This month’s theme for The Hustle is people who game the system. This is the last of the weekly series.
I moved to America four years ago, when I was 22. Since then, I’ve co-founded two startups that have raised ~$90 million in venture capital and have created hundreds of jobs in five different countries.
Greg Kumparak, a writer at TechCrunch, wrote that I was “just about the biggest (actual) hustler I’ve ever met.”
And so, because this month on The Hustle is all about gaming the system, here are 1,200 words explaining how I honeybadgered my way into a situation that changed my life.
Only a few years ago I was in a cramped East London office with my co-founder and three interns.
It was the summer of 2011. I was running my first startup when I came across an article on TechCrunch that changed everything. A new incubator in San Francisco was giving $120,000 to anyone accepted into its program. At the end of the article, it said:
“[The incubator] was nice enough to keep one spot open for any entrepreneur(s) reading this post. If you’re interested in applying, you have until Wednesday.”
I told my business partner Zain that we should apply. “Naw man, they just tweeted that they’ve gotten hundreds of applications in the past few hours. There’s no point,” he said.
160 AngelPad applications in the past 8 hours …. keep 'em coming – application closes when I get up (5 am pst) http://bit.ly/ocDpij
— Thomas Korte (@thomask) August 4, 2011
I thought I had a way to stand out from the other applications and get the attention of AngelPad’s founder. I told Zain. He responded with “Ok, give it a quick try, then get back to what you’re supposed to be working on.”
And so with only four hours of work, I created an advertising campaign that got the head of AngelPad’s attention, convinced him to accept us into the incubator, and changed my life forever.
The LinkedIn hack that turned a penny into $120,000
I like breaking stuff. I probably missed my life’s calling as a QA tester. When I was younger I would take apart the VCR to see how I could make it better. Thankfully, the internet exists, which to me is like one big VCR.
STEP 1: Find the rules of the game
To get AngelPad’s attention, I set up a series of LinkedIn ad campaigns targeting its founder and his friends.
For no particular reason, I had experimented with LinkedIn advertising. I was curious how it worked, what the rules were, and how it could be gamed. For all of my hustles, I start by figuring out what the rules of the game are. This way, I know how to break them.
In this case, I found the constraints of the ad-unit by typing in random junk and submitting the ad. This way, I was able to figure out what type of ad LinkedIn would accept.
One exploit that I found (which I didn’t make use of in this hack) is that you could set the name of the company running the ad to whatever you liked, even companies that you don’t work for. For example, Uber could run an ad making it look like it was from Lyft!
STEP 2: Set your goal
The word “hustle” has lost its meaning. Everyone who works hard is called a “hustler,” even if they don’t win. Fuck conceptualization of ‘hustling’ as working hard. I only care about results. A great hustle without results isn’t a great hustle. With this hustle, my goal was to get the attention of the AngelPad founder.
LinkedIn provides some of the most detailed targeting options of any ad-platform I’ve ever seen (though I’d say that Facebook has now eclipsed it), allowing you to target very specific parameters. For example, you can even target employees at specific companies:
And exact job titles:
As parameters are added to narrow the targeted field, a number indicating the number of people being targeted adjusts:
Since LinkedIn lets you target so specifically, I was able to adjust this number by increments of one.
For example, at Vungle we only had one CEO, so I tried submitting an ad with the job title “CEO” and company “Vungle”. But I got an error:
It said to select a larger audience, which makes sense, because an advert targeting one person wouldn’t be very lucrative for LinkedIn. But me being me, I wondered exactly how large an audience had to be for an ad to be accepted.
So I added one more company. Now I was targeting the CEO of Vungle and AOL. Again, I got the same rejection notice. So I added another. Rejected. Then one more. Still reject. But then, finally, it worked.
Seven was the magic number. LinkedIn required that ads target a minimum of seven people. To target specific, I added in the specific person along with the profiles of six of their friends.
STEP 3: Placing a bid
The final stage was pretty simple: LinkedIn suggests that you bid on a cost-per-click basis:
Yet because we were targeting such a small target audience of seven people, I choose to bid on a CPM basis (cost per 1,000 impressions).
STEP 4: Getting attention
Here’s what my final ads looked like:
If you were browsing LinkedIn that day, and were friends with Thomas Korte, you’d see a picture of Thomas’ face on the side of the screen and this message: “Please help us pass on this message to Thomas and the Angelpad team.”
After clicking the ad, you’d come to a landing page, which I hacked together in under an hour:
The page was simple and had a video of Zain and I talking into a camera. “Thomas, you’re a legend. We’ve researched your background and deserve this last spot. We won’t let you down!” The page had a link to contact me.
Twelve hours later, I got an email:
I jumped on a call with Thomas and he said “I saw your ad — we can chat, but first take it down now!” He explained that he’d been inundated with emails from his friends telling him to check out our landing page.
A week later, he awarded Vungle the last spot at AngelPad.
Perhaps the best thing about this ad campaign was the cost. Here’s one of the ads targeting Thomas:
Because I was bidding on a CPM basis (instead of cost-per-click), I was able to get five people to view the ad, two of whom clicked it (one being Thomas), for a total cost of $0.01!
If you want to see a few other examples of successful campaigns that I ran using this technique and the results, I’ve uploaded them here.
Since then, Vungle has grown to hundreds of employees and over $25 million in funding. Whilst I’m no longer at the company, I think it’s fair to say that those few hours of reading TechCrunch and setting up the ad-campaign were a pivotal moment in the company’s making.
On the surface, this story is about a simple LinkedIn hack, but I think it’s more than that. See, to me hustling the system means looking at things as one big game. That doesn’t mean working for work’s sake, but rather finding the optimal path to reach your goal. Often, that path is contrary to what other people do or think. But that’s a good thing.
I hope that you’re able to use some of the ideas about finding out the rules and ‘gaming the system’ to your own advantage. I’d love to hear from you on twitter ( @_jacksmith ) about the ‘hustles’ that you get up to.
Next month we’re talking about Eureka! moments. You know, when something clicks and everything changes (hopefully for the better). Sign up below to join our weekly email list.