we will transit, learn, the company for six months, then we will transition you into a different role. You’ll actually create our PR within the company and Sounds great, awesome. So I come in day one knowing that as a sales rep, I actually don’t have to sell a thing. I’m just here for six months to learn the business and then go create my own team and the company.

Laura Johns: It’s a good one.

Landon Howell: That turned into that it was accidentally a superpower because I would call someone and say, Hey, I’m Landon. I’m selling X. You need X, but if you don’t want to buy X for me, that’s totally fine. And the, the very hands off nature, the kind of other centered mindset was, a bit of a accidental superpower. And through that process really fell in love with, the sales aspect of business, which not a people, not lot of people do love, but I kind of tricked myself into it. And so through that, I was like okay, now I’m in sales in this org. But I, I just had this pull towards marketing. I had a pull towards, I wish I loved being at Kim Point, but we were around 200 people and I wish I could have been there for the first two people.

So from there, from Seattle back to Birmingham, you know to join a smaller team to Boston to actually create a startup to San Francisco to join another one that was scaling. It’s really just been that passion of like, Hey, you guys have a really good idea. You’re obsessed with the problem, but you’re not doing a lot of marketing. Maybe you focus too much on the product or not enough on marketing and coming in and joining with those folks. And it’s fun. It’s a lot of fun. And, those of you, those in the audience that they know how intoxicating that can be? We don’t look at is like. A business that isn’t doing marketing or is doing a bad job at marketing, we don’t look at it as, oh God, I don’t wanna really, you look at it as, oh man, if you already had marketing figured out, we wouldn’t be talking, because this is exciting for me to see what you have and the fact that we can go and build a plan and.

Laura Johns: Well, and I love that you said that because the whole reason I call this podcast the Know, Grow, Scale Podcast, is because I kind of use those as three foundational pillars when I talk to somebody to discover or audit where they are, because a lot of times, you know, you need marketing if you’re day one or if you’re day 601. It just, at some level, you need somebody like a Landon in there to help you, like. Culturally, internally cultivate what the, you know, what the business needs from a structure standpoint, and then like you said, kind of see ’em on their way. And then at some levels where we serve best is that, you know, less than 25 employees that need leadership, but also like need somebody to just fix something on the website. You know, like need that implementation factor. And you kind of need some of everything, at different phases. So I think it’s kind of cool to recognize that, you know, at some phases of your business, you might need internal headcount at some phases of your business. You can’t afford internal hand count and you just need somebody to do the gr grind work, you know?

Okay. So let’s talk about ups and downs real quick. Cause I think we’ve can all say we’ve got bumps and bruises. So what would you consider like your professional. High and you’re professional low. I feel like, even though you just told the granola story, and that might seem like a low, I feel like that’s kind of a high, because that’s kind of like you, you’re like,

Landon Howell: No, it’s fun. It’s fun. It’s who doesn’t love granola right? And, I think that like lows are not just like, oh, we had this bad thing happen. Like everyone has bad things happen, I think a Lowe is, when you are smart enough to recognize when something should happen and you don’t do it. And so I think a low there was a sports social media app is a sports social media app called Van Cred, which, we launched in, we, which we launched in Boston actually almost 10 years ago, which feels weird.

January, 2013, I moved to Boston and, you know, week number one experienced my first snowstorm. And, I’m trekking around this town, sleeping on a friend’s couch. My wife is back in Birmingham trying to sell our house, and we really did launch successfully. We were a top app in the sports section of the app store, we were in one of the first classes of Techstars, which is, the number one or number two accelerator in the world for startups. We were names, entrepreneur, magazines, 100 most companies. We were on the Today Show, like it was happening, but we were not growing at the rate we needed to, and we weren’t honest about that.

It, it’s fine that we weren’t growing at the rate that we needed through. Every company has, and it doesn’t matter if you’re selling, I love to use the donuts analogy just because donuts, but like, it does not matter if you were selling donuts or shipping code, you should have goals for growth. And if you’re not hitting them, you need to have those difficult conversations, because as uncomfortable as they are, they’re necessary.

So, I think that a low for me was not when we, fan cred was sold to a partner in Boston, but not in the way that we wanted to. And, you know, no one, we didn’t finish and buy ourselves a new house for a new car, we finished in high fived and went on our merry way. And I think that we had honest conversations earlier about growth, which to be honest, I was responsible for. We would’ve done more, but I think that we just all would point to things and go, oh, well, we’re on the Today Show, or we’re in this magazines like, tho those do not enable growth. Those are not even signs of growth, they’re just signs that someone thought you were doing something interesting and there you are. So that, I would say that that is one of the lows, and I think that’s one of the lows that most people can relate to, is that when you look back and go, oh God, I should have hired that person sooner, I should have let go of that person sooner. I should have made this change. Or like, Hey, Like, I am not happy with the velocity of, you know, how we’re doing this project. That’s a low. And so, yeah. We can talk lows all day long.

Laura Johns: In my head hearing you say that, it was like, you know, just because somebody has the Chanel purse doesn’t mean their bank account stacked. Like you gotta,

Landon Howell: It doesn’t,

Laura Johns: You gotta, even if you feel good about what’s happening, you gotta look at the numbers, which a lot of times those of us that are creative or go get ’em based it’s really, you know, not the thing we wanna be looking at as the spreadsheet. Like I’m, I stay away from the spreadsheet. I’m like, as long as it’s going up and to the right , that’s all I wanna know. And don’t tell me, you know, the details. So, that’s hard for those of us that are motivated differently. That’s tough.

Landon Howell: And there’s also transition there into highs, like you said, like. People can do with their money, what they wanna do with their money. I grew up around money and, and in my part of Alabama, because it was coal country, but my time in San Francisco was also an eye opener because you’re surrounded by, a lot of people who came into a significant amount of wealth early in their life. And, and the thing that I found is that like what wealth does not change you, it just exposes what you value. And that’s fine. You know, I can remember showing up for my interview and one of the founders met me at the door and he was just wearing socks. I said, I like your socks. And he. Yeah, I don’t like shoes. I just like to wear socks. If you’d bumped into that guy in normal life, you would’ve thought, oh, who is this person? You would’ve known that he was a Harvard grad and worth, you know, X number, how many millions of dollars. He’s now. You know, it’s, I think that over time your vision of like what success looks like, changes as well, and those highs actually change what you think will be highs are actually just milestones.

You know, if you had told me in college one day, you know you will be. You will be an entrepreneur magazine. Your company will be on the Today Show. I would say, oh my God, like I have a mag, like a stack of those of entrepreneur magazines on my desk, like The Today Show is watched by millions of people. Those are just milestones. Really, the highs are more in realizing, you know, I have a core belief that startups and companies without existential urgency don’t win. That doesn’t mean panic. That doesn’t mean, you know, panic attacks or, you know, waking up in the middle of the night sweating. But it means, pretend that the bear is always chasing you. And you’re, and you’re probably not gonna lose that often. And so where I felt the best was looking around going, we are, the chart is up into the right and we, are pretending like it’s definitely not that it’s the opposite.

And so, I think that to me, the highs are seeing that we have created an organization and a culture and a mindset around that kind of product or growth velocity, if you will. I’m using too much jargon.

Laura Johns: No, I like, and I like the air quotes, Steve.

Landon Howell: I’d like this. But that, those are the highs because at the end of the day, you know, at the end of the day, I’ve got all that I need. You know, I joke with my wife that in the future, should we come into, you know, grander riches? All I really want is a, a comfortable pair of shoes and a really good wifi connection. That’s it. That’s all I need.

Laura Johns: I thought you were about to say, and a really good wife. But you went into wifi, connection.

Landon Howell: No, I’ve, I’ve already got a great life. I’ve already got a great wife. I’ve already got a, don’t need reliable wifi. And again, it’s what you view changes over time, not just as you grow, but as you know, had different experiences. So for me, Yeah, it’s tough. It’s really tough to start and run a business and to grow a business. And so for me, the highs can’t be those, like if you start a business and you think I’m gonna sell ’em 10 years. If that’s the only moment where you’re happy, those 10 years are gonna be miserable.

Laura Johns: That’s right. Yeah.

Landon Howell: Because it’s your obsession to get to that point. That is your unfair advantage. And if you don’t have that obsession, it’s gonna be awful and miserable. And I’ve talked to plenty of people who’ve had that and they go, the payday wasn’t worth it. So, anyway.

Laura Johns: That’s good. Okay, so we’re, we’re kind of getting toward the finish line, wrapping. I try to keep these like something that somebody could listen to, you know, on the commute. Not that anybody commutes anymore, everybody stays home. So while they’re fixing their coffee . Okay. So as a marketer for a startup, what are, if you’re gonna talk to the business owner or founder, What are, you know, kind of your best tips and practices for marketing your business? What would you, I know that’s kind of broad, but tell me what your number ones are.

Landon Howell: I think that there are timeless ones and I think that they’re timely ones, so one that is timeless. Actually, I’ll start with the combination of both. One that is timeless and timely is to do more with less.

That does not mean you have to do it all yourself. In fact, the biggest conversations I’ve had over the last month is Landon, my head count is 25. I need to get down to five so that I have financial one way through 2023. What should I do? So row a lifeboat exercises or conversations of, you know, fractional CMOs, fractional higher contractors.

So I would say, stop trying to, because we are builders. We try to learn everything. Don’t do that. You have the one or two things that you’re great at. Find the people who are great through the things you wanna do. If that’s a social media manager, if it is a fractional cmo. If it’s an accountant, doesn’t matter. Find them and give the job to them. And the beauty of a remote world is it they can come from anywhere.

Laura Johns: Anywhere. Yeah.

Landon Howell: And, yeah. And you can, they can be up and running there. There are services that we’ll just provide it to you. You don’t even have to find them. Just find the services.

Another one is you. This is, I won’t wanna say controversial, but like make time to build in person. You mentioned like, no one really commutes you anymore. I agree, but I love it. The only reason I’m home today is because I was a little under the weather this morning, but most days I will get in my car and drive somewhere even though I don’t have to. Have a space to create so that your mind can just leave one room and go to another. If you are early in your business, build shoulder to shoulder, like that swapping of information, the serendipity of the conversations, it can’t be replaced. I do believe we will look up in two years, and despite the good that remote work and distributed teams have brought to the world. There will be some very impressive companies who said, the only reason we could do this is because we’ve got in a room together to build.

Laura Johns: Totally agree.

Landon Howell: That’s my controversial, that’s my controversial

Laura Johns: I’ll say, you know, every time I look at the line item, although I don’t like a spreadsheet, I do look at, my costs every month. And whenever I do look at that, I have that line item for office space and I’m like, do we need this? But, you know, we collaborate two days a week together, so everybody’s home three days a week, and we’re together on Tuesdays and Wednesdays. And on Wednesdays we have no external meetings, so we only meet together and that’s one of my favorite, honestly, like I look forward to Wednesdays the most because we’re only collaborating the whole day, like getting ideas and working together and, you know, bringing up client challenges and working through it. So I totally agree, and I do, I agree that it’s controversial too, but it is important. It’s really important,

Landon Howell: And that’s all we wanted. I mean, if we think back to, you know, COVID, we’re coming up on a three year anniversary of when people usually

Laura Johns: We were like dying for human interactions.

Landon Howell: That’s all we wanted. Yes. Just to get outta the house. And so I’m not saying that, you know, those feelings to get out then are mean that we all need to go back to, you know, eight to five jobs and have to commute every day.

But I do believe in the value building of person. And at the end of the day, also, I just don’t wanna be plugged into the matrix and do the work. I wanna, build a company with people I like. Otherwise, there’s, there’s plenty of jobs I can do just by logging onto terminal and knocking out, you know, checking the boxes.

Laura Johns: Okay. So tell me what you’re excited about in 2023. What are you looking forward to the most? What’s, oh man’s the company doing anything, we need to be watching for.

Landon Howell: I, I’m excited to see who is really cut out for this, and I don’t want this to sound flippant. I don’t wanna be mean, but it is, Very easy to start a company.

It is so easy. In the time that you and I have had this conversation, someone could have logged on to stripe.com and began to create their llc. They could have gone to hover.com to buy the url. They could have gone to squarespace.com to begin to create their website. You know, they could build a business in 30 minutes or create a business in 30 minutes.

But you build a business to maintain a business through highs and lows is really tough. And I do not, I never want a business to fail, but I do. There’s, there’s a need for calling. And in my industry, we are in, financial technology and we are focused on, creating the fidelity of crypto. We think that crypto was, and still is to some extent, full of snake oil salesman. We believe that there’s true value and true utility in crypto. But there’s been a lot of gross stuff the last couple years, and so for me, the last two months professionally has been kind of good. Personally, it’s been not good for a lot of people who are investors like myself, but professionally, who, those who believe it in the long term, were happy to see a lot of the coaling happen. And so I think that regardless of what industry you’re in, if you’re listening to this, there’s going to be that. And, if you had a five x year over year growth. Target that you are aiming for, is probably two x is probably gonna be enough. Because, you’re gonna lose a lot of competitors. People are gonna be spending the way that they were spending prior.

So that, that’s my hope for this year. I’m sure you were expecting something sunnier than that.

Laura Johns: No, no.

Landon Howell: I think it’s gonna be a tough year overall, and it will be a year that most people point back to and say, that was the year we got our act together.

Laura Johns: That’s good. So where I know that you’re not, necessarily. Honing it on your personal brand, although you might be, but where could somebody find you if they’re, first of all, follow Landon on Twitter. He’s funny, but not as funny as his cousin Karen. Where? I know you’re on LinkedIn, you’re on Twitter.

Are you at Landon Howell on Twitter? Is that your handle?

Landon Howell: I am at Landon now on Twitter. I think that if you want professional stuff, follow me on LinkedIn. I know that that’s, that’s a weird thing to say.

Laura Johns: No, you’ve got good insight

Landon Howell: Professional there. And I publish a lot of my thoughts at landonhowell.com. So I’ll publish every week on different, startup and small business problems. And I’ve got, free re resources is there as well. I know that people, whenever people say, I’ve got free resources, they’re trying to sell you something.

Laura Johns: True I know,

Landon Howell: You’re, I think it’s lane, no. There’s so many people before me who just gave me free insight. I feel weird charging people, Landon, what are your list of 90 tools that I would need to like here? Just have it. Like I’ll give it to you the same way other people gave it to me. And so, but yeah. And if you’re based in Atlanta, I’m an advisor, but the Atlanta Tech Village. So every other, every two Fridays I’m there for office hours and anyone can come in and ask me anything about marketing or operations.

Laura Johns: That’s awesome. Well, good for you. Well, thank you again. We’re gonna do a catch up offline, but thank you for taking some time to. To share your insight and I look forward to catching up with you more soon. Thank you.

Landon Howell: Thank you for having me.

Laura Johns: Thank you for listening to the Know, grow and Scale podcast. Be sure to like and subscribe on your favorite podcast player so you’ll be notified of future episodes.

To learn more about how The Business Growers can take your business to the next level, visit the businessgrowers.com.

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