Fiona: Welcome to Market Mentors, a podcast for the marketing leaders of today and tomorrow. I’m Fiona Jensen, the director and co-owner of Market Recruitment. For over a decade I’ve been helping B2B marketers find the best jobs with great companies. Together we’ll discover how marketing experts reach the top and learn from their experience. Ask career related questions you can’t get answers to elsewhere. Be tough, be challenged, be mentored.
Fiona: If you are a founder or CEO who’s looking to scale your business, hiring your first marketer could be a good solution. We interview Ross Chapman, a revenue focused marketer whose 20 years experience is focused around building business for enterprise tech businesses. His experience includes working for not one, but two of the fastest growing tech companies in the UK, from which he shares both the successes and lessons from setting up and growing a marketing function. So Ross, as our startup guru, I can’t wait to learn how marketing can help scale a business, but first, share a summary of your experience and successes that we’re going to be listening to and learning from.
Ross: So I call myself a revenue focused marketer. So I really enjoy building businesses and I see marketing as the craft, the art and science by which I can do that. I have about 20 years experience. I graduated in 1999, so it makes the math easy, 20 years experience in sales and marketing roles, all for enterprise technology companies, both in the US and here in the UK. More recently, over the last ten years I’ve had senior roles at two hyper growing companies, two of the fastest growing companies in the UK, first with a company called Market Group, which I think when I joined I was about employee number 300, and three years later, there are about 3000 of us and it’s since went on to IPO and NASDAQ. Then I joined a software company called Microgen TLC. It was a publicly listed company on the main exchange, the New York stock exchange, and a couple years in we launched a brand called Aptitude Software, which also I was very lucky for that to take off. I was the first marketer there and we went from being quite a segment company in terms of financial results to being named founding [inaudible 00:02:49] year on year growth over about four years and being [inaudible 00:02:54] by the financial analyst community, and even being named in 2018 as the top UK headquartered public technology company by a major analyst.
Ross: So I think through these experiences I’ve become confident in my craft and I really believe that marketing is the force and the mechanism and the medium that can help technology companies to scale their growth. I’d like to share on the podcast today my thoughts on how marketing can help do that, when the right time to hire is, what the profiles of people to hire are, some of the tips and tricks about how to focus your time and resources in the early days, and hopefully this all comes together to support a scale up CEO or founder who’s looking to take their business to the next level.
Fiona: Fantastic, and the other side of that as well, which I’m also excited by, with touching into that wonderful brain of yours in the people who are interested in working for startups. It’s a real insight into the pressure, the reality, the tough decisions, and what it’s actually like behind the sort of idea, and I think a lot of us romanticise that type of career, working for a really exciting startup, and you kind of think that’s where I want to be, but I’ve seen the reality, which is no doubt something that you’re going to be happy to share, is sometimes very different, and I think it’s important to be able to take the [inaudible 00:04:35] off and look at it realistically and then assess whether that’s really the right job or type of company for you.
Ross: Yeah, absolutely, and I have some first hand experiences to share in that domain.
Fiona: I bet. I bet. Well, if we are imagining, then, we’ve got our CEO founder who’s currently got his earbuds in and he’s having a think and he’s like, “Right, well when should I hire my first marketer?” What sort of things should these founders, owners, and CEO’s really be thinking about? Is it milestones, product market fit, and on the contrary, I propose if you’ve got a founder or CEO who knows marketing in something that he wants to bring into the business now or quickly, on the contrary, what signals demonstrate that it’s actually not the right time to hire that marketer right now?
Ross: There are a couple of [inaudible 00:05:38] on the right time to hire your first marketer is, and they are first is that there’s a strong argument that you can’t hire your VP of marketing too early, which is really articulated in the great article by Jason Lempkin who runs the Fast Start blog, a kind of Silicon Valley based site for providing startups with growth advise, and the second argument is that actually it might be a better time if you’re a startup or a scale up or an early stage business, you might not want to hire your marketer until you have an idea of what will work. Maybe you’ve started to generate from first leads through the website or you’ve started to have some success of events, or you’ve started to kind of build a little bit of a mini brand and people have heard about you. That might also be the right time.
Ross: If it was my opinion, where I lie on this is I’ll go with Jason and his advice that you can’t hire your VP of marketing too early, and the reason for that is … you know, it all depends of course on the shape and the size of your business and your product, but if you’re [inaudible 00:06:48] software or technology products at a decent price point, let’s say 10,000-15,000 pound annual license fee, or the equivalent for a SAS model, you can make an argument that your first marketing hire should come before your first senior sales hire. How many deals will it take to make sure that any new prospects you have are programmatically talked to, that the company presents itself well, that the company understands its buyers needs at a more granular level of detail. What price do you put on making sure that your sales teams or your early sales hires are effective? What price do you put on the ability to hire other good talent and to attract other good talent into the business in marketing sale products or other functions.
Ross: So you put all these factors together … maybe another one, increasing contract values or price points via improving the positioning or the targeting of the prospects you’re going after. You put all of these things together and [inaudible 00:07:54] model to figure out that if you’re paying your first marketing hire a low six figure salary, that actually you can get a return from that probably within about a one year period. So I believe if you’re looking to scale and if you’re a founder, CEO, and you’ve made your first couple [inaudible 00:08:13] of sales and you’ve maybe got some investment, you’ve got a good vision, you might want to think about bringing in a strategic VP of marketing earlier rather than later.
Fiona: Got you. I see, so it depends on where you’re at, because I suppose the issue with the VP is that if you bring them in too soon, you might still as a business need someone who’s more in the weeds with regards to that day to day execution, where the VP probably is either a bit out of touch or not so keen on writing a bit of content or launching a campaign against. So you have to make sure you’re aligning the level of marketer you’re looking for with the actual business problem, issue that you’re looking for marketing to address.
Ross: Sorry, I don’t want this to be a quote chasing [inaudible 00:09:02] show, but Jason also makes a great argument that if you make that first hire very early, prior to making your senior sales hire, it’s very important to under hire, because say you got an you hire a marketer who’s maybe got three to five years experience and he’s done well in his first job and he’s looking to progress in his second job, well he or she might not yet have the ability to make some of the more strategic contributions, to engage with and understand the target customer, to really have a depth of understanding about the industries and markets that you’re selling into, the ability to articulate a vision and a brand narrative and these sorts of things, and what I often see happening is that when those kind of more junior hires are made early, a year or two later the CEO says, “Gosh, I really like this young marketer, but we’re really not getting the returns we want,” or, “We haven’t made the progress we want,” and that’s because typically due to the level of experience of that junior marketer, you’ve kind of got in that situation where you put tactics ahead of strategy and that just doesn’t work.
Ross: So I think yeah, you’re absolutely right. You do need to hire a senior, but you also need to hire a generalist and you also typically need someone at a startup who’s … not typically, you definitely need someone at a startup who’s going to roll their sleeves up and actually do the work. So that’s the profile that I’d be looking at.
Fiona: And on the contrary side of things, are there signals that demonstrate when it’s not the right time?
Ross: We [inaudible 00:10:40] into this earlier. I have a belief that a founder or CEO really needs to play a direct role in making the first sale, and as we know with startups and scale ups, they often pivot and change directions many times in the early days. So if you don’t yet have … if you have a vision and maybe a written down business plan but haven’t actually hit the road yet, made those first sales, you’re probably a bit early to hire your first marketer, unless of course you’re hiring them maybe as a kind of a co-founder. So you want maybe at least a couple handfuls of sales, you want customers starting to write feedback on your product, you want that vision to be coalescing, you want to have a clear view of how you’re going to compete in the market and how you’re going to be different.
Ross: Of course, these things may change and hopefully that senior marketing hire helps contribute to that vision, but hiring the marketer before you’ve made progress is essentially hiring someone to create your business for you, and that’s probably a recipe for disaster.
Fiona: So you kind of covered what sort of marketer you should hire here. So your recommendation is around more senior who’s got this strategic element behind them, but who’s also happy to obviously execute some of that and be hands on. You mentioned, obviously, generalist is better potentially versus more specialist, unless you’ve got a very specific need or problem I expect, so that makes sense. What about the outsourced versus in house? Because I think often that’s something else that startups are toying with, at least we’re not committing to, this could work, we’ll get a team of people working on this, versus just one person. What’s your advice or insights into outsourced versus in house for that startup?
Ross: You can’t outsource marketing. It’s kind of the core function in the business, right? What’s the thing that Peter [inaudible 00:12:44] quote, “There’s two things in business, marking and innovation.” You can’t just outsource half of the equation, and I think I’ve seen it time and time again. When I was hired in 2011 I was the first marketer at Microgen. There were a lot of agencies being used, PR agencies and people to manage analysts and different things, but we didn’t really have a marketing leader in the business to help manage those, and again, we got in a situation where tactics got ahead of strategy and none of it was working and everyone was frustrated. More recently, over the last month I’ve had chats with about 15 CEOs of scale up businesses in the UK, and almost all of them said, “Hey, I’ve got this little agency doing this thing for me over here or doing that thing for me over there, and it doesn’t really seem to be working,” and the agency seemed really convincing when they approached us, and they no doubt had some skills, but they’re not really getting under what really matters to our business.
Ross: And so my perspective is that the marketer needs to be in house in order to really understand the proposition, the differentiators, the capability of the business, to hear the customers first hand, to be immersed in that every day, but after you get that first marketer or two, there is a role for agencies to compliment the work that would be done internally, as a means of gaining leverage in the market, but you really can’t do it the other way around.
Fiona: Yeah, I’ve read quote a few articles from the startups’ perspective, that one of the main issues I think with outsourced is the time management, because as you mentioned, if you’ve got two or three difference freelancers or agencies working for you, none of those are talking to each other, so you risk essentially the sort of overarching brand or value proposition not coming together, but also it takes a huge amount of time to manage that resource, to make sure that it’s on track, and again, marketers that have that experience know how to do that effectively. They can mobilize it a bit more, potentially.
Ross: Totally. I mean I think that is part of that. I think … I’ve seen [inaudible 00:15:08] at Aptitude and through speaking with peers that this is also reason not to under hire too early.
Ross: So say you’re a marketing team of three people and you’ve got one senior and two new graduates. Well those two new graduates are needing a lot of care and feeding and direction, and actually taking away from the time and the capacity of your senior marketing leader to make a difference. So there is an argument that if you decide that it is the right time to scale your business, be marketing led in that approach. You probably need to foresee the day that you have multiple senior marketers working in a team to thrive the business rather than a team of new graduates who are going to need a lot of direction and support.
Fiona: Got you. Okay. So we’re agreed then. So rather to be senior level marketer, right time, CEO, founder, it’s the right time to move forward. What does the CEO or founder need to say or stand for to a get a top class marketer to join as their first one? Because as we all know, the guys who know what they’re doing, they need to be reassured that it’s the right business and that marketing’s going to be valued and understood from day one. So if you were a founder or a CEO and you’re looking to attract one of those, what do you need to say or stand for to help yourself secure one?
Ross: Yeah, so I think there’s been good news here. So if you’re a … we’ll paint the picture, you’re a CEO of a relatively new technology and you’ve got two or three handfuls or early customers and you may have chosen to finance your business with some venture capital or outside investment. The good news is that same information you needed to convince your customers and your investors is what you need to convince your top marketing talent to join. You need to have some defensible IP, a strong vision for your business, a good view of the team or the team you’re going to bring together. Ideally, your marketer is going to want to know that you’re in a big and good market and that market dynamic is playing in your favour and that you’re well placed to succeed. So to answer your question, that same pitch that you made to your early customers and investors is going to be what you’re going to rely on to bring in your senior marketer to join you.
Ross: We could add to that a little bit. If I reflect on my own role, so I’ve been passionate about … even though my first job after engineering school was in sales, I’ve been passionate about marketing for at least 16-17 years, but didn’t have a [inaudible 00:17:57] to find a marketing role until I was in private management. I was in sales. I ran my own business for a short period of time, and I think when I was approached by Microgen to be the first marketer, I’ve got to admit, I didn’t have many of these things. I had a stagnated business. They had unreliable financial returns. The product looked good but it hadn’t really achieved growth. So why did I join? Well the [inaudible 00:18:22] role in marketing, but I saw an opportunity to apply the best of the marketing principles and techniques to help the business grow. So I think another thing that CEOs can look at is the opportunity for the marketer to develop their career and to apply their marketing muscle to help the business grow.
Ross: I think for most of us who are passionate about marketing, we’d be willing to accept some uncertainty and risk in the business plan in exchange for being allowed to help grow the business by focusing the customer needs and by doing some exciting marketing promotion.
Fiona: The excitement of a blank sheet of paper?
Ross: That’s right. Why we get excited about that, I’m not sure, but there is some excitement about building things.
Fiona: So let’s say, Ross, you’re the first marketer in. What does your first 30 days look like, given that you don’t necessarily have the luxury of time now to start delivering against thing?
Ross: Yeah, so I typically like to think about this as what do we need in these early days? We need to enable sales. We need to be able to articulate our product proposition, our value proposition. We need to be able to engage perspective customers, and so in those first 30 days I think it’s really imperative that that marketer work on the one thing that’s going to help them do all of these things, and that’s really understanding the customer, calling prospects, calling customers, calling customers who use competitive products, understanding their buying process, starting to develop a bit of a buying process persona. So I think that’s where marketers have to start these days, not with the tactics, not with resetting the website, not with creating brochures, but actually around really, deeply understanding the customer and their buying process.
Ross: I think in addition to that, we’re all under pressure to deliver more these days, and businesses that hire marketers and marketers themselves both want to show some quick wins. So one of the kind of timeless tactics that I’ve adopted is to try to bring together prospects on the round table discussions around certain issues. So when I was at Bark and the company had an early view about a proposition for enterprise tax functions, we saw the opportunity to host a number of tax round tables and road show events, and that gave us a great opportunity to both understand the market and converse with them about what the challenges and aspirations were, but also, quite interestingly, a lot of the generated content that other prospects employed and the company saw as being useful to articulating its proposition to the market. So I think prospect round tables are a great way to deliver both long term value and short term wins.
Fiona: And also, the research and a customer focused approach, that’s kind of starting with that anyway, because if you find the customers who liked what it is that you do, you’re already starting to build your pool of potential round table people as well. So I like that. Great advice, Ross.
Ross: I’m tempted to go on about that a little bit longer. I think one of the challenges today, in today’s world, is that there are so many more software companies and technology companies. It’s much easier to start a company than ever before, and whereas 10 years ago you might have had one or two competitors in your space, today you have to assume that there’s 30 or 40. I’m about to join a very interesting cyber security company, and there are tons of people in the cyber security space, all with different offerings and different spaces and different merits and different capabilities, and guess what? All of them say, “We’re great. We’re the best. We’re the leader in this or that,” and so if you want your marketer and just say … help the company articulate that it’s great and it’s the leader and it’s the best and to make the website look good and to start running outbound communication, I believe a lot of that will fall flat these days because everyone is saying it. You’re not differentiated. So the onus on us as marketers is to bring the customer voice into the marketing, and no better way to do that than starting to buster small communities and round table is a very useful mechanic for doing that.
Fiona: Perfect. I like that. So you’re in, you’re starting to run or get your round tables going and things are going in the right direction, Ross, so when do you know it’s time to hire your first team member for marketing? What type of marketer would you then bring in, and how would you imagine structuring the team from there on? Give us a sort of framework, I suppose. In a dream world where everything’s going to plan, how would you grow that marketing team?
Ross: Yeah, so when is it the right time to hire your second marketer, or for the marketing leader to bring in another team member? And I think that’s around having another degree of confidence around the value proposition, the right targets, how that market might be segmented, what tactics might work and how you want to engage with your market. So at that point, you’re probably wanting to do a number of things as a business, as a CEO. You’re wanting to enable your sales force to sell and to sell more quickly. You’re wanting to really articulate your value proposition or your product proposition. You’re probably wanting to showcase that product. You’re wanting to have more conversations with real targets, so you need to identify target customers more readily. You’re wanting to attract more people into the business and you’re probably going to need some form of company brand or company narrative to do that, and at the end of the day you want to generate demand via content and campaign.
Ross: So you’ve got a bit of a challenge here in that you’re more confident in your opportunity and there’s a lot of work to be done and you probably only have budget for one or two more hires, or you’re only ready to maybe make two more hires. So again, I’ve got to say, what you really need are what you may call T-shape marketers. You need people … you’re not ready to have specialists. You can’t afford, for example, just to hire a content marketing specialist but have no mechanism to distribute that content. So you need someone who gets the full … you again need someone who can roll their sleeves up and get a lot done. Ideally, you want to think about hiring a second senior team member as to not burden the VP of marketing with having to spend most of their time managing two junior employees. So I think you’re looking to hire, again, a generalist marketer, a T-shaped marketer, someone who maybe has been a specialist at a large corporate in say content marketing or product marketing or field marketing and is wanting to kind of broaden their own experience and to work across marketing disciplines.
Fiona: When you’re hiring this T-shaped marketer, what sort of things would you be looking for to assess their suitability to work in the startup environment, if they haven’t done so before?
Ross: You want to assess their understanding of the marketing fundamentals, or the marketing process, and that can be quite academic, the ability to understand customer needs, to understand what things like positioning are, to understand how you bring together propositions for particular segments of the market, things like that. So you want them to be able to think, because you can’t spend your whole day teaching them to be a marketer, but you also want someone who’s really excited about getting things out the door. As a startup or a scale up, you need to iterate quickly and you need to experiment a lot. You can’t live in academic land. You have to get a campaign out the door, test it, understand how it sticks, and maybe use that as a mechanism for understanding the customer even better.
Ross: So you’re looking for examples of activity this person has initiated, their ability to be a self starter, their ability to ask hard questions, their gravitas or their ability to interact with more senior people in the business, maybe on the product team or the founding team, to ask hard questions, and finally I would say these days we live in a world where communication is a critical skill. So you’re probably looking for someone who’s got great both verbal presentation skills as well as written skills so that they can help you to engage your customer audience.
Fiona: The next question is probably the million dollar question, if I’m honest, but what tech staff would you suggest, and why, given Scott [inaudible 00:27:22] infographic [inaudible 00:27:25]. I don’t know what the number is going to be for 2020. I’m guessing it will be something near 10,000 or something like that by then, but what tech staff would you suggest? Or what’s the best experience you’ve had tech staff-wise?
Ross: Yeah, so here you are [inaudible 00:27:44]. You maybe have a couple marketers on the team. Things are starting to get work. You’re quite excited about maybe the community events you’ve held or the feedback you’re getting from prospects and there’s a bit of excitement around the sales pipeline. What tech staff do you need? One thing you don’t want to do is you don’t want to stop all this great outbound engagement and spent all your time fiddling with integrating other tools. So you’ve got to think simple and you’ve got to think about the foundations. When I was at Microgen, I’ve got to admit, for all of my talk of T-shaped marketers, the very first hire I made after we launched the Aptitude Software brand was someone to join me and build the CRM from the ground up for the first 10 months. That was before we hired a field marketer, hired a content marketer. We had someone who helped put in the CRM.
Ross: Over the years, I ultimately paid some big returns. If you’re going to think about the CRM, how are you managing customer information, customer data? How are you managing pipeline? How are you managing lead? In addition to that, another foundation these days is we can’t exist without the ability to easily and readily communicate with prospects, customers, and our community, and typically marketing automation tools have become almost a mainstay of the marketing technology stack. You need to know who’s interacting with you. You need to be able to communicate with them. You need to be able to communicate with different groups of people very quickly. So that’s becoming a key component as well. I think you want the ability … I haven’t done a good job of this in past roles, but you really want to install some form of recording capability as quickly as possible.
Ross: Excel, increasingly, isn’t cutting it. So I would also look at … whether you run that through your CRM, whether it’s SalesForce or another platform, whether you run some of it through your marketing automation platform, or you might want to increasingly consider some of the cool marketing reporting tools that are out there that help bring together your data from different sources, because you can’t manage what you can’t measure. It’s good to get that measurement in sooner rather then later, and then finally, I think there’s so many great tools out there and you probably don’t have the time, the money, or the resource to implement many of them, but I like to think about some technology for quick wins.
Ross: ABM [inaudible 00:29:58], things like Demand Base, Radiate B2B have done a good job of making it easy for marketers to quickly target advertising to target firms or people that have shown an interest in them. There is intent monitoring tools like Bombera or [inaudible 00:30:14] that make it easier to understand who’s searching for the problems you can solve, and then there’s things like Drift and the conversational marketing tools. I think HubSpot has one now as well, that allow you to interact more quickly with people visiting your website. I think those can form quick wins that keep the company happy, keep the company excited, show marketing’s role in engaging the customer, and I would leave it with that, if I’m honest, because you’ve got to get on and be producing campaigns.
Fiona: Yeah, well that’s it. There’s so many out there, isn’t there? It’s easy to get down little rabbit holes and then trying to assess a price and God knows what else, but a nice, juicy list there. Thanks, Ross. So we’re buying those. Next up, stakeholder management. So this is always the tricky thing, I think, because they’re the first marketer in, they’re not necessarily understanding or have a really good appreciation of marketing from day one. So how important is managing up as well as down? How do you sort of gain and encourage that key buy in from the likes of sales, the founders, the investors, et cetera?
Ross: Yeah, so managing up is critical, I think. So here you are. You as the founder or CEO have made those first three handfuls of sales. You didn’t need any marketing to do it. You just got to invest a lot of your money or your returns on hiring a marketing team. You’re looking to see the results of that, and you know it might not come immediately, but you want to know what return is. So there’s a few things marketers need to do to help manage up. You’ve got to set out a bit of a model as to how marketing is going to pay returns. For some businesses, that might be as simple as new leads in through the website. For other more evolved businesses, I think it’s going to be around how marketing and sales together are increasing or accelerating the sales opportunity pipeline or the revenue pipeline, and for other more product led tech companies, for example, it’s going to be about the number of users that are using the platform and how often and frequently they’re on that platform, metrics such as monthly active users, for example.
Ross: So it’s critical for marketers to manage up. Now I’ve found that there’s a few tools that can help marketers to do this, but first let me share a kind of common scenario, is that you get your first two or three marketers and a small marketing budget, and the whole organisation starts going, “You know what would be really cool is if we had a brochure that did this, or we participate in this event over here and we created a website for this thing over here, or we want to show off this feature of our product over here,” and everyone says, “Oh, we’ll just tell the marketing team to do it,” and start setting the priorities of the marketing team, and what often happens is the marketers get so busy with wanting to please others within the organization that they kind of get a lot done, but nothing to a deep level or detail and nothing which really ties together in terms of the campaign, and the results don’t show and ultimately marketing pays the price because those same people who are making the requests are saying, “Well why don’t we have more leads or more business coming in?”
Ross: So one of the things that the VP of marketing or the marketing lead has got to do is to kind of set out a road map. Just like a product team would have a roadmap of punctuality, the marketing team can have a roadmap of things they’re going to accomplish in each quarter and what their focus points are for the year. The second thing, and this comes from agile marketing that I think marketers have to do is set out a backlog of activity, just like a product team would have a backlog of feature or function requests and multiple things they’re prioritizing. Marketing is going to make all of the work that they’ve been asked to do and that they want to do public, and they’ve got to prioritise that backlog so other people can vest in it so that when that new request comes in, marketing can say, “That’s a really good idea. We’re going to add that to our backlog, but I can tell you for the next three or four weeks we’re focusing on these other activities. So as we like your idea, I’m sorry. We might not be able to jump on it or prioritise it at this moment,” in order to protect marketing so they can get a collective cohesive campaign out the door.
Ross: So managing up is really key. The good news is that managing down for a small team should be less hard. You only got a couple of people, you’re all in it together, managing down should be a lot easier. You’ve got to learn to set priorities together and to work as a team and to set some common goals. I think agile marketing framework does a great job of helping small marketing teams to kind of come together around common goals, but you shouldn’t have to worry about defining peoples’ objectives, just getting the marketing team together to find a common objective and go at it.
Fiona: So in your experience, how do you align with the sales stakeholders?
Ross: Oh man. There’s this kind of inevitable tension between sales and marketing. I certainly felt it at that market group when we were running really, really, really fast and had hundreds of sales people and very few marketers. I felt it at Microgen, which was a very sales driven company where I was its marketer and the sales team had their ideas and their pursuits and they didn’t necessarily align with where I felt the market opportunities were. I think the age old lesson of communicate, communicate, communicate, I think marketers have to assert themselves to kind of get their view of where business growth is going to go and how they’re going to contribute to the company’s objectives and company’s goals. I think marketers need to hold their ground, to a certain extent. I think we also need to collaborate. We need to find common ground with the sales teams about the best opportunities. I think I’ve been telling a little bit of a story recently about how at Microgen and Aptitude, initially I couldn’t get the sales team to follow through how I wanted them to.
Ross: I thought I was pushing on a piece of string. We identified certain markets which looked really juicy and looked really hopeful, but the sales team were being quite opportunistic, rightfully so, and going after a whole different range of applications, none of which I felt could be easily replicated. This was in the very early days, and I found that by creating content and campaigns and data about the target audiences that I felt were most useful, then the sales team would naturally follow, because all of a sudden they had someone that wanted to talk to them, they had a good conversation to be had, they had someone who might have inquired on our website, they had someone who may have come to one of our events. It was almost like rather than pushing on the string I could pull on the string and the sales team would follow.
Ross: So I think marketers need to think about ways to serve their sales team and their sales function to give them opportunities rather than to push them to do what they don’t necessarily see or they don’t necessarily see as opportunity, but yeah, it’s imperative. You can’t have your sales team one place and your marketing team another place. It’s one team. Both teams are focused on growing the business and generating revenue, so you’ve got to bring those two functions together.
Fiona: What, if anything, would you suggest a founder or a CEO could do to support that, to help that partnership?
Ross: I think clarity of objectives and goals. One of the things we did in the early days at Aptitude is our CEO, Tom Crawford, he brought the entire executive team together for an offsite day and we created what I call a pyramid diagram of what was it going to take across our functions in order for us to achieve our goals of winning X number of CFOs as customers, and through that process we could see clearly what the role sales was going to take, what the role marketing was going to take, what the role the product was going to take, what the role technology was going to take, and we had metrics and measured each of those. I think sales and marketing need to be able to clearly share and articulate what their initiatives are and how they compliment each other, and I think a lot of that is around, in my best experiences, it’s when sales and marketing can share a common view of the customer’s needs.
Ross: Sales team are out there talking to customers every day. Marketing teams are out there doing marketing research, studying competitive environment, also studying and discussing prospects and customers and analysts and people like this, and those two things then have to come together and just share a view of what the customers’ needs are, and if sales and marketing can share that view, then I’ve found sales gives marketing the time to do things that help customers see that we can serve those needs and marketing gives sales credit for the role they take in the process. So that’s the common ground I look to establish with a sales team.
Fiona: We’re having a really great ride in our startup in the moment, everything seems to be going well, sales and marketing are aligning. Let’s tip it now. Let’s say, what happens if there’s a problem, Ross, with growth, the sales aren’t right, messaging isn’t resonating, pricing, sales velocity is too slow. How do you handle that?
Ross: Really good question, and it’s a very … I believe it to be very common for that to happen. A classic situation, just to show that I feel the pain, the classic situation is that the company says, “If we create a whole bunch of great content, we get this marketing team to create a whole bunch of great content about a particular subject or about our product, the leads are just going to start flowing through the website,” but invariably, what you find is that creating content takes time, and then to make things worse, you put it out there on your website and through different channels and you find that the leads don’t just start showing up on day one. It takes time for that inbound process to start working. Same with things like advertising and SEO, long term gain, and so invariably sales get a little bit frustrated, marketing gets frustrated, and management get frustrated as well.
Ross: So what’s the answer? Well the best answer I can find, and with risk of sounding like a broken record is agile marketing. It’s to break down the problem into small steps, to think about what could be achieved in terms of customer engagement and customer experience over the course of a sprint, whether that’s three weeks or four weeks time, to bring sales and marketing and products around that particular sprint, and to focus on not necessarily an amazing objective in terms of leads or pipeline, but to focus on what we can learn about our customer and what our customer will respond to during the period of that. At [inaudible 00:41:23] in the early days, when we were just defining this new proposition in the tax market, we decided to run some of our first sprints focused on engaging this [inaudible 00:41:36] target customers around what their barriers to transforming their tax processes would be, and I think then sales are empowered because they’re hearing from more customers, marketing’s empowered because their goal is achievable, and it forces both teams to think about what could be done now. Could we do this with an email or a set up phone call versus a 50-page ebook? So take those small steps to drive engagement and to increase the rate at which the company can learn about what will work and what won’t.
Fiona: So try not to panic.
Ross: Yeah. Try not to panic and think about every customer and every customer engagement counts. So focus on a few rather than the many, and I think we’ve seen it. There was a time at Aptitude where we decided that we were going to target the insurance industry, and insurance is one of those industries that’s quite widely known to be a closed network. You’re either in or you’re out, and at the time we were out. We had maybe one or two insurance customers. We were new at it. Again, this was in the very early days of launching Aptitude, and so we set up what would now be called the [inaudible 00:42:55] Smart Pay program where we identified several handfuls of potential insurance customers and the key buyers within those insurance customers, and we decided just to start to make calls to introduce ourselves, to make sure we had the right person to communicate with, and we found that very quickly, within a week or two, we could call a set of insurers, let’s say like Canadian life insurers, and we’d speak to one. We’d introduce ourselves, we’d ask them about a particular issue, and they would give us a little bit of insight.
Ross: Then we’d call the second one and we would share some of that insight with the second one, and that second one would say, “Oh gosh, well that’s really interesting. We’ve been looking at the problem this way,” and very quickly, within a matter of weeks and months, we started to build up this real expertise about what was going on in the Canadian life insurance market, and I think in that way … if we would have just gone and focused on promotion and presenting ourselves as the world’s greatest insurance expert and we’re good for everyone, it would have never worked, but because we naturally fell into this rhythm of having to talk to individual companies and individual buyers, we made progress much quicker than we would have otherwise, and so that’s been a really formative experience and kind of guided me towards the agile way of thinking.
Fiona: Okay. So if we’re back to the CEO, founder who’s kind of thought, “Actually, by the sounds of this, I’m ready. I get the sense that I do need a more senior marketer, and they’re going to help me scale the business,” what’s realistically achievable? What sort of time scale? If you’ve got some sort of broad examples or predictions about how much marketing can move the needle for these founders and CEOs who aren’t marketers who might be a bit skeptical as to what’s actually achievable.
Ross: Oh man, hard question.
Fiona: Sorry Ross.
Ross: What’s [inaudible 00:44:51] and what’s achievable … I mean I think you definitely need to be able to … regardless of what stage you’re at, you definitely need to be able to accomplish a number of things, say within six to nine months. You need to be able to articulate your proposition for the market. You need to be able to identify your target customers and buyers. You probably want to start to be able to segment those target customers and buyers. You want to have a view of what channels or promotions are going to work. For example, are people searching for what you’re selling or not? Are you going to go strong on SEO or do you need to go knocking down doors with an account based marketing program?
Ross: In terms of the impact on revenue and profitability, a lot of that depends on the type of product you’re selling. In Aptitude we were selling, at the time, a higher price point product that had a longer sales cycle. So we had to kind of take a view that marketing was helping to lay the ground cover for future success. Maybe it was 18 months out, and thus we took kind of directional dues. At [inaudible 00:46:05] we had a lower priced product. We had to make sure that within that six to ninth month period of time, we were generating new leads. So we had to think about how quickly we could create content that would ultimately be used to attract more people into this conversation we wanted to have, but there’s not … every VP of marketing needs a model. They need to kind of have a shared view of that ROI model with their management and their investors, but unfortunately I don’t think there’s a one size fits all solution here.
Fiona: Nice sidestep.
Ross: Yeah, thank you.
Fiona: Why is it then that you are in this very high pressure and demanding startup world? What’s keeping you in it? How are you succeeding in this very pressurised environment?
Ross: Why do we make these choices? Why do I make those choices? I mean I think I’ve come to terms with the fact that growing businesses is highly uncomfortable. At market, as I mentioned earlier, when we went from 300 to 3000 employees, I’ve got to admit, every employee there at the time said, “Oh my God, this is out of control. This is crazy. We shouldn’t be operating like this. This is nuts,” and having to put in lots and lots of hours. When I was at Microgen before we figured out what we were going to be, it was also uncomfortable. It was frustrating. We hadn’t quite cracked it yet, and people aren’t happy when things aren’t working, and when things start to take off as Aptitude, there was a lot of work to do and those are challenges of kind of going after new markets and coordinating with sales and showing the return on your marketing. It’s also uncomfortable.
Ross: So why do we do it? And I think for me, and maybe this will help others who are thinking about shifting from the corporate world to the startup world, I think it’s around building things. A startup or a scale up by very definition needs to be built. I think a lot of marketers are a bit like engineers in a way, in the fact that they like to build things. They didn’t maybe take enough programming courses in University and they decided not to be a physical builder or a tradesman, but they do want to build something, and typically what they want to build is help build a business, a successful business that can scale, and at the very heart of that for a marketer, it’s got to be around understanding customers and how we can meet customers needs, which is the academic definition of marketing. So marketers choose to go to startups because there’s an opportunity to understand a customer and a customer’s needs really intimately, to the point where they can help the business to grow, and thus they can build something and make a big contribution to building something.
Ross: So that’s why I do it. I’ve taken a huge amount of satisfaction from the growth at market, what I learned about the roles I played at market. I take a huge amount of satisfaction from what I learned when Aptitude started to grow, and I’m looking forward to this new opportunity I’m about to step into. We’re a great business that’s had a lot of success, but also big ambitions, and I’m hoping that I can apply the marketing mindset and the marketing muscle and the marking frameworks to help that business further accelerate their growth.
Fiona: Perfect, and just to really squeeze the sponge with regards to all that lovely experience, that most recent interview experience that you’ve had, you’ve been assessing startups and making your decision as to which one you’re interested in and which one you’re going to move forward. For other people who are in that chair now who are looking at startups, what sort of research, what sort of questions do you ask to assess a startup and whether it’s a good boat, potentially, for someone who likes building things?
Ross: You know, you have to have your own investment hypothesis. You’ve got to have a view as to why the company you’re going to is going to be successful. You’ve got to be bought into their vision or believe in a space that the company is playing in. You also want to know that the company is well placed to be successful. What resources do they have? What have they learned? What products have they been able to develop? What have they learned from their customers? What is their view on how the world is changing and why they’re going to be relevant? And finally, I found that I have to ask questions about whether or not my approach is going to work at the given company. You don’t want to go into any role where you can’t contribute, so you want to kind of have a strong view about how you’re going to approach a role.
Ross: You don’t have a lot of information. You’re not within the walls yet. You don’t know everything they’ve tried, and you don’t have access to their data, but you’ve got to kind of have a hypothesised view as to how you’re going to assert yourself and why you think that will work, and so I kind of ask questions around all three of those things, and hopefully through that process you start to share some common ground with the hiring manager, with the CEO, with the other senior people in the business, and then at some point you’ve got to give it a go and see if you can make it work.
Fiona: Very good. Lovely. Thank you ever so much for your time, Ross. Much appreciated Have you got any other further bits, words of wisdom, or advice that you think would be important for our audience of CEO founders or potential startup marketers out there to have a think about or know about?
Ross: Not much. Thank you very much, Fiona. Just to say that marketing requires balancing big M, strategic marketing and small m, tactical marketing, and after 20 years and an MBA and an engineering degree, I am a big believer that marketing is a mechanism which is going to help modern software technology companies to grow. So any CEO looking to unlock growth and to further scale their business should look no farther than a senior passionate B2B.
Fiona: I agree wholeheartedly. Nice. Nice. Wonderful conversation. Thank you so much for your time, Ross. We really appreciate it.
Ross: Yeah, thank you very much Fiona.
Fiona: So there you have it, career advice from a real marketing expert and leader in the field. Thanks for listening. If you enjoy this podcast, then please leave us a review in iTunes. We’d love to hear your feedback.
To listen to more Podcasts, check out our other great B2B marketing guests.
Subscribe to our fortnightly newsletter to hear about our latest podcasts, blogs, career advice & jobs.