B2B 24 | Marketing Courage

 

B2B 24 | Marketing Courage

 

Marketing is always about finding your ideal customer. You need to really study their problems so that you can find a way to solve them. You have to have a unique and creative insight into your product to compete with the competition. This all requires a little bit of courage. Join your host, Vijay Damojipurapu and his guest Aditya Kothadiya on how to be a marketing leader. Aditya is the founder and CEO of Avoma Inc. He is well-versed in go-to marketing and product-led marketing. Learn how to find the courage as a leader to push through all the uncertainties in the business industry. Find what makes your business unique today!

Listen to the podcast here:

Finding Courage In Marketing With Aditya Kothadiya

I have with me Aditya Kothadiya, who is the Founder and CEO of Avoma. Welcome, Aditya, to the show.

Thanks, Vijay. I’m excited to be here.

We have a common connection, Yarg, who made the intro and as you know for sure, hopefully, the readers also know is that he is a profound podcast geek and host as well. He had great things to talk and share about you. I’m excited and glad that we are connecting.

Same here and he talked highly about you as well and all the go-to-market-related initiatives and expertise that you have. I’m so excited to geek out on this topic.

Let’s start our conversation with my signature topic and question that I ask each and every guest which is, how do you define go-to-market?

I don’t want to give a very theoretical answer. To me, it’s simply a strategy and execution plan to take your product into the hands of your customers. The way about it is that, where are you going to reach out to your customers? How are you going to reach out to them? What is your unique and fair advantage that you are going to reach out to them? The core competitive advantage that you are going to do uniquely that others are not able to do it. That’s also a part of the go-to-market strategy. It’s to find out what is the uniqueness of that strategy. That simply, to me, a go-to-market and a lot of elements that go into it. You have to define what market it is that you are going after. Within that market, who’s the buyer persona that you are going or the decision-maker personas? You have to have that crystal clear definition of that.

Once you reach out to them, you are also trying to figure out how do we reach out to them. Is it through cold email, cold call, paid ads? Where do they live? What are those channels through, which you are going to make them aware about you exist? Once they are aware of your product or service, then the next question also comes around is, “What is the buyer experience that you want to provide to them? Do they need to talk to you? Can they go and try the product themselves? What is that experience going to be?” You talk about that as well.

Last but not the least, what is the pricing experience? What is the pricing packaging that you are going to do based on who are the personas that you are targeting? What happens when they want to expand, start and how are you thinking about the pricing in general? Those are the areas. To me, there are a lot of different areas that you have to talk about but a combination of all this is a go-to-market strategy or plan that I would say.

Have unique advantages that only you can do and others are not able to do. Click To Tweet

You started off and you hit it on the head, which is it starts with what are you providing to your market and your buyer? It all starts with that. As you and I know, it’s always a shifting goalpost. There’s no one point in time where you can say, “I just completely nailed my go-to-market.” It’s never going to be that way because early on, you also mentioned defining your ideal customer profile and nailing it but there’s no way you can say that you are 100% confident. It’s going to be iterative and we also talked about going from defining to how you get it into the hands of your buyer, creating awareness and pricing.

I would even say if I had heard this term and we had done this at a milestone, you know what’s your ideal customer profile as well but the difference between the staging and how you think about different go-to-market strategies for different go-to-market stages or your startup stage is. What is the initial customer profile within that ideal customer profile? You might still have an ideal customer profile that’s a little bit broad enough but eventually, your vision should be broader, ambitious and all of that great stuff. You are trying to take another stab of fruitlessly prioritizing within that ideal customer profile. Who do I go initially? In our world, we had that remote knowledge professional where we talk of more solutions and give you a one-liner. What Avoma does is it’s an AI meeting assistant, which records, transcribes this meeting, summarizes the notes for you and analyzes conversations to give you actionable insights.

When you think about it, the market was huge. All knowledge professionals who are doing meetings over Zoom technically could be our target customer base but we knew that you can’t go that horizontal early on as an early straight startup. That’s why we had to figure it out within that market, who has this pain the highest? Who is willing to pay the most? Who depends on this information? Who uses this solution or who needs a solution more frequently than other people?

Marketing Courage: You need to know your initial customer profile within that ideal customer profile. Your vision should be broad and ambitious, but at the same time, prioritizing that ideal customer profile.

The more customer development interviews we did, we identified sales or customer-facing teams like customer success. These were the people who needed the stronger. That’s where I said, “We will build a product so that it can scale to these other people in the future but not now.” We cut the corner on a lot of things and we ended up prioritizing things that only were relevant to the customer-facing folks. That was what we defined as our initial customer profile from a go-to-market strategy point of view. That’s why, to your point, it is not a destination. It’s a moving target as you continue to get mature in your stage, your product and all that offering but that’s a great point.

One of your LinkedIn polls that come to my mind, which is very relevant is that woodpecker allergy. A woodpecker can go and peck on thousands or even hundreds of trees but it can only go far and so much versus pecking one tree for 2,000 times and over, then it gets the food and everything that it needs. Here’s the thing, the catch is it has to peck maybe a few tens of trees before it can find that one tree to go deep into.

I use that analogy to inform everyone of the value of focus or obsession about certain domains and things. I have talked to a lot of founders and people reach out to me. Early on in our journey in Avoma when I started telling people that this is what we are doing. I used to hate this question when people were asking me, “Is this what you want to do or are you testing it out, throwing it on the wall and seeing if it’s sticking or not?” I hated that question partly because I didn’t like trying to throw it on the wall because nothing will stick if you are that shallow of an understanding of the customer. You’ve got to get obsessed about the problem or obsessed about the domain and the solution may not work whatever the solution that you are building as an early version. Eventually, the more iterations that you do, you will find a way where the solution is serving the specific needs of the customer and you can do it better than anyone else in the industry as well.

That’s why that obsession mattered and rather than if you try to do too many things in parallel without going deep into any one of the areas, you are never going to have that unique insight to really say that this is why we understand this market or segment the best. These are still unsolved problems from this market that other competitors have not still solved. That’s where we come across a better solution compared to other ones. That’s why I felt the woodpecker analogy as and it was also related to when you tell someone about what you are trying to do and immediately they will say, “You can solve this other problem and you can also go after that market as well.”

It’s very tempting to go after many markets, many verticals and try to do whatever you are doing. For example, we do transcriptions. A lot of the time, people will tell, “Why don’t you go after medical professionals? Doctors have this huge problem.” I don’t deny that they do have a huge problem but I need to pick my battle. People who were telling me, “Can we deploy this to cohorts and legal industry where there are transcribers who are transcribing these legal conversations and disputes. This would be hugely valuable?” It would but I would want somebody else to go and solve that problem, not me because I have picked up the problem and space. This was a conversation I had and it was on top of my mind to talk about it.

We can deep dive into so many of those go-to-markets and we dove very quickly into this early on in this show. Let’s step back a bit and look at the bigger picture. I definitely want to come back to some of the topics that you mentioned but let’s step back and talk to us about your career journey. When I looked up your profile, you have an Electrical Engineering background and then you went into more of a Systems and Design Engineer at Altera and Emerson. That’s a whole different world versus what you are doing at Avoma, and even before that, what you did at Shopalize is completely different. Talk to us about evolution and I will pick more of those things.

It is a great journey when I look back and does feel good about where I landed and what I had but I will tell you one thing. I do believe that I always had a dream to start a company. Growing up, I used to look at the factories that you would see driving around. I always wanted to build something like that. I used to always wonder what happens inside that factory or inside that building, what people are doing and how they create stuff. Creating something from scratch or manufacturing was always on top of my mind.

I did not go into the manufacturing route, fortunately, or unfortunately. I ended up learning more about Electrical Engineering. Even Electrical Engineering, you also learn Computer Science there. Programming is part of the thing that we also learned there as well. Right after my Master’s, I joined Altera in a chip design role where I was designing chips like a real hardcore Electrical Engineer. I had the dream of starting a company. I realized that starting a company in the hardware industry is going to be a lot more difficult. That industry is more about how many years of knowledge, science and experience you have under your belt and there were a lot less scope for creativity. I do believe that a very creative mind but at the same time, obviously an analytical mind as well. It’s a combination of both and I had both strengths. I felt in the hardware industry, you cannot apply creativity as much.

I was looking at all my software industry counterparts like my colleagues and my friends. If you have an idea, think about the problem and solve that problem. Very quickly, I realized that I don’t want to stay in this industry if I want to start a startup. That’s one of the reasons I started learning about web development and all the other things like iPhone development part-time while I was working full-time. I built a few apps part-time, started picking my own problems, build some little web apps on iPhone apps based on some small problems. That was the beauty of it. You observe a problem, think about a solution, build a solution and see the solution in the working.

B2B 24 | Marketing Courage
Marketing Courage: Throwing ideas at a wall and hoping it sticks is not a good plan. Nothing will stick if you have a shallow understanding of the customer.

When you talk about the hardware industry, you have a chip that you want to manufacture and you can’t do that. I realized that if I want to let my creative energy as an outlet, I would rather switch to the software industry. There was a rough period where I did not have a green card and I could not switch to the software industry even though I wanted to do that but that’s fine. I stayed there and continued to build these things part-time, and the day I’ve got my Green Card where I was able to officially work on something that I truly loved, I left my job in hardware, jumped full-time and started my first company which was Shopalize. It was into the social commerce and marketing space. It was also a SaaS company so then I ran that company for 2 to 3 years.

You were doing chip design at Altera and then I completely see where you are going. Of course, if you want to start something in hardware space, it’s a lot more expensive. It’s CapEx intensive and it’s heavily based on the expertise, experience and team that you can build around those aspects. I get that part but then, what made you shift to Shopalize, which is completely not related to what you have been doing? Is it related to a problem that you were experiencing or what is the genesis like for that?

That genesis also happened serendipitously. I started solving problems that I had. At that time, Twitter and Facebook were very popular and I’m not an avid shopper wherever I would go and shop my own things. One of the interesting observations I had was I started discovering whenever people were recommending products on Twitter and based on those social recommendations, I would go and take a look at it and would probably purchase those things. There was this discovery serendipity from your network and I have discovered that.

The initial version of that was that all the tweets that people are sharing, could we analyze those tweets, identify the shopping-related tweets, and help people discover what the popular products are that everyone is talking about. Are there any popular deals or coupons that people are sharing? It was more of a discovery engine early on. Back then, I didn’t have an experience with what the SaaS product was and all of that, I was just building an app and it was more like a social app. We started growing that consumer app. We had, at a point, almost 30,000 visitors using the product every single month but it was not monetizing well.

Was it just you or did you have cofounders back then?

No. It was single-handedly. I was managing it and I learned the web development from the ground up and made tons of mistakes, learned the UI, and all of that stuff single-handedly early on but then it was not making money. We realized that the way to make that money was that whenever somebody had the shopping affiliate link, you would get some affiliate commission. We were making like few hundred bucks here and there. It was not great money with the amount of time I was spending. Through that process, one of the things I realized when I was talking to one of the eCommerce retailers that this is what I’m doing and he suggested to me that, “We love getting traffic from this website. Is there anything that you can help us get more traffic and promoters or do something about this? We would want to have more customers from our site to share these and all of that.”

At this point, did you go full-time into this?

Finding your ideal customer is not a destination. It's a moving target. Click To Tweet

This was still the part-time thing I was building. It was not at all monetized well. It was a side project, I was completely learning, doing something and it worked. Some things started working and then I kept working on it as customers or consumers were giving feedback but it was still not a real business. As I mentioned, we were making some ad revenue and affiliate revenue here and there. When I had this conversation with the retailer, he gave me some insight that this is something that they want from a marketing point of view and they would want to buy it. I realized that there’s probably more opportunity to sell this as a solution to retailers rather than trying to make money from consumers and their engagement.

I had that a-ha moment that this has a business model and had business potential. Back then, I used to follow a company like 37signals and all of these other companies. I felt SaaS was becoming popular back then also and that was my first attempt to build something from scratch so I took what learning I had from the early version of Shopalize as a consumer app but converted it into a B2B SaaS app. I shut down everything that I hadn’t started a lot of things from scratch as well but that was the moment I said, “Now I can leave my job,” because I had a clear path to revenue. I knew how much I can charge and these customers that all the eCommerce retailers were out there and to part of your go-to-market strategy also.

One of the earliest a-ha moments was that Shopify, which is huge now, was still a nascent startup back then. There were all these Magento, Big Commerce and all these eCommerce retailers were there. Everyone was coming up with this eCommerce extension or apps model. My a-ha moment was that, “Why don’t we build an app on these platforms and then through these all the eCommerce retailers who are only using Magento? I can directly reach out to those and say that, ‘Here’s your Magento store. I will build this app to get more social sharing from your application and get more customers from your customers and referral customers. Would you buy it?’” I had that clarity and that’s when I said, “I can now leave the job, build this startup, then you eventually start selling.” That’s when I jumped full-time on the early version of Shopalize.

You hit a very important point, which is you can do a side project based on your hobbies, but then very quickly, you pivoted to, “How do I build a business around it? What is the business model like?” It comes down to who are my potential buyers, and then going and speaking with them. It’s that whole lean startup, Agile Steve Blank model. Nothing gets built if you are sitting in the building. You need to go out of the building and talk.

That is so right because, in the first version, I had not talked to anybody. That was my own problem. I was building in my dorm room or whatever the room in and just launching something that I know. I also realized very quickly what were my weakness and strengths. I was not a great consumer social user. Consumer apps also are popular. You have to have the DNA to think about that marketing in a unique, different way. I didn’t understand a lot of cultural things here when I landed in the US and I was trying to build this company at the time. I lacked the DNA to grow the consumer app but I knew that from a B2B perspective, I can go and talk to customers individually. I can sell to them and convince them of the value that they would get.

I realized that rather than trying to get to the millions of users and make some money, you can reach out to a hundred customers and still make the same amount of money. That was my personal realization. What are my strengths? What do I feel comfortable with? Having that clarity to make revenue was a lot better for me. That’s one of the reasons I ended up focusing on switching gears from consumer apps to converting that into a B2B SaaS app.

That reminds me of one of my earlier clients when I was offering my go-to-market services, the Founder came to me saying, “We built something targeted at consumers but we want to pivot to B2B.” Doing and building something for a business, our app around the consumer, especially if you are looking to get the initial traction and then go and pitch to investors, it’s an entirely different scale. You need to hit hundreds and thousands or even millions before you can get that funding versus with the B2B, it’s a handful. You get the validation. My advice and expertise around that were, “How do we pivot from a B2C exactly as what you went through in this ride? How do we pivot from B2B to know who the potential partners are or customers we need to go out and set up a meeting with and then get that feedback? You also hit a very important point, especially for the readers who are to be our aspiring founders, which is to figure out your DNA, limitations and strengths. You may or may not be that consumer app founder mindset, someone with that mindset versus maybe your strength is more on the B2B side.

It’s natural. You are fresh out of school. You have not worked in any industry. You don’t know what problems businesses have so it’s very likely that people don’t think about business ideas at their first ideas. They think about consumer ideas as their first ideas because they are consumers, they can see all the problems around them and think, “I can solve this problem and I can build something there.” Once you start building it, that’s when you realize that to get to that scale and then from the scale to get to the revenue of what you are trying to do is a different ball game. At that time, while social was popular, paid advertising was also equally popular, which is still there and I somehow didn’t feel that comfortable going and putting a lot of money to grow this with the paid channels without having the confidence that it is growing organically on its own and there’s enough need there.

That’s the reason I realize that it’s a lot easier for me to convince somebody, one individual business, to buy a solution. The whole SaaS promise was humongous. You can sleep and it still makes money. The advantage of recurring revenue, which adds up, was amazing. That definitely, I fell in love with that whole industry and never looked back. I still don’t think of myself as a great consumer or user as well and I don’t think I can build a consumer app but my mind is geared towards thinking SaaS and everything to do with SaaS.

Let’s come back to your early days of Shopalize. You talked to a couple of eCommerce retailers, either Magenta, Big Commerce or other customers and you were able to get that initial traction handful of customers. Did you bootstrap or how did you go about building that business after you saw the initial validation?

B2B 24 | Marketing Courage
Marketing Courage: Nothing will be sure or set in stone. It’s the job of the founders to find certainty in all the uncertainties presented in front of them.

We bootstrapped it. Shopalize is on a bootstrap journey and I worked almost six months full-time on it, left a job and was not making any money. Nothing is coming in so I was completely building it out of my savings. There was a reason. I was nobody. I didn’t know investors back then. You asked me the question, “Did you have a Cofounder?” It was not that I did not want to have a Cofounder, I struggled to get Cofounders because every Computer Science smart person that I would know when I will reach out to them would look at it and would say, “I can build it myself. Why do I need you and why do I need to partner with you?” I was coming from a hardware background so I was not bringing anything great on the table as my own assets to say, “I know this best and then you can partner with me.” I did not have a lot of Cofounders early on so then that’s when I said, “Screw it. Let’s take things into our own hands and started building and learning stuff.”

Once I launched the app and I initially had the traction, now I was having some credibility, then people started taking me seriously to some extent. Even with this, the second iteration of Shopalize, when I did that first version, I’m still with myself, we had few customers, then I again went back to one of my friends and convinced him that, “I have done this so far. This is what the progress has been. This is the first prototype and we also have some paying customers but it’s still early in the journey. Would you want to join?” At that time, a friend of mine joined the journey as a Cofounder.

You shared quite a lot of insights as part of your whole Shopalize founding days. Back then, you also mentioned the story about how you went about and the struggles that you had to go through to eventually find your Cofounder. Talk to us about how did you go about finding complementary skills or strengths in your Cofounder because that’s again, a key part of the go-to-market, especially in the early days. It’s about how do you find that complementary Cofounder for yours?

You ask about this from Shopalize days. At that time, obviously, I was naive. I didn’t know enough and even with Avoma’s journey, when I was looking for a Cofounder, I also probably made a few mistakes early on and I will share where I’ve got that clarity to find a Cofounder that I currently have. You asked about complementary skills and that is exactly how I was looking at it. It’s a wrong way to go about it. Skills are not what you should go after and I will tell you, early on again, my Shopalize Cofounder, I went with the skillset of having a software engineer or developer and that worked out great. He was a great Cofounder. We had a great outcome even in Shopalize days as well and we are friends so that’s not an issue as such.

In Avoma journey, also when I looked back when I left the job and wanted to start the Avoma journey, I was trying to reach a lot of Cofounders trying to find who can help me to build this whole machine learning, AI­-based advanced solution. My natural instinct was to look for all the PhDs and the people who have had worked at these awesome companies like Google, Facebook, and have built something in machine learning and whatnot. I overoptimized that skillset and their background. For almost six months, I did not find a great Cofounder because everyone was getting excited about the ideas. I almost talked like I was making a spreadsheet. I had 26 different people that I had reached out to in those six months. You talk to them multiple times and then they say that they have Visa issues, planning to buy a home or have a baby. Nobody was ready to jump to do this full-time.

I think this was after your acquisition.

Shopalize was acquired, then I was at a larger company, [24]7.ai, for a few years. That’s when I had another idea about starting Avoma based on some of the problems I experienced there. I said, “Now, I’m going to jump full-time to start Avoma.” I don’t believe in running too many things part-time as well. I left my previous job, went full-time on Avoma and was looking for a Cofounder while I was doing customer development as well. I could not find a Cofounder. I struggled for six months to have somebody willing to do this full-time.

This was while you were doing the customer development process and working full-time on the Avoma idea.

I had already left the job. I believed in the problem, I thought we need to go deeper into this and continue to do the research. The way I realize in the process of searching, I found two people. He’s the one person I met who is my Cofounder and he changed my perspective of how I should think about this. When I met him, he had all the same issues that everyone else had. He did not have a Visa. He had just purchased a home and a newborn baby. Every single thing was there but the one thing characteristic I felt unique about him was he was bold and courageous. Nothing else mattered to me. He said, “I believe in this idea.” He had done a startup also in the past so I could see that level of maturity in thinking compared to everyone else who was the first-timer, who didn’t have that level of courage and this Cofounder of mine, he said, “Don’t worry about the Visa. I will figure it out. Don’t worry about the machine-learning domain, I will learn it and figure it out.”

That courage was important to me, the skills and all the other issues and that is exactly the holy grail of startup. Nothing will be sure and certain. It’s the job of the founders to find certainty through all these uncertainties that are presented in front of you. That’s why I decided to go found a company with one of my Cofounders, and then he knew a third Cofounder of ours, he also had a very similar background and that’s basically what the three of us decided to join the company.

I’m glad you hit up on that point when I asked you the question about skills and how to go about finding a Cofounder. I’m glad you corrected me because in my mind and even with what I’m doing, I’m also exploring startup ideas with a friend of mine. You pointed out correctly, which is it’s not about skills but also about the mindset match, the tenacity, the grit that’s required, and the persistence. Especially in the early days of founding, it’s going to be super hard even after you raise your angel and a seed funding, it’s not glory at all. There are going to be hard days for a while.

Nothing gets built if you're just sitting in the building. You need to get out and talk. Click To Tweet

Trust me, every week, there is a new battle, literally. No day or week goes by where it’s all rosy but it has been a few years that we have been together. We knew each other. I knew one of the Cofounders. At that time, I did not reach out to him first. We had some history but I understood the characteristics were so clear to me that all the search I was doing all a lot wrong because, in your journey, you are going to have these moments where things are not going to go right. That’s when that mindset, tenacity, boldness and courage because your competitors are going to raise capital. Somebody else is going to do something else and then you are going to get discouraged. Rejections are going to be part of your life. That’s when the courage comes in. The courage to continue to push forward is what mattered. I recommend that skill to anything else. That’s what I would recommend to everyone.

I’m glad we are touching upon this topic. Many of the readers may or may not be actually a bearer or interested in this, especially given that this show is all about go-to-market but a key aspect and I want to emphasize this for the readers, which is when you are founding or looking to start up a company, having that right Cofounder is a key essential attribute of go-to-market. That is super important, especially when you are even further down along the line. When you are looking to expand, build your team and hire the right leadership, it goes back into what are the traits? What are the skillsets? What is the experience? What are the strengths that your partner or the leader he or she may bring to the table? It’s all part of the go-to-market again.

I know we digress but for a good reason, all great topics over here. Coming back to Avoma and you also emphasize something around customer development, how did you go about finding that problem space for Avoma and it goes back to early on where you kept hearing from others, which is, “We need to solve the problem for lawyers or doctors?” Clearly, you went, you’ve got out of the building, you spoke with prospective buyers, but then how did you narrow down your focus and say, “This is the market and problem I want to go after?”

First of all, there was an element of scratching your own itch thing and I had this problem myself. The way I had this problem and also the knowledge of the domain was that my previous company, Shopalize, which we were into social marketing and social customer support space, got acquired by another larger company, [24]7.ai, which historically were primarily a chat-based support solution. During my tenure at [24]7.ai, I launched a couple of other products, which are purely about self-service-based solutions for customer support like chatbots or what you can call virtual assistants and all of that.

B2B 24 | Marketing Courage
Marketing Courage: You’re going to have moments of uncertainty. This is where the mindset, tenacity, and courage come in.

In that process, I was also exposed to this whole voice-based domain because we were also doing customer support for calling. We were selling to enterprises and as a product person who was launching this new product initiative, I used to be in front of customers all the time. We would have a new idea. We wanted to share the new idea with our existing customers and see if they will be willing to buy this new product line.

Once we find some early customers, I would understand the needs and problems, go back, build the MVP solution, deploy the MVP solution with few customers, and then once we see the success and metrics, then start scaling the solution and hand it over to our go-to-market team. That was the product guy. I was in the larger company while I was doing that. When we used to hand over the product to the go-to-market team, I would stop learning as a product person. I would not know what’s going on in their meetings but when I was in front of customers, I would learn a ton. I would exactly know what’s working, what’s not working and what are the key issues that they have. We were able to build products really fast based on their feedback.

I remember every new product initiative I launched within like 90 to 120 days, we would have a solution from idea to launch in a production client or production customer in the 90 to 120 days period. That was the realization I had because I have this access to customer information, and then I started thinking of how we are serving these B2B customers. It is very broken. We have all these salespeople, customer success, account managers and so many handoffs happen. I never learned anything from these because I have to chase 4 or 5 different people. There was not a single place where I can go back and refer to this information. People used to tell me, “Go look in Salesforce, we will have notes and all I would have in Salesforce would be customer said the product is expensive.” I’m like, “That is not useful insight.”

That’s what the realization that I felt. On the other hand, I was a diligent notetaker myself and I would capture these notes, share different notes with my engineering team, executive and customer. I realized that I was spending way too much time capturing the insights of these different customer conversations and sharing these insights with different teams so that they have a proper understanding. That was a combination of these two ideas that I felt that note-taking and sharing information is important but at the same time, we are not able to get those insights from the customer conversation. How can we solve this problem?

That was the genesis and one of the solutions was that, could we record these conversations, transcribed them and then do all the post-analysis using AI to extract these notes, identify key topics from the customer’s calls and help the collaboration so that other people in the company can have access to that information? That’s what I told you, when I shared this, the way I’m going to solve this problem people are like, “Transcription, that’s so awesome. We could do this and that,” but then you’ve got to still say no to all those variations and distractions. I picked up the problem that I continued to still work on because I wanted to use the product every single day.

While working in the customer support industry, I was not an agent who is doing the customer support thing. I would not know the nuances or the product issues that we would have there. It would be a lot easier to build a product that you use and identify the pains that you go through every single day. That’s how you can build a better solution. The reason I still have a combination of the validation from my own issues that I had seen then taking that problem, talking to other leaders, other people, and then validating that, it definitely helped me to believe that we need to solve this problem and can continue to focus on this domain.

Another important point when you talk about go-to-market for early-stage startups and founders, which is feeling the pain of the problem almost like firsthand. You need to have that burn. The problem is serious but at the same time, you want to solve it. It’s the problem and the solution piece, both hand-in-hand.

You have to have a unique insight about a solution as well like what is it that you are going to solve that has to be there but as you rightly said, the problem definitely comes is the most important. It’s the combination of both. Sometimes, people say, “Don’t get obsessed with the solution. Only get obsessed with the problem.” I don’t completely agree with that as well. If you are not obsessed with the solution, you are going to build a mediocre solution. You’ve got to optimize every single little detail. You need to know what’s going on in your solution as well. That’s how you are going to be proud of your solution so that your customers are going to get a delighted experience. If you are not obsessed, they are not going to get a delighted experience and you are building yet another me-too product. That doesn’t mean that you should not be obsessed with the problem. That is the primary step and foundation but this is why a combination of both is important.

Let’s switch gears a bit over here and take a step back. Where is Avoma now? Where are you at in terms of either funding? What can you share on the show in terms of funding, employees, revenues, or customers? Let’s start with that first.

We are a seed-stage company. We raised $3 million, have been in business since 2017 and a team of thirteen people. We have 200 customers using our solution, growing 15% to 20% month over month, every day.

Are the 200 customers mostly in the SMB space?

SMB/early mid-market customers.

What do you see are the big goals for the rest of 2021 going into 2022 for Avoma?

The internal revenue goals that we have are something that we continue to think growing the team and that’s the leadership position in the marketplace. We have our unique point of view that we are building the solution. Our goal ultimately will be the number one provider in the SMB space. That’s the goal that we have and everything else basically is around that. How do we raise capital, building the team, making sure our customers are getting the value that we promised to them, investing in the product, technology, scaling and the organization itself to support that? Those are the mini-goals start spreading from there.

How do you describe the go-to-market for Avoma now versus how do you see transitioning, especially around the goals that you stated?

We historically started with a lot more sales-driven where we were going after our customers.

Is it outbound?

A combination of outbound and we were also getting some inbound as well through referrals and marketplace integrations that we had done. We also applied the same strategy where we integrate with a few CRMs like HubSpot, Salesforce, Zoho, and all of that so people discover us from there. In the last few iterations, the way it’s working, we are investing more in self-service now. As the product is getting more mature, the product is useful for even an individual. You don’t need the entire team to use Avoma. Individuals are discovering the product. We have a free trial. People sign up on their own and even we have a freemium offering where they can use the limited functionality without paying anything.

Through that, we are shifting gears. I wouldn’t say that we are going completely product-led. I also believe that product-led is also this mythical term where they believe that you don’t need awareness of marketing or sales. That’s not true. The way I think about product lead is that there are a lot of customers who will continue to find value through Avoma, continue to distribute Avoma and grow Avoma on its own. At the same time, initial marketing awareness is required.

We also call it product-led and sales-assisted because once somebody signs up and starts using it, a lot of the time they have a very unique way of looking at what Avoma is doing. It’s our job to educate them, understand the needs better and explain to them you are looking for purely a meeting transcription or meeting assistant solution, but have you thought about coaching use case and collaboration use case? When you educate them through sales-assisted conversations, that’s when people realize, “I did not think about it.” That’s how we are able to expand our average contract value. We are growing and scaling in the same account we ended up expanding. That’s another reason why we believe that product-led is how the way the product is built. The pricing is transparent on the website but at the same time, having the sales-assisted model, customer success model is useful to expand the account.

I’m glad that you are doing it because it’s something that I’m seeing across the industry, which is even though product-led growth is a big push in the industry for SaaS but at the same time, it’s almost like a hybrid model. It’s not fully product-led and product-led growth, I would say and argue, is more geared towards consumer-ish products like a Box or Dropbox more aptly, and then Zoom versus if you are going after the B2B customers. It should be a combination of product-led, which is you’ve got the freemium and the initial users but then if you want to expand, you don’t go with the purely outbound salesy mindset but it’s more of a customer success mindset, which is, “Let me come and understand your use cases first and then guide you.”

Skills are not what you should be looking out for. It's courage. Click To Tweet

Ultimately, I also think about here is what your buyer is looking for. I will give an example. A lot of the companies do not have a pricing page published on the website and you have to book a demo with them, fill a form, go through the discovery process to get some pricing information. It’s a very frustrating experience. On the other hand, people have paid directly to sign up for the trial. Here’s the pricing page. You go and figure it out. Both the approaches are also wrong if you only take those two operations. What we do is we give options to our customers. Some people like to buy on their own, try on their own so they can sign up for the trial. Go ahead and do it.

Some people still book demos with us. You will not believe that having that option, even individual, smaller users and smaller businesses want to book a demo with us to understand the product because there are so many other products. Nobody wants to also learn everything on their own. By giving that option to buyers is why people love Avoma. We had a customer who bought Avoma and he was looking at one of our competitors. They don’t have a booking a demo option on their website. He said, “I was comparing you with them and I saw Avoma had an option to book a demo. I loved it. I wanted to talk to them. They didn’t have any way to talk to me.” That’s it. It’s not just the product-led is also enough but it’s a combination based on each buyer are different. If you give them the experience that they want, you would be in a much better position.

B2B 24 | Marketing Courage
Marketing Courage: Product-led is this mythical term where people believe that you don’t need awareness, marketing, or sales.

I don’t know if it’s deliberate experimentation that you do but it’s figuring out when you put the options out there, and then in hindsight, when you look at your entire marketing, sales funnel metrics, conversion ratios, and all those parameters, that’s when you realize, “These buttons or these leavers are helping us grow versus these are giving us that awareness or interest that’s being gendered in this entire funnel.”

A lot of the time, this starts with the simple, common-sense philosophy that treats your buyers the way you like to be treated. I would hate somebody to ask me to go through the process of filling the forms only or only giving an option and not giving me an option to talk to somebody. When I felt that that’s how I would like to do business, I thought we should basically be fair and flexible and give these options to our buyers as well.

We are coming up towards the end of the show here. Last a few questions for you. What is the big topic, maybe 1 or 2 topics, that you are curious about, especially in the whole go-to-market world where you go out and seek that knowledge or test out your concepts?

There are a couple of topics I have been thinking about this. In general, the way I think about the whole go-to-market is not a function of just a marketing team, sales team or someone like that. It’s a very cross-functional, collaborative function. It has so much dependency on the product team, marketing team and sales team, the pricing, what features we should allow, what is possible in this pricing and not. It’s an extremely cross-functional team and the way the industry positioned it as it’s a pure marketing job. I feel that the needs to change in general or, to me, more of all these revenue functions that we talk about so much of it is now product and revenue teams working together as a combination of it. That’s why I feel that that is one topic that doesn’t get the level of attention. To do that, what you are trying to do is, historically, people used to tell me, “Go and look at the notes in Salesforce.” As a product person, I wouldn’t have a license to Salesforce. Nobody gives me a license to Salesforce. Now you have information siloed, I cannot learn from your different systems, and that’s a bigger issue to me.

What we believe is the next evolution is going to be a system of collaboration. You had a system of records like a Salesforce, then you had a system of engagements like tools to send emails and then the system of intelligence to learn analytics. The bigger advantage is going to be if your organization is hyper collaborative. If they are agile to communicate, collaborate and understand what is happening on the customer-facing side and what is happening on the product side. Those teams need to come together. That’s why one of the topics I’m passionate about is, how can we remove the barriers? How can we reduce the friction and help people to collaborate faster to get the job done whether sell, build better products and whatnot?

That’s a whole different show topic in and of itself because I believe that it should be the role and responsibility of either a CEO or a COO who is overlooking the entire good market functions and who the executives. After all, you’ve got the tools and the tech stack but you also need to ensure that the processes, right people and right skillset are in place. We will come back and do another show on this. That’s a huge topic in itself. One final question to you is if you were to turn back time and go back to day one of your go-to-market journeys, I know you shared a lot of nuggets, what is that one advice that you would share with your younger self?

If I want to go back on the go-to-market, I would say it’s coming from the pain that we have is Avoma’s product and our sales process is great, where we had struggle where we realize that it’s the brand awareness, not many people knowing us. To me, if I want to fix one problem in our go-to-market, I would invest in our brand and marketing, in general. Talk about us and get more out there before we had any other product built or trying to sell actively. That would be the mistake probably I have made where I did not invest in these things early on. It could be content and positioning ourselves, we were building product instead and not being out there actively promoting us. That would be the thing I would probably say.

I wish you and the Avoma team the very best. Going back to the exact point that you shared, which is a lot of founders make those mistakes for valid reasons, it’s not intentional that they are not investing in the brand building and the marketing side. It’s just that, they are so consumed in understanding the buyer and building of the product. You correctly said it and this is something that I’m talking to when I speak with other founders is I keep emphasizing that you’ve got the right pieces in place around products and other pieces but also ensure that you are building the brand. That’s going to position you. You need to think about how you are going to see yourself and be known in the next 2 or 3 years while you have your heads down in the next 1, 2 or 3 months in closing your pipeline. Thank you so much for your time, Aditya. A lot of nuggets and insights were shared and I’m sure you brought a lot of wisdom to our readers. Thank you once again and I will be cheering you from the sidelines.

Thank you, Vijay. This was fun chatting and bringing old memories back. It’s always fun to share those journeys. Thanks again.

Important Links:

B2B 23 | Content Strategy

 

B2B 23 | Content Strategy

 

Content is king, as Bill Gates once said. But how can organizations truly optimize their content strategy? In this episode, Vijay Damojipurapu is joined by  Sarah Allen-Short, Vice President of Marketing for Give And Take, Inc. Also known as the Marketing Doula, Sarah sheds some light on how content is fundamental not only in driving sales but in optimizing internal processes as well. She explains how businesses should incorporate content strategy into the sales process and create alignment within an organization. She also explains how she advises clients by providing support, information, and assistance as they “birth” their product. Tune in for some useful tips on how you can advance your business with content strategy.

Listen to the podcast here:

How Content Strategy Leads To Better Results With Sarah Allen-Short

I have with me Sarah Allen-Short who is the VP of Marketing at Give and Take. She’s got a very interesting and varied background all the way from corporate communications to being part of a PR agency to running marketing for small companies and startups. She’s also part of the Peak Community. Sarah, welcome. I look forward to an engaging conversation with you.

Thank you so much for having me.

The question that I always start off the show with is, how do you define a go-to-market?

I define it with the simplest possible definition which is the way that a company brings any new product or service to the market. Whether that’s a new product in an existing market or a new market for an existing product or service, it’s just the way that you do that.

Do you see it as a one-time activity or is this ongoing?

Definitely not. It’s ongoing. If you’re growing your company, you’re always going to be introducing new products, new features, new services, or you’re going to be taking the ones you already have into new markets. I suppose if you sold one widget, you only sold it to retailers, and you did that for 30 years, you might not be thinking about it as a go-to-market strategy the whole time. Even then, honestly, the way the marketplace changes, I think you still would be.

That’s one of the reasons why I’m excited to have you on the show because that content is a key piece within the whole go-to-market engine. The way I look at this is content is the currency for sales, marketing, and go-to-market functions. It’s similar to how code is to a software engineer or software engineering product that are code-based.

I think often B2B companies overlook content, especially thought leadership content because they think they can’t afford it. They think it’s a luxury. When you’re doing it right, it can be very cost-effective and efficient. It can be the engine that drives every single other thing you do. I was in a meeting with one of my clients. I have a full-time day job but I also do some consulting. I was in a meeting where they’re hiring a new designer and a new content writer. They’re asking me to onboard and help train them. I told them, “What you guys do drives every single other thing that this team of twenty does. All the people working in social media, regional marketing, demand gen, everything that every product marketing and everyone else is doing on this team starts the seed of what they do. It starts with what you two are going to create as the actual content writer and the designer. I totally agree with you.

I know you have been in and out and completely in it within the whole content, content strategy, and content marketing world. On a lighter note, when you ask your kids this question, how do your kids describe what you do for a living or what do you do at work?

They say that I worked for Adam Grant because he’s the cofounder of our company. They know that I do marketing. It’s interesting. I might ask them. I have teenagers. I would be curious to hear what they say. I think they probably would say, “You make things sound good so that people want to buy them.” Beyond that, they would have no idea what I do. My very first job out of college was in PR so my parents still think I do PR even though I have not focused on PR in at least nine years. I do a little bit of everything but as a core part of my job function, my dad still regularly asks me, “When was the last time you talked to this journalist or that journalist?” I don’t do that anymore.

Content has the power to be an engine that drives everything else. Click To Tweet

It’s funny, especially with parents. I think it’s imprinted in their brains. They somehow tend to recall the first job that you do. That is your career for the rest of your life.

I put myself through college as a telemarketer. I’m glad they didn’t land on that one. They updated it a little bit after that.

Talk to us about your overall career journey. I know you’ve done work at an ad agency. You also worked on the other side, in-house. Talk to us about your career journey as well as what you do at Adam Grant’s company.

Very early in my career towards the end of college, I was working in advertising. I did that because what I wanted to do was to be a journalist. I thought that if I started working in advertising at a magazine, I could get into journalism because I did not understand that is the worst way to get into journalism. Any reputable magazine has a strict separation between advertising and the editorial side. I didn’t know that, but I got into marketing. I was born and raised in Richmond, Virginia, which is a town that I was desperate to get out of in my teenage years. When I graduated from college, I wanted to go to DC and started looking for a job.

The first time I got to DC, I was 25. I was on the PR side after being in advertising for a few years. I don’t know how I got the job. What we did was we did stakeholder relations and communications for universities, NGOs, and it was a lot of fun. It was really interesting. I started to learn some fundamental principles. I had a great mentor there. We did some cool projects. I think when you work at an agency, you get exposed to so many different kinds of companies. I was working on a project with Madeleine Albright at the University of Michigan. I was working with the US Forest Service on a project to teach and attract Urban Americans into the forest. I’m trying to get people who live in urban centers interested in the forest. I was teaching low-income people energy-saving skills. It was just a lot of fun. It was fun to live in DC at that time.

I’ll never forget, the very first article that I ever got was in the South Florida Laundry News. I didn’t even know there were magazines for that. This was in the early 2000s but we still did all PR with an actual book called The Yellow Book. Some of your readers will remember. Anyway, one of my clients was a startup that had come out of the University of Michigan that was doing web analytics or customer satisfaction analytics called ForeSee. They were one of my biggest clients and they eventually brought me on full-time. At that point, they were in Michigan, I was in DC. I decided to move back to Richmond because it’s half the price to live in Richmond than it is to live in DC. I had been working with them since they were founded as a consultant. When I came on staff in 2007, I worked with them for about seven more years until they were acquired. That was a huge learning process for me because it was a lucrative acquisition but not an emotionally easy acquisition.

One of the things that we don’t talk about enough in the startup tech world, in the B2B SaaS tech world is the emotions behind an acquisition. After that, I did consulting for 3 or 4 years where I served as a Fractional CMO. My background is all technology, startups, SaaS, B2B, all in that space. I worked for a payroll company, a biotech startup, a marketing services firm, all sorts of things like that. The CEO from ForeSee came to me and said, “Adam Grant is starting a company and we want you as the head of marketing.” Where I work now, Give and Take, we have two solutions. One is an exercise that helps increase generosity in the workplace. The other is a knowledge-sharing platform. Those of you who are familiar with Adam Grant’s work, he studies generosity, particularly in the workplace. His partner in the startup, Wayne Baker, studies asking for help. We help companies teach their employees how to ask for help, exchange knowledge, generously share, how to practice it, and then how to scale it at an organization. That’s where I am now. I’ve been there since 2017.

It’s a very varied and colorful journey. As a context for the readers, I first saw your quality of work and thought process when you and I are part of the Peak Community started by Sangram Vajre and a couple of others. I still recall that you presented the content strategy framework or a template. That was one of the meeting points where I got an insight into how you think about content. If I connect the dots to your all career journey, because you’ve worked at both at an ad agency across diverse projects for NGOs, government and corporate. You’ve seen that spectrum. Clearly, you know how to tell stories. That’s a key part of a content brand.

I know you’re going to ask me about some specific examples. When I was at ForeSee, I had an opportunity to run a pretty large original research team. I saw the power that content could have as an engine to drive everything else that was happening. When our company got acquired, the CEO said that the content strategy was one of the top three reasons that he thought we had gotten the valuation that we had gotten. It can impact much. It’s not just a loosey-goosey write an eBook and see what happens. It can impact market valuation.

I think this is something that’s not well understood by founders and CEOs, let alone marketing leaders. Content plays a key role. As you say, it’s not about just putting out a blog post, a social media post or a white paper on an eBook. It’s a lot more than that. The key point is, how do you tie in? In your mind, you’re a visionary when it comes to storytelling across channels on a given timeline. How do you tell that? If done right, it increases the revenue and growth but it increases the valuation of the company. I want you to reiterate that point.

B2B 23 | Content Strategy
Content Strategy: Everything the product marketing is doing starts with the seed of what writers and designers create – the content.

 

At the very fundamental level, you’re looking at things like MQLs and SQLs. You’re going to increase leads. If that’s where you want to stop, that’s great. What our CEO said to me when we were acquired was the way that we positioned the company in our thought leadership and content strategy, the way that we used our content and thought leadership to get covered in the New York Times, the Washington Post, NPR, CNN and Bloomberg, the way that we used it to drive leads and expand deals, we had land and expand strategy, and we’d be in with a company and use content strategy to spread our tentacles within that company, he felt like it was a critical part of our success. He put the budget behind it too. We had not an insignificant amount of budget behind that effort. We had a team of 5 out of 15 or 20 marketing people just working on content and thought leadership, and a budget of a few million dollars for that, not including salaries.

I’m working with the same CEO. It’s a lot of fun because he does understand that. If you have a visionary CEO that understands that, honestly, he taught me that. Now that I’m looking back on it, I’m the marketing expert but he believed in it before I did. I think of him as a real mentor of mine. I saw it work so well at that company. Even if you don’t have a visionary CEO who doesn’t understand that content can affect and impact market valuation, that’s hard to quantify. You can at least be talking about SQLs, MQLs or website traffic. There are definite ways to measure content that you can show the value of.

You mentioned that you had a team of five within the content marketing team. You also mentioned a budget of a few million dollars. What percentage of the revenue was that few million dollars? Is it like 5% or 10% less?

I am not sure, honestly. It’s been a few years now. I would say it was probably 30% or 40% of the marketing budget and 30% of the marketing staff. I’m not sure about it relative to the entire revenue of the entire company by the time we were sold. I just don’t remember those details. I should go look because that’s a good thing to know.

The reason why I’m poking you on this is I’ve seen various studies. I was running my marketing teams as well. A big chunk of it was called out for content. I’m talking about a few years ago but right now, with the stack and the tech stack that we have, it’s a lot easier. There is this whole gray area of there are certain things you can measure but not everything. For example, you can keep putting your posts. You can post great content on LinkedIn and social media like Twitter and all those. It’s very hard for you to tie it back to metrics but someone comes and says, “The reason I reached out to you is that I can relate to what you’re saying. I can see the expertise that you wrote on LinkedIn or Twitter.” Let’s dive deeper into that whole content strategy and the execution piece that you did at ForeSee. Talk to us about the situation. What were some of the calls that you’re looking at when you’re talking about and thinking about the whole PR strategy, as well as the thought leadership content?

The situation at ForeSee was that we were a relatively unknown company in a relatively new market that wasn’t defined, which was web analytics at that time. It grew and evolved to be more like customer experience analytics. This was before Qualtrics and any of those big companies were in the game. This was 2001 when it started. We had an academic methodology that we knew could measure online customer satisfaction in a way that predicted the future. What we needed to do was convince everybody of that. This is a little different from some of the things I’ve done at other places. We can talk about that too.

The strategy we took was to do original research and use that to get media coverage. We did a few different studies. We worked with a retail trade publication and we did a survey of retailers and said, “What do you think customers think about all this stuff?” We then surveyed customers and we went out to the media and said, “Retailers don’t know what customers want. They’re dead wrong.” That gave us the idea to start doing research just among customers. What we started doing is what we call the Satisfaction Index. It became the ForeSee Experience Index over time, the FXI. What we did was we went out in a number of industries and channels. We would pay a panel company to measure customer satisfaction. At one point, we did the top 100 retailers, the top 10 mobile sites, the top 20 banks, and the top 10 utilities, depending on the market. We did a number of these studies and that was the bulk of our external budget.

We would release these reports saying that Amazon is number one and Apple is number two. What we did was we leveraged it for all it was worth. We got regular coverage in the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times for this study, which is a little harder to do now. We’re not using Survey Monkey to ask people, “What do you think is the best retailer?” We had a methodology we could depend on. We got a ton of PR coverage but then we also went and we marketed to those companies. We said, “Amazon, did you know you’re number one? You should tell all your users.” For a long time, Amazon would put up a landing page on their homepage, “Amazon rated number one in the FXI,” so we started to get known for this.

This was in the early 2000s.

It started in the early 2000s and went all the way through. A few times, they were acquired by Verint. It’s now the VXI. They still do it.

The real magic of content strategy is connecting it to the sales process. Click To Tweet

Going back to when you reached out to Amazon, this was in the early 2000s or mid-2000s.

I would say 2008, 2009 probably in Amazon. The real magic though of this content strategy was connecting it to sales. Once we start to arm sales with, here’s a list of the top 100 retailers, here’s how to go use this to get meetings with all 100 of those retailers, and here’s how to use it to get meetings with the other 9,000 retailers that aren’t on the list and say, “We know what the best of the best we’re doing. We can show you how to do it. We can show you how to keep up.” What we did is a little bit of ABM. It was the early days of ABM. I don’t even think ABM was a term then. What we started to do was we would do a template of a briefing deck and the salespeople could customize it. I’ve worked at so many places where sales and marketing butt heads.

Every place I’ve ever worked at, sales loves marketing. When your sales and you can walk into the room and throw the Wall Street Journal down on the table and say, “Look at our company in the Wall Street Journal,” or you can put down a real eBook or white paper that looks legit, it gives you so much credibility. When you’re a salesperson and you have to email somebody every week for six months saying, “Do you have time yet?” When we are giving them a dribble of content, instead of just saying, “Do you have time yet?” They’re saying, “Did you see our blog post on this? Did you see our eBook on this? Did you see our infographic on this? By the way, do you have time yet?” It makes it so much easier for them. They should look at marketing as making their jobs so much easier. Not as so many sales teams do, the weak link that if only marketing was working well, we would be able to do our jobs well. The real magic is connecting the content to the sales process.

On that point, I want to emphasize this for our readers and for folks who are looking to seriously connect the dots between content to revenue. I think what you highlighted there is marketing doing its job. When it comes to putting out a good blog post and good insights on the website, that’s just the beginning. Additionally, on top, you’re also highlighting the kind of press coverage you’re getting at tier-one publications.

In terms of measurement, you can measure how many what we used to call IPMs, Initial Prospect Meetings, come as a result of one of these emails. You can measure up marketing attribution. When you do a big formal campaign like, “We did this index. We’re doing customized decks for different companies,” you can measure how many deals came in that were initiated by that effort. You can start to say, “You’re giving me $1 million to do this retail study. It brought in $6 million in sales. We should try this again with utilities and banks.” It’s hard in early startup days to worry too much about metrics. It takes a lot of time, energy, and it takes away from doing. In early startup days, you have to try stuff. I think that marketers are not honest enough about proving their own worth. There’s a lot of C-suite executives that are skeptical that marketing can help. If you can’t show them how it does, you shouldn’t expect more budget.

I think the other part that was going well for you was a CEO who knew the value of marketing.

Absolutely. I was someone who believes strongly in content. I hear a lot of people on Peak talking about, “How do I convince my CEO of this and how do I convince my CEO of that? How do I teach them that marketing is important?” I wouldn’t go work for a CEO who didn’t think it was important. It’s just too heavy of a lift. There are CEOs who are raising an A-round and their board is like, “You need to get a CMO now. You need to get somebody on board.” They do it reluctantly and they’re product people. They want all their time and effort into the product. There are a lot of startup founders like that. I wouldn’t go work for somebody like that. It’s too hard to convince them. There are plenty of CEOs out there that get it.

To be arguing from the founder’s side, it’s hard for them. They don’t know what kind of a marketing leader they should hire. Take the example of a seed-stage or a pre-Series A startup. Typically, I’ve seen founders hire someone from a product marketing background and less of demand gen. Here are the pros and cons. With demand gen, it’s mostly about someone coming with that mindset but it’s all about cranking the marketing engine and generating leads. That’s fair enough. If you look at someone coming from a product marketing background, they start thinking about how we position this in the long term. How do we think about the messaging and how does it tie back to the product pieces, the feature? It also goes back to the customer research angle. There’s that debate that’s happening.

In my experience, the biggest challenge in bringing in marketing leadership in a seed or even Series A is finding that balance between strategic and tactical. What I have observed is you’re a $50 million company and the CEOs bring in somebody who’s worked at a $1 billion company. They’re like, “We want to be a $1 billion company and we’re going to bring somebody in from a $1 billion company.” They come into a $50 million company and everything they do takes a year. They want to talk about everything and strategy forever, and they can’t do anything. On the flip side, if you bring somebody in who’s only ever done demand gen type stuff to come in and lead a marketing organization, if they don’t have that strategic piece, they’re not going to grow the company from $50 million to $100 million. I think in that stage of growth, I would say maybe $10 to $100 million, that is the hardest thing. It’s finding somebody who can roll up their sleeves and do work, but also take a step back and think about the big picture.

There’s one set of marketing leader backgrounds or personal characteristics that will be valuable for growing a company from maybe $2 million to about $7 million, $8 million or so. I’ve seen that typically, it’s like a concord product marketing. It should not be someone from a large company. The pitfalls of that are if someone is coming from a large company, he or she cannot roll up the sleeves and do the work. It’s mostly about guiding, but then they don’t have the budget to have a good start. As you said, I think the big challenge is, “Once we get to the $10 million mark, how do we go to the $100 million?” You have been doing brand work to some extent before, but then the brand has to go up a few notches higher than you talk about like going from $10 million to $100 million. That’s where it comes down to what you’re doing around the whole customer experience index and highlighting that book.

B2B 23 | Content Strategy
Content Strategy: The biggest challenge in bringing in marketing leadership in a seed is finding that balance between strategic and tactical.

 

The content strategy can scale for those different sizes as well. If you’re under $10 million, you’re not going to be spending $2 million on research. That’s just not practical. At that point, you’re talking about bootstrapping content. I have a whole process for that to walk people through. If anybody wants to find me on LinkedIn or wherever, I’m happy to share that, but there’s a process that you go through to identify what the topics are, come up with themes and create content that doesn’t cost anything externally. There are no external costs. Assuming you have a designer and a writer on your staff and you don’t have to hire those out. If you have to hire them out, then those would be the only expenses. You don’t have to spend a lot on content. Here’s another tip for convincing your CEO. If you use that content to make the CEO the thought leader, they like it a little better. You can also use that to elevate other expert voices or other SMEs in your company. You can use the content to do that.

When I was the head of marketing at a company named Green Bits, my job back then was to work with a PR agency to figure out how we can position the founder and the CEO as a thought leader, and get on the coverage of maybe a Wall Street Journal or it can be a Forbes publication and things like that. It’s all about that. Think of it this way. It’s rational because the founder knows the industry, problems, customers, product and there’s a reason why they’re a founder. They should be highlighted and promoted as a thought leader.

Here’s a little hack for your readers who maybe don’t know this. Maybe everybody knows this by now but Forbes has these Expert Councils and they are paid to play. I don’t think everybody knows that and they’re not expensive. They’re between $2,000 and $4,000 a year to be on the Forbes HR Leadership Expert Council. Once you get on the Council, you can publish one article per month but it’s somewhat flexible on Forbes. There’s SEO value and legitimacy value for that. When you start having a bunch of Forbes clips on your website and your salespeople can send out Forbes. Honestly, in my opinion, Forbes is not really up to snuff anymore, but the business community still holds it in pretty high regard overall. You can just buy your way in. There’s a little hack for making your CEO a thought leader. Get them on the Expert Council.

Closing off on that, ever since we started that and we started publishing content from our CEO on the Forbes Council, it was a Forbes Leadership Council or something, the website traffic just skyrocketed right after that. When you have funding news to go along, nothing could beat that combination. Switching gears here, I noticed that you have a website known as The Marketing Doula. You have a little story around why and how you came up with that name. Do you want to share a bit about that?

I was a doula. I was a birth doula for about five years as a hobby. It’s funny because I’ve been in startup technology my whole life. A doula is a birth assistant. It’s a person who goes in with the birthing person and helps them while they’re in labor. You can also have a postpartum doula. You can do it in hospitals, home birth or birth centers. It’s just a person. It’s a support that is there for the birthing person to help them. What a doula does is during pregnancy, they provide options and choices. They say, “Here are the decisions you’re going to have to make. Here are the pros and cons of different decisions. I’m an expert on birth. Your partner is the expert on you. Together, we can help you have the kind of birth that you’re hoping to have. We can at least make it better than it otherwise would have been.” That was a total hobby for me.

When people think of doulas, they think of Birkenstocks, crystals and witchy stuff. I’m in startup marketing but I loved it. I attended maybe 50 births. I have a few philosophies of life. One is to help people generously. That’s the Adam Grant philosophy. One is if you catch a person a fish, they’ll eat for a day. If you teach a person to fish, they’ll eat for a week. What I’ve always wanted to do and what I did a lot of when I was consulting was teaching. I always liked to work myself out of a job. If you bring me in to be a fractional CMO or you bring me in to do content strategy, I’m going to teach you how to do it and set your team up so that they can do it themselves. I started to think I just want to have a place where I can share some of the stuff I’ve learned.

Despite the fact that it is 2021 and not like 2003, I didn’t have the guts to try a podcast like you. I thought it was too much work, so I started a blog. I was talking with a couple of friends about the name. I said, “What I do is I doula people through the marketing process. I give them their options and choices. I help them birth their product. Go-to-market as a birth of a product or a service. I’m the one that knows about marketing. They’re the ones that know about their company. Together, we partner to make it a beautiful experience. I can’t use that name.” She said, “Why not?” I said, “Because nobody knows what a doula is. Startup tech is very male-dominated” She said, “Not everybody needs to understand you. I think you should go for it.” That’s the name that I use and who knows. A lot of people don’t like it but it fits so perfectly. When people do get it, they really get it.

For me, I had to do some digging around. You got a good website with a lot of resources. Again, going back to your whole doula philosophy and mindset, which is about helping. I would say to the readers to go check out the website.

That’s what I like to do. I’m giving people real templates that they can use, templates, resources, ideas and lists. I’d love to turn it all into a book at some point. It’s broader than content strategy. It’s marketing in general. You asked me on to talk about content strategy and that’s my passion but because I’ve been a VP of marketing and a Fractional CMO, I have a lot wider experience than just that. I just like sharing it with people that need it.

I am on your blog now. For example, one article talks about 11 Ways to Increase Visibility on LinkedIn.

Content is a great way to get everybody aligned around one message. Click To Tweet

That was an article I wrote with help from Peak Community members. I was trying to help my sales team connect more authentically on LinkedIn and I didn’t know how to do it. I asked on Peak, I got all these answers and I collected them. That’s an example of me getting the credit for being an expert but this is not my expertise, which I tried to make clear in the article. It’s other people’s ideas.

To the readers, go check out those because Sarah has put together a great list of resources, including how to increase visibility on LinkedIn. I’m looking at it. There’s also one other which talks about free media list template and how to track other stuff, how to write a creative brief, how to set goals, and how to name a startup.

I don’t write on it often enough. I use a Q&A format. If you have a question about marketing, you can send it to me. It’s linked on the website and I’ll try to write a post to answer it.

One topic that I’ve seen personally and I’ve heard from others on the podcast is there’s always this challenge of how you work with other teams, including product and other functions within marketing, as well as how do you work with sales, customer support and success. What are your philosophy and approach? You shared a bit about as a market leader, how you help the sales team. Besides and beyond that, anything that you take or want to share?

Not everybody in marketing likes this approach. I like to come at it like how can I be of service to the other teams rather than I’m running the show and they all need to fit in my paradigm. How can I be of service to them? For a product team, what they care about is the product. Specifically related to your question about content, you can create tons of content about the product. Product content is probably going to be lower in the funnel than brand content, but you can do all sorts of content about the product. Once you are helping them out, promoting them as the thought leader or the subject matter expert, they’re going to get on board, especially if you’re doing the work for them. If you’re bringing them in, advise you, give you the ideas, and you’re doing the execution, they absolutely love it. I think that there’s also a way to elevate some customer success leaders. This is more internal politics but you can put their names on things.

Any of your customer success people are going to be the experts on what’s happening with your customers. If you’re doing a case study, put the name of the customer success person who worked with them in the case study. Use the customer success team as a resource for your content, probably lower in the funnel content. When you can partner with the customer success leadership and start to get some internal recognition for the people that are helping you, that helps a lot. You do a program where people from any department can write a blog post for you. You just have to make sure that their leadership is on board with it because if they’re not, it seems like you’re trying to steal bandwidth. It’s so great for employee engagement when you let other teams and then you have everybody brought into what you’re doing. I also think it’s important to market your own work internally.

If you are having success in content strategy or you put out an eBook, let everybody know. Tell everybody. Let them know what you’re doing and that you’re doing these cool things. Content is a great way to get everybody aligned around one message. I worked with another consulting client in the last couple of years that was trying to create a new category. I was having a hard time getting their own customer success, sales and product teams aligned around the definitions around this new category. Creating content that goes out in the world is a great way to do that. It’s so much harder when you get at a big company and you have big silos, but whenever possible, the more integrated and the less silo, the better.

I would add one more to that list. It is what I call customer marketing. This is especially important in a SaaS world, which most of the companies are, especially in the software world. Software as a service is all about recurring revenue and so on. Products adoption and creating ongoing fans and advocates of your product are key. What I do is also partner with someone on the customer success team who is an expert on the account side as well as on the product side. We do a mini-campaign around some specific features.

That’s a great idea. When you have success at the end, you’ve got to give credit to those people when you’re promoting it internally at the company, especially if you’re a marketing leader, but even if you’re on the team, if you’re an individual contributor, everybody always feels like they have to take credit for everything. It makes you look so much stronger if you give credit to other people. Unless you have a really toxic culture, you should always try to give credit to as many people as possible that helped you out.

That ties into what you’re doing at Give and Take. It’s all about generosity, asking for help, and at the same time giving help. We are running out of time here but last couple of questions for you, Sarah. One is, if you were to look back at your career, who would you give a shout-out to? You did mention the CEO and founder of ForeSee. Give 2 or 3 people.

B2B 23 | Content Strategy
Content Strategy: You can create content that doesn’t cost anything externally assuming you have a designer and a writer on your staff.

 

His name is Larry Freed. I’ve been working with him since 2001. For most of my professional life, he has been a mentor to me and a huge supporter of my career. He’s pushed me to develop. I had two mentors early days. One was named Anne Gunning, who was at a company called Kearns and West. She was a model for me of what a woman in leadership looked like. I would say that Shannon Latta, who was at ForeSee and Verint and is now at Nextiva is another mentor of mine for what it looks like to be a woman in power in technology. It is very common that you’re the only woman in the room and there are different ways of handling that. All of them are legitimate and all of them are worthwhile. Something about her leadership style clicked for me. She taught me less about marketing. She knew about marketing but what she taught me was more about leadership and management.

I think this is key, especially for women who are looking to break the glass ceiling. As much as we would like to admit that it is not there, it is there. The first thing is about tackling your own internal imposter syndrome. That’s one. Having these kinds of mentors that you mentioned is critical.

It’s important. I’ll do a plug for Peak here because Peak is the first time I’ve really found a marketing community. I’m a generous person. I give my time and my energy. I get that same time and energy back from other people who were willing to do favors for me, give me information, give me ideas or thoughts. It’s a phenomenal committee.

I want to echo that as well. I joined Peak Community and I’ve seen a lot of value. I get advice on the value that you give without expectations and it’s amazing. Putting out the content or meeting people like you and I met others as well. For the readers, go check out Peak Community.

Neither of us works for Peak. We’re not getting paid to say this. We just like it.

One final question for you. If you had to turn back time and then go back to day one of your go-to-market journey, what advice would you give to your younger self?

I’m going to get in trouble for this. I think it would be that product is way more important than I thought it was. I overemphasized. I was a marketing person. I thought that the world turned on marketing and that good marketing could turn anything successful, and that marketing should be the most important thing. This sounds so obvious but the product is really important. Having a lot more emphasis on product, I do think marketing should come in very early, but I used to think it should come in earlier than I think now. Now, the product has to be in better shape than I thought earlier in my career before you start go-to-market.

The product has to be good. That’s a key part. Without that, you won’t have a solid growing business, but then there should always be that synergy. It’s a cliche and overused on my head. Let’s see synergy. There should be ongoing activities between the marketing team and product team around how do you highlight and showcase the product features that will be more in the middle or bottom of the funnel content pieces? If you go upstream, it’s all about understanding the buyers and the users of the product. If you understand the product features and who is it built for? You start to develop and create that empathy piece between the product organization as well as your market, the buyers and the users. That’s the role marketing should play and will play.

The other piece of advice I would give my younger self is that your goal is always to scale and get to a big company. I don’t like working at huge companies. I don’t like red tape, roadblocks and silos. The single focus on blowing a company up to the detriment of culture and everything else, I might think twice about that, or maybe just take my paycheck and my cut and leave when the company gets too big. That works too.

With that message, if I had to summarize it in one line, it’s about knowing the size of the company where you will thrive. That’s really important. On that note, thank you so much, Sarah. It’s been a pleasure. Good luck to you and your team. We’ll cheer you from the sidelines.

It makes you look so much stronger if you give credit to other people. Click To Tweet

Thank you so much for having me. If anybody wants to connect on LinkedIn, I’m happy to do that. If you need any help, let me know.

For all the readers, do leave a note or do a quick note on LinkedIn saying the one takeaway that you got between the conversation between myself and Sarah. That would be of great help for both of us.

Thank you so much for having me. This has been a great conversation. I really enjoyed it.

Thank you.

Important Links:

About Sarah Allen-Short

As Vice President of Sales and Marketing at a technology startup called Give and Take, Inc. (2017-present), I oversee everything related to brand, content, and prospecting.

I was founder and president of Thrive Communications from 2014-2017, where I served as a fractional CMO, consultant, and advisor for organizations including Livefyre, Amplifinity, Biovigil, Quikly, the Innerwork Institute, Second Stage Partners, Life in 10 Minutes, Richmond Young Writers, Sabot at Stony Point, and more.

As Senior Director of Communications for ForeSee from 2007 to 2104, I built and oversaw the communications strategy that helped establish ForeSee at the top of its industry and supported its fast, cost-efficient growth and a successful exit in 2014.

From 2001-2007, I was a Senior Consultant with Kearns & West, where I developed and executed marketing and communications strategies for startups, universities, public companies, NGOs, nonprofits, and federal agencies. I had a special focus on stakeholder-driven communications that achieved organizational goals and demonstrated meaningful results.

During my tenure at Kearns & West, I worked with organizations like ForeSee, AT&T, the Aspen Institute, Duke Energy, the Edison Electric Institute, the USDA Forest Service, the University of Michigan, the William Davidson Institute, and dozens of others.

Private consulting engagements have included marketing and public relations work with Verint, BryterCX, the Univerisity of Colorado Leeds School of Business, MoveOn.org, the Brookings Institution, toLabor, Birth Matters, Second Stage Partners, the Acuity Project, Life in 10 Minutes, Richmond Young Writers, Sabot at Stony Point, and more.

Love the show? Subscribe, rate, review, and share! http://stratyve.com/