From Teaching Jiu-Jitsu to Building a Lasting B2B Brand: A Convo With Hana Abaza

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| Last Updated: December 30, 2016 |

Reading time: 24 minutes


Our work has thumbprints of the past.

The ideas collected during strolls on a certain sidewalk.

The life changing sentence located in the third paragraph on the 28th page of your favorite book. A humbling conversation with a friend.

These are building blocks that inform our future imaginings. They cross-pollinate over time.

Our current disciplines inform the future disciplines in ways that are hard to muster. We learn that the upturned cup of possibility wasn’t that way at all, it’s just how we’ve been looking at it.

We can see that in a different light as the new lens that we’ve gotten as a result of merging disciplines. The work of today’s guest is a testament to the same.

Today, we speak with Hana Abaza, who is the VP of Marketing at Uberflip, and we talk about:

Starting early in life.

How to think about transitions.

The importance of learning how to learn.

Why she almost declined to join Uberflip.

The dramatic shift that changed their business.

Uberflippinese.

Stress, startups, and survival.

Learning from people who’ve just been where you were.

Tune in. And then, start something unpromising.

And once you’ve heard the episode, if your eardrums have made answer, and would want more such conversations, you can subscribe to the show on SoundCloud.

Here’s a lightly edited transcript of this conversation.

Akash: Hello, Hana, welcome to the show.

Hana: Hey there. Thanks for having me.

Akash: So, I’m just going to make sure that this isn’t a sign of stalking at all, and it’s well within the confines of keen observation instead. There’s a tiny van parked in your Twitter background. Where does that come from?

Hana: Honestly, the van, I think, is a toy van, I actually got that image from a site called Unsplash, I definitively urge everybody to check it out. It’s got a ton of great images. It basically helps you not use crappy stock photography.

Really great images that are sourced by really great photographers. I came across that. I liked it. I thought it was cute and funny. So, I snagged it from that website,unsplash.com, check it out.

Akash: I’ve borrowed my bunch as well. For a long time I think. Crew runs it. It’s one of their side projects. And yeah, really interesting.

Hana: You know, it’s really funny. It’s not a side project anymore. They’ve kind of blown up in the last little while. So, props to those guys.

Akash: Absolutely. I just wonder that whenever they put something out, it just seems to work. And the care that they put in just shows up. As if they know exactly who is it for, when it’s being put out. That’s fascinating.

So, I’ve been doing this research. Just trying to understand you as a person.  Of course, it’s hard to do that without even having had a word together.

Work really said hello to you when you were quite young, could you take us back to that time, and tell us what was really going on in young Hana’s mind, when she was taking up this early call?

Hana: Yeah. I don’t know how far back we want to go.

My parents were both sort of entrepreneurs. When I was a kid, I used to have this little lemon stand with the next door neighbors.

When I was a teenager…I always worked a lot. I actually taught Martial arts professionally for a little while. I was doing that when I was fifteen.

And then, you know, at one point I just kind of shifted from that into the tech space, which is a whole story in and of itself.

Whatever I’ve been doing from the work or professional perspective has always been something that I’ve been really enjoying. And it’s always been something that hasn’t really felt like work.

So, it’s easy to get excited.

Akash: Do you think that it’s an essential for anyone to start early to have an interesting life?

Hana: I mean, it’s one of those things that’s hard to do when you’re younger by design. Because you don’t really know anything when you’re younger, right?

What I will say is, whether it’s work or whatever, I think there’s value in exposing young people to as much as possible.

You know, if that means exposing them to new ways of thinking, exposing them to travel, to new countries, to different perspectives. And I think that really does a lot to sort of feed in, how they progress and interact as they grow.

Akash: You just about ways of thinking. And there’s this quote that I’ve had in my mind for sometime, it’s from Meghan Daum, she’s an essayist. It goes on life. It goes this way -

“Life is mostly an exercise in being something other than what we used to be, while remaining fundamentally, and sometimes, maddeningly who we are.”

I’ve always wondered what sort of a roadmap, what sort of a genetic roadmap one would need to go about such a journey.

And then I look at you, I mean, you’ve been through multiple transitions, from running a lemonade stand, to teaching Jiu-Jitsu, to running a martial arts studio and then to the tech world, and I have heard that you’re keen on indulging in biohacking at some point in the future.

How do you think about transitions or change in life?

Hana: It’s funny.

Often times it will seem very disparate, I suppose. But I think often times, it’s the melding of different domains and different areas that really help you kind of expand your perspective. And really help you be more creative.

As much as the lot of areas that I’ve been in, seem very different and very kind of, it seems like an odd transition. They have informed each other to a point.

So, just to give a little bit of a background, I used to, as you mentioned, run a chain of martial art studios, so there were I believe 8 or 9 locations at the time, and I was really helping with the collective marketing. I was General Manager of the two of the locations, and I was teaching for a while.

You know, it’s a very different business in the tech industry. But while I was doing that, that was really partly my foray into online marketing. And into tech.

Because this was way back when Twitter was not really a thing yet. It was just at a point when bricks and mortar businesses were starting to need kind of that online presence.

It was really easy to gain local search on Google. There were, a lot of things in the online world, were a lot easier at that point. If you were able to figure them out, there was a lot of benefit in the local businesses.

So, I really spent a lot of time, kind of transitioning them to the online space, building that presence for them. And that’s one I kind of got hooked a little bit, when it comes to online marketing and tech.

But I had really been surrounded by it, for most of my life. My dad was a technology entrepreneur, has founded several companies, one of which was acquired. When we were at home, we had an Apple II E at home.

It was kind of always there.

I laugh, because I remember thinking back, I remember at one point, “I’m never going to be in the tech space.” Maybe, that was some form of rebellion. I’m not really sure. And sure enough, I’m in the tech space now.

And my interests kind of span. I love what I’m doing now, you mentioned, biohacking, I can’t remember really ever actually speaking about that.

But it’s definitely, something I like to geek out on. I geek when it comes to a lot of fitness and nutrition stuff, because that went hand in hand with the martial out studio that I was managing.

And all of it feeds into each other, and that’s partly I really believe that, the more diverse your perspective, the more other areas and other domains can inform what you’re doing in your current situation.

Akash: That’s something that most people look at, and say, “you must be a special person or to be able to do that.” Because you could say that. People walk in circles to figure things out. Mostly, what they’re missing out on is curiosity.

They say, “If you embrace this virtue that curiosity is, and if you try to dig deep, in just one subject, in just one field that you’ve taken up, that itself takes a lot of time. People feel that getting better, just at that one thing takes a lot of time.

And it is sometimes an unattainable goal, if you look at it from the outside, to be able to do that in so many fields. Again and again.

You’ve been doing it. You’ve had that mindset from the beginning. But for someone who doesn’t, what is it that they should be thinking about?

Hana: Yeah. I mean, I would challenge the assumption that it’s going to take a really long time every time. I think, something to think about is understanding how to learn.

Which I think is, it’s funny, that’s not something that’s really taught, right. We teach people everything. But sometimes, going back to fundamentals and how they can learn and what areas of a particular subject they can focus on to sort of expedite that process.

I think there’s a lot there that we can unpack. I mean, somebody that speaks about this really well is obviously Tim Ferriss, if you’ve read, it was I believe the Four Hour Chef, which is seemingly a book about cooking. But it’s not.

It’s a book about learning and kind of gives a framework for how to sort of approach something, and get good at it. And learn how to do it without spending the gazillion hours that you may need to spend. So breaking things up into chunks.

The other aspect of that is, if you’re delving into a different area. For better or worse there’s usually some sort of pattern recognition that happens. That is potentially transferrable from other areas as well.

That’s something that can potentially expedite it. But it just all comes back to asking questions and curiosity, and being open to learning.

There’s definitely a time and a place to specialize. There’s definitely a time and place to do that. But if you do that at the expense of everything else, you kind of start to get that tunnel vision.

Akash: I’m yet to get to that book, though. But I am a fellow podcast junkie, so I do listen to the Tim Ferriss Show all the time.

Hana: It’s a good one.   

Akash: Indeed. So, podcasts as a medium, is that something you go to, as a place for learning?

Hana: I’m such a podcast junkie. It’s kind of funny. I think it’s probably my favorite form of content. For probably a variety of reasons. I think for me, you know, I like the idea that it’s audio. I don’t particularly like video content. I prefer the audio content.

Akash: Same here.

Hana: Yeah. I love being able to do that while I’m taking a walk or walking to work, or doing something that’s kind of low from a mental standpoint, that doesn’t require much from me. But gives me that time to listen to podcasts.

It’s going through a renaissance, right? We’re on a podcast right now. We launched a podcast a few months ago. I think there’s a lot of fun yet to be had in this space.  

Akash: We’re partaking in the same as we talk.

You’ve mentioned in an interview that initially you weren’t interested Uberflip, back when there main proposition was converting PDFs into flip-books, you probably couldn’t sense a worthy mission.

Hana: It was funny. We kind of joke about it now, when they first came across my radar, when they were kind of looking for somebody to head their marketing, I had been aware of flip-books. I thought it was a cool product.

But I was like, yeah, I don’t know. I’m not really feeling like I want to go run marketing for this flip-books product. It looks like it’s pretty straightforward. And it was at the time. Marketing for flip-books was very formulaic. It was a very predictable funnel.

The conversion rates were very predictable. But I went and met with the founders, was really impressed with the space that they were going into, the product they were thinking of launching.

Content marketing was always something that I was doing to a degree, but also saw the need for the kind of product they were building, and also saw a massive opportunity in the space.

And this was almost three years ago, at this point. This is when, while content marketing was definitely not a new thing. It was really getting pushed into the mainstream.

I mean, Content Marketing Institute was really hitting its stride. MarketingProfs was really hitting its Stride as well.

Lot of influencers talking about the effectiveness of content marketing. I think, at that point, everybody was convinced that they should be doing content marketing. What was really missing was the technology and the infrastructure that they needed to succeed, which is kind of where Uberflip steps in.

Akash: Well, you did change your mind about that. And since then, you’ve gone on to build one of the most, I must say, likable brands in the B2B space…

Hana: That’s very nice of you to say. I’ll have to pass that along to my team.

Akash: Thanks. I know those headbands have had a part to play in that. But how have you thought about making this happen from the very first day. You’ve spent 36 months now.

I think, they were supposed to come out with the main thing that Uberflip relies on now, the mainspring of the system. The hubs system.

What was going on in your mind, and have you kept that intact still, in terms of how you look at the next few years are going to be?

Hana: Yeah. It’s interesting because the last few years have been…We’ve gone through some very very dramatic shifts. So when I initially joined, it was the first iteration of the product. We didn’t have product market fit. Historically, Uberflip’s customers were SMBs.

The price point was $50 a month. It was very focused toward SMB. The product was very very different compared to what it has evolved to now.

Really, at that stage, it was trying to figure out who’re the right customers, what are the right channels, do we even have product market fit at this stage.

And what started to become really apparent, really, was what we thought would be thought would be our customer, sort of the SMB market. It really wasn’t.

And at that stage, if you’ve done any B2C marketing, or marketing to SMBs, you know it’s typically a self-serve funnel online. It’s low or no touch. It’s very transactional. And really it’s just all about optimizing that funnel.

And we started to really, realize, as we were kind of starting to opportunistically get these enterprise customers in. And then we were starting to play in that space a little bit.

Everything was just better as we shifted up market.

Not only that. I mean, the product also was really beginning to evolve for more sophisticated customers. For a little while, we kind of had these two funnels working.

We kind of had this - free trial, sign up online, small business, $50 price point, we kind of had this funnel working.

And then, we also started to build sort of a marketing and sales engine. Trying to both ended up being as not really possible for us. And frankly, it really split our focus. And when we broke down, we had enough time under our belt.

We broke down the unit economics. It was really obvious that the real opportunity was way up market. That actually ended up resulting in having to make a ton of different changes, we had already started building out the sales team.

We had to build it out faster. Our lead gen strategy and the type of content that we created. The demand gen strategy overall had to change. And you know, our fundamental technology stack had to change, too.

Because now when you’re sort of looking at optimizing an online funnel, the tools you use for that are very different. You probably use Mixpanel, Kissmetrics, or something on those lines. And all of a sudden we shift to this marketing-sales engine. That funnel is in Salesforce.

It’s a very different engine, and you need to use very different growth mechanisms. So, yeah. It’s not the same. It’s not the same. What we really took time to do was that it’s definitely not sexy, but we had to clean up Salesforce.

That took a few months, in order to get visibility into the data. We had to start to shift like where we were getting the majority of our leads. We had to adjust our model. Because we needed higher value customers, which meant we had to pay more for them.

A lot of changes there. I think when it comes to the brand specifically, which is what you were talking about, to be totally honest that was almost a secondary concern.

After we figured out the model, the business. Can we make money doing this? And is there a product market fit? Now I say, a secondary concern.

It’s not that it was always sort of there. And we did pay attention to it. Because we wanted to have a good brand experience. We wanted people to have a good customer experience. I kind of use the two, interchangeably, although I shouldn’t necessarily do that.

But I would say, over the last little while, we’ve really started to solidify our brand a little bit more. All the way from the typical stuff that you’d expect.

The images. The colors. The look and the feel. But also the tone of content that we create.

If you head over to styleguide.uberflip.com, you can actually take a look at a brand style guide we created, it’s such a fun read.

We even have a section called Uberflippinese, which is basically, random words and phrases, that we’ve either made up, or that we’ve used in certain contexts.

I think, when we think about brand, we often think about awareness, but I think really thinking about brand experience is a way to approach it.

Akash: You’ve done a wonderful job at creating that. The other day, I was reading your Medium post about… it’s about dreams that all of us chase. We’re a part of this grand and vicious struggle. And in doing so, at times we risk losing things that made us do what we do in the first place.  

I’m going to read the special thing you wrote,

“In trying to push through the ups and downs, the end result is a highly obsessed person, whose entire identity and well being is defined by the health of their startup.”

It’s an increasingly known phenomenon, that if you’re chasing dreams, you’re giving up everything for it. Of course, at the end of the day, it is going to come back to us and harm us. So, what were you thinking, when you wrote that post, you’ve experienced this yourself?

Hana: You’re talking about… when you started quoting me, I was like, “did I write that?” But I did.  

If you just google stress and startups, you’ll find it. The title of the post is Stress, Startups, and Survival. And at that point, I was sort of running a company at that point, I had a lot of entrepreneur friends, startup friends that were in the space.

And I wrote that after a particularly intense phone call with a friend of mine, an entrepreneur friend, that was really really struggling and I could completely empathize with that.

And I could really understand where it was coming from, because I think anyone who has founded a company, tried to build something, has experienced to some degree, this form of stress that seems different than other stress.

I think what’s difficult sometimes is to really separate yourself from the thing that you’re trying to build and I think that’s really what I was trying to get at.

I mean, the post, I’m just leaping through it now. It’s been a while since I looked at it. Covers a lot of it. I think definitely a good read, if you’re an early stage startup, and you’re a little bit stressed out.

Akash: Well, I’ve been through that. I’ll make sure that it’s in the show notes.

Is that something that you still struggle with, or is it something that’s solved, as in, you know how to think about it, and it doesn’t bother you anymore.

Hana: Yeah, I mean. I don’t think it’s something that’s ever solved.

But I do think it’s something I have a much better handle on, sort of, how to think about kind of pulling myself out of those periods, where I’m particularly stressed out.

Or things aren’t going particularly well, but not a lot of people talk about this. I wrote this from the perspective of a founder. The reality is, in an early stage startup, it’s not just the founder that’s experiencing stress.

It’s anybody who feels as they have a really big stake in the company. And it’s anybody that feels they have the potential to make a big impact.

I think, kind of, understanding how to step back and kind of look at it from the perspective of somebody from the outside is helpful.

Akash: That’s true. I think it’s the sense of community. When you know someone who is doing almost the same thing as you’re doing, has stumbled across the same trouble, of course there’s that likelihood that you’ll find some solace in admitting that they’ve had this problem. And have found a way to think about it. It’s usually a good work around.

I think, we’re short on time here, I really think that the format needs few more minutes. I would have loved to go deep on a lot of things here.

Hana: I’m looking at my calendar here to be honest, and I did have you booked in for half an hour. But if you’d want to hop on some call at some point, happy to do it.

Akash: Certainly, I think we could have an episode number two. That’ll make sense, I think, we can make a part two.

Just one final question. Before we extend there.

It is about, again, I’m going to go back to the organization that you’ve been a part of, you’ve helped build.

When you contemplate the role of an organization, like say, Uberflip, or Moz, or any of these companies that a lot of people end up admiring.

A lot of entrepreneurs, a lot of operators in companies, end up admiring.

What do you think is the responsibility, as in, do you feel you’re saddled with it, or you just go with it, as you did when you were young, how do you think about this?

Hana: Yeah, I mean, in terms of growth of the company itself, or its involvement in the community?

Akash: I’d say, both, and how do they connect together.

Hana: I definitely think, regardless of what company it is.

I think, as a company starts to grow. And I know I feel this, some people may not, I think there’s a little bit of a ability to sort of give back a little bit. Particularly to founders and startups that are where you were, three or four years ago.

And you know the thing that I really would kind of emphasize there.

As much as there’s a lot of talk about getting mentors, and learning from people that have done incredibly successfully.

People that I really get the most out of sometimes, are not people that are a gazillion years ahead of me. It’s people that have just been where I was.

Because they can really hone in on.

They can remember clearly. Much more clearly what the challenges were. How they dealt with them and how they felt, when they were going through that period.

Whereas, sometimes, if you’re talking to somebody who is really too far ahead, you don’t get quite as much out of it.

So, I love seeing companies, and startups in general, be able to connect with the community a little bit. I don’t know if that answers your question or not.

Akash: It does. Thank you. Isn’t it about knowing that if you’re at a certain stage, you’d learn from a company that has just been through that stage, because the problems that you face are likely to be familiar, and you take it from there.

I think this conversation has to continue to the second part of this interview, and we’ll definitely schedule that. Thanks for your time, Hana. It was a pleasure.

Hana: Thanks for having me.

Akash: It was a pleasure.

Hana: Thank you.

Author of the post

Akash Sharma

Product Marketer at Chargebee. An Avid Reader, Seeking Cerebral Turbulence

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