Why Every Startup Marketer Needs to Learn SQL

About four weeks back, I learned SQL, and it’s been one of the greatest skills I could have ever acquired as a marketing / business guy at a startup. Since learning SQL, our marketing team has:

  • Determined the interests which are most highly correlated with our user base –> allowing us to create super high-value target groups for our Facebook ads.
  • Determined the courses which are most highly correlated with those target groups (so that we know which courses to advertise).
  • Compiled a set of rockstar vanity metrics that showcase the size and awesomeness of Udemy –> Did you know that students have enrolled in more than 143,907 courses on Udemy?
  • Determined the demographic differences between our Facebook & AdWords ad signups (to better explain why our Facebook ad signups have an LTV that’s 4-5x those of our Adwords signups).
  • Analyzed the future enrollment rates of our users based on which course they enrolled in first –> confirming our hypothesis that users who enrolled in a crappy first course were far less likely (about 70% less) to go on to enroll in another course on Udemy (ever!). This drove us to create much stronger quality controls on Udemy.
  • Determined the % of Udemy signups that enroll in a course on their 1st day (let’s look at a graph of this one since graphs are fun):
  • And a whole lot more really cool stuff.

*** Learn the basics with this FREE SQL tutorial for beginners on Udemy. ***

If you don’t know, SQL is a database language designed to enable you to query, manipulate, and communicate with your database. And if you’re like most internet startups out there, your databases are built in MySQL, an open source database used by almost every internet company (people using NoSQL… we’ll have to talk another time). Within your databases there are then a series of “tables” which store various parts of your data… some store user information, some store user behaviors or actions, some store your content, etc, etc. So now when our marketing team has a hypothesis or wants to look into something, we can query those tables and look into it ourselves. This has been huge for us and I’ve found that there are two massive benefits to having a marketing team that knows SQL.

#1 – Learning SQL has literally DOUBLED or TRIPLED the speed at which our marketing team can learn & execute. There’s no more waiting on a dev (who’s busy with far more important tasks of making our product awesome). If we want to run analysis, we just do it… as in right now, today. Speed is everything. Monstrous win.

#2 – We don’t just learn faster. We learn cooler, more interesting shit. This is a tough thing to fully understand if you’ve never had your hands on the data, but there’s a type of learning which you quite honestly just can’t get to unless you are really knee deep in the muck, iterating, and figuring things out. Our marketing team is now knee deep in the muck. Another huge win. This has been really big and I now feel so strongly about it that every single person that comes on to our marketing team in the future will learn SQL. Here’s how we did it.

How We Learned SQL:

Now before I get too far into this, I need to give some heavy credit to one of the ballers on our marketing team, Archie Abrams, for making this happen. Archie’s the type of guy who just learns. He doesn’t think twice about it. Need to get something done. Need to learn a new skill to do it. No worries. Learn the skill. Do it. This is basically his attitude – pretty straightforward.

So the other week when we decided we had a whole bunch of analysis we wanted to run on our users (and that it probably wasn’t going to get done any time soon b/c our devs were crazy busy), he decided to learn SQL and just do it himself.

He got with our CEO, Eren Bali (technical background) and scheduled a four-hour session on a Saturday to learn our tables and the basics of the syntax. He had written a few queries before, but nothing crazy.

Lucky for me, I happened to be in the office at the same time. I figured I’d just sit in on the meeting, maybe work on some other stuff and just soak it in, but within about 5 minutes that gameplan changed completely as I realized 1) this stuff was insanely powerful and 2) writing these queries was no walk in the park, so I’d better pay attention.

Four hours later, Eren had taught us our tables and the basics of the syntax and writing queries. His teaching style was classic startup… something like – “Let’s just start writing queries, I’ll explain stuff as we go, ask questions as you have them, and by the end hopefully you’ll have some clue as to how this works.”

He talked about 500 miles per hour for ~4 hours, but by the end of it, three things had been accomplished.

1) We had finished some cool analysis on the login rates of our users,

2) We had learned the basics of SQL, and

3) We had 4 or 5 sample queries to play around with over the next week

How SQL Works (business guys perspective):

Now devs can do all sorts of fancy stuff with SQL, namely building tables to house your data.

As a marketer / business person though, you don’t really need any of that. You just need read-only capabilities (ideally on a so called “slave server” so you’re not screwing with the live environment) so that you can query your data and run some cool analysis.

To do this you need to understand the basics of a SQL query… which (in my business-speak) is as follows:

select — output you want to see (needs to be from the tables you’re accessing)

from — tables you need to access to get the data

where — how you need to join or link those tables (so that you access the data in the right way… think multiplying two matrices, for those who took linear algebra) — what other conditions you want to have met

group by – think of this as combining your data based on a similar value… it’s like filtering in a pivot table

order by – arrange my data in this order

limit – only send me X rows of data

; — all sql queries end in a semi-colon

That’s it. Most queries usually end up being 5 – 20 lines. There’s other slightly fancier stuff that’s also good to know about (e.g., how to run queries that spit out html tables which you can copy/paste into excel or how to run nested queries), but even with just the basics you can run some very powerful analysis.

Also check out this blog post that lists useful SQL queries.

Just Go Do It:

So for any marketers / startup marketers / wanna be marketers out there… I highly highly recommend you learn SQL. Just grab a dev on your team and ask them to spend 3 or 4 hours on a Saturday teaching you the basics and writing queries.

May you learn cool shit,

dinesh (udemy marketing guy)

*** Learn the basics with this FREE SQL tutorial for beginners on Udemy. ***

PS – So day 1 after learning SQL, I’m super excited about my newfound skills and I go home all braggy to my fiance (also a marketer), who turns to me and is like “pshhh, whatever D, I learned that stuff 6 years ago at my first job when I had just graduated college” (reminder that your significant other is always one step ahead of you… never forget it).

About the Author: Dinesh is a social entrepreneur, marketer, karaoke lover, and east coast transplant living the good life in San Francisco. He runs the marketing team at Udemy and you can find him on Twitter and Udemy.


  1. Nice article that explains a bit about Archie's work at http://www.udemy.com out in San Francisco.

  2. Marci Bernstein Goldberg says:

    Very cool!

  3. Hedrick Ellis says:

    Very interesting. My younger brother Michael knows someone at Udemy. I think it's an old friend from Middlebury. He sent me a link recently. It looks like a cool company. Reminded me of YouTube… but for learning . I recently got a new job with a similar company that has a platform for creating online courses. We're called itslearning. As the blog points out. There is a lot to learn. We should have lunch some Friday.

  4. interesting!

  5. Richard Bachner says:

    Good on you Dinesh for taking the intiative to work more with SQL. I understand that not everybody is cut out to be a full-time programmer, but learning enough SQL to create some basic reports and analyze some data is honestly within the capabilities of most smart folks with a bit of effort. It's important for people to be analyzing the data they have available in pretty much anything they do, particularly in analyzing marketing related info. It's unbelievable to me that so many companies are using social media and investing all kinds of money into advertising without seriously making efforts to track the actual ROI. Between various types of Facebook ad units, the dozens of companies listed at http://www.buyfacebookfansreviews.com for instance, various types of cross-promotions between websites and social media, email marketing, holding live events, and other methods, there's hundreds of ways to go and promote yourself through social media. But different things work best in different contexts, and to that end you really do have to measure what is going on and calculate actual return on investment. Some things get you great traffic without producing sales. Some things get you great sales but minimal traffic. Some things get you great sales and great traffic but are a pain in the butt to manage and become unmanageable. So there's a lot to keep track of and that's why I think that there's a huge untapped market in social analytics tools that's just waiting for better and better solutions. But you can do much of this type of work yourself just by learning a bit of SQL because in most companies developers are too busy to do this type of stuff within any type of reasonable time frame.

  6. Christopher Griffiths says:

    Richard – I don't know if this market is untapped. SAP and Oracle are all over it – Business Objects (bought by SAP in the not-too-distant past) and does dynamic creation of SQL queries based on an intuitive graphical user interface (GUI), and there are some open source tools that do much the same work. I think the gap exists in small to medium sized business, where people recognize the power of technical, dynamic analysis but just don't know how to get into it – especially given how expensive the tools can be.

  7. Christopher Griffiths says:

    This is absolutely awesome, as a technical guy I love to see marketing and biz dev folks get their hands dirty with this stuff. I do want to caution you, though – don't let just anybody have the access to run SQL queries on your database. When you touch this stuff, especially at a small organization, you are often touching the entire information store of your company with nascent (if any) access restrictions in place. This means you could expose tons of highly personal, highly sensitive data.

  8. Dinesh Thiru says:

    Glad y'all like the article! FYI – we made need to keep Archie in SF for a long long time :-). He's a rockstar on the team and I couldn't imagine us running without him.

  9. Dinesh Thiru says:

    It's a great point. Definitely need to have some high trust with the folks who you're letting into the db. For example, letting someone like your a** in there… (fyi for other readers – Chris and I are old friends from high school… I trust him completely and not at all at the same time).

  10. Good job, Archie & Dinesh! :) Not only are they marketing wizards, but also karaoke MASTERS.

  11. Kristal Bergfield Golden says:

    This is such an awesome post. I'm totally down with learning "SQL for marketers". Also – kudos for being so analytical. Coming from a big company and moving to start ups, I'm often disappointed for the lack of analytics around marketing when there's data *all over the place* just waiting to be leveraged. Well done!

  12. Aki Balogh says:

    Great point! And, if you use InfiniDB, you can turn those newly-minted Marketing/SQL Developers into Big Data Developers (i.e. by allowing them to efficiently work with your entire dataset).

  13. I feeel there should be a link to Udemy classes on this…
    one popped out on the homepage as it was trending: http://www.udemy.com/mysql-database-for-beginners2/.

  14. With an Excel Pivot Table on top of Analysis Services (or another OLAP data source) you can answer most questions about as fast as you click your mouse. There are a lot of other good BI tools as well. Pentaho looks promising on the open source side.

  15. Will Lam says:

    Hey Dinesh! Why not create a Udemy course out of this blog post? I'd buy it. ;)

  16. I just started larning SQL with the awesome book "Head First SQL". it explains things in layman's terms and is fun to read!

  17. David Caraballo Rodriguez says:


  18. I disagree with you completely. Yes, SQL is necessary and powerful, better for someone else to run queries for you. Doing it yourself is just a waste of time – you need to be focused on other areas of your business. Now, I'm a developer myself, so I do know SQL. As a businessman, I just find it more profitable to let other people handle such things.

  19. Adam Taha says:

    I wouldn't advise any marketer to learn SQL. It's marketing and sales they need to learn. Without marketing and sales, they won't make a dollar. Generating sales, will enable the marketer to hire the best and those who do have the time. The only reason why companies or anyone finds some developer is too busy is they are looking for cheap web developers. When you got money, when the marketer is making the BIG bucks, they can hire the best and the best will MAKE time because of the money.

    It's that simple. Create a team, or hire someone who is in this expertise area, create a system to do this etc.

  20. Chelsea Kosmin says:

    Adam/Jean – "When you got the money" and "to let other people handle such things" are pretty foreign concepts for a lLOT of start up companies…

  21. Anonymous says:

    Another Option you can learn sql by online free tutorial at Javatpoint.

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