Let me tell you about the last time I got fired:
From October 2007 to December 2014, I managed a mixed martial arts blog that I won’t name here, because it’s been almost completely scrubbed from the internet by this point.
Even though I was starting to lose my passion for the work after about five years on the job—how many times can you can watch a guy kick another guy in the head before the abyss stares back into you, so to speak—I stuck it out because I figured that this was going to be as good as it got for me, professionally.
To be fair, the job had its share of perks. I worked from home which meant my dog wouldn’t be alone all day, and I occasionally got to travel around the country and watch fights from cageside and meet interesting and dangerous people.
I learned to develop the talents of other writers, something I found to be incredibly rewarding. By the end of my tenure at the blog, my salary was about $85,000/year. Who else would pay me that much to do something I generally enjoyed? A better situation was almost inconceivable.
So you can imagine how I felt when I was unexpectedly* laid off in January 2015, just two months after my wife and I bought our first house. Folks, I was freaked. I remember my dad telling me, “Someday, you’ll look back at this moment as one of the best things that ever happened to you,” and I thought, What the hell are you talking about, how could something that feels this awful be a good thing?
(*By “unexpectedly laid off,” I mean that there were a ton of very obvious signals that my website’s new parent company was about to fire me as part of a larger “pivot to video,” but I ignored all those signals, choosing instead to pretend that it would never happen. I’ll just say that when they stop inviting you to the holiday party, you should start to get your affairs in order.)
The publishing world had changed for the worse since the last time I’d been out of work, and I now found myself as a 33-year-old husband and father, hunting for entertainment blogging assignments that paid $40/article, and applying for full-time editing gigs that would barely cover my mortgage.
These were the dark times. To supplement my meager freelancing income, I began taking front desk shifts at the MMA gym in Ann Arbor where I had been teaching cardio kickboxing classes in my spare time. The staff and students at the gym provided a great source of emotional and social support, even if financially it was just a small step up from being unemployed.
This period of my life lasted about six months. I don’t know if I was depressed, necessarily. But you know that feeling where your wife is at her new part-time job and your son is away at pre-school, and you lie down on the floor of your home office because you don’t know what else to do with yourself, and it certainly feels a lot nicer being down there on the floor than it does sitting on the couch sending out another resume and cover letter to a media company that won’t hire you because you don’t live in New York or LA? Whatever you want to call that state of being, that’s where I was.
Part 2: It Got Better
What rescued me was something called “content marketing.” which I’d never heard of until a recruiter named Mark Peznowski suggested I look into it. “Ben,” he said, “you’re an experienced writer and editor, you’ve managed freelancers, you’ve managed social channels, you already have the skills for this kind of work.” Having no better options, I trusted him.
Mark put me in touch with the wonderful Carrie Gallagher, who hired me to be Credibly’s Content Marketing Manager, at a salary above what I was making at the mixed martial arts blog, which felt like winning the lottery. As desperate as I was, I would have accepted much less.
Carrie hired me because I had a proven track record of creating entertaining online content and growing blog traffic, and I immediately got to work doing that at my new job. But I still had to learn what content marketing was specifically. In my previous life, my only goal had been to bring readers through the door—what happened to them after they got there was someone else’s problem.
So Carrie suggested I take HubSpot’s inbound marketing certification course, and that helped me learn my CTAs from my CTRs. At first, I gauged my success by website traffic and email acquisition, which is what content marketers do when they’re starting out and don’t know any better.
The workday at Credibly was 9am to 6pm-ish, and my daily commute was an hour and 15 minutes both ways. Some days I wouldn’t see my son at all. But I stuck it out, because who else would pay me that much money to start over from scratch? A better situation was perhaps conceivable, but it seemed incredibly unlikely.
About a year in, Carrie told me that the company was experiencing a financial downswing, and there were rumblings in leadership meetings that the first cuts were going to come in the marketing department. What would I have done if Carrie hadn’t given me that heads up, and I had to go through another traumatic period of unemployment? Seriously, what would I have done? This time, I had a head start on the axe. Carrie, I owe you for that, forever.
I paid someone off Craigslist to design a cool new resume for me, and I googled the phrase “content marketing jobs ann arbor” which led me to a Content Marketing Manager position here. I applied, I got the job. I lived to fight another day.
It was at Nutshell, under the tutelage of first Dawn Verbrigghe and then Mike Carroll, that I finally understood that the real goal of content marketing is not producing cool content or generating lots of traffic, but revenue growth. (In fact, this is the goal of every position at an organization, if you want to split hairs.) As a content marketer, you contribute to revenue growth through the generation of sales leads at a low cost. Website visits and newsletter signups are great, but if those new visitors and contacts don’t become SQLs and then go on to purchase your product or service, your work isn’t paying for itself.
And, when your work isn’t paying for itself, you are expendable. You will be the first one they come for when the company needs to tighten its belt. That’s just a fact of life.
However, if you develop a blog property that over time becomes one of your company’s biggest source of leads, well then your co-workers will sing your praises on Slack, and your bosses will give you more money and new job titles before you even have to ask for them. (That actually happened to a guy I know; his name was Ben Goldstein.)
At Nutshell, I put my head down and trusted the process, which was:
2) Identify keywords and article topics that would attract visitors with buying intention (like this, or any of these), realize that HubSpot is already ranking #1 for those keywords and article topics, then write blog posts that are twice as informative and entertaining as HubSpot’s and cross your fingers.
3) Ask other folks to link to your articles, which boosts your site’s domain authority and makes everything you publish more discoverable. You can do this by reaching out to other content managers on LinkedIn and offering to swap links with them. Or, when a stranger emails you asking if you could link to their wonderful new research report on blah blah blah, turn it into a quid pro quo-type situation. Nobody rides for free.
Along the way, I fulfilled my longtime dream of writing an oral history, co-produced a few incredible virtual events, invented a marketing acronym, won an award or two, tried to hypnotize people into understanding the value of growth software, created work that felt uncomfortably close to real journalism, and made some lifelong friends. [Ed. note: please insert a photo of me and all my work friends hanging out together, and we’re all drinking responsibly, and everyone is gazing at me with admiration.]
Part 3: The ‘Galaxy Brain’ Theory of Marketing
In March 2020, I was promoted to Nutshell’s Head of Content and Communications, an opportunity that was only possible due to the departure of our former Head of Growth, Mike Carroll. Among many other things, Mike taught me that the first job of being a leader is going to bat for your team. Bullshit of many forms will occasionally fall on you from above, but your responsibility is to make sure it goes no lower than your head.
It was during the past year that I began taking a more active role in overseeing Nutshell’s PPC channels—something I never thought I’d have any interest in doing when I first joined the company. But it turned out I actually enjoyed this stuff, all the reading of data and pulling of levers. It awakened an analytical side of my brain that has always been there, hiding in the shadow of the more creative side. Me, a marketer!
I also began to learn that while the primary function of marketing is to generate leads for your company, it’s not quite as simple as that. I think I can express this concept best in meme form…
Right now I’m at brain #2, trying to figure out how to get to brain #3. Someday I hope to be at brain #4.
Good lord, I’ve already burned a lot of words here. The point is, I was just promoted to VP of Marketing (!), and I feel great about it. To me, it represents a show of faith in what I’ve been doing at Nutshell over the past almost-five years and what I’m still capable of doing here. That’s a nice feeling.
In the short term, my day-to-day won’t change dramatically. Our team is small enough where I’ll still have to get my hands dirty with content production and lead channel management on a regular basis. Which is fine, because I love all that stuff. But I think being successful in this role will require two significant shifts of effort and mindset:
1) Spending less time in the muck of marketing production and more time developing the other marketers on my team to be the best, most effective versions of themselves. Personnel management is a true force-multiplier if you do it right, and I want to do it right.
2) Going from short-term lead-chasing to long-term brand-building. What seeds can I start planting right now to build the Nutshell name to the point where we won’t need to worry so much about PPC channels four years from now? How do we get leads to chase us?
And then there’s the way we talk about our product publicly, the way we differentiate Nutshell in an extremely crowded sales and marketing software market, how we get in front of new audiences of potential customers, how we get more organic media coverage, etc., etc.—I’ve always been involved in these sorts of things, but now I’m accountable for them, which is terrifying and thrilling.
For supporting me on this journey, I’d like to first and foremost thank my wife Rachel, who has kept our family and home on the rails during this dreadful pandemic, which has allowed me to continue doing my fun little job of writing emails and looking at YouTube. I’d like to thank Nutshell’s fearless flying founder Andy Fowler for continuing to believe in me. I’d like to thank my longtime collaborator and creative partner Rebekka Kuhn, and Katherine and Chris and Kristen and Jack and Ashanté and Jared and Nicole and literally everyone else at this company, past and present, who have all made Nutshell worth the daily investment of time and energy
And finally, if there’s anyone reading this thing who’s new to the marketing game or struggling in your role as a lead-generator, let me just say that “growth hacks” are mostly a matter of doing the right thing at the right time (read: dumb luck), and anything you could describe as a “trick” can’t be consistently replicated longterm. LinkedIn marketing influencers are mostly a racket designed to take your money and make you feel bad. In my experience, success comes from trial-and-erroring your way to discovering the handful of things that work well for your particular business and squeezing as much juice out of them as possible.
The truth is, you don’t need to be great at all 250 things a marketer should allegedly know. You don’t even need to know what half of that stuff is, honestly. If you can do one thing really well, it’ll be enough to get you in the door. And if you can do two or three things really well, believe me, the world will be your freakin’ oyster.
Dad, you were right.
P.S.: When I say “always happy to get coffee and talk shop” in my LinkedIn bio, I ain’t lying. If you’re a B2B marketer who wants to throw some ideas around about content marketing, brand development, or whatever else you’re into, slide into my inbox or put some time on my calendar and we’ll Zoom it up.