Ellen is the founder of Tuff, a startup that provides on-demand growth marketing teams to other startups. She has been able to grow the business through a 5-step framework that allows them to experiment with growth campaigns and prioritize those with high ROI.
Hi Ellen! What's your background, and what are you currently working on?
I’m Ellen, founder of Tuff. We help startups unlock revenue by plugging in an on-demand growth marketing team.
We drive growth by creating the strategy and then executing Facebook and Instagram Ads, Google Ads, Google Shopping, Retargeting Campaigns, Landing Page Optimization, Link Building, Technical SEO, Content Strategy, and more.
Over the last three years, we’ve worked with 35+ different startups - from individual bootstrapped founders to large established players with multi-million dollar ad budgets.
What's your backstory and how did you come up with the idea?
I believe entrepreneurs and startups with unique ideas deserve access to the best growth marketers available. My passion is working with small startups led by diverse founders who are solving problems others aren’t really thinking about.
And, I think the traditional agency model is crap. I was tired of seeing startups set back a year because they hired an agency (or in-house hire) that wasted their time and money with sloppy execution. So, I started to freelance. I got my first client (a partner we’re still working with today!), from a marketing agency that was over capacity and needed to find a home for a smaller client. They knew I could run Google campaigns and let me run with it.
The transition from freelancer to founder was a slow one and I had a lot to learn. Being out on my own was easy and I felt confident as a one-person team. I didn’t have much overhead, I could travel, work on my time and schedule, deliver results fast, and pick and choose who I worked with. But after about a year I knew I wanted something bigger and more meaningful with a group of smart and talented people, which is why we now have Tuff.
How did you build Tuff?
We’re still building Tuff! We have five full-time employees and aim to double our team size by next year. It’s been an iterative process and one that we’re building on each day as more people join the team.
I think, as your business grows, so does the complexity of hiring the right people. And finding the right growth marketing talent can be a huge obstacle. That’s why we’ve really put time and resources into the way we hire and grow the team at Tuff. The more diverse our team is, the more inclusive we can be in helping startups drive meaningful results.
Which were your marketing strategies to grow your business?
We have a 5-Step Growth Marketing Framework that we use for our clients. And, we treat Tuff as a client.
It’s pretty simple and the theme is rapid experimentation. The framework lives in a Google Sheet and it helps us prioritize high-impact growth campaigns to quickly drive R.O.I. and key learnings, then invest in additional campaigns to scale up what works.
We start with foundation research. Then, list out as many growth tactics (paid, affiliate, content, events, pr, partnerships, etc) as we can be based on what we’re trying to achieve, select experiments based on impact, and then execute the campaigns. From there, we analyze the data and repeat it.
We test 3-5 new experiments per month for Tuff (we sponsored the Failory this month - this was one of our experiments!). If you want access to Tuff’s Growth Marketing tactics spreadsheet, reach out and I’ll walk you through it.
What are your goals for the future?
We are growing slowly and intentionally. Right now, we have two open positions at Tuff and plan to double the team by the end of the year.
For our team, it’s not about churning out as many ads as possible or working on more than four or five accounts at once. We want to keep it this way, even as we scale up.
Our top three priorities are providing value to our clients, testing and running experiments, and creating a great place to work.
What were the biggest challenges you faced and the obstacles you overcame?
Being a woman and the founder of a growth marketing agency has been pretty bumpy. I’ve been really lucky to have supportive partners and mentors but it can also be lonely and isolating. You learn to get really good at being outside your comfort zone almost 100% of the time.
One of the biggest challenges at Tuff has been building a fully remote team. This is a huge focus for us and I’ve had to systematically change the way I think about team culture and team building to get us to a place where we’re humming as a team, share values, and people are excited to log in to Slack in the AM.
Which are your greatest disadvantages? What were your worst mistakes?
Like any other startup, we’ve made a lot of mistakes, and continue to make mistakes and learn from those.
I think the biggest thing for me has been not acting quickly enough when we’ve made a mistake with hiring when there has been misalignment around the culture we’re building. One of our values at Tuff is creating a work environment where people can make mistakes, have ownership, grow, and learn. To make this possible, we have a clearly defined career framework so people know specifically how they can grow and develop in their role. This has been especially helpful as a small team because not everyone is going to (or wants to) grow into managing.
But, it took us two years to build. If I could go back a year or so, I would put more resources and time into building a career framework early that defined team roles, salaries, and career paths.
If you had the chance to do things differently, what would you do?
I would have started saying ‘no’ earlier and more often.
Tuff’s mission is to build a team and culture where people can grow, are supported, and can help startups drive meaningful results. And as our founder, I’ve taken on a bunch of commitments and spread myself super thin. When that happens, I can’t be the leader of my team (or our partners!) needs.
I’m in a better “no” space these days, but if I could go back to a few years ago, I’d try to hone in on what really matters and strip away all the extra bullshit.
What are some sources for learning you would recommend for entrepreneurs who are just starting?
The GrowthTLDR Podcast. Weekly Conversations on Business Growth - These episodes are practical and give you ideas you can actually execute on your own business to drive growth.
GrowthMentor - Sometimes you just need to talk to someone and are tired of Google around for answers. With GrowthMentor, you can book 1-on-1 sessions with marketers and founders on super-specific topics, tools, or platforms.
My Favorite Growth Marketings to Follow - No fluff, just real people with awesome stories and advice.
Sophia’s Friday Newsletter - Solid business, funding, and scaling advice from a female mogul.
Jimmy Daly’s Friday Newsletter - Jimmy leads growth at Animalz and his newsletter is stocked with awesome content and random links.
It Doesn't Have to Be Crazy at Work - A go-to book for the Tuff team for culture and business philosophy.