Interview: Oli Gardner (Unbounce) and how he “makes it epic”

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Oli is one of the founders of Unbounce, and in his words: they’re “a landing page builder for marketers, Unbounce removes the technical burden”.

He’s a well known speaker and he offers frank and direct advice on marketing landing pages. Oli’s roles have spanned Creative, UX and Development.

Oli Gardner on stage

TL;DR: Six big quotes from Oli

  • “[Public Speaking] challenges you to be original and to come up with your own ideas”
  • “Give away your content and make it epic”
  • “I don’t give a fuck about qualifications. I care about GAS….it stands for Giving A Shit”
  • “I don’t want to work for a business….I want to be responsible for a brand”
  • “I became a marketer on the day we started the company”
  • “I hated marketers passionately because I thought it was sleazy”

Question: When did you get started in marketing?

I became a marketer on the day we started the company. Jason our original COO used to be a creative director and when we started Unbounce he said, “Hey can I do operations, can I do the financial and legal stuff?” I was like “Yeah, please do!” Then when we came to marketing I said, “OK, I’ll do that”.

I hated marketers passionately because I thought it was sleazy. The marketing team in the company that I worked at were unaccountable and sloppy, so I had a mission to be an ethical and delightful marketer, opinionated and accountable from day one.

What’s the average day like for you?

A lot of my time is spent speaking or working on my presentation or writing. I advise the marketing team and I try to work on new concepts.

Every year I work on a new concept I can bring out. Usually, I start that through speaking engagements and then after I have spoken about something a bunch of times I will make it more public through a blog or I’ll write a new book.

There are a lot of great marketers who are also great speakers – is public speaking an important skill for a marketer?

Yeah, one of the best things about it is that it challenges you to be original and to come up with your own ideas. You’re not just out there regurgitating a bunch of blog posts that you have read somewhere. You have to have your own theories, ideas and backed up by data and that’s just a great challenge.

For the first few years nobody at Unbounce spoke, then I started speaking and now we have a group of people in the company who go out and speak and that’s just amazing. You have to do that if you are going to be a successful brand, you need to have that presence somewhere and be an authority, a “thought leader”.

If you don’t have that then someone else is taking mind-share from you. Wherever I speak in the world those companies who attend think of me or Unbounce when they think of landing pages and that’s just a really really smart thing to do.

When I was starting speaking I wanted to get a higher rating in a conference than Rand Fishkin

I did it on my fifth gig, I think, but that’s a very tough goal. If I’m speaking at an event with him he is always in the top 3. It’s great having something to chase, have something visible and measurable and that comes back to data.
Oli Gardner and Rand Fishkin

Should successful marketers be part of an online community?

It’s definitely useful but it’s all down to yourself and how you use those things. Without a community we would be in a pretty dark place. Like, if there was nobody hanging out online, actually having conversations and making each other better and challenging each other. It’s super important and the more engaged you are in the community, the better.

When you’re hiring at Unbounce how important are qualifications?

For the most part, I don’t give a fuck about qualifications. I care about GAS: it’s an unofficial 7th core value at Unbounce and it stands for Giving a Shit. If someone gives a shit then that’s way more important than any other qualification. If someone cares and they are willing to hustle and just work fast and hard to do amazing stuff, that’s all that matters.

If you are in a tech job like this you don’t need a degree, that’s old school. It’s still required for certain things, like engineering or medical work, but for working online, it’s just about being good at what you do, learning fast and being willing. Qualifications mean nothing, anyone can pass a simple test. Nice to have but I don’t really take it seriously.

What software and processes are key to you?

I’m pretty simple in what I use. I use Gmail, Google Docs, Twitter, Facebook. I use Keynote in my presentations exclusively, I hate Powerpoint and I hate conferences that make you use it. Really, I am not very good at process, it’s not really my thing but I am super competitive so I just care about what I do being better than anyone else. That’s what’s important and if there is something useful on the way to doing that then great.

Starting out again, what would you do differently?

Things have worked out well and I’m in a fortunate position to be able to say that. When we started, one of the first big pieces of content that I wrote was a thing called “The Noob Guide to Online Marketing”, which was basically my own story. I spent months writing this, it was basically a 6 month course in going from zero to hero.

I was writing my own story as I lived it, which taught me an awful lot but I think you have to kinda do your own thing. If there is someone that you are inspired by, if they are a great marketer and you want to emulate them, then what I would suggest is that you make a list of everything they do well, and then draw a line from who you are and what you know to the description of that future person. That’s your path, that’s what you have to achieve and you should do it as quickly as possible. If you do these things, then you learn how to do these things really quickly and try and do better than them. That’s a fast way to success.

What was the toughest part of building your brand?

Things worked out pretty well. We hired the right people at the right time. Early on we hired our VP of customer success Ryan and he has been with us for 4 years now and is just magical. He has helped create this support network and establish the community. That is part of Unbounce but we also have the content we push out there and we care about excellent content.

Our technology is amazing, our infrastructure is solid so we don’t have those horrible moments where everything turns to shit and falls apart. We started in the right way and we just have lovely people working here. They care about our customers. Everything has been good and I don’t have any horror stories!

Do you feed off the fact that you are building a community, does that validate that you have a great business?

I don’t want to work for a business, I don’t want to run a business. I want to be responsible for a brand and I want our customers to feel like they are a part of that. I think that’s super important.

The fact that someone is willing to take time out of their day to write 500 words to answer a question that someone else has asked, that’s phenomenal and without that all of that the community wouldn’t thrive. Then we are not a brand, we’re just a business.

The best thing about having your own community is when the community answers the question that someone is asking. It’s no longer a burden on you to answer those questions.

We just started doing AMAs on the Unbounce blog, we did two and the last one was me and Michael Aagaard. It’s just a cool way to give back to the community in a human way, as well as being a wonderful source of content for re-using in blog posts.

Oli on stage

What’s the difference between marketers now, and those twenty years ago?

It’s the data, it’s the accountability. [Back then] it was about brilliant creative and brilliant copywriting. That’s still the same, you need that but most people can’t write copy for shit. That’s why it is important we have people like Joanna Wiebe and Amy Harrison who are leading the charge on the copy front.

The difference now is accountability, you can’t be a shitty marketer. If you don’t know what you’re doing then the data will point that out.

The way to be successful now is you have to be more a technical marketer. That’s why the term “Growth Hacker” has been so successful. I don’t necessarily like the term but it’s given technical marketers an identity they didn’t have before because marketers get looked down upon by technical people. Because of that term they found an identity…”Oh I can be technical and be a marketer and I will get respect for that.”

You worked at two different online casinos, what was that role like?

So I worked at Bodog on the poker side and then I ran the usability team there. It’s driven so much by revenue that the marketing team became more accountable over time. I didn’t like it in the beginning but it was amazing company. It was started in Vancouver by Calvin Ayre. We had a UX team of 30 people, and the work that was being done in that company back then was incredible, I mean this was 2004 – 2008 when I was there. I met the rest of the Unbounce co-founders there, it was incredible!

We were empowered way more than most companies. I changed roles 5 times while I was there because I kept saying, “I want to do this, I want to do this” and I’d show that I could do it and they facilitated it. What I learned from a founder perspective is how to empower people to go in the direction they should be going because everybody changes.

There are challenges with rising up, somebody who is a great individual may not be a great manager. Have you got any advice around this?

I was a shitty manager, I was terrible, I was too nice. I was a great boss in terms of being nice but I wasn’t as effective as I should have been because I didn’t know how to be hard on people when it was necessary. My advice is that as an employer you need to recognise that and let people become an individual contributor, not a manager. You are either managing people or you’re just doing great work creating stuff. If you are good at creating stuff, don’t become a manager.

Oli's advice on landing pages

Did you have any heros when you were starting out in marketing?

I didn’t know anyone because I started scratch, not knowing anything. I’d read a lot, obsessed, and then I found people that I respected and I have a handful of people I really respect now. Back in the day, I wasn’t focussed on other people, I was focussed on myself and focussed on us.

I don’t think you need to pay attention to other people that much. Sometimes it can be helpful but really it’s just about you being as good as you can be.

Am I right in thinking that Unbounce has done just one seed round?

We just did a tiny raise, like $50k (Canadian Dollars) and then we did a small Angel round of like $100k with a few key people, and then our series A, so we have raised less than a million total.

Last Question: Can you recommend a book to read, something non-mainstream?

The most transformational book for me is a book called “How to deliver a TED talk” by Jeremey Donovan, which is way better than any other book about public speaking, in my opinion. It’s a great instructional book, there’s just so much learning in there because it’s about analysing thousands of TED talks.

Aside from that, I would say don’t look for a book to read, just write your own book whether you’re going to publish your book or not. Have that mindset, ask yourself what is the book that I would write that will teach me more about myself. You will read a ton of things on the way to that but start with yourself and the transformation you want to have.

Stay updated with Oli at @oligardner and check out his amazing photography on oligardner.com
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