A Mobile Hero’s Journey From App Marketer to Serial Entrepreneur
This is the story of Sami Khan’s rise from Acorns mobile marketer to CEO & Co-Founder.
Sami Khan was one of the very first Mobile Heroes featured when the thought leadership program began four years ago. He had an enjoyable career as one of the first marketing hires at Acorns, a popular micro-investing and robo-investing fintech company, and was fortunate to help take them from their first few accounts in 2014 to well over two and a half million investment accounts.
We recently caught up with Sami as his career trajectory has skyrocketed. With a fearless drive to continually “take a leap,” his entrepreneurial spirit has guided him through a few exciting ventures.
What did you do before working in the mobile app industry?
I went to Tulane University where I was pre-med, pre-law, took economics and was a touring musician. I have always had a scientific and creative mind at the same time.
One of my first jobs was in sales. While I worked in sales, I co-founded an SEO company on the side. I’ve always liked a side hustle. The SEO company did so well, I was able to earn more from the SEO company than from my sales job. Eventually, I quit to pursue the SEO company full time. I learned a lot about marketing from that experience.
SEO teaches you to understand algorithms. How does the Google algorithm work? How do you make it work to your advantage? I would say this prepared me to think about Facebook in the same way. I never jumped to, “Oh. Let me upload an ad.” I would methodically think, “Okay. I’ll upload this ad, but how does this ad get served? What’s going on in the background?”
I think once you understand how the engine works, it makes you a lot better at using it.
How did your mobile marketing career start?
A family friend of mine offered me advice one time. The point was simple; prove your abilities at a place that has a lot of momentum behind it.
Shortly thereafter, I met one of the co-founders of Acorns at a mixer. They needed help growing the app, having not been launched yet. I thought, “Okay. I was just told to prove my worth somewhere, and here comes the opportunity to do that.”
I was young when I joined Acorns, around 25. I stayed at the company for nearly four years. Obviously, when you join a company from almost zero and grow close to a billion dollars, it makes people believe in you. Even though I feel like I haven’t changed that much as a person, the validation is important because there are a lot of people out there who also say, “I know how to do this. I’m smart.” It’s a lot easier to believe someone when they’ve actually done it than to believe someone who says they can do it, but haven’t.
Has being a Mobile Hero helped your career?
To be candid, yes and no. Let me start with the no: No, in the sense that people aren’t giving me job offers because I’m a Mobile Hero. But I don’t think that’s the point of the program.
Yes, in the sense that I’ve met so many brilliant marketers in the Mobile Hero ecosystem. And I think it’s lonely. If you’re in LA marketing for this billion dollar startup, by definition there aren’t many marketers like you because there aren’t many billion dollar startups.
So, it’s invaluable to tap into a community like Mobile Heroes, where everyone around you is a marketer of a multi-billion dollar startup, and learn from them, hear from them, hear their pains, hear their successes. Not just from a marketing perspective but from a leadership perspective, a management perspective. How to manage up, how to manage down––that is invaluable. You can’t learn that anywhere.
I feel like I value being a Mobile Hero more now than I did a few years ago, when I was one of the first accepted into the program. The ecosystem wasn’t as robust as it is today. I come here [Mobile Apps Unlocked 2019] today and there are 20-40 Mobile Heroes, and it’s great. But when I was a Mobile Hero, it was maybe eight or nine other folks.
I think Mobile Heroes will only get more valuable as it expands. And eventually, you’re going to have this Rolodex of entrepreneurs like me, top level CXOs. I completely see the vision. At first, I thought it was just a brand approach for Liftoff more than anything else. But now it feels like there’s value for the marketers too.
Building a Mobile Marketing Agency
How did you start your current company?
In 2015, I started advising for a browser extension startup called Honey, which automatically applies coupons at checkout. I helped put together their paid campaigns and scaled them from the organic user base of about two hundred and fifty thousand users to over 1.5 million. Honey currently has 10 millions users and is now at roughly the same valuation as Acorns.
After that, I had a lot of folks come to me and say, “Hey, can you help us scale like what you did for Acorns and Honey?” I had all these opportunities helping early stage startups find traction and grow. At first, it just started with founders needing advice about what they should do. At the time, the co-founder of our company, Staircase Digital, came to me and said, “Hey. We should turn this into a business.” I was at a point in my life where I craved a bit more flexibility. It seemed like the right time.
I have a lot of friends who make really good money, but they’re scared to take the leap to start something of their own. My perspective is that it doesn’t matter – you always need to take a leap. Nothing’s ever guaranteed. For me, it was as good of a time for a leap as any. I knew that if it didn’t work out, I could get another job.
We initially called Staircase Digital a growth advisory firm. One of the pain points was nobody really understood what that meant. So now we call ourselves full-funnel digital marketers, because Staircase Digital helps startups position what they’re doing, helps them come up with landing pages, and helps them come up with the creatives and copy, as well as manages the campaigns. We mostly utilize Facebook and Instagram, sometimes using LinkedIn, Snapchat, and Reddit too. It’s been really cool to prove my skills over the last four years, then start a company based on this knowledge which now has over 20 employees. Over the last two years, we’ve helped close to 100 startups.
How did you go about hiring and training your staff?
My biggest philosophy was not hiring somebody who had preconceived notions and was really egotistical about their approach to marketing. My strategy for hiring people is to find those who embody – or open to embodying- my approach to marketing, since it had already proven successful a few times.
I basically wanted to build a team that could replicate how I thought about Facebook, Instagram and other social platforms. For this reason, I sought mostly younger marketers that understood the mechanics and weren’t so senior that they were stuck in their ways.
The other element was that my partner did a really good job of putting together documentation, asking me questions whenever there was a gap in the system. They would document everything, and this process really helped us scale.
What is your current role at Staircase Digital?
We started in early 2017. I’m now more of an adviser for this company. We hired a great president to run the organization. This has been my journey on building this startup – be the entrepreneur, then hire a team to be the operatives. I check the pulse of the business a few hours a week.
Now that I have learned so much across so many different marketing platforms, I feel really strongly about product design and marketing in the world of gaming. And I thought, “What a great opportunity to combine the thing I have been nerding out about since I was 10 years old and combining it with my marketing skillset.”
Building a Mobile Gaming Studio
I’ve been a gaming nerd all my life. As terrible as it might sound, on Friday nights in high school I would be at home playing video games instead of going to parties like my friends. It’s what I loved to do.
I’ve been in marketing for so long, and I see the opportunity of the massive mobile gaming industry. I’ve done product design. I understand funnels. I understand that gaming is really a numbers thing. People ask me, “What makes a good game?” And I say, “Mathematically, a good game is one that retains 15 percent or more of the users after 30 days.” So many people think a “hit” game is some nebulous concept, but it really comes down to the number of folks who stick around.
I’m attracted to it because to me, numbers are something you can work towards, work with, and then prove. I thought, “If gaming really is a numbers based industry, and I know product design, and I’m a gaming nerd, and I’m a marketer, and I’ve loved gaming all my life…” It’s another leap.
A lot of people might wonder why I don’t focus on my business with 22 employees that’s doing really well. The thing is, I love marketing because I’m good at it. But I love gaming more. Between the world of comfort and progress, I’ll choose progress—even at the danger of comfort.
I encourage all entrepreneurs to live like that. They’re naturally risk-takers who would rather work a hundred hours a week to make $60K with a potential upside than have a guaranteed $400K a year paycheck.
What exactly is the gaming focused company you are now building?
Cerberus Interactive is a location based games technology company. This means we can be both a game studio and a platform. As a studio, we are building a process to allow everyday gamers to find us through Facebook, Google, and YouTube, then help us improve our game as a community, literally from day zero. I’m not talking from V1, I’m talking from V.01. The way we do this is to market a trailer of a game and gather feedback. We get people’s reactions, then people can contribute money to be part of what we call a “Team Alpha.”
Our mission is to create an ecosystem for location-based mobile games. Look at the success of games like Pokémon Go. My theory is that location-based gaming will become more predominant because people won’t have anything to do, sitting in their self-driving cars. The world around us will become a canvas. If we can be among the top three location-based game studios, it’s going to be a multi-billion dollar studio. If we can build extra systems to support this growing industry, it makes this a very viable mission.
Where are you in the process?
Right now, our studio is about ten people. We raised a friends and family round and are closing a fairly substantial seed round right now. Our first title, Atlas Empires, which has over seventy thousand gamers subscribed on the waitlist, is now in beta in Canada, Australia, Sweden, and Norway. The metrics look pretty good.
With the money we’re raising, we’ve added much needed headcount to our game design team. We are focused on making the game look and play better for longevity. This sets us up for a great launch in the US. We’re looking at a Q1 launch for Atlas Empires in the US while simultaneously vetting new gaming titles this summer.
Read other insightful Q&As with leading mobile app marketers in the industry.