Shamanth Rao on automation, the value of downstream retention, and IDFA
In this month’s Founders in Mobile, we talked to Shamanth Rao, founder of mobile marketing agency Rocketship HQ and host of the podcast Mobile User Acquisition Show. He’s also authored The Definitive Guide to Marketing in a Post-IDFA World.
Shamanth has led a pretty full career, starting out in journalism, moving on to mobile marketing for app companies in San Francisco and New York City, and now running Rocketship HQ. We took a few minutes to catch up with Shamanth and talk about how he built his agency while on the road, some of the metrics he looks for to evaluate an app’s potential, and the common mindset pitfalls that mobile app marketers and founders frequently run into – and how they can avoid them.
What inspired you to start an agency? Have you always wanted to run your own business?
The agency wasn’t particularly planned. It happened organically rather than as a part of a grand plan. I had taken some time off to backpack in India, Sri Lanka and South East Asia while coming to terms with a personal crisis – and had started consulting with and advising companies during that time. Over a few months, there were enough companies that wanted to work with me that I decided to build a team to support the folks that wanted to work with me.
What was it like starting a business on the road? How has it been since the pandemic began?
Starting a business while on the road was definitely an interesting challenge – and often entailed significant planning. I was fortunate enough to work from a mango orchard near Ratnagiri in Western India, from a rice paddy field a mile from the Bodhi tree in Western India, while seeing some breathtaking sunsets in Weligama in Sri Lanka, and while spending my days in some lovely cafes on the banks on the Mekong; with these work sessions often punctuated by breaks to imbibe some of the most delicious food I’ve ever had.
While all of these were truly memorable experiences, doing these while starting a business often meant occasional freakouts about WiFi speeds, time zone differences, power outages, water shortages, mosquito-filled AirBnBs, bus/train breakdowns, and at least one landslide. 🙂
Right now, now that I’m somewhat more settled (and now that no one is traveling!), our business is still fully distributed. I haven’t met most of our clients or even most of our team in person. Our current challenge is to grow and scale the business while operating asynchronously and being fully distributed. Thankfully we have some amazing advisors and mentors that are helping us navigate this by building out rock solid processes and SoPs that are letting us grow with minimal breakage.
What are some of the metrics that you look for that indicate how well an app is doing and its potential?
We typically look at CAC, downstream retention metrics, and downstream ARPUs. Typically downstream retention is a common area that we push our clients to improve on – FTUEs and onboarding experiences are the typical low-hanging fruit.
Success for our clients typically entails sustainable, profitable scale – in revenues and DAU/MAUs.
With your unique perspective as having been an in-house marketer and now running an agency, what are some of the common pitfalls that you see mobile app founders fall into?
We see two common pitfalls:
- That marketing can solve all problems. Unfortunately we’ve seen very many products that don’t have metrics that are strong enough to support marketing efforts. No amount of marketing savvy can fix these problems – and often there’s a more systemic intervention that is necessary at the product level to address these problems.
- That algorithms can solve all marketing problems. There’s certainly been a lot of conversation around the proliferation of automation among ad platforms – and while that is definitely a welcome development compared to the massive amounts of manual/grunt work that was required even a few years ago to run marketing, automation isn’t a panacea, even if Facebook, Google, and commentators attempt to say it is.
We’ve seen many folks expect that they’ll just have to upload creatives and they’ll see amazing results, and that has very very rarely happened. Even when automation yields short-term results, it’s been hard to sustain these results without careful strategy and planning.
Our advice typically has been to always ensure you have the strategy in place to drive your performance – and not rely entirely on automation.
With the upcoming changes with IDFA, are there any strategic recommendations you’re making for clients?
We’ve had some of the smartest folks in mobile speak to us on the Mobile User Acquisition Show about what might unfold, but the reality is that nobody really, truly knows exactly how they will be impacted.
Given this very uncertain future, our typical recommendations are to:
- Keep engineering/development bandwidth open so as to be able to make changes and adapt quickly.
- Avoid making very long-term capital commitments.
- Stay open to testing and iterating.