Your Best Startup Strategy is Better Execution

It’s the most wonderful time of the year. No, not that time. The other one. The time where your startup gets together and starts planning for the upcoming year. Some of you have already finished this process, but with my fiscal year ending in January, I’m currently in the midst of it.

That’s why this article from Sarah Hodges on how to run better management team offsites caught my attention.

In particular, I loved this quote from former colleague and friend Thomas Erickson, the former CEO of Acquia.

Make sure that a focus on execution remains front and center. Have a regular “execution” meeting and less regular “strategy” meetings.

— Tom Erickson, CEO, Acquia & Co-Founding Pillar


I’ve often thought that as leaders, we focus too much on strategy and not enough on execution. Peter Drucker once said culture eats strategy for breakfast, and I agree. I think organizations with a culture of getting shit done win. I’ll take a relentless executor over a “strategic marketer” any day.

I know there is a larger debate around strategy vs. execution. At larger companies, planning, strategy, and execution are seperate disciplines. But my experience comes from working at startups who don’t have the luxury of dedicated teams augmented by management consultants, so finding the right balance is important. Focus too much on strategy, and you’ll end up with a lot of great looking PowerPoints but metrics that look more like 〰 or 📉.

Set the Corporate Strategy Annually

Having worked for Tom for ~3 years, I’ve experienced how he found the right balance between strategy and execution.

Once a year in November, Tom brought the entire extended leadership team together to run a three day activity called the Goal Deployment Process, or GDP as we called it. This process was used to identify the most important issues for Acquia to tackle in the upcoming year, prioritized by their potential impact. It was a team exercise where Tom laid out the three year objectives for the company, and we worked backwards into all the things that would need to happen for us to get there.

The outcome of the GDP was a list of ten or so strategic cross-functional initiatives for the upcoming year, with clear definition of ownership, metrics, and specific actions to take. Here’s a look at what one of them looked like:

The robust planning process drove alignment on the most important items to the company. The GDP actions were often tweaked and metrics were redefined, but very rarely did we decide to abandon any completely during the year. Many of the important milestones in Acquia’s growth came as a result of the GDP process.

Drive Daily Execution

But the most important part of the GDP process wasn’t the annual meeting, it was how it affected daily priorities across the company.

Each owner of the GDP was expected to drive their actions across the company. To make an impact, the GDP leader had to structure their day to make sure they were impacting each of the cross-functional actions they owned. Every month, the extended leadership team would get together to review the metrics. We used a spreadsheet with the plan and actual result, with color coding to highlight areas we were performing under expection.

It was simple and effective. Every month, GDP leaders had to provide an honest assessment of how well (or not) we were able to drive improvements. Too much red? You aren’t executing well. Too much green? You probably set your goals wrong. Note that with Tom, I learned (the hard way) that it was better to have more yellow and red than green.

Tom ran the weekly executive leadership meeting at Acquia the same way. Every Monday morning, he brought the exec team together to review a spreadsheet containing a running list of the most important actions across each department in the company. These were usually less cross functional than the GDP, but still important to the success of the company.

This list forced each executive to provide a weekly assessment of where they were at on important deliverables. This simple format wasn’t appropriate for managing the details of the actions, but it was an easy way for the exec team to track progress, and if something were blocked, it could be addressed directly in this meeting.

Anything that fell in the strategy bucket in the weekly meetings was noted, but not addressed as a part of this meeting. Tom kept the meeting all about execution.

You need a strategy for better execution

Here’s the thing: execution is hard and its a grind. But like anything, being great at execution is daily hard work. There were times that I hated the GDP process, and all of the time it took to drive actions and report on results. But looking back on it, I realize that it was one of the main reasons why Acquia grew as fast as it did under Tom’s leadership.

Chances are at your startup, you’ve already got a good enough strategy in place. You know your customers, and you’ve built business model. You’ve got product market fit and a go-to-market in place. But do you have a strategy for getting better at execution?

If you don’t, that should be a big topic for your 2018 planning process.


Predictive Account Based Inbound Agile Marketing Automation

We’ve hit peak Account Based Marketing.

I’ve received 5 emails this week from vendors extolling the virtues of ABM. I’ve been invited to one dinner, two lunches, received a $50 Amazon gift card, and was told by Marketo that “According to 97% of marketers, account-based marketing (ABM) achieved a higher ROI than other marketing initiatives.”

Everyone is “flipping their funnel” using Account Based Marketing and I’m missing out. Or am I?

Ok. Let’s say I buy that number from Marketo (or something close to it). That still doesn’t mean that Account Based Marketing is right for me. Maybe I’m a proud member of the 3% who think ABM is probably great for lots of organizations, but not for mine? Note that none of those BDRs who invited me to dinner tried to make the case why my company (RapidMiner) would benefit from ABM in the first place.You know you are at the top of a hype cycle when its acceptable to market “the thing” — and not what the thing delivers, or why you should care.

The truth is that really great companies almost never follow someone else’s playbook, at least not verbatim. Salesforce, Slack, Atlassian, and HubSpot, didn’t follow trends, they created them. They went right when everyone else was going left. They were the 3%.

The ABM phenomenon got me thinking about what makes marketers so susceptible to trends? Maybe it’s that we like being marketed to? We appreciate masterfully executed campaigns like Flip my Funnel and Account Based Everything. We certainly like belonging to a tribe — being part of a movement. Ever been to the Dreamforce or Inbound? There’s clearly comfort in numbers. There’s nothing inherently wrong with following a trend, but it’s almost never as easy to pull it off as the trend-makers make it seem.

For example, how many “Appropriate person?” emails have you received+deleted this week? I wouldn’t know, because I created a rule to delete them a long time ago.

The book Predictable Revenue by Aaron Ross taught this approach to outbound sales teams and it absolutely worked for many of the most successful tech companies on the planet — until it didn’t. By then, the trend makers had already moved. on while the trend followers continue to blast templated emails to tuned-out audiences like me to this day.

E-Meet me?

Vendors know the power of trends and the momentum they create. It’s not a coincidence that ABM vendors are teaming up to support the movement. ABM vendor Terminus founded the “Flip My Funnel” community alongside a number of competitors. Even traditionally laggard analysts like Gartner are jumping on board the ABM hype train.

But trends come and go. Ask anyone over 40 how tech marketing worked before AdWords and marketing automation, and it will sound a lot like ABM. Tech marketers in the 90s and early 2000s didn’t have the luxury of the low cost distrubution channels that we have today, so focusing on accounts was the only way to go.

Sure, it was much harder to do ABM then, and the advent of all the new ABM companies make it much easier to do ABM at scale today. Still ABM isn’t new, and it worked then for the same reasons it works now.

Look, I’m not against ABM or any particular marketing tactic. Brandon Redlinger of Engagio lays out some great advice for organizations considering ABM. I’m just against flocking to a trend because everyone else is. There aren’t any growth shortcuts or get rich quick schemes. As I’ve said before, study these trends. Learn from them. Be inspired by them. Implement some of them. But don’t blindly follow them just because you think everyone else is.

And don’t be afraid to be a part of the 3%.


When Marketing Personas Fail

Marketing personas are those fictional people with the clever names like Statistical Stephen at RapidMiner or Marketing Mary at HubSpot. Personas are formed through extensive quantative and qualitative research, and who represent the ideal prospects for your product.

Goofy names aside, complete getting alignment across your target personas and more broadly across your entire customer segmentation strategy is perhaps the single most important thing to get right at a growth tech company. But what often happens is that the whimsical personas created by marketing never really leave the PowerPoint slide they were created on, and aren’t truely embraced by the entire organization as they should be.

See if this complete fictitious scenario sounds familiar at your company…

Marketing is asked to update the core company personas, so they go out and do extensive customer research and come up with three primary personas the company should be targeting. They develop differentiated messaging for each that eloquently connects customer need back to the product. Playbooks are created, sales is enabled, and demand is generated. So far, so good.

But sales isn’t totally bought in. They watched the training session from marketing, and while they found some of the material and persona work to be helpful they have a quota to hit this quarter. So, they continue to go after prospects who don’t really fit the personas defined by marketing, perhaps brands they recognize, companies a rep has sold to in the past, or maybe the sales team is organized by verticals that are no longer a good fit. For whatever reason, sales isn’t fully aligned so they continue to chase a different set of targets than were identified by marketing.

Meanwhile, customer success was unfortunately not involved in the marketing persona definitions. Had they been, they would have pointed out a fatal flaw in the persona development: that one of the target personas has a high churn rate. The persona looks like a great fit from an customer acquisition perspective, but when you follow the persona through renewal and expansion, signing them up is just not worth the effort.

Finally, product and engineering continued to build product and shape the roadmap through entirely different conversations with sales, marketing, and customer success. They may even have their own persona definitions outside of marketing.

None of this happens at your company because you are fully aligned, right? Yeah, probably not.

As I mentioned before, I believe that getting alignment across the entire organization on customer segmentation is the single most important thing a tech company can do to scale. And the CMO needs to be the change agent that gets everyone — marketing, sales, product, engineering, customer success — on the same page, and keeps them there.

Brian Halligan of HubSpot tells a great story of misalignment and the resulting “optionality tax” paid by companies who aren’t fully aligned in the story of Mary Marketer.

In the early days of HubSpot, they sold to two primary personas: Owner Ollie, who represented HubSpot’s really small (< 10 employees) market segment and Mary Marketer, who represented someone in the marketing department of a larger SMB company.

For years at HubSpot we debated our target market persona. We had one camp that wanted to build our offering for Owner Ollie, a small business owner with less than 10 employees and no full time marketer. We had another camp that wanted to build our offering for Mary Marketer, a marketing manager who worked in a company between 10 and 1000 employees.

I was a HubSpot customer during the Owner Ollie days. The product was a jumbled mess of SEO and social tools with a touch of email marketing, landing pages, and reporting mixed-in. You could see there was massive potential, and the product was iterating fast. But still it was confusing to me, because as the CMO of a 250 person tech company at the time I had a much different set of needs than the owner of a plumbing supply store somewhere in the Midwest.

For HubSpot to thrive, they had to choose and eliminiate the optionality tax. And they chose Mary. Here’s how Brian Halligan describes the magic that came through focus:

By picking Mary, our marketers could now build content that attracted her and stopped watering our blog (and other assets) down with business owner content.

By this time, HubSpot already had an army of content creators, and now they were entirely focused on the needs of Mary. This let HubSpot distance themselves in the crowded space of content marketing best-practices.

By picking Mary, our sales reps only were rotated leads from companies between 10 and 1000 employees (lead scoring works, btw), honed their value proposition on how to help Mary grow, and largely forgot about Ollie.

Sales immediately got onboard with the Mary decision, simplying their qualification and narrowing their messaging approach.

By picking Mary, our product folks could laser focus on delighting Mary and stop splitting the baby on the UI and feature set they were building for both. If someone suggested an Ollie feature, they’d simply say “no” and move on — no more hand wringing.

The product team could focus on improving the user experience and addressing the feature gaps that prevented HubSpot from selling to more Mary’s.

And lastly because they were so focused on the needs of Mary, it led to a huge decrease in customer churn and got HubSpot over the magical 100% revenue retention number that is so important for high growth SaaS companies.

The Marketing Mary decision at HubSpot fully aligned marketing, sales, customer success and product. The results speak from themselves: every single metric went up through complete alignment and the focus that came with it:

So how do you get a company fully aligned and keep them there? It takes hard work. Personas aren’t a “one and done” activity. The can’t just exist in a PowerPoint slide or a printed picture that hangs on a wall. The CMO must constantly keep them updated and relentlessly focus on making sure the entire organization remains in agreement on the qualitative and quantatative measurements of what makes a good persona for your company.

This elevates the CMO into a much more strategic role in the organization, something Dave Kellogg from Host Analyics touches on in his post The Evolution of Marketing Thanks to SaaS.

Tomorrow, as more marketers will be measured on the health of the overall ARR pool, they will be focused on cost-effectively generating not just opportunities-that-close but opportunities that turn into the best long-term customers. (This quadrant helps you do just that.)

And that’s exactly where we need to be.

Here’s some additional reading the topic of segmentation and personas:

How to Design Marketing Campaigns: The Importance of Market Segmentation by Myk Pono

The Importance Of Segmentation For Your SaaS Startup by Tom Tunguz


Stop The Lead Scoring Madness

I recently came across a lead scoring article on the Mattermark blog that reminded me of a post I’ve been wanting to write for a while: the way nearly everyone is doing lead scoring is totally wrong.

In the modern era of data-driven marketing where marketers boast about being able to connect every penny of marketing spend to revenue, we are using nothing more than gut instinct and anecodotal feedback to figure out the best leads to pass to sales. The main culprit for this data-driven nightmare is the way lead scoring is implemented in marketing automation systems like Marketo and Pardot.

For example, here’s how lead scoring currently works in Pardot: at the system level, you can assign points to specific actions like email opens, page views, form submissions etc.

You can also add points as a completion action to things like form submissions to weigh specific types of actions and content more heavily than others; like maybe an analyst report or a specific webinar.

The idea of course is that now we can pass the highest scored leads to sales, and that there is a correlation between the lead score and likelihood to buy.

But as Mike Volpe points out the way we assign “points” makes absolutely no sense, yet somehow it has become accepted as the gospel of modern lead management best practices.

It turns out that accumulating points is actually a terrible way of predicting an outcome, leading to marketing passing horrible leads to sales; like the serial webinar attenders (you know, those people that come to EVERY SINGLE WEBINAR you run) and habitual email openers— instead of the people most likely to actually buy your product.

It’s likely that much of the benefit of manual lead scoring comes from the placebo effect of telling sales that you are only passing them the best leads. So in turn they work them more exhausitively, and you’ll get better results than the unscored leads of the past that sales would mostly ignore. But that doesn’t mean they are better quality leads. They could actually be worse and you’d never know it.

Don’t believe me? Here’s an A|B experiment you should run immediately:

Take 10–25% of your lower scored leads using your current lead scoring model and start passing them to sales. The leads should appear like the rest of the higher scored leads(MQLs) you are currently passing to sales, and don’t tell anyone so there is no bias on how the leads are worked. Make sure you can identify leads in the experiment group against the control group.

Run the test for as long as it takes for your test to hit statistical significance, which will be based on how many of your leads convert into whatever metric you are using to gauge the health of leads e.g. SAL, SQL, etc.

In a few weeks after your sales team finishes following up on the batch of leads, compare the two groups using whatever conversion metric you are using. Now did the higher scored leads convert better than the lower scored leads? When I ran this experiment at my last company they didn’t — and the lower scored leads converted at a slightly better rate than the higher scored leads. Oops.

Building a lead scoring model by assigning random points to actions and attributes of leads is just about as un-data driven as it gets.

The solution is to build a lead scoring model based on a proven mathemetical model that will really tell you the features — or attributes of a lead — that have a statistically significant corrleation with the outcome you are trying to predict e.g. people who buy your product. Unlike the randomness of assigning points to specific behaviors and attributes of a lead, a predictive model will give you a statistical measure of which features actually matter the most.

There are predictive marketing products that will do this for you — like Infer, Mintigo, and Everstring. But they come with a hefty price and are overkill for many companies. You can get started for free using tools like RapidMiner Studio or even good old Microsoft Excel.

The first problem you’ll need to tackle is getting access to clean data. Predictive lead scoring is mostly a “wide data” problem; you want as much data as possible about your users to uncover the specific features that have the most impact on closing deals. This means combining data from your CRM and marketing automation system, hopefully your product, and perhaps even external APIs. But chances are the data from your CRM and marketing automation system is clean enough to get started.

Once you have the data, you’ll model it using a variety of machine learning techniques, and most likely you’ll start with some form of regression. I won’t attempt to explain the math behind regression here, but if you are interested here’s a good overview from RapidMiner founder Dr. Ingo Mierswa.

Here are two resources for getting started with either Excel or RapidMiner Studio for free:

  1. This video from Ilya Mirman, the VP of Marketing at OnShape, shows you how to build a predictive lead scoring model in Excel using linear regression. Okay fine, Ilya is a Stanford-educated engineer and MIT MBA, but the approach he outlines is something even mere mortal Excel power users could figure out with a little bit of effort. If you can do a VLOOKUP, you can try this.
  2. With a bit more effort you could download RapidMiner Studio, which will help you both prepare your data and build your predictive model. RapidMiner Studio provides far more options for modeling than Excel, and will help you get a more accurate predictive model. The current lead scoring model we’re using at RapidMiner was built by my colleague Thomas Ott, and here’s a webinar where he walks through how we built the model complete with a sample of our data and the model we use today.
Lead Scoring in RapidMiner Studio

Regardless of which tool you use, you’ll get a result that looks something like this — a weighted view of the lead attributes that actually result in more deals.

For example, in our RapidMiner lead scoring model. the number of product starts was the most important factor in predicting a purchase, and leads from Netherlands were more likely to close than any other country.

We used RapidMiner Server to automate adding our predictive lead score to Salesforce, but even a simple Excel output of your weighted attributes is enough for you to make those marketing automation point assignments using mathetically-sound principals instead of educated guesses. And that’s a huge step in the right direction, and you didn’t even have to spend a bunch of money on a predictive lead scoring product to make it happen.

Lastly, I highly recommend everyone read Myk Pono’s opus on How To Design Lead Nurturing, Lead Scoring, and Drip Email Campaigns. Myk goes into this and many more topics in great depth.

Whew, feels good to get that post off my chest 🙂


When Sales and Marketing Best Practices Become Average Practices

No one got fired for buying IBM?

In the 80s, IBM dominated tech from the desktop to the datacenter.

Buyers often picked IBM because they were safe choice, not the right choice. It didn’t matter. Buying IBM became the accepted best practice for CIOs. It was an emotional decision, not a rational one. People generally don’t like taking risks, and IBM was the easy, safe choice. Of course this mentality led to high costs and failed IT projects, but at least no one got fired making a decision to buy IBM. Or did they? More on that later.

The same best practice phenomenon is happening today in sales and marketing. Most tech companies run the same sales and marketing playbook, including the Sirius Decisions lead waterfall, the sales specialization + BDR model taught by Aaron Ross in Predictable Revenue, inbound marketing from HubSpot, and so on.

Study these best practices. Learn from them. Be inspired by them. Implement some of them. But don’t blindly follow them just because you think everyone else is, because that makes them just average practices.

For example, the current BDR tactic du-jour gone wrong — the meme-laden breakup email. I know breakup emails sometimes work; they certainly got my attention when I first started getting them. But they are no longer fun or funny when I get tens of them a week.

Don’t follow the playbook. Be the playbook.

Truly great companies almost always pave their own way. They take best practices and make them even better practices.

The difference between copying a playbook and being inspired by one is understanding. If you really understand the problem you’re trying to solve, and there’s someone else doing it better than you, then by all means copy their idea but do it better. Make it yours. Good artists borrow, great artists steal.

For example, Salesforce re-invented growth for the SaaS era, as explained in great detail (111 plays!) by Marc Benioff in Behind the Cloud. Box later took the Salesforce playbook and adapted it to their land+expand freemium model. Companies like Slack and InVision succeed with a relentless focus on building beautiful, usable products, matched to a sales and marketing model that’s about eliminating friction in the buying process, not creating it.

But if you are implementing a best practice just because it’s the new thing that all of the hot startups and thought leaders are writing about, then take a step back and study the problem more or you’ll probably end up with something much closer to average than best.

In the end, people actually did end up getting fired over buying IBM. The 90s saw the accelerated rise of companies like Microsoft, Oracle, Intel, and eventually open source. Companies who held on to the IBM status quo for too long were exposed to competitors who could do things better/cheaper/faster with superior technology. The safe choice suddenly became the risky choice. The best practice became the average practice.


Before you agree to widening the top of your lead funnel…

Few things cause CMOs to panic more than hearing the dreaded phrase “we need to widen the lead funnel” from the head of sales. Or the CEO. Or maybe even the board. What they all really want is more qualified opportunities and ultimately more ARR. Maybe that means widening the funnel. Maybe not. But the solution is much more complex than just delivering “more”. Let’s dig into what can go wrong when you try to widen the funnel.

Every CMO has a version of this spreadsheet, that starts with an ARR target and spits out a lead, marketing-qualified lead (MQL), and sales-qualified opportunity (SQO) goal using historical funnel conversion metrics. Here’s a simple example using made-up numbers:

In this case, I’ve taken the next quarters ARR goal of $5,000,000, assumed 75% of it comes from marketing, and that we’ll close 33% of the opportunites we create at an average deal size of $25,000. Based on these assumptions, my model spits out a lead target of 5051 and an MQL target of 1515.

When the next quarter comes along, we do the same exercise. Let’s say we’re shooting for 40% ARR growth, which means we need 40% more leads + MQLs.

Here’s where the problems start happening.

In the early days of a company most MQLs come through inbound sources, but as the MQL target gets higher CMOs feel pressured to try new tactics to hit the goal. At that often means scaling paid programs that guarantee a certain number of leads based on targeted criteria like company size, role, industry etc. The targeted criteria helps ensure these leads become MQLs as they map to the attributes in your lead scoring process.

But not all MQLs are created equal. For example, your lead scoring processes probably overweight fit (think job title, industry, company size, etc) and underweight behavior/interest. So while those new paid leads look great in the spreadsheet you received from the vendor, they aren’t going to convert at the same rate as your primarily inbound funnel did in the past. So inside sales converts less of them into opportunities, and as a result probably loosens their qualification criteria to hit their numbers. Here’s how the funnel math looks now with the less qualified MQLs added in, impacting conversion:

When we lower the SQO conversion rate and the win rate just a little bit, the MQL target starts to spiral out of control. Because we’re not as efficient, our MQL target is now 85% higher than the previous quarter. If we play it out one final quarter, assuming we continue to get slightly less efficient, here’s what the targets looks like:

In this made up example, over four quarters our ARR target increased by 173% while our MQL target went up by 307%! And we had to pay for all those MQLs — and hire inside sales capacity to process them — driving our CAC way up. Of course I’m making a bunch of assumptions here that won’t hold true for everyone, but the point is that scaling the top of the funnel alone won’t lead to growth nirvana, and could be the entirely wrong thing to do.

Some companies like HubSpot rely entirely on widening the funnel to grow. This makes sense, as they sell in the massive SMB market and get most of their leads through low-cost inbound sources. But if your company sells into larger enterprises, has a vertical go-to-market, targets a niche persona, etc. you should be more focused on acquiring, converting, and closing the right leads, which might be measured only in tens or hundreds depending on your market.

Instead of just arbitrarily widening the funnel, what happens if we focus on scaling higher converting lead sources and targeting the right buyers? Magic. We generate higher quality leads, convert more of them, and win bigger deals. Much more efficiently. Going back to our prior example, hitting our Q2 target now only requires 84% more leads vs. 307% in the inefficent model.

If this sounds like I’m advocating for account-based marketing, you’re absolutely right. ABM is a great way to reach the prospects who are most likely to buy from you, improving funnel metrics. I also recommend products like Captora that help you grow the top of the funnel by scaling higher converting channels like organic search.

The net is that more isn’t always better. Often narrowing the top of the funnel is exactly what it takes to widen what really matters — the “Closed Won” funnel stage.


Some Practical Advice for Aspiring Tech CMOs

In no particular order, here are some of the lessons I’ve learned running marketing at three tech companies.

Your most important job is to recruit and retain exceptional people

Never forget that people are your most important asset. As a CMO, you’ll be in endless meetings: the weekly leadership meeting, the executive offsite, QBRs, territory reviews, weekly pipeline reviews, product strategy sessions. Endless. Meetings.

Your calendar may be a mess, but you have to still find time to hire and develop your team. Make hiring your top priority, and personally review every candidate as long as you possibly can. Create and enforce a consistent hiring process for every candidate, to minimize the risk of hiring poorly. When I’ve hired poorly, it’s been because I broke process; ignoring obvious warning signs.

Don’t miss your weekly 1–1s with your direct reports. No excuses (wrote that for myself; I made too many excuses). Just don’t let anyone schedule over this time with your team. Make sure these meetings aren’t just a tactical review of todo items; instead focus them on strategic objectives and career development. If you’ve hired well, your team will insist on this. If you aren’t providing strategic coaching, they will leave and get it elsewhere.

Find the right balance between potential, passion, and experience in hiring

When I interviewed with Acquia in late 2012, they were one of the fastest growing tech companies on the planet. So why were they were considering me — and my measly 3 prior years of CMO experience — to run marketing?

Well, during my interview with Acquia CEO Tom Erickson, I was introduced to his P2 I3 philosophy — Passion, Potential, Integrity, Initiative, and Intelligence (sorry Tom if I got the order wrong). Tom explained these were more important predictors of success than experience alone (on a whiteboard, no less) and on that basis hired me as CMO of Acquia.

Experience is often really important, especially in roles like product marketing where domain expertise is beneficial. But don’t hire solely on experience, because experience alone is a poor predictor of success.

You won’t know how well aligned sales and marketing are until you miss a quarter

Every CMO chases the dream of sales and marketing alignment, but the true test is when you miss a quarter. At some point, you will. It happens to everyone. Then all your hard work and the conviction you had around your funnel in those weekly pipeline meetings is suddenly put into question.

The reality is that an aligned sales and marketing organization should have known about the miss many months in advance, and already have been working on the mitigation plan for the next quarter. If the miss triggers finger pointing then you probably weren’t as aligned as you thought.

Start by reviewing a key set of metrics each week that help you assess the health of the entire funnel. Make sure everyone agrees on the metrics, and that you keep them as consistent as possible quarter to quarter so you can learn and adapt from them. And don’t fall into the trap of focusing too much on the top of the funnel just because it’s easier to measure. Often the most difficult challenges (with the greatest potential impact) happen well after a lead has become a qualified opportunity.

Messaging is much more important than you think

Companies that absolutely nail compelling differentiated messaging crush their competitors. Think HubSpot. Splunk. Slack. New Relic. etc. Messaging is bounded by brainpower and creativity (not budget) so it can truly level the playing field against much bigger competitors when done right.

But messaging is hard. You’ve got to get buy-in from everyone. You’ve got to validate it with customers and analysts. You have to enable + certify your entire field organization on it. You’ve got to test it via your website, paid search, email, etc. Don’t underestimate how difficult and time consuming that’s going to be. But when done right, a compelling message cuts through the noise and amplifies everything else you’ll want to do.

Write more, read more.

I told friend + former Acquia colleague Jess Iandiorio in her annual review that she was the best product marketer in Boston that no one had heard of — and that needed to change. So Jess started blogging, which ultimately led to her getting connected with the excellent team at Drift where she now runs marketing. Through writing, Jess raised her visibility as one of Boston’s smartest marketers but more importantly, said writing gave her a tremendous confidence boost. So create an account on Medium like I’m doing right now, and get writing.

Of course you should read more too. I’m about to get into the latest from Aaron Ross and Jason Lemkin From Impossible To Inevitable: How Hyper-Growth Companies Create Predictable Revenue. Most of my actionable reading comes from Flipboard, where I’ve spent a bunch of time following publishers, people, and topics so my stream has become highly relevant to me. It’s a time investment worth making, and Flipboard is usually the first and last thing I look at every day.

Don’t immediately propose a rebrand when you start at a new company

Updating the logo and/or redesigning the website might feel like a quick, highly visible win, but in the end you’ll be much better off focusing on the hard work of sales + marketing alignment, creating remarkable content, differentiated messaging, etc.

There are exceptions: For example, Jess Iandiorio just led Drift through a rebrand from Driftt. That was smart, because I just had to Google whether it was Drift with two t’s or two f’s. But unless there’s a well thought out compelling business reason for a rebrand, don’t do it. Or risk suffering the same fate as Uber.

Don’t chase shiny new #martec toys

BDRs pitch me on all sorts of new products every day. Most of the pitches are pretty forgettable, like this “breakup” email I just received:

Please stop it w/ the meme-laden breakup emails, they were cute for 15 minutes

The best way to pitch me is with FOMO, making me feel out of the loop for being the only CMO not using the latest and greatest marketing tech. Give me a slick demo and a spreadsheet that promises massive growth and ROI and I’m sold!


Turning that spreadsheet into reality takes a lot more than any product alone can deliver. SaaS makes it easy and cost effective to deploy new products, but SaaS doesn’t account for the resources and organizational commitment you’ll need to make them successful. Where I’ve been able to align the organization with the technology, it’s worked great (for example, Acquia’s work with Captora). Where technology has failed, it’s not because I picked the wrong product; it’s because I didn’t commit the right resources.

In the end, remember that just because Box, Slack, Zendesk, or whoever is adopting that fancy du-jour SaaS product doesn’t mean that your team is ready for it.

Operate on a monthly marketing plan

Starting in early October, you’ll be asked to start thinking about your plan for the next year. Sales will ask how you are going to help them hit their pipeline + ARR targets for the upcoming year. Finance will ask you for a budget plan. Your head of products will want to understand your demand generation strategy.

You absolutely need a strategy for the upcoming year. You’ll need to plan ahead for events like product launches, conferences, big campaigns, etc. But don’t pretend that you have any idea on the specific tactics you are going to employ outside of the next few months.

I’d suggest running a simplified agile process, defining “epics” to represent your 3–5 objectives for the year (hopefully these won’t change, but they might). Then define a three month plan each month, but treat everything beyond the upcoming month as backlog. Then run monthly sprints, including a retrospective to review prior results, and creation of a plan for the next sprint.

This way you’ll have a rolling view of the next few months, with the flexibility to quickly adjust strategies and tactics as needed.

Say no more often

It’s far too easy for marketing to become relegated to service bureau status or worse, the arts and crafts department. We often get asked to do stuff that has little to with our real mission to accelerate growth. Carefully consider the impact of saying yes to requests that don’t align with your strategic initiatives, no matter how hard sales argues for that one-off campaign, or the CEO demands that you update that one page on the website that no one visits (note: both of these examples are fictional, they would *never* happen!)

Saying no comes down to having a clear list of priorities. It’s much easier to say no to anyone if you can easily help them understand the associated opportunity cost. This is where running an agile-like marketing process works, because you can capture these requests in a backlog and constantly revisit priorities every month.

Your budgeting process is probably broken

Finance desperately wants CMOs to build a budget solely based on an Excel model that starts with revenue targets and spits out a marketing programs budget based on conversion rates, ASP, CPL, product mix goals, etc.

You should absolutely build that model for finance, but don’t trust it completely, and certainly revisit your assumptions often. The model won’t account for so many things — product improvements, a successful PR campaign, fundraising, changes in your deal qualification processes, sales restructuring, and so on.

The truth is that budgeting is mostly science, part art; and it gets easier with experience.

Listen to your board, but trust your own experience

Board members are an invaluable asset. They have exposure to other high performing companies, and often have direct experience building and scaling companies.

When NEA invested in Acquia, they encouraged us to simplify our complex multi-product strategy into a single offering that became the Acquia Platform. NEA portfolio company Mulesoft had successfully gone through a similar transformation. This was a brilliant idea, and led to Acquia getting into much bigger deals than before.

But your board doesn’t know your business as well as you do. They will provide many great suggestions, but what worked at one of their portfolio companies may or may not work well for you. Listen carefully, but always remember the board is there to advise, not dictate.

It’s okay to feel like you are in over your head

It happens to all of us. Eat better. Get some exercise. Obsessively watch house-flipping shows and go to bed every night at 9pm (wait, is that me?).

Whatever helps you de-stress.

Seek advice from others

I’ve been lucky enough to spend some time with Boston CMO royalty — like Mike Volpe, Carol Myers, and Brian Kardon — and I’ve learned something actionable from all of them. You’ll be surprised at how willing people are to help if you ask nicely (and are patient).

And when you ascend to CMO, please pay it forward to the next generation.