Knewton isn’t an easy product to explain. Analyzing hordes of data, it adjusts lesson plans for students in real time across subjects, determines how they learn, and suggests the best way to help them. It’s one of those technology experiences that takes on something huge and makes it effortless as if by magic.
For the last four years, Robbie Mitchell and his team have been inventing ways to describe an entirely new suite of education possibilities. As Knewton’s Head of Marketing and Communications, he has not only helped shape the company’s identity, but also the way it approaches marketing to get the most traction possible. Today, he runs the marketing team like an independent agency within the organization complete with its own engineers — a strategy he highly recommends for small teams that need to get a lot done fast. So far so good. Knewton has landed huge deals with titans of the education world like Pearson, Houghton Mifflin, and Microsoft.
In this exclusive interview, Mitchell explains how he devised the in-house agency model, how it's given the company an edge, and why other startups should consider doing the same.
Invest in Marketing from the Start
A lot of startups — especially those that are deeply technical — are strapped for resources and don’t prioritize or invest in marketing until their product’s mold has been cast. Mitchell believes this is a mistake, and that product and marketing should grow up side-by-side.
“How can you know that you’re building something people want unless you try to sell it to them first?” Mitchell says. “You need to validate product-market fit as soon as possible, and the only way to do that is to figure out the value proposition as you’re building the technology.”
This requires building an agile website, constantly testing new language to see what resonates with prospective customers, and good design that gives you professional polish immediately. Based on market reaction to these assets, your startup can more easily challenge its assumptions and validate its product roadmap.
“Even if your product can do a lot, you still need to tell people how it fits into their lives.”
Based on his early experience at Knewton, Mitchell and his colleagues built out the marketing team to function as an independent, self-sustaining agency with its own design and engineering specialists trained to execute and iterate based solely on marketing needs.
“Marketing is all about testing what works and what doesn’t,” Mitchell says. “So you can either build your product and test it at the same time, or build it and sit around while marketing catches up."
To make the agency model possible, Mitchell needed to do several things:
Gain executive buy-in.
Scale a high-performance team with scrappy resources.
Create and deliver on a separate plan to move the needle for the company as a whole.
Convince the Leadership
As a marketing leader at a startup, a lot of what you can do depends on the founder. Proposing a separation between marketing and the rest of the company’s design and engineering can be controversial, if not plain radical. But there are good reasons why it’s necessary and effective.
Because marketing is so easily considered an afterthought, the teams dedicated to it often find themselves asking for favors to get things done. For example, if they need to build user acquisition features into the website, or prototypes for press or partnership meetings, they have to persuade a product manager, designer or engineer to work on the project. It can be hard to get these items on the company’s roadmap to begin with, much less the constant iteration and fine-tuning that will make them truly useful.
“For marketing, you need consistent support in these areas,” says Mitchell. “A lot of engineers and product leaders don’t like working on marketing problems because they require constant tweaking, so you really have to find the right people. But when you do, there’s no guarantee they’ll have the time or blessing to help you.”
“The point of marketing is to not get it right the first time. You have to keep improving.”
So, on one hand, access to the right talent is constrained. On the other, marketing has a massive, holistic job to do — everything from building a brand to attracting users to tweaking sign-up flows to analyzing the impact of every dollar spent. If you’re a marketing leader, quantifiably demonstrating this imbalance can win founders and other executives to your side. Counterintuitively, the other thing to do is to show exactly how annoying dealing with marketing can be (and therefore why it requires its own resources).
“Prior to splitting off, we were constantly annoying everyone we talked to,” Mitchell says. “Product managers, designers, engineers — they all want to deliver features, check a box and move on. We were never finished measuring and improving features so there was this inherent distrust in our ability to do things well.” It was a different mindset altogether.
Because of this obsession with testing and refinement, marketing doesn’t always fit into standard timelines. Mitchell’s team found they needed to work on their own schedule with different oversight. To deploy a truly great marketing strategy, they would need to work toward big goals while also responding to the tiny crises and opportunities that popped up every day.
“The only way you can react quickly to things is if you’re all on the same page and have the tools you need to do it. Otherwise you’ll be running around with your head cut off,” Mitchell says.
Eventually Knewton’s leadership agreed to try something new, and marketing kicked things off by managing the website on their own. At the same time, it brought on a core group of technical experts who were both interested in and could quickly ship the development and design work they needed. But what did it take to finally build this credibility?
Mitchell can point to concrete milestones that cemented his team’s place at the table. Chief among them was a redesign and migration of Knewton’s website a few years ago. Shifting from flat HTML to WordPress, the site also needed customizations to complement the company’s growth. Mitchell’s team of hired guns designed and built a hosting and deployment framework that allowed for fast development but didn’t risk crashing the whole site. Ultimately, they released WP-Stack as an open-source tool that engaged a much larger developer community.
“The project was big enough that we became a player in the technology conversations,” Mitchell says. “We gained the trust of our product counterparts and made a good argument for why we needed more support.”
“Seizing these types of opportunities for marketing to shine is one thing, but you have to continue demonstrating value after the fact,” he says. Since the re-launch of the site, Mitchell and his team have delivered many add-ons, a documentation portal for API developers, and visualization tools for educational publishers to fully understand what Knewton can do for their products.
“We wanted to do work that was closely aligned with this vision for the organization,” he says. “When we got the design and engineering resources we needed, it was that much easier for us to extend our reach, and morale was higher across the board.”
Build Your In-House Agency (As You Fly It)
One of the biggest challenges Mitchell’s team faces every day is how fast the company is growing. Becoming a global technology provider is expensive and time-consuming. Evolving a brand and marketing tactics to accommodate this kind of scale requires constant change.
One of the things they did to take advantage of their editorial strengths was to retool Knewton’s content management system. In the process, Mitchell discovered that in-team technical talent was a critical enabler for marketing success. This wasn’t all about finding other people to do the work, either; he encouraged everyone on the team to gain relevant technical skills, including himself.
“I had to get comfortable with version control, front-end templates, deployment systems —really a bunch of tools we were using to support and serve our community, and it’s made a huge difference,” he says. At the same time, he staffed up where he could.
Mitchell also started small in order to prove it could work. “First we started with part-time design and development contractors working remotely. Then we had an art director and engineer on full-time retainer —still remote. Eventually we brought everything in-house.”
Today, Knewton’s marketing team includes a design team that spans print to interactive visualizations, a full-stack developer, and an editor, in addition to generalists in communications, user acquisition, and content marketing, plus freelancers when needed.
“The key is to find people who want to sign up to work on marketing stuff from day one,” Mitchell says. “A lot of designers and developers in the tech community have had bad experiences working with marketing — they think they’ll get stuck implementing banner ads or something.”
To change their minds, Mitchell says it’s important to elaborate on the non-visual and non-copy oriented responsibilities carried by the marketing team, starting with the hardest problems first. Things like building a portal on which all customer relationships depend are compelling for very talented programmers and designers. At the same time, he assured people that they’d be working on an impressively self-sufficient team with opportunities for autonomy they wouldn’t experience elsewhere.
“When your team has no huge infrastructure, no project managers, etc. you need to be able to see things through yourself,” Mitchell says. “This is why I like working with people who have either run their own businesses in the past or have worked directly with clients. They come with built-in knowledge about what needs to happen.”
To find this profile, the marketing team has had to hunt largely outside the company, and the interview process is calculated. For example, Mitchell gives design and development candidates a (paid) test project tailored to the role they would fill. Can they redesign an area on the existing site to shift its focus or increase engagement? Can they create coherent work that fits the brand’s style guidelines? Do they ask good questions along the way?
He recommends asking these questions to identify “product manager” traits and to find tech-friendly marketing candidates:
How well can they act as translator between the features people want and what’s reasonable for a designer or developer to work on?
How well would they think through the implications of feature requests? “We’re looking for people who know they can’t simply ask that stuff gets built, as many marketers do. They have to know how to turn their goals into direct, specific, outcome-oriented requests that anticipate future development.”
How well would they collaborate with the people on the team who are not in their functional area?
This last question is of special importance to Mitchell. With a team that includes everyone from developers to writers, they need to know how to work together in unique ways that only accessibility and sincere interest can facilitate. “A cohesive marketing strategy draws from everyone at the table — and in this model, most of the participants don’t look like traditional ‘marketers,’” he says.
With these hiring priorities actively shaping the team as it grows, Mitchell has been able to stack his in-house agency with cross-functional experts who can productively hash out priorities and allocate resources. “It’s unusual to have all these types of people in sync, but it’s definitely doable. We do it every day.”
Navigate Without a Map
“Our team made its name responding really quickly to needs from across the company. Like when a big deal was coming through and the partner wanted to dive deep into the API documentation, we were able to design and build something that pulls from our live API, adds an editorial layer, and exposes it all securely.” (Some of that work was eventually open-sourced as well.)
With the company’s recent $51 million funding round powering expansion into Europe and more international partnerships, this will become an even more common occurrence. This makes the company not unlike a smaller startup that needs to run faster and do more than you’d think their headcount would allow.
“Not having a roadmap mentality has allowed us to become an effective strikeforce.”
For a marketing leader to wrangle projects at speed, they must:
Like building things. Be curious about every part of the process. Take the time to learn requisite skills themselves, or at least understand them.
Act as a de facto product manager. Facilitate constructive interactions between the people who want features built, and the ones doing the building.
Appreciate that reactive planning can lead to some of the coolest projects.
Knewton’s marketing team has had to learn to be nimble over time. At the very beginning, the company offered software directly to consumers. As it shifted to the enterprise model, its messaging, positioning and marketing strategy had to adapt accordingly.
This is one of the reasons a clear roadmap never became a guiding force for Mitchell’s agency. Instead, they track the projects that are most important to the company’s objectives at any given time — always allowing for spontaneous substitutions.
“The drop-everything-and-pull-together approach isn’t always fun, but we’ve found that this is the best way to respond to those moments without pulling other people entirely off roadmapped projects that have lots of dependencies.”
They also keep a separate wish list of features to add and tests to run when a rare window of time does appear. That way, they can jump at opportunities to make incremental improvements when they have the time.
“It’s not super scientific,” he says. “We work on things that we know are worth it to the business. We take responsibility for seeing them through, and then showing exactly what they made possible.”