Written by Lace Nguyen
A battle-hardened marketing veteran, Villar wants you to practice constraint. “Relationships escalate one step at a time. Selling without a story is like asking someone to marry you on a first date,” he told the dozen startup employees going through Saola, an accelerator program run by 500 Startups.
The entrepreneurs come from a handful of early-stage companies; their bios read any combination of data scientist, Silicon Valley veteran, Ivy League grad, competitive programmer, competitive gamer, mathematical physicist, computational biologist, 3x founder, defecting corporate lifer. To some of them, “sales” is a dirty word, an oil slick contaminating the purity of science. That’s why 500 summoned Villar: a high-functioning storyteller who’s obsessed with “putting narrative to data.” Villar said f*ck you to sales (as we know it) a long time ago. He levitates above the content scrap yard. He’s seen the matrix of advertising. He wants you not to flush that precious VC money down the toilet by buying tone-deaf Facebook ads.
Villar dropping truth bombs about paid advertising
Before choosing a career in business, Villar spent five years in pre-med: “I thought I wanted to be a doctor. After taking comparative anatomy and slicing people open, I realized that this was not working out for me.” Wired for science, he follows a data-driven approach to marketing religiously. Villar peppers his talks with acronyms from ARPU to CAC to UGC SEO, using metaphors culled from poker, casino and slot machines (if you start to see a theme here, “Paid marketing success is just controlled gambling,” he confirms.) The guy has digital marketing down to a hard science. Back home in the Philippines—also known as ‘America junior’—Villar runs an agency called Growth Rocket for e-commerce clients, most of them based in America. In his former life, he failed miserably at starting up (twice) and lead marketing for a few companies including ZipMatch, a real-estate marketplace, also a portfolio company of 500 Startups. In 2016, ZipMatch sent Villar to Distro Dojo, another startup program under the brand of 500. “500 Distro Dojo is growth marketing accelerator that invests and trains startups around the world,” reads a message on the official website. Villar still fondly remembers the intensive program: “The beauty of programs like these is that you gain access to experts. Apart from Saalim (Chowdhury) there were a couple of other experts who flew in and just looked at the products and rapid-fired ideas to improve.”
When Saalim Chowdhury, director of the Saola program, put out a feeler on his LinkedIn to see whether anyone was interested in coming to Vietnam to mentor startups, Villar was among the first to answer. “When you transition into an established industry or a cushy job, you kinda miss feeling alive. You miss that urgency where everyone is on the same page and not just kicking back and becoming complacent. Startups bring that out, and you don’t see that a lot anymore. This week has been really invigorating for me,” he talks of working with the Saola startups. He continues: “I miss the pace. I miss the problem-solving. The problem-solving in startups is unparalleled, something you’ll hardly see in a traditional, established enterprise. Every day you’re solving a new problem. That makes you feel alive.”
While pushing the startup founders to conduct growth experiment at the same high speed, Villar also wants them to reflect on the core of their stories. Amid a whirlwind of a week in Vietnam, Villar sits down with 500 Startups to talk paid marketing, founder support, and modern customer courtship:
Have the 10K-foot view
“To a man with only a hammer, everything looks like a nail,” Villar cites the law of the instrument as the main reason marketers are wasting resources. “But once you see the whole picture, you don’t become defensive if one channel doesn’t work. You typically see that with specialists, people who say, ‘We’re gonna make everything happen with SEO.’ No you’re not. Because that just doesn’t work. You have to take a step back and look at everything and form a holistic understanding of it,” he adds. Villar encourages sharing this vision with the whole team: “People need to be able to correlate the work that they do for the company with the bigger picture, and not a lot of companies do that. Again, you need to be able to zoom out and have the 10K-foot view, as opposed to be myopic.”
Jab, jab, jab, right hook
Back in 2017, Cision anticipated that “the biggest change [to paid media] will be a pivot to storytelling and relationship building.” Villar echoes other marketing professionals in this emphasis on story: “There’s no sale without the story; no knockout without the setup. Remember jab, jab, jab, right hook. If all you do is throw right hooks, you will get KTFO’d.”
Naturally drawn to narratives, Villar enjoys graphic novels and worldbuilding with his son. “My personal mission is to read my kid a bedtime story every night until he’s not interested in bedtime story anymore. What we both enjoy is the choose-your-own-adventure kind of story. And those don’t have books. I’d lay down a scenario for him and basically ask him to choose what he’s going to do as a character in the story. For example, I’d tell my kid a story, ‘You are an intergalactic astronaut who fights evil. You see a spaceship in the horizon, what are you going to do? Are you going to approach it, or are you going to run away?’ That kind of story.”
Extract the ‘why’ from the data
A story, by definition, needs a point. As Villar puts it, “there’s always a story behind the data. I always tell my analytics team that everyone can put a report together. With digital marketing, there are so many data points that sometimes people are obsessed with very shallow metrics: email open rate, email click rate, post engagements, etc. The question you should be asking is how that influences your brand, and how that drives the bottom line. How does that translate into value for your client? Piece that story together and put things into narratives.”
Take care of your engine before burning more fuel
When asked about a daily habit, Villar cites meditation as the most nourishing. As with many startup founders, a lot of what he does is self-imposed suffering. Villar recommends meditation for startup founders who’re dealing with anxiety: “At the end of the day, you take a step back and you feel like everything is okay. If you zoom into the everyday chaos of your life, everything feels hopeless and f*cked and there’s no end in sight. But if you could excuse yourself from that battle, climb up the mountain top and feel like ‘okay, I just need to do this and this,’ then it’s not that bad.”
Villar knows too well that founders don’t have the luxury of work-life balance, but agrees that a part of VC funding should go into making sure founders don’t crash and burn. Sitting in 500 Startups office with a coffee in his hand at 6PM, he shares: “I don’t buy into this hustle-until-you-die culture. At the end of the day, you should still care for your health. Hug your kids. Do whatever makes you happy.” He then returns to taking evening calls with his team based in Los Angeles and Manila.
NOTE: This article reflects the personal views of Lace Nguyen and not necessarily the views of 500 Startups. Nothing in this article should be construed as an offer, invitation or solicitation for investment, or be construed as investment advice. Data provided is as reported by portfolio companies, third-party sources, and/or internal estimates and may not have been independently verified.
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