Pragmatic, [nearly] Profanity-free marketing insights for growing companies
I ventured “off-island” (from Gloucester) to Boston to attend the #BNT community event at First Republic Bank’s lovely art-deco offices. One can’t help but want to see what Mike Volpe is up to in the travel space in his new gig as CEO of Lola, the biz travel company founded by Kayak’s Paul English. He was billed as “Boston’s most famous” CMO and quite frankly, it was apparent that he earned that tagline with nimble remarks and great anecdotes. I am glad the traffic stars aligned and I could be there early to chat with him. To his credit, he was fully present and interested in meeting people and helping the startup community. As a new CEO, there were many places he could have been, but he remarked that “this event was the most important thing he could be doing.” Here are some out-takes from the evening’s chat which are great guideposts for those of us advising growing companies as well as a reality check for all marketers that despite all the electronic tools and tricks, the CUSTOMER is still at the heart of this profession.
To provide context for the remarks, Mike recently left Cybereason – the 10,000 pound cyber security gorilla in the enterprise space to lead a 45 person team at Lola. Why? Because he could but clearly, he missed the small to mid-size customer market segment where he could see the impact of his work real-time. The overall theme was how to scale your marketing organization and programs. All of the remarks are made in that context.
Ideal CMO and team:
Mike described the early CMO as a “Jack or Jill of all trades” – a marketing generalist who is highly agile will log in and look at data, meet with customers, and participate in strategy. The rest of the marketing team should be interested in moving the meter. They should be motivated by numbers and in the interview process provide examples of how they impacted growth from 0-10 vs 100-1000 or whatever is appropriate for your stage of growth. Obtaining the first set of customers takes a unique set of skills. Scaling at the higher end takes a different set. Know what you are getting in an employee.
Later on, however, when the team reaches 20-30 people, these early generalists must move aside and make room for specialists and team leaders. Advice – don’t expect all these folks to get along. There will a time and place that you will need to “refresh” and combine strong leadership with a wide range of specialty skill sets – Demand Gen, Product Marketing, Content/Traffic, Brand/Corporate Communications that will all get built out over time. As the organization scales, it becomes more important to have clearly defined roles. Warning! The early hires may not adjust to the new set of rules and it may be time for them to move on. You can still be a great marketer, but just not the right fit.
Aligning Sales and Marketing:
Simply put, hire people that are compatible. Particularly important that the marketing folks have a revenue mentality and that the sales folks appreciate the importance of the marketing assets.
Types of Marketing Activities:
The advice here was clear. Every early stage marketing activity should have a direct impact on the sales pipeline – Demand Generation programs, opportunities to get face time with customers and share demos. With regard to “brand” – it will provide air cover, but likely that the positioning will shift considerably in the first two years so don’t over invest in the first phase. Rather, put the basic story in place and tweak over the first two years as you get feedback from the market. Mike felt strongly that “putting your head in the clouds” for 3 months debating brand strategy is a huge mistake for early stage companies. Take that energy and spread it out during the learning years.
The antithesis of direct customer contact is pouring resources into SEO and advertising. Over-emphasizing and overspending in online advertising was an area that was brought up several times as a common mistake and a bit of a vortex where the spending can spin out of control. The message here was to seek quality over quantity of leads. Use resources to improve your pitch and sales tools.
Target Market: Enterprise vs. Small-Mid Size Customer Segments:
Mike provided some fabulous insight into the differences between addressing different size customer segments. Sales cycles, pricing, packaging, deal size, and tactics all differ considerably. His experiences on both ends of the spectrum provided practical and humorous points for the discussion.
His current market is companies that have 20-500 employees. For this market, it’s about “velocity and volume.” In this scenario, he experiences a two week sales cycle – fewer steps to close a deal. Each sales call is a learning experience – most good. But, in his short time he has already had disastrous calls but the team learned and moved on and it’s likely they can revisit this customer in a few months without huge consequences. He can also make changes to the pitch and tweak the product to have nearly immediate impact.
In the Enterprise example, there was zero tolerance for screw-ups. The sales cycle was 9-18 months with many steps, coordination of teams, and oversight. Sales and marketing campaigns were as specific as a one-customer target. Among his favorite programs and marketing tools in this space: Nationwide road shows, Customer Referral Programs, Trade Shows, and highly focused and staffed teams. His best anecdote here was a “Cyber Security Happy Hour” that was staged in the lobby of the building where the customer happened to have its offices. A wonderful “coincidence.”
Mike also called out an interesting pricing phenomenon in response to an audience question. Other than a consumer-only play, he believes that “free” doesn’t work. In his current experience, the original model was to offer the produce free to businesses and it actually waved a red flag of suspicion. Having skin in the game is important to a customer. It gives them the right to give you feedback and expect service. Your team will also respond better if it knows a customer is paying and wants something in return for their investment.
Marketing’s Role in attracting Investors:
The talk had a clear bias to companies that were planning to raise outside capital (vs. privately funded). In the venture scenario, there were several ways that even a small Marketing team could help support the pitch:
- Use PR strategically – everyone wants to see “buzz” about the company
- Talk about the pipeline – find innovative ways to demonstrate that you are making an impact even with a small team. For example, compare average sales per rep to others at a similar stage of growth (vs. just talking raw numbers which may look small).
- Understand and communicate market positioning vs others in the space – this is the most challenging, but if you are being compared favorably to other products, be sure to capture this. (I would add that analyst remarks and feedback help here if available).
On a broader note, he felt that investors were a bit myopic in the way they view the company and naturally like to see the whole business moving forward. It’s important to find ways to get around this bias and demonstrate that relatively speaking, you are doing more with less.
The final audience topic was how to adjust to a cultural changes in a growing business. Mike’s counsel here was invaluable. He emphasized the importance of the senior team being ultra-sensitive to this and taking ownership vs. trying to hire one person to do this as a function. To get the culture challenge right, the leaders have to value it and want it to drive their company.
The company mentioned had grown from 200-400 in a short period. This is an ideal time to begin to put in place employee benefits that “fit” the culture and “measure yourself against your core values,” according to Mike. For a simple example, if you are a company that sells products in support of athletics, you should be subsidizing employees for a local gym.
This BNT event was organized by Chris Requena and hosted by First Republic Bank. Many thanks to the chefs who satiated the crowd with a fabulous feast! Congratulations to all the enthusiastic Founders who attended and gave their elevator pitches – wishing them great marketing success!
About Mike Volpe:
Mike Volpe is the CEO at Lola.com, the first profanity-free travel management solution that helps companies gain visibility and control over travel costs while giving travelers a VIP experience on the road. Previously Mike was CMO at Cybereason, a cybersecurity SaaS company, where he helped the company increase pipeline by 650% in a single year, and grow revenue by 5 times during his tenure. Mike was also part of the founding team at HubSpot, where he spent 8 years growing the company from 5 people and $0 revenue to over 1,000 employees, $175m in revenue, and a successful IPO. Mike is a well-respected and active member of the entrepreneurial community as a member of the board of directors of Validity, and as an advisor or investor in more than 30 startups.
About the writer of this post: Jacqueline Ganim-DeFalco is a marketing and business advisor. Having built a robust global network of her own, she builds ecosystems for clients to open up new markets and nurture business growth. For twenty years, she has advised BTB and service companies with an emphasis on the tech sector. See more posts at MarketingRecon.com