How I Survived (and Thrived) Running UA at a Mobile App Startup

By Oliver Wang | September 28, 2020

Oliver Wang was formerly Senior Growth Manager at Elevate Labs, managing the company’s marketing creative productions. Before this, Oliver was on Nexon’s UA team, where he had the good fortune of working on a slew of iconic franchise gaming titles. After fulfilling his childhood dream of working on the Maplestory games he grew up playing, Oliver is building Elevate Lab’s user acquisition team from the ground up.

Learn more about Mobile Hero Oliver Wang.

In the world of user acquisition, opportunities abound. Big studios, small studios, and all those in between—there’s room for marketers at all levels of experience. I’ve been fortunate enough to be the first user acquisition hire at Elevate Labs and also to have worked as part of a larger team (one of eight people at Nexon). 

Startups and larger organizations each bring a unique set of challenges and opportunities. Here are five takeaways I’ve gleaned from moving between a larger UA team to a lean startup.

Make More With Less

At a startup, limited bandwidth is the norm. The real challenge for anyone in this type of role is making the most out of the time and resources you have while delivering top-caliber performance. 

In big companies, you often have a mature marketing structure with fully-staffed sub-disciplines and defined ownership. You probably also benefit from cross-functional support from data science, creative, finance, and so on. 

In a startup, you need to be quick and adaptable,  learning the various roles as needed. Depending on how new your company is, you likely won’t have access to the wide-ranging resources of bigger organizations. But a well-run startup can be the ultimate place to learn, with the opportunity to learn about all aspects of the business. Just make sure to bring your passion and a clear focus on the goals you are trying to accomplish.

Build Bridges Internally

User acquisition roles are a modern phenomenon, relatively speaking. For many of your colleagues, this could be their first experience working with a UA manager. And of that group, many may not be aware of what you do.

This unfamiliar status creates a unique opportunity to build a strong foundation for user acquisition within the organization: you just need to set and manage the tone of your relationships while defining clearly what it is you do. Educate your stakeholders about UA as it relates to their roles and goals, and establish guidelines for key processes such as task requests and data sharing protocols.

Here’s one example: if your design team is designing marketing creative for the first time, share UA creative best practices with them, such as good performing CTAs or store badges to use, and explain how you will measure the performance of their creative. Ready your internal teams for success by providing them with the user acquisition context to operate effectively.

Manage Relationships with External Partners

Ad network and vendor relationship dynamics change depending on your budget and team size. If you are buying for a known app, a large company, or spending larger budgets, you will naturally have access to more vendor resources and account management attention. In comparison, as a startup with smaller budgets, you might begin as a small account in your account manager’s book of business. It’s important to be self-aware of where you stand relative to the competition, which informs what leverage you have in partner negotiations.

That ad coupon, product beta, or managed service you were accustomed to receiving may not be available to you. You won’t receive top-tier account service without having the budget to back it up. Therefore, it is important to do some selling—get your partners excited about your product’s potential growth and share your wins with them.  

Tell your partners what the growth goals are for next month/quarter/year, share your exciting product roadmap, or even keep them abreast of your startup’s key new hires. Be humble and back your story up with growing budgets and performance improvements every month.

Value Every Cent

The earlier the stage a company you work at, the more valuable each marketing dollar becomes. 

If you invest millions each month marketing an app, spending $50k on a creative test is a drop in the bucket. Putting off a campaign optimization cycle might not be too big of a deal because it simply doesn’t affect your portfolio’s ROAS that much. 

But when you are working with (likely) smaller budgets at a startup, every dollar counts. A swing in your marketing budget could directly impact your company runway. 

Of course, that’s not to say that you should be too tight-fisted with a budget. The nature of user acquisition is that some spend will always be exploratory, performance will fluctuate, and you have to be willing to buy unprofitably to test different things. Communicate with your executive team to set these expectations. It’s a constant balance between diligently optimizing ROAS (or any other goal), but not being so risk-averse that it compromises your appetite for testing and exploring.  Try asking yourself, “Would I make this decision if I was spending my own money?”

Enjoy the Ride!

At a startup, your impact can be outsized, and the people you work with are mission-driven and passionate about the products. Challenges are bountiful, but so too are solutions and learning opportunities. Cherish the close camaraderie and appreciate the impact that you and your company are making in the world.