Marketing is the perfect job for people with co-dominant brains because it demands both right-brain creativity and left-brain execution. Before becoming the CMO of Aryaka Networks, Shashi Kiran had more than two decades of experience in business and technology roles across a spectrum of organizations, ranging from early-stage startups to industry leaders. Trained as an engineer but tempered in the industry as a marketer and a leader, Shashi has had the most experience in marketing and product line management, with some roles straddling the two. He joins Vijay Damojipurapu on the show to talk about the nuances of marketing for early-stage startups versus that of more established organizations. They touch upon the importance of getting everyone on the same page as to what marketing means, building a dynamic marketing team and culture, keeping the team focused on set marketing goals, and the biggest challenges and opportunities for marketing in the present day.
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Marketing Across The Spectrum: From Startups To Industry Leaders With Shashi Kiran, CMO Of Aryaka
I have with me Shashi Kiran, the CMO of Aryaka. As a way of introduction, as well as background, the reason why I’m looking forward to this conversation with you, Shashi, is your track record with various industry leaders including Cisco and Aryaka, as well as your involvement in the whole startup ecosystem. It’s a fascinating and exciting background. Welcome to the show, Shashi.
Thank you for having me, Vijay.
I have a bunch of questions for us to get started. As you know, this is the show around B2B go-to-marketing. How would you define go-to-market?
I look at it as the way to transfer value from the point of creation to point of consumption. B2B is a fairly complicated landscape with different decision-making levels, different target personas, different geographies, and regulatory requirements. In this context, to be able to rise above the noise, there’s a degree of brand awareness that you need to bring in. There is a greater degree of messaging clarity that you need to bring in terms of clearly identifying who you are, what you do, differentiation, your value proposition. Being able to feel the resonance of that value through different stakeholders, whether it be your employees, salesforce, channel partners, technology relations, or customers. That is all of what is driven by a go-to-market entity. It’s a broad foray, but if you can successfully transfer that value from the intent of the creator to the need of the consumer, then that’s a job well done.
In your last line, you hit it well, which is you shift your focus more into the consumer that you understand. That’s where the empathy and the listening are key not just from a CMO individual perspective, but how do you build that DNA into the outbound go-to-market organization. I think that’s key. A funny story and more of an incident from early in my career. The way I was thinking about go-to-market is typically from a traditional product marketing outbound which is, “We got this launch coming up. How do we line up the various things, including the collateral, positioning, messaging, sales enablement, as far as the pipeline goals we need to hit?” That is go-to-market. It’s a one-time event. That was my notion earlier many years ago, but then my perspective shifted. You validated and explained that well. That’s a great perspective. What will also be valuable for the audience over here is if you can share your journey from a personal as well as from a professional perspective on how you grew in the ranks of marketing and how you became a CMO, that would be great.
I’ve been fortunate in my journey. I’m an engineer by education and a marketer by profession. It was clear to me as I was doing my undergrad that I wanted to go into something that involved people, a balance of creativity and logic. In marketing, you see it as a bit of a right-brain as well as left-brain activity. There is a lot of creativity that you need to apply but to the point that you were making earlier about doing a launch or doing something in a more tactical way, executing against a certain deliverable, that requires a logical approach. Usually, the most successful marketing organizations are the ones that can combine creativity with execution.
I enjoy that. Fortunately, most of the jobs that I had, the responsibility that I was given far outweighed the title I had. That allowed me to learn more, make more mistakes upfront, and establish a good network of people that value you and you value them. Technology becomes a by-product in such environments because technology keeps changing. You have to still perfect your craft of how do you message, position, scale and execute. My career has been a combination of some startups and some larger companies. I’ve had roles in product line management with P&L responsibility. I’ve had marketing roles and roles that straddle the two like in my position. I oversee the product management technology partnerships as well as marketing in all of its forms.
When you reference companies like Cisco, I had more of a product and solutions marketing role there. The portfolio I had was large, tens of billions of dollars. It was one of the largest portfolios that Cisco had in the networking domain. At the same time, we realized that in a lot of things that we do, there are multiple fast through mechanisms whether it be our sales teams or channel partners or other stakeholders. What we create and what we put out goes through a series of filters. Sometimes, it takes a long time for you to realize the impact of what you did. There isn’t an immediate feedback loop. I have worked in such companies where I have scaled a lot of these go-to-market initiatives, helping grow businesses from zero to multibillion-dollars in revenue. We’re taking advantage of ecosystems that are built with a lot of sales teams, large channel partners organizations, direct marketing or direct sales.
The most successful marketing organizations are the ones that can combine creativity with execution. Click To Tweet
That has been one element of my DNA. At the same time, for the last few years, I have been more immersed in startups. After I decided to leave Cisco, I joined an early-stage startup, which was to help determine the new product-market fit and getting an idea off the ground. That ended up getting far fairly quickly at a series of startups in the cloud-native application delivery space. I joined a mid-state startup, which was building routes to market. It had an Israeli engineering team. For me, it was great to work with that culture. We also solidified a lot of routes to market. Part of this journey had also been getting in front of investors to raise funding. We raised the next round of funding.
I was looking to join a later state startup where you can apply these principles of scaling to grow. Amongst the other offers, Aryaka came my way and looking at the opportunity, I felt it was a good combination of a company that had already established a good product-market fit, had solid technology. The problem to solve was in terms of scaling the go-to-market. I grabbed it with both hands and I have been with this company for a few years now. We have the product management team as part of the CMO organization as well as the sales development team. It gives us a greater amount of ability to qualify things at the head end and thereby target people and messaging as well as streamline a lot of things, which is a positive thing.
Startups require more hands-on abilities, more confidence, a propensity to make mistakes, learn from them, and also be able to get feedback and not have a thin skin. You need to be able to absorb the feedback and react quickly in terms of changes that we want to make. A lot of other companies give you the ability to apply yourself at scale and it comes with its own share of complexities. For me, I’ve enjoyed both of these worlds. I frequently look at how do you infuse the startup mentality into a bigger company and how you bring that big company scaling function into a startup. That’s the dynamic that I enjoy solving.
You’ve touched upon several points over there. Initially, you were growing up in the product organization, but at some point in time you felt the urge to move more into the marketing side, the mix of both analytical as well as the creative side. You also touched upon an important point, which the people in Silicon Valley will resonate with this well, which is at some point in time, you want to experience that startup culture, the startup DNA. I felt that as well. I’ve worked at larger companies including Ericsson, Microsoft and Juniper Networks. I felt that urge to grow and go into smaller companies as well as earlier stage companies including seed, series A and several others.
I clearly see that and you have grown in the ranks well. The other question or the thought process that comes to my mind and I would like to chime in on this is, what do you see are the nuances or the variations? How do you think about go-to-market from an early stage, finding a product-market fit position point of view versus scaling and growth? Clearly there’s an overlap but there are also different approaches to both.
Marketing is a bit of a misunderstood profession. What I mean by that is when you talk to ten different people, their view of marketing can be ten different viewpoints depending on the lens you are viewing it from. Some will look at it purely as a branding and advertising activity. Some will look at it as generating collateral, getting your leads ready and a website. Some will look at it as a demand generation, “Where are my leads coming from?”
If we can be more blunt there, you can also get to hear from other teams, “Can you put some lipstick on the pig and make it look pretty.”
I’m sure we have made a lot of pigs look pretty in our careers. The point I’m trying to make is you can’t take one thing and say, “I’m done in the context of marketing.” It’s a nuanced profession. You can go deep in certain areas and you need to be good enough to connect the dots in the other areas. There are some people who come in especially when you get into the level of a CMO. I look at a lot of my peers. Some people come in purely from an advertising or a branding background. They’re good at proliferating the message on a global scale. Some others come in from a product background. They understand how to position message and craft the differentiation. Some others are mostly on a demand gen level.
Regardless of which function they come in from, maybe product event or some cross the chasm from engineering to marketing, it is important to see what is the problem that needs to be solved, and apply yourself into taking away that weak link from your marketing value chain. I look at different companies that I have been involved in. In some you hired a good product-market fit. The challenge was how do you let more people know about it.
In other cases, you had a good degree of brand awareness, but when you start to bring something out, how do you ensure that you’re maybe not cannibalizing something that’s already there or do it in a way that is non-disruptive? Those challenges will vary and you have to look at it in terms of the stage of the company, and what fuel do you want to put into the fire and see how can you scale things. It also goes into hiring the DNA in different companies at different stages. To see, is that the right background or DNA that we want to bring in? Those are all that’s going to make that whole journey work better.
Let me put you a bit more into the hot seat position over here. I’m sure you must have encountered this in a couple of startups or even the other areas. I don’t think there’s a problem in the larger companies. I’ve not seen or heard from the other marketing leaders. The question to you is I’m sure he must have dealt with situations where the CEO doesn’t get what marketing is even though they hire a CMO or the head of marketing. How do you tackle that situation?
You have to educate people and you have to get them to your point of view. That means being proactive in terms of sharing your thoughts, getting the buy-in early. It isn’t necessarily just the CEO. It could be a lot of other people, board members, sales leaders or maybe somebody even in the media around those communities. The thing that you’ll encounter is everybody has an opinion about marketing. Part of the challenge as well as the opportunity is how do you rationalize some of these opinions? Everybody wants to get involved in naming a new product or creating a tagline. Everybody feels that the version they’ve come up with is the best. You have to be able to synthesize these things.
On one hand, you have to ensure everybody is participating because you want them to feel a sense of ownership with what you bring out, which is where you create a ripple effect. You’re not going to get that scale, the ripple effect if your own organization, your own CEO, your own sales team doesn’t resonate with what you’re trying to put out. They need to be active stakeholders. For that reason, the participative nature of any engagement is important. The second aspect is once you’ve framed your PCs, once you have taken these opinions, eventually it’s your call to decide on the path you want to go. CEOs understand that well with the consensus builder’s decision-makers. They do understand that, “Yes, I’ve got these ten opinions but there is a reason I’m going to pick one.”
As a CEO or a leader, that is something you are paid to do. You have to make a decision, take a stand, and then comes the aspect of making sure others understand the reason for the stand that you have taken. In an organization that is vibrant and scalable, the best messages are not the ones that the creator is articulating, but what somebody who’s two steps away from the creator is able to articulate without things getting lost in translation. It means they need to absorb it with the same degree of clarity that you do and feel as if it is their own thoughts to carry. If we can make that, there is a bit of education, stakeholder engagement, and then stakeholder buy-in, then you will see a lesser degree of confusion and more involvement. That is the recipe for successful scaling.
You touched upon the messaging and you come up or launched a new product line. I’ve seen that with my several clients, which is each team member be it in sales or be it a GM, or even the founder or the CEO, each of them has an opinion around what the messaging should be as well as what the tagline should be. Taglines are a catchy “sexy” activity and everyone wants to get involved. At the same time, there is that aspect of the point which we discussed and you touched upon earlier, which is it’s not about us, it’s about the resonance with the consumer.
Will it resonate with that customer? That’s key and there’s that whole gray area. You will know when you launch it. You will only know it maybe 3, 6 or 12 months later on. Let’s dive a bit more into how you organize your marketing team. You touched upon that lightly, but you have the product organization as well as the outbond marketing organization. I would presume it’ll include the dimension, brand and creator. Can you share a bit more about how you structure your teams?
The general philosophy of hiring is to take somebody who complements you. Click To Tweet
Each of these organizations brings teams in based on what problem we’re trying to solve. In my role, I have three leaders reporting to me. One is the VP of product management, the other is the VP of product and solutions marketing, and we onboarded a VP of demand gen. We also have a marketing operations team as well. Each of these functions has its own specific mandate. You will find these functions to be fairly common across different organizations. Depending on the size of the organization and the activities that they are undertaking, you will see more or less people being added to it. It’s more important to look at the type of people that we hire in general and this is probably more exacerbated now during the pandemic where everybody’s working from home.
We had to onboard people through Zoom interviews that we have never had a chance to meet in person. For them also, they have to come up to speed on a number of things being home, and without necessarily the luxury of a whiteboarding session or somebody who can walk them through things. Culture becomes important. At the same time, we look at people who don’t require a lot of hand-holding. They should be able to make decisions on their own. There is a degree of empowerment that we need to put in where they feel confident to take decisions, make mistakes. The important thing is to be able to create clear pathways for communication, information sharing, and a feedback loop. These are things that I keep pressing on. Generally, the philosophy of hiring for me is to take somebody who complements you.
I give the analogy of if all of the fingers of our hand were the same lengths, you could never close it into a fist function. The team is your fist. You do need fingers of different sizes that come together with complementary strengths. That in a way goes to form a formidable team. If you are to hire everybody who thinks like you, if you’re to hire a yes-man team, then that fist is never going to get developed. It’s like being in an army where everybody wants to march in sync. You will never get the diversity of opinions and hard processes.
If you double click and you asked your team to work on a major campaign which runs over the next 1, 2, 3 quarters. Do you structure your team in such a way that you have the product marketing, owning the messaging, and then at the same time closely working with the creator, writer, content, social media, and demand gen? That’s one thing I’ve seen with the various clients, as well as the other organizations. There’s a challenge as to how to structure because you are the CMO and you own the entire marketing function, but if one doesn’t pay attention, it’s easy to get logged into silos. Imagine product marketing having their own set of KPIs, content and social having their own set of KPIs around each. How do you overcome that challenge as a CMO in breaking down silos even within a marketing organization?
One of the key things is to make sure that everybody is sharing information. We have to proactively create forums for people to share the work that they’re doing. I view the key aspect of roles such as ourselves is being able to connect the dots. Each dot could represent as a certain function. That function needs to be good on its own merit in a standalone capacity. If you want to drive a multiplicity of outcomes in a powerful way, then we as leaders need to take ownership of connecting the dots. Part of it is the culture that we establish where everybody understands not just their roles and responsibilities but how they function relative to others. Who to reach out to for help? Who do you offer help to and you do something?
There are fleeting problems when any new team getting formed. You can bring some tools in that will help ease the process. In my career, I have never seen a tool substitute genuine human intent and the need to collaborate. We have to foster that and make sure everybody understands that it is for the common good and establish common meetings, common information sharing mechanisms, common goals where the interdependencies are clearly mapped out. You do this for the first few times then it becomes second nature to everybody.
Any new person that you bring on board assimilates into that culture, that workflow. It’s at the formational stage that we need to think of some of these things. Maybe you grow to such an extent where you don’t know all the members of your own team. There have been instances in my career in the past where the team sizes were big that I may not be knowing intimately what every person does. That is a different order where you need to make sure your leaders and the processes at all there to help make that happen.
One of your primary jobs is to break down silos in such a way that there is a constant sharing of information. That sounds like that is a big goal and focus for you and the marketing team. Do you also think about and frame shared KPIs or goals in the context of a campaign?
We have been self-disciplined about it. At an organization level, we were aligning to things like OKRs, but OKRs are not meant to break down into a lot of execution level information. It’s for common goal setting. If you truly want to have predictable outcomes, then it is better that you have a good line of sight into the execution elements. This helps bring better structure across the different members of the team. It also aligns expectations, if you do execution reviews and if they present their plans, it allows you to connect the dots better. We have been disciplined about setting our goals for each quarter in a way that it aligns to more or less the day-to-day activities of the individuals across the different teams, and then map that to some of the higher-order objectives. If we can create that linkage, then it brings more predictability for us across the entire team.
For the leaders that I’ve spoken with and I’m in touch with, that’s the intent. It’s easier said than done. There is a challenge of what I’ve seen play out. There are quarterly offsites for doing it like a quarterly planning or QPRs. There’s great outcome, great energy during that first couple of days. People lose sight a week or even a month later. We identify the goals, but a week, a month later typically if you’re not conscious, we switched into a firefighting mode and we lose sight of the goals that we set out. When it comes to the end of the quarter, we’re scrambling. I’m sure you can relate to that. How do you handle or how do you try to avoid such situations at Aryaka?
Some of our goals are meant to be through the year. For example, we say, “We will grow at 40%.” That’s a goal at a high level. That number can be taken and a sales team can interpret its action plan for that differently. The marketing team can implement its action plan differently. I’m giving an example of how everybody can take a higher-order organizational goal, then develop plans in a way that allows you to achieve some of those objectives.
If you’re saying, “I’m going to grow 40% or 50%,” or whatever the number is across the year, it means that you need to have a certain set of building blocks in your own daily, monthly, quarterly cadence that will allow you to drive more predictability. We’ve been disciplined about taking something like that and then saying, “What should our quarterly plan be? What new products are we going to introduce? What new launches are we going to do? What agencies are we going to bring onboard? How many opportunities are we going to commit ourselves so finance can model the revenue impact?”
Each of them boils down to certain initiatives, certain projects that become the quarterly big rocks that we track, and then we communicate it. Part of it is not just setting a goal for yourself, but I make it a point to announce our goals to the entire world. We proactively share it with almost the entire company even though they may or may not be interested in the marketing goals. The moment you stand on a rooftop and say, “This is my goal,” that’s your commitment to the universe. It automatically binds you to execute on that. The team has done a good job in terms of saying, “These are the big rocks we are going to commit to each quarter and here is how it fits into the bigger picture,” and then being able to manage, track, and build upon those. It’s always a work in progress but that’s the system that we have this time.
You’ve covered how you break down silos and how you help not just the marketing team, but even the entire organization, how you educate them about the marketing goals and how you execute via marketing sales or even the engineering or finance for that matter. Going into 2021, what do you see as the top 1 and 2 challenges and then the opportunities for marketing from a good market perspective?
We have adapted well. If you were to ask me in the March and April 2020 timeframe, we were all having a sense of trepidation in terms of how the organization is going to deal with this particular situation. How are our customers going to adapt? Are we going to lose business? Are we going to be able to attract employees of the right caliber? Are we going to be able to retain them? Are we going to be able to execute the programs that we said we would? Now, I look back on what has been somewhat of a tumultuous period in the last six months of 2020. We’ve done extremely well. We didn’t lose any customers. We gained a lot more that came our way because they liked the way we were helping them, manage change in their own business, and help them transform their infrastructure.
It’s been a company-wide effort. At the same time from a marketing perspective, we have hired some good talent. We haven’t lost any significant amount due to attrition. The teams are being fairly committed and meeting their timelines. We also try to have fun in the process. Everybody’s working from home and some have gone back to other cities than the cities where they were working globally. I don’t think we’re past this pandemic yet. I would like to say that we’ve all figured out how to adapt, deal with it, and portray a sense of confidence for ourselves, our customers, and it is business as usual. With that in mind, I don’t think we have any other way of saying this than to continue to challenge ourselves.There is no one recipe for surefire success in this digital world. Rising above the noise is a process of constant experimentation. Click To Tweet
The metrics that we have set for ourselves, we shouldn’t be watering those down. We should be sticking to our growth targets or product delivery timelines, and how we go to market with maybe partners. We’re looking at 2021 as being another year where we will continue to gain market share and increase messaging clarity. One area I’m personally looking to put more effort in is in elevating our brand. In the last 3 to 4 quarters, we have spent a lot of rejiggering our product mix, overhauling our pricing, then we completely refreshed our messaging, positioning websites, and then we started to put in a lot of building blocks for demand generation.
We’ll get more predictability, more intent-based data-driven activities. Now, I’m ready to scale all of those and put more emphasis on elevating the brand globally. That would be an area that I’m going to put more emphasis on even as we harden a lot of the foundations that we have laid across the teams and we won some good, big deals, some of the biggest in the ten-year-old history of Aryaka in the last quarter of 2020. We would want to continue to build upon that and scale our organization.
Kudos to you and the entire Aryaka team on that. You guys had a fascinating and fantastic quarter. I’m wishing you and the team the best so that you can continue to outpace and outshine yourself. This is great stuff, Shashi. Thanks for sharing a lot of details. As we head into wrapping up this show, the last couple of questions for you is, what are the top areas that you’re curious about specifically when it comes to go-to-market? What resources are you leaning on? You mentioned growing the brand awareness globally, that might be one area. I’ve seen leaders leaning on podcasts or even peer networks and rev gen, and a couple of other communities. What do you and your team lean on?
We are constantly experimenting there. I don’t think there is one recipe that is a surefire success all the time. Especially nowadays where a lot of activities have become digital and in-person events have been curtailed. There’s a lot more of an information overload, people are getting invited to more virtual events, a lot of emails, a lot more phone calls. We have to continue to figure out what pathways allow us to rise above the noise. It’s a process of constant experimentation. I wouldn’t say what worked for us two quarters ago is going to work for us this quarter because of the behavior shifts that are happening rapidly. We do multiple things. We have gotten into a place where we can predict certain outcomes, which it is always a hard thing to do for a marketing organization to be able to forecast and predict.
That’s the muzzle that we’re trying to bring about. We are investing in more intent-based tools and more data that has refined applying principles of AI and things like that where we can, and to create greater points of engagement and conversion. I don’t think we have any big challenges in terms of attracting more people to hear what we do, but we are now putting more focus on how many of them can we convert into being active engagers and buyers in taking the next step forward. Those are bringing in some interesting learning.
For Aryaka, your customers are a mix of enterprise and telcos. Can you share a bit more about the customer space?
We call ourselves a cloud-first run company. What we mean by that is we allow enterprises to get the network and security delivered as a service for them. Many of them are used to now consuming applications from the cloud as a service. Our theses are that the network should be no different. Can you make your network as easy to consume as you could any application from the cloud? Can you make it as responsive? Can you make it as agile? Can you make the experience to be overwhelmingly positive that there is no other solution that they would consider? We are a fully-managed solution for advanced wide area networks. We fall into the category of a managed SD WAN provider.
In reality, what we do is make it easy to consume network, as well as security. We’re seeing this convergence of the two happen and deliver that as a service globally to enterprises for any site or user. We have built out a global network. This is a layer two network with built-in application acceleration and optimization capabilities. We have established points of presence globally that allow us to target any knowledge worker with a sub-30-millisecond latency then we have an edge footprint, which is our services edge node. We can host security or remote access on top of that and connect to different cloud providers, SaaS providers or private clouds, essentially delivered multi-cloud networking. The whole construct of WAN including the last mile, we take ownership of getting away the complexity and being able to manage and deliver all of that as a service.
Good luck to you and your team. Brand and growing the brand awareness is one piece, but then there’s also the whole notion of how do you track if you’re growing the brand because you won’t know it until 3, 6 or 12 months later. In addition, you need to continue to do your messaging, the portfolio pricing, as well as the whole dimension. One final question before I let you go, if you were to give a shout out to your peers in the industry, who are those top 2 or 3 good market leaders that you look up to who inspire you and who you learn from?
There are a lot of people that I learned from. Some of the people are not necessarily marketing people, but they do a ton of different ideas. Our CEO, Matt Carter, comes in from a marketing background himself, probably more from B2C marketing. You draw many of your inspirations from people in startup environments. A lot of CEOs are marketing savvy. A lot of my peers have gone through a similar journey as I have. Every time you get together and brainstorm, we try to reach out to each other and say, “What’s working in your role?” I’m also an advisor to a few startups and venture firms. I draw a lot of inspiration and ideas from people who are trying out something new for the first time. They haven’t cracked the go-to-market nut, but there’s bright directional learning that happens there. It’s a combination of these different people. I’ve had some good bosses in the past as well as much as I have right here.
Any names that you want to share?
The thing with that is I’m always going to leave somebody out. I would rather keep it more inclusive than offend somebody that I leave out.
Shashi, thanks for being on the show. Good luck to you and the whole Aryaka team.
About Shashi Kiran
A proven executive with 20+ years of experience in business and technology roles. I adopt a growth mindset and enjoy driving outcomes that create impact, value and deliver a positive experience. Building trust-based relationships based on integrity, authenticity and avoiding politics are core to my personality. I’ve been involved in marketing, sales, business development and product management at large global companies and smaller startups. Love solutions and connecting the dots to win big! Meritocracy, passion and humility are key ingredients of my team-building formula.
Recent focus areas include: Data center, Cloud, Networking, SD-WAN, Software, Automation, DevOps, SaaS, Security, and Artificial Intelligence (AI) for service engagement across Enterprise and Service Provider markets
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