In this episode we talk to Susan Su. Susan is currently the Head of Marketing at Reforge. Previously she worked at 500 Startups, App Sumo, and much more. We talk about the current state of growth as a practice, and the future of content marketing.
Hey everybody. Welcome to a new episode of the Growth podcast. This week we talk to Susan
Su. Susan is the head of growth and marketing at Reforge, and previously worked at 500
Startups, AppSumo and much more. We talked about the current state of growth as a practice,
and the future of content marketing. Hope you enjoy.
Hey Susan. Thank you for joining us.
Thanks for having me.
Now we gave a little introduction about you at the start of the podcast, but can you give us a
little more insight on what you're working on now and what you worked on previously in your
Yes, so currently I head up marketing and growth at Reforge. We’re an early stage company
that’s offering master classes on frontier skillsets. Currently that means growth, and dabbling a
bit into retention. Our customers are mid-career to senior level PMs, marketers, UX folks,
engineers. App tech companies, usually later stage, the Facebooks, Ubers, and Slacks of the
world. And I love it! It's been just under 2 years for this business, for my involvement in this
business. And it's been a really fun ride going from basically just Brian Balfour and myself to
now we've got a hearty little team of 7 people kind of chugging away at it. And yeah, things are
going really well. We are onto our sixth live cohort of folks right now and it's been really fun to
get to just meet thousands of people who are in this field.
Immediately before Reforge I was actually working at 500 Startups. And there I was on a team
called “distro” that was specifically basically growth advisors to portfolio companies. We also ran
some growth-oriented Series A programs where very cleverly we would kind of disperse funds
but also charge a program fee for all the different programming and advising that kind of thing.
And I was specifically was focused on Latin America or the companies from the Latin American
portfolio for that. And before that I've just done a variety of really early stage to somewhat of
mid-stage startup marketing roles. It’s been a really good learning experience through
companies like AppSumo, a company called Inside Networks that was in the heyday of the
social app ecosystem and different other things like that.
Nice. So you think a lot about growth since working at Reforge. How do you see the current
state of growth as a practice?
I think that’s a great question. By the way, I want just pause here and say that I really appreciate
you saying “growth as a practice”. Growth is not yet codified as a single profession or a single
job, it's definitely a practice that sometimes is its own job and sometimes it's embedded in other
types of roles, so I thought that was a very nuanced word choice there. But I wanted to kind of
highlight for anybody who is listening just because I think it's really important to make that
I think it’s in an interesting place right now. There are a few different trends that are important
for people who are doing growth or anybody who wants to do growth. So bear with me for a little
metaphor here. I tend to think about it in terms of explorers, pioneers, and settlers. And this is
because I am a huge world history buff. It’s this other thing I geek out on so I tend to map
everything to that paradigm. So explorers, as the name suggests, are the really really early
ones. They're the people who venture over from wherever their existing world is and step that
first foot onto the ground of whatever is the new world. And there are usually very few of them,
and those few are usually are in a lot of extreme and very uncomfortable positions. So these
people are really rare and this is not a phase that I think we're currently in for growth as a
So the next group are the pioneers, and although they're also still pretty early, you know, we like
to say we're pioneering something new so they're definitely really early. They are still following
in the footsteps of those really early explorers. so the Pioneers have it a little bit easier because
some maps have already been drawn, but they're definitely early enough but they're still
establishing the pathways, building roads, getting things setup.
The third group are the settlers, and they're the ones that turn Frontiers in two towns and cities,
basically civilizations where people can stick around for a while and build for generations and
generations to come. So where we are right now, the current state of growth as a practice. I
think we're in a phase that's transitioning from pioneers to settlers, this overlap period. So we
still have super innovative pioneers And I think they can equally be found in established
companies like Facebook, or newly established big companies like Coinbase, and even in
series a startups and earlier, and at the same time, I think we still have a growing number of
settlers who are starting to build on top of the early Pioneer institutions such as how to build
growth teams, the framework for growth process, etc.
And so, I think this is really important if you’re planning to build your career in growth as a
practice, whatever you title might be, whether it says growth in your title or not. I think it's a
great timer right now, because there are still enough unknowns, enough frontier to go out and
settle. But it's not as crazy, uncomfortable and wild as in the very very early days. Some
pathways forward have been forged, but there is still plenty of green pasture to go out there and
figure out new things.
That was an amazing answer. I really enjoyed that metaphor, and it's spot-on and exactly how I
think about it. So given that the students from Reforge range from super early stage companies
to companies that are Google sized, where do you see the biggest shift happening in terms of
growth practices inside of these companies?
I think it depends, the range is really the salient point there. it really depends on where you are
in terms of your company stage. But I'll make one amendment to what you said, which is the
range for Reforge is probably around the series D mark to public companies, so the very very
early stage companies we love them, we love founders, we are them, but we haven’t-- We don't
believe that our current product serves them as they need. We know intimately well what those
needs are. There is a huge amount of need in a variety of areas when you’re really early stage
and we just don’t feel like an 8 week program that takes a bunch of your time every week is
something as it currently stands can speak to those needs.
That said, we see a lot of them, their applications come through because we have this
application process for Reforge. Everybody's kind of like on the growth psychiatrist couch telling
us all of their problems and their challenges and that's been fascinating to see that across every
cohort, I'm reading thousands of these challenges, thousands upon thousands, you know, low
digit thousands.. It's mind-boggling, to say the least. I would say there are a couple of shifts that
I'm seeing. Especially for companies-- and it's actually happening pretty early stage but it's
even stronger in the later stages companies. So the biggest one I would say is towards
retention, not just acquisition. I think this is related the groups or the phases that I mentioned in
the previous question. So like when you are one of the explorers when you're in an exploration
phase. I think exploration is extremely important. And then once you get into some of the more,
you know, an opportunity to start settling, then you realize, “gosh, we actually need to think
about how we can make this sustainable. We need to think about how we can build you know, a
society on top of this, basically. And so that’s what’s fueling a really strong shift that we’re
seeing towards retention.
A couple of data points on that. One is very anecdotal, and it’s just a small Reforge case, but I
do think we’re pretty well-positioned to like look at the state of growth as a whole, because
everybody is coming through this Reforge filter. A lot of people used to talk about channels, and
acquisition channels, and sort of like, what is their core growth strategy. And now, those same
people-- in their challenges I mean, now those same are talking about retention and are worried
about retention, are worried about turn, and worried about engagement.
Also, we’re starting to see a fluency in the language that people are using to talk about growth,
and so it’s not just retention anymore, but even getting to the nuances of retention. It’s amazing
to see the dozens and hundreds of applicants that come through with a pretty fluid working
knowledge of what retention is already. Which indicates to me that there’s kind of like more
emphasis moving over to post-conversion experience.
Which I think is really great. You know, we saw that we wait for an IPO, and you’ve heard other
companies kind of come through, and realize oh gosh, retention is a very very important part of
long term growth, especially at scale. And so that’s one huge shift that we’re seeing, and plus
you know we’ve been doing-- and Tim, you were part of the growth series, and so you kind of
know what that’s all about. This year we’re launched the retention series. We thought it was
going to be sort of an adjunct to the growth series which has been extremely popular historically
in the past couple of years that we’ve been running it. And we were surprised to see that
actually, the demand for the retention series, you know we basically oversold that program.
There was so much demand for it, so much need, so that’s sort of another signal, that shift
towards the later stages of the customer journey. Which I think is all really positive, right? If you
only optimize for acquisition, it can certainly lead you astray, but if you optimize for retention,
then the metrics that nest into that are generally indicators of a positive user experience. So I
think that’s overall a great trend.
The second shift that I’m seeing is kind of related to the retention one. I’m seeing a pretty big
shift toward emphasizing monetization and having a solid revenue model. So this sounds kind
of-- I don’t know, I hope it doesn’t sound too obvious, but I think it might sound sort of--
especially you’re not, you know, totally deep in the Silicon Valley bubble, you might think, “well,
obviously it’s important to make money right?” If you have a business, it’s important to have a
revenue model. But that hasn’t always been the dominant paradigm. To the point where Brian
Balfour actually has a joke that he tells every single growth series about monetization coming
last in Silicon Valley because it’s like our eighth module of our modules, and so he says “oh, just
like in Silicon Valley we put monetization last, haha.” But in reality, it’s moving higher and
higher. Higher and earlier up in the priorities list.
We’re seeing lots more questions about it in our community, lots more interest. And,
interestingly lots more companies coming out with their specific revenue numbers instead of,
you know, they’re putting PR out on revenue numbers instead of just around their topline.
MailChimp has been pretty public with that, Udacity, last week, a couple of days ago or last
week, I lose track of time, they came out with their revenue numbers. And these are private
companies, they don’t have to reveal that information, but they’re sort of proactively going out
there, whether they’re prepping for some kind of who know, some kind of public exit event or
whatever it is. But i think that’s really interesting that there’s kind of this growing emphasis on
the revenue model itself.
That’s good to hear that you know, people are going to be more cognizant of building their
business in a healthy way when it comes to retaining customers and also focusing on the
revenue model. So, can the trend of companies shifting towards growth teams and growth
practices be compared to anything in the past that you’ve seen?
I think it’s sort of like, as soon as a new function gets discovered and established, you’re going
to see a natural consolidation of resources around that. I’m not familiar with the precise history
of creating roles like product, or ops, or these other sort of standard carve outs within an
organization. But I would venture to guess that it’s probably not so different than what we’re
seeing with growth right now. So there’s so much interest-- in the beginning it was sort of people
on the vanguard doing growth at a small company, or maybe own their own within a larger
company. And then really it was the Facebooks, the Ubers of the world that made it into a thing
with a capital T, growth with a capital G. and as a result of that modelling of that kind of
signaling from these leaders of the pack we’re starting to see a lot more growth interest, and
also just human resource and monetary resource consolidation around growth.
I am not sure if there is historical precedent for that, but I would bet that that’s kind of the way it
generally happens. From kind of chaos we start to take form.
Yeah, that makes sense. So where would you say the biggest gaps in growth are that
companies aren’t addressing right now. Or at least not addressing well, in your opinion?
I think it’s kind of-- it lines up to those shifts that we talked about. So the first one towards
retention, towards sustainable long term growth. This, you know i’m not sure about the listeners
of this podcast because they’re probably a little more advanced in their thinking about growth,
but we do still see a lot of people who think that retention is basically, let’s chalk it up to emails
and notifications. And how can we optimize messaging as kind of an ongoing of retention?
You know, there is obviously a lot more opportunity beyond that, and I think one kind of missed
opportunity is having deeply integrated retention, and retention as product. Thinking about how
not just kind of like on the growth marketing side, but on the growth product side, how can we
actually bake retention into the product experience on a daily, or whatever is your kind of
frequency, core frequency, on a regular basis? So that’s one thing.
And then the second thing is, maybe this is going to sound kind of boring, but i think having a
full picture growth model that tells the entire story of how your company grows is something that
is surprisingly missing in a lot of already decently successful companies. Which indicates to me,
well gosh, if they had that full map of where they were going, how much more efficiently would
they get there? So, Tim, you’re familiar with building a growth model from the Reforge growth
series, that’s actually not really a theme widely out there just yet. People will think about, ok
what’s my channel mix, how am I doing acquisition, how am I doing retention, but being able to
kind of like put it all together on one sheet of paper or one document, or want to tell one
cohesive story, I think that’s something that is much more powerful than it sounds before you do
it. So that’s one thing. And then the final thing is a little bit cheesy, but I think it’s very important
to align your growth vectors to your overall business vectors. I’ll give you an example from
Reforge. So this whole vectors concept comes from Dharmesh Shah, who is one of the
cofounders of Hubspot. He had a conversation with Elon Musk at a special VC and fancy VIP
person dinner that they both went to. And Elon Musk said something about vectors and aligning
all the vectors in the business. A vector is something that has both magnitude and direction. So
it’s not just how big it is, and how powerful it is, but it’s also another key defining factor in a
vector is what direction is it going in? So if you have two really powerful, let’s say three really
powerful vectors on Earth headed in three disparate directions, you might just end up cancelling
yourselves out. Brian at Reforge has been amazing at helping us-- you know one of his
superpowers as a leader is to help us to sort of focus and continuously realign our vectors. I
tend to be-- I get a lot of ideas, I get really excited about a lot of ideas, I observe, I do a lot of
industry observation, I see what other people are doing out there and I say “hey, you know, we
could try that, hey look at this other-- this content business is doing this, this B2B business is
doing that.” And then my mind is constantly making these lateral connections to see how we can
apply it to Reforge.
And that’s great. But in reality, not all of those ideas are sort of going to go in the same direction
as your business vectors, and where the business is headed. So ideas can be good sort of on
their own, but they may not actually align to the overall priorities of the business. And I think that
a lot of growth people tend to be pretty creative. They tend to ideate a lot, they tend to reiterate
a lot. They grapple with a lot of diversity in their minds, and all of that is positive and I think
those are key attributes to being successful in growth. But then the way you temper that is to
make sure that, you know, whatever we actually act on is going to align to whatever the sort of
top level vectors are for your business.
Yeah, all great answers. So I’m going to kind of shift here to content. So you do a lot of content
production and the content marketing at Reforge. Your product is in large part content. How do
you look at content as a marketing tool for Reforge specifically?
Well as you said, content is our product and it’s our marketing. So we have total alignment
there. And the way I view it is, you know, our content marketing, our content that is public, is an
advertisement for our product. And therefore, it has to be excellent. It has to be perfect. It’s
really hard to be perfect, but it has to be perfect. It’s a great tool for us, because it allows people
to get to know us, get to trust us, and to sort of get a feeling for what they can expect from a
product that we produce.
Concretely, it helps us to generate traffic and intent. It helps us to generate traffic and increase
intent. And it also gives us a central nugget around which we can organize our paid campaigns.
Because of that, it’s a natural fit for engaging and nurturing our leads, however we acquire
them. Whether we acquire them through paid or whether we acquired them organically through
And what trends are you seeing in content marketing today? And where do you think the future
with it is going?
So I have a blog post in my mind of like, content marketing is dying that I have not written yet,
but I will tell you a couple of trends that we’re seeing. So for sure, higher CAC, higher cost to
acquire via content. And that is partly because of this-- what is the word when we’re like, you
know, the United States has more nuclear weapons and therefore Russia wants to have more
and therefore the United States wants to have more? Like this build up concept. So there is this
build up concept happening also with content, where it’s like, oh, longer form content performs
better. Well, we can do longer form, and your competitors, or somebody adjacent in your space
goes, oh, I can do even longer. Oh yeah? Well I can do even longer! Oh yeah! So we have this
rationing up up the competition. Which leads to higher costs overall, right? Because it’s not
cheap to produce content.
And then at the same time we’re seeing more returns. And although returns are a byproduct of
just increased competition, first of all, that’s one thing. More players in the space. People have
caught on this many years into it. 14, 15, 20 years into content marketing people figured out
what it is and how to do it, and a lot of people have gotten really good at it, and there are a lot of
tools that aid other people in getting even better at it. So, the democratization of marketing
techniques has one positive thing which is that it lets a lot more people participate, but it also
has the negative side, which means that it increases competition and decreases results across
the board. So we’re seeing that for sure. And there’s a great blog post from Patrick Campbell at
ProfitWell that I don’t know if you can link to something through the podcast, but that would be
great for people to read. In which he kind of breaks out the-- you know they studies a bunch of
SaaS companies, they saw that everybody was spending more for content, they were getting
less. But ultimately it was still worth it because the ROI was positive.
The ROI is positive, but it’s not easily gotten. So in addition to the competitive factor that I
mentioned, there’s also just we’re seeing another trend, that’s one that’s in the news every
single day. Social platforms control and sometimes throttle distribution, depending on what their
priorities are as a business. They’re still a business and they’ve got to run their own priorities as
well. Makes sense, right? But, we’re all sort of playing on their turf. And so that’s, from a
distribution standpoint, that’s a huge risk, that’s a big question mark to where that’s going to go,
and it doesn’t look like it’s going anywhere good. So, given that that’s the case, another thing
that we’re seeing, where I think it’s going, is we’re seeing a lot of content marketers and
publishers in general increasingly de-emphasize these platforms. We’ll probably never move off
of them, but now I’m starting to see a lot more dedicated mobile app experiences to deliver
content. A move towards, or back towards email, and also a move towards curation because we
live in a world with so much noise.
To that end, that’s why at Reforge we’ve been so gung-ho on content. But we’ve started seeing
that writing on the wall, so we’ve started this new little newsletter experiment called “Thoughts
on Growth,” which is interesting because it’s email primarily, so that’s one thing. We’re trying to
own that channel as opposed to play on rented turf, for example on social platforms for
distribution. And it’s heavy on curation. It’s not just like whatever is out there is out there, the
algorithm decides. No. It’s the person that decides. Me, Susan. I decide what’s going into the
newsletter, it’s what I think is important. I think that’s what people are kind of increasingly
looking for as an audience too. Because there is just so much stuff out there that it’s hard to
make heads or tails of it. So knowing that those re kind of the trends in content marketing. More
expensive, less juice for your squeeze, who knows what’s going to happen with social
distribution. Therefore moving towards email, moving towards owning the distribution channel,
whether that’s email, mobile or whatever it is, and moving towards curation to help people cut
through the noise.
So speaking of your newly public newsletter, “Thoughts on Growth,” how do you guys
experiment with content marketing at Reforge given your mix between gated and ungated
It’s so hard because when I hear the word “experiment,” I tend to think-- you know you’ve got
different-- it’s iterative, it’s somewhat agile and fast. And perhaps you can put them up side by
side, you’re racing two horses on the same track and seeing who is going to win. That’s not
something that we can do, we’ve got a single track. We can put one horse out each time for the
most part for the big things we’re trying to test. To the question about gated vs. ungated, this
has been one of the biggest questions for Reforge since the very beginning.
Our gated content is completely off limits from our content marketing. We’ve seen it appear in
other people’s content marketing from time to time, but that’s another story for another day.
Ultimately that mix come down to—you know I tend to think of it like for example our content
experiments like “Thoughts on Growth” or some of the other pieces that we’ve tried on either our
blog or on influencer blogs. They don’t touch the gated program content, that’s the difference,
but they all still are all about growth, so that’s the similarity. The gated content, that program
content, we try to make sure that it’s 90% evergreen frameworks. And evergreen is really—
evergreen and frameworks are two carefully chosen words there. Evergreen, because we want
you to really be able to continue getting your return on the investment in Reforge for a long time
to come. And then frameworks because—we can’t—it’s not a consultancy, we don’t know your
business, a framework is something that you need to go apply, it’s a template, but you can
customize it, you can apply it to your particular challenge, or product question, or whatever that
you’re facing right now.
So that’s the 90%. And then there is 10% that is supporting evidence because humans respond
to stories. And we need to see what other people have done. We need to see how they’ve done
it. The content experiments, which is our content marketing, they’re a lot more timely. They’re
almost like alerts, or sort of timely advice where we’re really trying to gauge and map to the
journey, the particular person’s journey before they get to a program. We definitely don’t want
them to feel like they’ve eaten the entire meal before they sit down at the table. But on the other
hand, we don’t want them to come so hungry that they can’t even crawl up to the table. We want
to give them something, but we just want to make sure that the something that we give is
sufficiently different, that it doesn’t in any way cannibalize the true program experience.
Ok. And circling back to the first question. I asked you about the current state of growth
practices. Based on your mission for Reforge and the focus that you guys have on growth now,
where do you hope the future of growth practices goes inside of companies?
Well, this relates to my answer on your question about the shifts. So you asked what are the
biggest shifts happening, and looking back on it now, I think my answer to the shifts might have
been my hope for what the shifts are going to be. So I would hope that there is more of a shift
towards retention. Because I think that when companies align with retention, then they’re
aligning themselves with their customer’s interests, for the most part. I mean, there are ways
that you can sort of force retention to happen, but long term they never work, right?
People fundamentally—users or customer retain because they’re getting value, because they
like it. They keep coming back because they like it. Because it solves a problem for them. And
that problem—you know the solving of the problem is worth more to them than the $10/month or
the $3500, or however many dollars it is. And I think that type of exchange, and being able to
continue that type of exchange on an ongoing basis is a really beautiful thing. That’s the purest
form of success that a company can go for. So that’s what I’m actually hoping will happen even
more. I would love for all companies to start thinking more about their retention, not as a
separate thing from growth, but as part and parcel of growth.
So that’s one part of it. And then the other part of it is—I think it’s really important for—and
maybe some folks in the VC community would disagree with me, but I think it’s pretty important
to—even if you haven’t taken monetization to its full potential, to at least have made some
significant forays into monetization, into actually making money with your business in order to
be able to understand how you can seal that up.
I think it’s not the right time for these kind of unicorn valuation companies that don’t make
money and don’t have a path to making money. And so I’m hoping that that’s going to become
emphasized even more because I think having a path to revenue, or having that path already
well-trotted or figured out is a great way to maintain independence for the company. To
empower the company itself to make the right decisions for its customers, and that’s something
that I hope we’ll see in growth.
Awesome. Well, that’s all the questions that I have for you, is there anything that you want to
plug or talk about before we go?
Not really. I mean I think I’ve talked about Reforge quite a bit, so for anybody that doesn’t know
what it is, just check out Reforge.com. Hopefully it’s not too confusing from there. The only other
thing, is if anybody wants to check out the “Thoughts on Growth” newsletter, I would love to just
get a variety of people on there, get feedback. We’re trying to iterate and just make that into just
eh most useful, best possible kind of tidbit in your inbox every week. So I think that’s at
Reforge.com/growth-thoughts, so if anyone wants to check that out, that would be kind of like
my main plug.
Awesome. Thanks, Susan. You have a good one.
Tim: I want to thank Susan again for joining us. I want to thank you for listening, and be sure to
check out our other episodes.