Fail Well, Experiment and Trust Your Processes

This was one of my favorite episodes because I got a rare chance to talk about marketing and basketball!

My guest is David Blinov. He’s from Latvia and he’s the Founder of The F Company – a Growth Marketing agency based here in Helsinki.

It was really fun to talk to him- he’s a marketing nerd just like me, but unlike me, he started at the age of 15!

We talk about the importance of failing well, the importance of experimenting and the value of mentors.

It was especially cool to debate with David about a claim I had made earlier which he brought up again in this conversation : whether humans know everything we need to know by the age of 23.

Thinking about it now, I need to add a qualifier; Yes, I believe we know everything we need to know TO LIVE A GOOD LIFE, by the time we’re 23 years old. The problem we have to overcome isn’t ‘not knowing what do.’ The problem we have to overcome is ‘not doing it!’

Listen to the full audio or read selected excerpts below.

David, why, and how did you get into digital marketing at the age of 15?

I was born in Latvia. I don’t know how much you know about that place. But in the 90s, early 2000s, it was pretty sad. It was a pretty poor country. And I was born into a poor family as well and a lot of the time we literally didn’t have money for food. So when I was a teenager, at some points, it was either I made some money or went to bed hungry. It was that bad. 

I had to be creative, I had to start very early and start coming up with ways to make some cash. And, I remember being 16 years old, and I had 10 euros to my name. And I was about to go and spend that money on things that teenagers usually buy – snacks and lemonade, and what have you.

I was standing in the supermarket checkout register. And I knew that that was all the money I had to my name. And there was no way for me to get any more money, my parents couldn’t give me any. And I knew that after I finished those snacks, and I spend that cash, I will just feel bad about myself and I will be lost. And I will be back to square one. It’s interesting, because as I was standing there, and I was sort of feeling sorry for myself, I noticed the magazine stand next to the checkout register, and there was a computer magazine. It was a popular thing back in the days when people were still learning that whole internet thing, And there was a coupon right on the title page there, you could see it very clearly. It had an interesting offer for 10 euros, if you buy that magazine, you could get a domain name and website hosting for three months. It was some kind of special offer. And at that time, I knew nothing about online marketing. I knew nothing about websites. But I looked at that 10 euros that I had in my hand and I noticed there’s two choices: I could either spend the money and feel sorry for myself or I could give myself an opportunity to learn something new. I would have three months to learn something. 

I made the right choice in hindsight. I bought that magazine, I did a bit of research and registered a website. And I would promote different software and services, online services and online software and get an affiliate commission in return for that traffic and those signups that I would send. And I didn’t know anything about websites. I had to learn how to build it up from scratch. I taught myself HTML, I taught myself to use Photoshop and do some basic design. 

And then I would find people on the internet through online forums who would have problems that my software products could solve. And I would literally approach them personally and say, ‘Hey, you know what? I’ve noticed that you’re looking for this service or this to solve this problem that you have, and I know of a tool or have a website that could help you. And here’s a link to that.’ 

I got a couple of people to start using the products that I was promoting and at the end of the first three months, I actually had a small but steady stream of income coming in. And I was able to pay for my website hosting and pay for my next rounds of education. After those first couple of months, I got confidence enough to start scaling a little bit and I hired my high school classmates to work for me. I was literally bringing them their paychecks in envelopes into the classroom, which really makes you feel, you know, on top of the world. And, you know, I’m 30 now and it means that for the last 14 years I’ve been in this world of digital marketing. 

So obviously, in this field of digital marketing, everything changes so quickly, and tactics that worked even a few years ago, don’t necessarily apply now. And just general human knowledge is expanding so much, you know, like things that nobody knew two years ago, we know now. So then if that’s the case, what do you think are the skills that we need to be developing? Because if we just work on tactics, they’re going to be obsolete in a few years.

Exactly. And I think it’s one of the key issues that we’ve been facing in the last couple of years in the marketing community. Companies come to me, every week, marketers come to me and they say, ‘What we did, what used to work for us a couple of years ago, doesn’t work anymore. The channels and the messages that worked for us, that brought us the leads, just stop working.’ I personally believe it’s happening because customer expectations keep growing, and they keep increasing all the time. 

If we think about the kind of services, the kind of tools and websites that you use on a daily basis, you know, when you leave work you take an Uber and you go home, you order your dinner from services like Wolt and Foodora if you don’t feel like cooking. You do your shopping on sites like Zalando and Amazon. And those consumer services, they have set the level of expectations so incredibly high. Everything is instant, everything is personalized. You know, if you have to wait for your Uber for 10 minutes, you just lose it. Because ‘What is this?’ You know, ‘How come I have to wait? It’s 2020, I want everything to happen right now.’ And then when those people go back to work – and by those people, I mean, every single one of us because we’re spoiled by those services – when we go back to work on a Monday morning, we don’t just sort of magically put our, you know, B2B or B2C customer hat back on and lower expectations for marketing. We don’t just magically become okay with the crappy, non-personal newsletters that we’ve been getting for the last 20 years from brands.

We don’t just magically grow patience.

Exactly. We don’t magically grow patience. And because these changes happened so rapidly, they happened in the last couple of years. Many companies simply cannot keep up. And for many of them, it’s a shock, because the things that used to work are now suddenly below par, and they’re suddenly not matching the expectations that customers have. So the question is, what do you do? What do you try? Because there are hundreds of different channels and methods and tools and every time you open LinkedIn or you talk to someone, everyone seems to have a different strategy or a different tool they’re promoting or different methods that they’re advocating. And then it’s human nature to go and start looking for the silver bullets. This is the magic strategy that will just solve everything. 

But what I believe in and what is sort of at the very core of my personal philosophy, and my company’s philosophy is experimentation, right? Because the truth is, no matter how good you are, no matter how talented, brilliant you are, most of the time, if you come up with a huge brilliant campaign plan or a brilliant strategy, and you invest a lot of time and money into it, and then you cross your fingers and hope it works, you’re going to be wrong. You will have wasted a lot of time and money simply because of how complex marketing is today.

Instead, what I believe you should do is try 100 new things, in a very quick way, collect data, learn about what works and what doesn’t. And a lot of the time, you would find one or two things that work really well for your brand and your company new products, and perhaps 99 things that don’t work at all. And it is through this experiment driven process, through constant learning, through this controlled failure, is how you can always keep up with customer expectations.

Yeah, and now is the time when experimenting is so easy and cheap. Like, 20 years ago, even if you wanted to experiment, you couldn’t because everything was expensive and time consuming. Now, like you said, we can just fire out a ton of different stuff. And then just learn as we go, as we fail. And I’m a huge fan of companies that are proud of failure. I have heard of a few cases where CEOs actually ask the teams to fail, like, ‘Go out and collect failures this week, because if you’re not failing, you’re not experimenting.’

Funny that you should mention it, I literally just read a post on LinkedIn, from the Managing Director at Visma software. And he said that his team made this failure board, like a physical board on the wall, where they would write down their failed experiments. And they encouraged the Managing Director to take part and write down what he tried and failed at this week. And I think it’s a very encouraging example, it’s a fantastic example of the kind of culture that you can build inside organizations. And, you know, from my experience, unfortunately, that’s almost never the case.

What do you mean, it’s never the case? Like, not enough people follow that? 

I can go as far as saying that, in most companies, failure is not accepted as a way of learning. And we’ve done quite a bit of research on that subject for one of the events that we did a couple of months ago. In fact, in over 70% of the companies, failure is looked down upon. At that event, we had an open discussion with marketing leaders from different B2B companies. And, many of them, honestly and openly told us, ‘Hey, we would love to experiment, we would love to. Honestly, it’s a fantastic way to learn, it’s a great way to improve. But in our company, you simply cannot fail. It’s seen as a shameful thing to do.’

Right! But it’s not just companies. It starts at the human level. Everybody knows, you shouldn’t fear failure, but everybody still fears it. Even from a human level. So of course, businesses are going to look down upon failure. Nobody’s going to celebrate failure. It sounds good in theory, but nobody’s going to actually do it.

I feel like there are two sides to the coin, of course, Failure can bring certain feelings on a personal level, it never feels good to fail. But I also feel like change needs to come from the company culture level at the same time. And if the company proactively communicates to its employees that experimentation and trying things out, is encouraged, and if you fail and learn something from it, it’s a great and beautiful thing, then perhaps the employees on a personal level wouldn’t feel so wouldn’t feel so negatively about failure

I’m a huge basketball fan. Right. And in basketball, they don’t measure success from whether you score a basket or not. So when somebody shoots, there’s such a thing as ‘a good shot’. And there’s such a thing as ‘a bad shot’. You can have a good shot that misses and gets you zero points. You can also have a bad shot that goes in, that gets you two points. So, how basketball players and coaches measure whether a shot is good or bad is the process of getting that shot. 
So the team works together, and they pass the ball to the man that’s open, meaning there’s no defenders around him. And if that guy takes the shot, that’s a good shot, right? They don’t care whether the shot goes in or not. If you take a good shot, then it’s like ‘Great shot! Well done!’ So inversely, if a superstar player doesn’t pass the ball and he just drives into five defenders and jumps through them all and then does a reverse in-the-air, flip shot and it goes in, that’s still a bad shot. They call it a bad shot. Right?
So, bringing it back into our field, maybe not even work, let’s just bring it to personal life, if I’ve done everything that I set out to do, you know, if I followed my processes and I didn’t achieve the goal, I should still be happy and learn from it and grow. Does that make sense? 

Yeah, so learn from it. That’s really key, you know. If you keep failing, and if you keep sort of falling face down and not learning anything from it, then it’s just failures for the sake of failures. What you’re saying is that at the end of the day, you know, in basketball, and in life, it doesn’t always matter whether you succeed or fail, but what matters is that you take the right steps and you learn from each step you take.

It shouldn’t be about the results, it should be about the process. It’s about developing and making your processes better every day.

Exactly! One more example: one of the things I did when I was a teenager, to make money was playing cards for a living. So, for a number of years, I traveled around the world and I played poker. And in poker, when it comes to short distance, when it comes to any individual game or any individual tournament, it doesn’t matter how good you are. Simply because even if you make all the right decisions, you can lose.

Yes, absolutely! Really good example. So you make all the right decisions, and you lose, you shouldn’t feel bad.

Exactly! So, in poker they have terminology, a term for whether you’re going to be successful in the long run. So it’s all about the long run. And it’s all about making the right decisions because mathematically, it’s going to pay off in the long run. And of course, if you keep failing, even if you make good decisions, it’s very discouraging. But as long as you know that you keep learning and keep making the right moves, eventually you will succeed. It’s just simple mathematics.

Yes, I love that. Yeah, it’s the same. So – just going quickly back to basketball so I can connect this to what you just said with poker –  if you keep shooting good shots, meaning if you keep passing the ball around and waiting for the guy to be open, and then keep shooting those good shots, eventually, over the course of the game, the numbers will work out and you will bring the odds in your favor. If you keep taking bad shots, even though they might go in in the short term – this one might go in, and the next one might go in – you cannot win a game by just making bad shots.


How important is having a mentor? And have you ever had a mentor?

You know what? I wish I had one back when I was young. Unfortunately, I didn’t. So I had to sort of improvise a little bit and perhaps use the internet as my mentor and as my resource. Luckily, I had that available. Yes. But you know, looking back at it, I’m sure that I could have avoided many, many mistakes. If I only had someone tell me, you know, if I’m doing something wrong. 

When I was studying business here in Finland, I was sort of feeling particularly discouraged and I enrolled in a mentorship program and I was paired with a very successful gentleman who was an immigrant in Finland, and he had an amazing story. And he encouraged me to not give up and keep pushing and keep trying. And he perhaps prevented me from moving away from Finland. I was very close to doing that. I was somehow at some point discouraged about my prospects, as a foreigner in Finland. And he encouraged me to stay. And that made a big impact on me. And I remember that, a few years after that, I was boarding a plane [to go] to the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, and I was about to speak there actually, at a small event, which, for me as a 23 year old, was an amazing thing. And I sat just purely by accident next to that mentor on the plane. And he looked at me, and it was like, ‘Wow, so you didn’t leave? After all, you stayed in Finland?’ I was like, ‘Yeah, well, thanks to you. The advice that you gave me, the time that you spent talking to me and encouraging me really helped me push through that difficult time that I had.’ 

So it was really important, I have to say that after that, I haven’t had a lot of mentors, I do sort of have a strong network of people who I consider very close to me on a professional and personal level, who I always go to for advice. To me it’s really important to be open minded and not get hung up on the views that I have. And I proactively seek out people who would disagree with me, or who perhaps know more about a subject than I do. And I consider those discussions as a form of mentorship.

I never even had that, like, what you said, just that short little thing, I’ve never had a mentor, and I’ve always wished I had one. I’ve always been jealous of people who had. I’ve mentored others, but I’ve never had one myself. But like you said, now we have the internet and I feel like even though I missed it when I was young, now I can have Seth Godin as a mentor. I can have whoever I want, as a mentor. They’re all out there sharing. Everybody is sharing everything, so we should all be taking advantage. You know, I feel really, really lucky to be alive in this era.

Absolutely, we’re so privileged, and it’s so easy to reach out to people you admire. And just like you said, I am mentoring a couple of people right now. And all of those people simply had simply reached out to me on LinkedIn or through some other means, and they said, ‘You have the skills and the experience that I would love to have. And I would just want to have a little bit of your time and a little bit of your advice.’ Most of the time, I do say yes when I can do it timewise. And it’s been a rewarding experience for me as well, sort of sharing my knowledge and helping someone else get to where they want to be. It’s even more rewarding than being mentored by someone.

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