Being a Developer Makes You Valuable. Learning How to Market Makes You Dangerous

I love engineering, and not just because I’m a nerd.

The best part of engineering isn’t the technical details or the particular science behind it, rather, it’s the opportunity to solve an unfairly hard problem in a way no one has before. The harder the problem the more exciting it is. As a chemical-turned-software engineer, I can say the thrill is the same.

In business and marketing there’s a word for that kind of person – hustler – or, in the software startup space, growth hacker.

As much as engineers like to joke about our counterparts in sales and marketing, the most successful sales and marketers think like engineers. They do enormous amounts of research, are systematic and methodical, they apply known facts and patterns, and make approximations when necessary. They measure results objectively, and they iterate. (They are admittedly rare, and it’s those who don’t fit this description that earn derision.)

I got an email from a student who reached out via our “breaking every rule” page. The developer, Wasswa Samuel, in his final year of computer science in Uganda, is clearly very passionate and full of energy to work on something awesome.

He described his previous entrepreneurial experience:

I started a small startup which unfortunately has refused to take off am guessing the idea wasn’t all that awesome or it will pick up  after a year, whatever. I have left the site around but am not actively working on it.

I checked out Wasswa’s site. The dude’s got energy, skills, appreciates good UX, and there’s definitely a business there. Maybe all that’s missing is some hustling.

I proposed to Wasswa that his Ugandan deals site (I’ll help him out with some anchor text SEO there) could go from being a technical project, to a marketing project of his. It could be a chance to experiment and learn about all the different kinds of online and offline marketing and solve the “taking off” problem.

After exchanging some links for getting started, Wasswa sent me this:

Thanks for all this great content. Am loving it. I never  knew there was all this  amazing stuff. 

That’s when I realized – it’s not just that developers don’t see themselves as potentially amazing marketers.  They might not even realize how deep and interesting of a field marketing is.

And developers who can also hack their way to growth…those guys are dangerous.

Becoming Dangerous

If you don’t work closely with amazing marketers, it’s hard to know where to start or what the scope of the field is. (Like learning to code, but backwards.)

The most important thing to know is – trust me, if you are smart enough to build stuff, you can crack this. To paraphrase Paul Graham’s premise in founding YCombinator, “It’s easier to teach an engineer business than it is to teach a business person engineering.”

I bet you didn’t learn coding from reading a curriculum or a list of links. You found a starting point and let your curiosity take you from there. So, here are some starting places to whet your appetite, starting with two dangerous engineers.

Patrick McKenzie’s systematic, hard-working approach to letting Google do your marketing for free – this is an amazing interview by Gabriel Weinberg, probably the case study for this blog post himself.

Gabe is working on an incredible traction book compiling all of his interviews of other developers and non-developers and how they acquired their first 1k, 10k, 100k users (or dollars). He asks the questions you’d wish could ask his guests.

Get on the Mixergy list serve. Not only do they have the best subject lines your inbox has ever seen (except for maybe from NevBlog), but Andrew approaches every interview just like Gabe: he’s not there to do a talk show interview – he’s there to extract the specific tactics and figure out what these hustlers at each challenge.

As you go through these resources, beyond listening to what they’re saying, observe what they’re doing – how Neville and Andrew and Gabe got their audiences (in three very different ways), how often do they post, how do people seem to find them, how active they are in the comments, the calls to action, tone… an infinite amount of calculated (and uncalculated) actions that make them good at building audiences.

Engineers know the importance of benchmarks and “maximum theoretical” success. Fortunately, people like Rob Fitz will even share their notes with you so you can see what goes on behind the scenes and make concrete assumptions. Even early startups, like this one for personal funding, are sharing their metrics like they never have before.

There’s stories of non-digital pure hustle. Or pure digital. Both are highly recommended stories. The second link from Rand Fishkin’s talk to Hackers and Founders is a long video – I used to see these as an hour lost. I now see them as an hour of free tuition for a topic that will probably help me more than any one hour I spent in college.

Paul, Toan, and I wrote a guide on how to get to your first 1,000 customers for StartupPlays. Unlike the above resources it costs money but that was the deal we made in exchange for distribution. StartupPlays however is an extremely valuable resource (especially Dan Martell’s play) for comparatively tiny price.

That should get you started clicking away. Don’t forget Quora – there’s some great stuff on growth hacking.

Like engineering, the key is not to know everything, but rather to know where to look when you need to. Developers are in the best position to succeed – they have the hard skills and everything else is learnable.

UPDATE: The community over at Hacker News is sharing some great resources and stories I didn’t even know existed. The top-level comments are best and worth scrolling through.

Here are some highlights:

  • rgrahamYou can learn a lot of nuts and bolts stuff from guys like Rob Walling and Patrick McKenzie. It can take time for things to sink in, but nothing pushes it faster than creating your own product and trying to sell it.
  • patio11: I really cannot emphasize enough how the intersection of these two fields is a) extraordinarily rare, b) extraordinarily capable of producing directly attributable, measurable improvements across an entire business and as a direct consequence c) very, very richly valued by the market right now.
  • klbarry shares his personal list of “Truths of Marketing
  • justinmares says to skip buying any books: The approach that’s worked for me is to figure out my top 5 marketing goals and then find blog posts or interviews that help answer those questions. Almost all marketing books are a little too high-level to be useful in my opinion.
  • Alan01252 says that this goes just as much for freelancing: The proof, 3 months in to my freelance career and I’m already getting customers, via blogging and Google search results. Heck I’ve even been lucky enough to get one customer as a direct result of getting front paged on Hacker News.
  • Finally, from paraschopra: …marketing is every bit as juicy as coding. Discovering a channel, executing a successful marketing campaign and crunching out hard ROI from it, seeing 10 customers because of it is as exciting (if not more) as learning the wonderful node.js and implementing a chat server on your own.

  • paul_yan

    Great to have all resources aggregated. Thanks,

    I was a developer and project manager, now I start my own company to develop apps. Marketing is definitely an area we lack of experiences. Hope I could have a chance to consult with you for detailed questions. Thanks in advance,

  • Charles Hill

    Nice article! I must admit I’ve always kind of shrugged off marketing / SEO efforts as unnecessary or snake oil. Though, in the past year I’ve started leaning towards thinking it might be worth while to get into it a bit.

    By the way, your link “how to get to your first 1,000 customers” is broken.

    • Christopher Marshall

      Excellent Article.

    • Orion Bukantis

      It doesn’t matter how awesome your thing is if nobody knows it exists. ;)

  • whitetailsoftware

    I highly recommend the Rand Fishkin video and Patrick McKenzie’s SEO strategies. I would add Rob Walling’s book to the list (Start Small Stay Small).

    You may also find the need to do some cold calling:

  • Song Zheng

    Great Article! I tend to build a new project every week and pay 0 attention to marketing… Thanks for pointing it out.

  • jonathanjaeger

    Yup, love Andrew Warner’s copy. One time I called him out on one subject line because I thought it went too far (from clever to a little bit “trying too hard”). But we had a good back-and-forth about it, haha.

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  • Rajan Walia

    I really liked your post but seriously no RSS :(
    or is it there and I am not able to see.

    PS: I get it RSS is old but still people who read a lot of blogs(like me) use google reader to manage it which can use RSS or there own api, sorry to say I find no way to subscribe to you as I don’t like my inbox to be full with blog posts it is there for more important purposes.

    • anon

      I bet if you put into Google Reader, it would work.

      • Apoorv Khatreja

        Not everybody in the world uses Google Reader for RSS. Linking to your RSS feed is more important than you think it is. I use Flipboard/Pulse.

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  • Vasundhar Boddapati

    I think Palantir, did Realise that fact and that is the reason why their forward deployment Engineer or what ever they call the role, involving business development or sales is an engineer. I loved it, Adopted it and I should say you are 200% right.

  • Meir

    90% marketing 10% development , its the secret
    good sells man can sell something that even has not build yet .

    • NoMeir

      Just say NO to sales driven development. It’s easy for a bad salesman to sell a customer whatever magical shit they want that doesn’t even exist yet.

    • Carl de Cordova
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  • Konstantin Krauter

    Thanks for sharing!

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  • Andrew Warner

    Thanks. Here’s something I don’t usually reveal about our emails. They’re written by April Dykman (based on templates she created) and they’re a/b tested by Arie Saint (to make sure they work) before they go out to the bulk of our list.

    • Shola Abidoye

      I always wondered what kind of behavioral list segmentation (based on clicks and opened) that happen(ed) on your lists!

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  • Amonymous

    Your Nevblog link is broken http// should be http://

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  • Scott Bartell

    I kind of learned web development and marketing simultaneously – with a formal degree in marketing and learning web development through my work experience and a few courses here and there.

    Interestingly, I truly believe entrepreneurial success really stems from how passionate the founder is about the startup. If you really love the idea and you have the tools to make it happen, the marketing aspect will naturally flow from your passion. I can tell just by the quote you provided that his entire heart really wasn’t in it.

    “I started a small startup which unfortunately has refused to take off am guessing the idea wasn’t all that awesome or it will pick up after a year, whatever. I have left the site around but am not actively working on it.”

    If he really believed in the idea, if it was something that he didn’t just want to succeed but needed to succeed he wouldn’t say something like “…guessing the idea wasn’t all that awesome or it will pick up after a year, whatever” He would be still working on figuring out how to make it work and maybe would have figured out a business model that worked by now.

    Just my thoughts, thanks for sharing! :-)

  • Brett Telegan

    What a loaded human confirm question. I must be the wrong demographic to know that lyric, but I assure you (all) that I am a long time programmer and have even helped Andrew with his Mixergy listing on LinkedIn quite a long time ago.

  • WebPuzzleMaster

    Great article. There has to be a merger between design, development and marketing to make traffic and conversions come together.

  • myasmine

    Love this, Tal. I soooo wish I was a developer learning marketing instead of the other way around. After having coffee with too many technical entrepreneurs that didn’t have a marketing plan, I wrote a post titled “Marketing 101 for Developers” your readers may find helpful –

    • talsraviv

      Awesome – thanks Yasmine :)