Interview with Patrick Coleman, Former VP Growth at Replit
This article is part of a series revealing the stories of early employees from the most successful tech companies of the past few years. You’ll walk away having learned about what these individuals experienced, what they wish they knew, and the advice they’d give to others joining high-growth startups. Key takeaways are at the top and you can find the full interview below.
This interview is with Patrick Coleman. Patrick joined Replit in 2020 as the first business hire and has led teams across growth, operations, and finance. In December 2021, Replit raised a Series B at an $800m valuation with more than 10 million users worldwide. Below is an edited version of a conversation he had with us here at Compound.
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- Making the transition from banking to tech – "When I was in finance, everybody had very similar profiles – very talented and motivated. But a little bit interchangeable. In a high growth company context, it feels more like you’re part of a football team. You've got your receivers, your linemen, your quarterback. Everybody has very different skills."
- On the importance of learning sales – “If you want to learn how to sell, you have to sell something. It's kind of insane to me, that for a skill as valuable as sales, Wharton (purportedly the number one undergrad business school in the country) did not have a single sales class. Even in finance and consulting, I would see people maybe a decade or more into their career get passed over because they didn't have sales skills."
- On staying focused on what’s working – “After finding some product market fit, often people still feel the need to have all of these different marketing campaigns across all of these different channels. Maybe even different products with different prices targeted at very different personas. You only need traction with one to scale. I think it takes a lot of discipline to say no, to focus and to double down on what's working."
- Replit’s approach to influencer marketing – “To kickstart our influencer marketing, we started just reaching out to folks. One of the influencers we talked to we actually ended up hiring. He had built a coding education channel with over a million followers on YouTube. We ended up hiring him and he helped us grow a ton.”
- The value of different platforms: Twitter vs. Youtube – “For us, Twitter was incredible for hiring, general brand awareness, and for fundraising. But Twitter got us relatively very few conversions to new user sign-ups. It engaged a lot of our existing users and our existing community, but after we’d been around for a couple years not a lot of new people were discovering the product itself, through Twitter. Our acquisition through YouTube and people sharing their repls virally was way, way better.”
Making the transition from banking to tech
I started my career in investment banking and there was a lot of peer pressure at the time to do buyside recruiting. I went through a week and a half of interviews and got an offer from a large growth equity fund but decided not to take it.
As I was reflecting on my career, I watched a YouTube video that gave the advice, “quit early, quit often”. I left banking a bit early and ended up at a marketing analytics company in Chicago called MarketTrack. I was the special projects guy for the president of the company. I went through the sales training program too and did a lot of Salesforce and sales ops stuff. I did some implementations & account management. And I even looked at product integration strategy for companies we were acquiring. I had all of this kind of broad experience.
Chicago wasn’t quite the right city for me though, and I wasn’t crazy about the marketing technology industry. But I really loved my job in a way that I did not when I was in banking. When I was in finance, everybody had very similar profiles – very talented and motivated. But a little bit interchangeable. In a high-growth company context, it felt more like you were part of a football team. You've got your receivers, your linemen, your quarterback. Everybody has very different skills.
I had always been enamored by Silicon Valley and San Francisco, growing up coding and being interested in tech and listening to my parents hippie classic rock records and things like that. So I packed up and moved out there without anything lined up (on the advice of one of my old tech banking VPs).
As I was looking for a new job, it was important to me to do something in education technology. I started to meet with as many people as I could and that’s how I found PeopleGrove (through the VC fund former employer of the boyfriend of a friend of my college roommate). Funny enough, the two guys that started it were both bankers who also had quit after a year. They worked at Google for a while and they left to start PeopleGrove, a business that helped universities run online mentoring programs. One of the founders, Adam, was a really talented natural salesperson, and had lined up a bunch of deals. When I talked to them, they told me that they needed someone to help with implementations and get these customers that Adam had sold off the ground. Implementations just happened to be one of the many things I’d done at MarketTrack.
The importance of practicing sales skills
At PeopleGrove, there was a long, high-touch sales cycle. It required a lot of multistakeholder consensus to implement a mentoring program (a good analogy would be implementing something big like CRM or ERP software). We had some really phenomenal sales mentors who we’d hired as consultants guiding us. Honestly, doing sales may be the number one most valuable post college training I’ve had. Just getting formal sales training and closing deals. Everything from the basics of getting over your call anxiety to how to run a process, and how to deal with so much rejection.
Getting to put it into practice was great. There’s the classic quote, “you can't learn music by reading about it. You have to play.” Same with sales. If you want to learn how to sell, you have to be selling something. It's kind of insane to me, that for a skill that is as valuable as it is, Wharton (purportedly the number one undergrad business school in the country) did not have a single sales class. Even in finance and consulting, I would see people maybe a decade or more into their career get passed over because they didn't have sales skills. People that were really talented at doing financial analysis would top out because the high-level banking job becomes a sales job.
For some tactical advice, I read the book, Negotiation Strategies for Reasonable People. It sat well with me because I didn't want to be gutting people for every possible advantage. It taught me how to maintain integrity while pushing for the best outcome possible. The book also had some defensive tactics when facing people who are more aggressive negotiators.
How Patrick joined Replit
After a few years at PeopleGrove, I took some time off and did a lot of traveling. I went to India for a friend's wedding and a meditation retreat, I went to Japan for two months to study the language, and then COVID happened.
When I came back the opportunity with Replit kind of fell into my lap. I met Amjad Masad, Replit CEO, through Reach Capital (who also invested in PeopleGrove) and I just really hit it off with him. We geeked out about computer history and the history of business in Silicon Valley. For my interview, I put together a go-to market strategy with very little information on the company. I must have put 10+ hours into the presentation. Just because I was really pumped about Replit. I had no idea how much growth we would have. But I knew it would be fun.
The conversation went well and I ended up coming on board. When I joined, Replit was maybe 10 other people but they didn't really have anybody on the business side. And the first couple things I did was get a quick financial model built, get some improvements to our HR and recruiting processes, and move the company to a more size-appropriate accountant.
And while I can’t take all the credit for our incredible user growth over the past few years, I did get the education product out there and managed some really talented folks in growth, community and marketing. And each time a teacher would sign up, they’d bring 25 students (users) with them. And then these students suggest it to their friends (and so do the teachers). Everyone wants to show off the cool things they’re building, be it a game, frontend design, tech experiment, curriculum, whatever. It’s inherently viral.
First project: launching an education product
Once I started at Replit, my first big task was to launch a new education product. We had redesigned and radically improved our core product (a collaborative IDE, or code editor, that could also run programs), but our education product was running on old infrastructure. It needed a reboot. It was like, “Hey Patrick, I want you to launch a new education product and see if you can 5x revenue for us by next summer.”
We were still super small, so I started working with one full-time engineer and two engineering interns. We hustled to get the product out before back-to-school (in September in the US) and ended up shipping an MVP in under two months. It was during the middle of Covid so there was a lot of demand but there was still a ton of hustling to convince people to switch to the new product.
Implementing new pricing at Replit
Having learned about sales and purchasing decisions while at PeopleGrove, one of the changes I knew I needed to make early on at Replit was pricing. I think it's wise to think about pricing way earlier than people are accustomed to because it dictates a lot of decisions. Who is going to buy the software and how much are they going to pay? What's their decision making process? This flows down to a lot of product decisions.
We ended up creating an entry-level plan that teachers could purchase on their credit cards and get reimbursed by the school. Then we had a K-12 price point and a higher-ed price point that were designed to be right below the tricky budget-approval thresholds. With these changes, the prices ended up being higher than before while also making it way easier for customers to purchase.
Replit’s approach to influencer marketing
The most important thing is figuring out your users and your buyers. Where do they hang out? Who are the people that they care about? Who are the people that they want to emulate or aspire to be? And where online are they doing things? Or where in the offline world are they doing things? Make sure that you're getting in with those folks. For us, it was mostly Discord, Twitter, and the corner of YouTube where internet “celebrities” teach people how to program (typically using Replit). We did a bit of experimentation with TikTok, Instagram, LinkedIn and other social channels but those never did quite as well for us.
Influencer marketing was pretty cost effective compared to other forms of marketing. There's a great book called Traction (written by the founder of DuckDuckGo). One of the insights was, you don't need to have all of these different channels. You just need to have one or maybe two channels that are working well for you. Then just really pump those. Often people feel the need to have all of these different marketing efforts and all of these different channels. Maybe even different products with different prices to do all these different things. I think it takes a lot of discipline to say no, focus and double down on what's working.
To kickstart our influencer marketing, we started just reaching out to folks. One of the influencers we talked to we actually ended up hiring. He had built a coding education channel with over a million followers on YouTube. We ended up hiring him and he helped us grow a ton.
In my second year, we saw a video go viral called, “How to Hack Your Like Count in TikTok”. The content was in a bit of a grey area, but there was this huge spike in usage on Replit after the post (until TikTok shut it down — our general policy was no violating other sites’ terms of service using Replit). And then there was a consistent follow-on usage from a number of people who started using Replit for the first time after watching the video. There was a sort of virality around it.
When I first joined, there was still a bit of a public perception of Replit being more of a learning tool. A lot of the content marketing focus was how can you showcase the complex projects that can be built on Replit, to show off how powerful it really is, combating that perception.
The value of different platforms: Twitter vs. Youtube
For us, Twitter was incredible for hiring, general brand awareness, and for fundraising. But Twitter got us relatively very few conversions to new user sign-ups. It engaged a lot of our existing users and our existing community, but after we’d been around for a couple years not a lot of new people were discovering the product itself, through Twitter.
Our acquisition through YouTube (and people sharing their repls virally) was way, way better. I think traffic from YouTube converted to sign-up at 35%, or something like that, which is pretty great. If you hit Replit coming from a YouTube video, there is a really high chance that you're going to sign up and use the product. We doubled-down on that channel as a result.
What are you working on now?
I’m currently consulting on ops and growth for Interval, a new startup taking on the $250B internal tools market. They make it easy for devs to build internal tools just by writing business logic without having to write any frontend code or use a clunky UI builder. The founder Alex Arena and early team are super sharp. Expect to see huge growth from them in the future!