How Spryker’s Culture-Driven Partnership Strategy Minimizes Friction and Unlocks Growth Across the Globe

Partnerships are at the core of Spryker, a growing e-commerce company. Because Spryker works with customers across B2C, B2B, and marketplace sales, the company’s ability to drive growth for its partners through responsive, agile solutions is of paramount importance. Creating a sound partnership strategy across regions is critical and Spryker values a transparent and trust-driven culture both within its organization and with its partners. “Culture eats strategy for breakfast, and this is why it’s so important to keep this in focus,” says Edmund Frey, Spryker’s Chief Revenue Officer.

In today’s episode of Growth Hacks, Kunal and Katja sit down with Edmund to discuss how Spryker first defined its company culture as part of its partnership strategy. Edmund then walks them through the three steps that Spryker takes when defining its partnership vision, and how it does so while mitigating conflict between various parts of its sales apparatus. He also breaks down Spryker’s playbook to global expansion and how it diversifies the staff across its partnership teams, and explains how Spryker draws its partners into its community on an ongoing basis to drive awareness, excitement, and shared learnings. 

Here’s what you’ll learn:

  • Why Spryker adopted a ‘herd mentality’ when defining its corporate culture
  • Three steps that Spryker team uses to define its partnership vision, while avoiding conflict between its direct and indirect sales forces
  • The growth-minded approach Spryker takes when staffing its partnerships team
  • Why brand awareness and marketing isn’t enough for e-commerce companies when expanding internationally 
  • How Spryker’s biannual Solutions Partner Bootcamp builds community amongst the Spryker team and its partners

To hear more on this, settle in and press play. 

Please find the transcript below, which has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Kunal: It is a real pleasure to introduce you to today’s guest. He’s many things, among them an entrepreneur, a founder, attorney, patent holder, professor at Columbia, angel investor, winner of a ton of awards, brother, son. Please welcome Stephen Messer, who’s the founder of Collective[i], which is a leader in AI-enabled digital sales. This company has seen thousands of opportunities run across its platform and today Stephen’s going to share insight that no one company could get on their own. We’re to go through those today. Welcome, Stephen.

Stephen: Thank you so much. It’s great to be here.

Katja: Great, Stephen. Where does this podcast find you today?

Stephen: Today I am in the beautiful Saint Kitts in the Caribbean.

Katja: Awesome. That’s quite the location. As we start the new year, we are really excited about bringing you a different flow for today’s episode. We’re actually partnering with Collective[i] to share the top 10 takeaways based on the enormous amount of data that they gather on their platform. So, Stephen, let’s start with number one, Salesforce activity. How much of it is actually recorded in Salesforce?

Stephen: This is a crazy statistic. When you look today, there’s probably less than 16% of the activities that a sales professional does is mapped into the CRM. Now, that by the way also ignores all the contexts that usually are supposed to be put in, but don’t get in as well. We have a product called Intelligent WriteBack and the goal of that product is actually to find what’s really going on and the reason that CRM is so dependent on getting an accurate and complete view of what the seller is doing every day to help them improve.

Kunal: Stephen, I know when we run those assessments, even in our own companies, that 16% almost has a plus or minus of one, so it is truly a solid stat on what the activity of the reps are. Just imagine if we were a contestant on Wheel of Fortune — how many phrases would we get right if we could only see 16% of the letters?

Stephen: Yeah, you’d have to probably hope for a two-letter word for you to be able to figure it out. If it is a normal phrase, you would probably be looking at this saying there’s no chance. I think that’s exactly what’s happening in sales orgs today that are looking at their data.

Katja: Wow, that’s astounding. Moving on to number two, Steve, which is a popular topic with TCV as well, forecasting. How many hours does the average company spend on forecasting and how accurate has it been? And I want to hear your Marvel story.

Stephen: Yeah, forecasting is an interesting one. When you look at the statistics, whether it be from analysts or even from the data that we’ve seen, most organizations have historically spent about 20% of their time doing forecasting. So forecast Fridays are actually forecast Fridays. They spend the entire day. It’s kind of amazing to think that we give up 20% of selling, which is one day out of every week, to focus on a non-revenue producing task of forecasting. I find it even more crazy because it’s trying to do something that no one’s really been able to do in the history of the world, which is accurately predict some future event. No human on the planet has ever predicted the future. They’re giving up 20% of their time to get to an accuracy rate that’s almost been historically impossible to do.

When we look at that, we think to ourselves, okay, this is a real problem. And in fact, this is where my Marvel story comes in. I’m a comic book geek. I love them all. And in Marvel, there’s always a lot of themes around moving to the future and back and forth. But if you look at even the most recent Marvel movies, The Avengers, what you’ll see is that Doctor Strange saves humanity at the end of the movie by being able to go and live millions of lives to see which is the only way that they’ll be able to defeat the evil villain.

In this case, it’s pretty amazing. He gets it right. But two movies earlier before this evil villain even showed up, Doctor Strange is in a movie and could not predict that this person was coming to avoid it. In other words, even the superhero with the power to see the future has a 50-50 hit rate at best. What that tells us is that storyline worked because no one believes that anyone can predict the future. We think forecasting is going to go through a big revolution in AI and we’re excited to see people get 20% of their day back and more accurate up-to-date daily predictions.

Kunal: I love the Marvel story, Stephen. I think Marvel has like 7,000 characters and like two can predict the future, which just tells you how difficult it is to do. I know from a TCV perspective, we view forecasts. It’s like Kevlar for the board. When you have predictability, it makes spending the budget that’s allocated way easier. I think the forecast plays a critical role at all levels, but if you’re an operator in the company, you can find your budget being restricted if you start not to be predictable.

Stephen: And I think that’s really it. I think what boards want is the confidence in understanding what’s changing in the world. No one expects a sales professional at the start of the pandemic to predict exactly what’s going on. In fact, if you look at most of our competitors in forecasting, we were the only ones who hired up instead of laid off people because our AI was telling us that it was actually going to be a good thing, an accelerator for our business. I think companies like Zoom and some other players had a huge lift from the pandemic, so laying off people would’ve been putting the wrong brakes on and using people’s opinions probably wouldn’t have been the best way. But what they want to understand is how is the daily change affecting their likely future so they can decide, do I open up budget or do I close it down? They also want to make sure that they’re on track, that it’s reliable, that everything is predictable, and I think that’s really what forecasting with an AI product is all about.

Katja: That’s great. Sticking with superheroes, I always like the Lasso of Truth of Wonder Woman as well, which I think is something I would like to have.

Stephen: I think salespeople would like to have that with their customers as well.

Katja: I think so. Moving on to number three, one of my favorite topics, is the number of leads in people’s emails that never make it to marketing.

Stephen: It’s not just emails. It could be in their phone calls; it could be in their video conferences. I think the challenge around CRM has been the cost that it takes to enter information and the mundane nature of it. I did use to work with the UN and I used to joke around and say the only thing the Geneva Conventions didn’t cover was making intelligent people do manual data entry into databases. It’s cruel, it’s hard, and that’s why a lot of salespeople tend not to put that information into the CRM, even though it’s some of the most critical data that they need. When we think about that today, what you end up with is maybe one or two contacts entering into the CRM when in reality, seven to eight buyers are involved in the transaction and that sales team, and the marketing teams have no idea about those other people.

Kunal: Yeah, what we’ve seen, and I think what we’ve heard in the past is roughly 70% of the people we work with on an opportunity just never make it into Salesforce. and I think you’re validating that with the data you’re seeing as well.

Stephen: Yeah, we’ve seen it in your portfolio, right? It’s amazing how many names get uncovered that are involved and it changes the way you think about how the buyer is going through their buying process. That can give real advantage if you know who’s there. Take for example account-based marketing, a very popular new form of doing personalized marketing communications. Well, if you never know who’s there and you don’t know the personas, you’re not going to be able to get that marketing tailwind from your organization simply because you can’t get that information into the CRM and put it in a way where it’s trustworthy.

Katja: That’s right, and that leads to our next topic. How do you then build a solid pipeline? Right? Because what we are seeing is that the majority of pipelines have really bad data; we see that these deals are in the pipeline that are over a year old. They have closed dates that have changed more than three times, but actually no activity in the last seven days and no change in stage in the last 30 days. What happens is usually half the pipeline falls out when we look at the health this way. What’s your fascinating pipeline stats, Stephen?

Stephen: I’m going to first highlight things that every sales leader who’s been around for the last decade knows. We used to talk about 2X pipeline coverage, then it became 3X and 4X and 5X pipeline coverage. It wasn’t that win rates were going down; it was that salespeople started warehousing more and more deals. When you don’t have visibility into the actual activities and contacts that the sales organization is interacting with, it’s easy to lose sight of which deals have just gone away that the seller doesn’t want to close. That can be as simple as loss aversion, or they want to hold onto it in the hope it comes back where they can get it again.

When you look at these pipelines, it’s actually causing real problems. Your CDR team doesn’t even know who to feed new deals to. It creates all these issues. The bigger issue is all the while they’re being warehoused, these opportunities are sitting there idle. There are no marketing messages going there, there’s no keeping up with the buyer who may no longer even be at the org. This is a real problem. What we see today is that sales professionals hold on to close lost deals for about three times longer than a closed deal.

Kunal: That’s a fascinating stat, and Katja and I have seen this over and over. We actually have a white paper on pipe dream versus pipeline that covers some of this as well.

Stephen: Yeah, it’s a great read and I recommend it for anyone who’s listening to this podcast.

Katja: Thank you. It’s definitely eye-opening what we’ve observed working with companies. Along those lines, we also see that almost 100% of companies assign leads based on territories. And they almost make no reference to connections, which feels like 1950s selling. What do you think, Steve?

Stephen: Look, I think sales is going through a huge revolution and a lot of the ways that all of us came up through sales leadership must be re-examined. When you think about territory management, that was designed for the traveling salesperson who carried a roll of dimes in their pocket, would carry their bag from location to location. So, it made sense that territories be fixated around where it was fastest for them to meet the most customers.

Well, that hasn’t existed since the ’50s. The world has changed. I would argue cell phones alone changed it but look what’s happened during the pandemic. People can work from anywhere. It’s easy enough to do business from anywhere thanks to modern day technology, but the biggest thing that we see today is that as people have access to social networks, they are leveraging their relationships to learn what other products other people are using, what works and what doesn’t work. The idea that companies aren’t countering that trend by leveraging relationships that exist in their org, just lying there as data not being used, we think is just sad because there’s a lot of opportunity for people to leverage their friends, their family, their past colleagues, their prior customers. All of this exists and it’s just sitting there to be taken advantage of.

Kunal: Outstanding. Most closed lost opportunities, they’re lost because of no decision, no actual competition involved, and this is code for we just never got buy-in. Maybe you can speak to the number of people you’re seeing involved in a deal as well as how you guys map out circle of influence here to measure, are these opportunities going to close, not close, et cetera?

Stephen: You can probably tell from my statements I really believe that the social world has moved from the consumer into the B2B. And we’ve known that when it comes to jobs around things like LinkedIn, but you’re now seeing it spread into the sales world. We have a product called Connectors that allows you to discover connections, both at your org, but amongst your friends and your family and prior colleagues, et cetera, because we think that’s the most important thing. Why? Well, today if you were to look at the number of buyers involved in a transaction, you’d see across our network that they’ve gone up every single year. Now we’re not alone. All the analysts have been talking about this for a while, but what that means is a lot of the ways that we’ve historically sold, what we’re looking at now is that buyers are making decisions where they’re doing the research on the web first, they’re getting a lot of people involved. It’s a consensus-based purchase and they have their own model and methods of buying.

On the selling side, we’re seeing the same thing. There’s not just one seller anymore. We used to hold the salesperson accountable, but today we have to hold people like legal and finance, your joint venture partners or resellers accountable. What that means is you now have a lot more people involved. Well, the benefit of that is that they all have access to connections as well where they can leverage, and in fact, if the organization can start to learn that circle of influence, they can actually work in conjunction with that buying group to influence everybody involved. It’s a pretty powerful world when all these social connections are working together.

Kunal: I totally agree, Stephen, and one interesting thing that we see that you guys have patterned out is you would take the win rates and you would be able to pattern out kind of these next best set of actions based on what’s kind of moved the needle in the buying journey. Maybe you could talk a little bit about how you guys do that and what the impact has been.

Stephen: The funny part is AI has been popular in the consumer world over the last 20 years, really accelerating in the last 10 years as neural networks have spread through, and a lot of the things that we love so much about those B2C apps is how personalized and how effective they are. The way they do that is by leveraging large networks of data, right? Facebook, TikTok, et cetera. Well, those same exact technologies are being applied now into the B2B world, and in particular B2B sales. We use all these technologies and a large data set to help us find out how does each buying group make their buying decisions? If I can observe that same buying group across multiple sellers, it allows us to really start making good predictions about when they do this, what it means or what they’re going to do next. Then we can look across an even larger network to start to understand what people do that lead to certain win or losses.

The cool part about AI is you can run the time forward, which is, okay, here is the stack pattern of what we’ve had today. What’s the optimal thing you can do next? We can suggest that and just like all apps, take Waze for example, I don’t always have to take the optimal route if I don’t like the route, but the route they’re suggesting is probably going to be the fastest. If I take it, it’ll look at the activity. If something new happens, it’ll reroute it again. So, you’re always looking for, what’s the optimal way to work with this customer? In other words, how do I personalize my sale to the way this buying group likes to buy?

Kunal:

What I love about it is the fact that on a win, you can tell me the needle-moving actions that happen in aggregate even all the way to the industry level. I think it’s super precise, and on the flip side, I can take my losses and map out what is not moving the needle. So, again, it has the impact of making my go-to market strategy, just giving it more precision.

Stephen: You know what else is cool for sales organizations and sellers? It’s so personalized that it’s giving them their unique advantages served up to them on a plate. When they win that transaction because they had a great connection over at the org, that’s something that only they could have taken advantage of. It’s a really powerful way to get every bit of strength out of your organization.

Katja: Well, Stephen, we’ve covered a lot of myths. What’s one that surprised you in 2021?

Stephen: It’s a good question. the thing that most surprises me is this idea that we can still predict the future. The reason I say that is we’re sitting here locked at home at the point where all of us thought we were going back to the office. I just saw today that Apple has postponed indefinitely when they’re going to go back to office. This idea that rather than reacting to news quickly and having the optimal way of doing things, we’re still trying to predict the future. I feel like COVID has been the great lesson in the fact that as great as we think we are at making decisions, we’re not always great at predicting the future, but what we are amazing at is how we can react successfully to it.

The American economy and globally the economy is going strong because we all moved onto the web, and we all were able to make really fast changes in the way we historically operated. I think the thing that we’ve learned more than anything else and the biggest myth is that change can be hard. I’ve watched organizations that never had video conferencing switch overnight and operate globally on video conferencing within a span of weeks. I think we can change quickly.

Kunal: I agree, Steve. And when you have something come in so significant that forces you to change, you’re able to break through barriers way faster than you thought was humanly possible. I guess, as we kind of wrap up here, what’s one enduring myth you wish would just go away based on the data you’ve seen over the last 10 years?

Stephen: It’s a good question. If I were to pick one myth, I think the biggest myth is that the sales organizations are going to continue to just operate in the same way they’ve done over the last 30, 40 years. I think a lot of people are tweaking around the edges. I see this as a transition from being a very qualitative, very opinion-based world to a very quant heavy world. We saw 20 years ago the marketing world move from brand marketing to digital marketing, and while it might have seemed scary at the time, today they’re one of the most powerful parts of any organization where arguably years ago, they were considered to be tarot card readers. Today they’re core producers. I think sales will go through a huge transition as it digitizes, and that will change everything about how we operate for the better.

Katja: That’s awesome. Thank you so much, Steve. It was so nice to have you on the show. And some of the takeaways that I’ve picked up are throwing out the old playbooks and leverage AI as well as relationships and connections to get better at many things, including forecasting, lead generation, building a pipeline, and more. With the universe of buyers and their access to information increasing, we also see sales teams growing with more people involved in the process. Thanks for sharing your thoughts on how to increase win rates and pitfalls to avoid. And most importantly, how buyers and sellers can work together. Thanks so much for being with us today, Steve.

Stephen:

Thank you for having me on the show. It’s been fantastic.

Katja:

Thanks for listening to Growth Hacks. You can follow us on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, or wherever you listen. To learn more about us and TCV’s CEO and founder podcast, go to tcv.com or email us at growthhacks@tcv.com.

***

The views and opinions expressed are those of the speakers and do not necessarily reflect those of TCMI, Inc. or its affiliates (“TCV”). TCV has not verified the accuracy of any statements by the speakers and disclaims any responsibility therefor. This interview and blog post are not an offer to sell or the solicitation of an offer to purchase an interest in any private fund managed or sponsored by TCV or any of the securities of any company discussed. The TCV portfolio companies identified, if any, are not necessarily representative of all TCV investments, and no assumption should be made that the investments identified were or will be profitable. For a complete list of TCV investments, please visit www.tcv.com/all-companies/. For additional important disclaimers regarding this interview and blog post, please see “Informational Purposes Only” in the Terms of Use for TCV’s website, available at http://www.tcv.com/terms-of-use/.


How Adding a Product-Focused Strategy to its Marketing Mix Has Unlocked Growth at Nerdy

Growth Hacks – Moving the Metric

When Adam Weber joined Nerdy, one of the leading education technology platforms, as its Chief Marketing Officer, he had just left Dollar Shave Club, whose go-to-market strategy was vastly different from Nerdy’s. Nerdy had seen high growth by utilizing a marketing strategy based on capturing customers via search intent, and Adam and his team built out Nerdy’s two-way communication with its customers with a product-forward strategy that offered users free trials of the company’s enrichment programming, such as its expert-led Star Courses. While demand marketing was still very much a part of Nerdy’s marketing playbook, the product-led strategy that Nerdy adopted helped showcase its breadth of enrichment programming and also helped build trust and credibility with users beyond what they may have typed into a search bar. 

Understanding Nerdy’s customer intent was also a key part of the marketing leading up to Nerdy’s IPO. Rather than simply focusing on financial data to present to potential investors, the Nerdy team sought to tell the narrative of Nerdy’s evolution and future growth to help illustrate the compelling data that Nerdy had in its financial statements. 

In this episode of Growth Hacks, Kunal and Katja speak with Adam about how he modified his playbook when moving from a consumer goods company to a technology platform, and evolved Nerdy’s marketing strategy in the process. They also hear from Adam about how Nerdy built enrichment-focused partnerships with parents and schools alike, while alleviating some of the concerns that came with distance learning during the pandemic. We also learn from Adam about how he’s navigating the impact that COVID-19 has had on marketing measurability. 

Key Takeaways:

  • The importance of marketing narrative to build investor trust when taking a company public.

Given the breadth of financial information that must be rolled out when taking a company public, it’s easy to get lost in focusing on data when putting together prospectuses and other documents for potential investors. While financials and growth data are important for investors, Adam quickly saw that telling a compelling narrative of Nerdy’s past and future growth was just as important to late-stage investors as it had been to those who had invested in Nerdy’s previous private rounds of funding. Because Nerdy had such a strong product and a compelling vision for the future, Adam emphasized  making sure that potential investors understood that narrative just as well as they did the company’s financial data. As Adam explains, “Even at this late-stage institutional phase, what makes the company unique, why we’re different, and how we can grow into the future is a fundamental aspect of [our jobs] as marketers.” 

  • Why Adam prioritized understanding customer decision-making when moving from Dollar Shave Club to Nerdy.

Prior to joining Nerdy, Adam was the chief marketing officer at Dollar Shave Club, where the go-to-market was largely focused on reducing friction around decision-making, and bringing customers to the point of purchase decision as quickly as possible. But at Nerdy, customer decision making was largely based on understanding a customer’s specific needs and optimizing the customized solution out of Nerdy’s suite of products. Rather than focusing on top-of-funnel conversion, Adam’s team spent more time on developing two-way communications with potential and existing customers. Doing so helped build trust between Nerdy and its client base, and ensured that the company was delivering maximum value when customers signed up. While it would have been less complicated to focus on quick commitments, Adam says that the time spent understanding customer decision-making was time well-spent. “You have to know the nuance and decision-making for the category you’re in, and make sure that your go-to-market reflects it.”

  • How Nerdy shifted from a demand-driven, search focused marketing strategy to a product-driven go-to-market strategy.

One of Nerdy’s primary drivers of customer acquisition had been around users searching for online learning services. It had prioritized its marketing experiences around understanding that intent and demand, and customizing web experiences around that. But in recent years, the company has focused on a product-driven go-to market, where potential customers can test out free Nerdy programming, such as its Star Courses, where students are able to take enrichment programming from celebrities and top experts across fields such as astronomy, animation, and history. By having prospective clients engage for free in live classes taught by well-known experts, Nerdy’s customers were able to experience the unique experience Nerdy’s platform can deliver, rather than simply learning about a small slice of Nerdy’s product library. Adam didn’t dispense with the search-driven, demand-led marketing efforts; he and his team just expanded the strategy to lead with Nerdy’s product experience. Doing so allowed Nerdy to build trust and expand the two-way communications with its prospective clients, and nurture relationships over time. 

  • Why Nerdy leaned into enrichment over education alone, and the payoff it had in building ongoing engagement with students and educational institutions.

As Adam built out the product-led go-to-market strategy, he and his team quickly learned that demand was growing for Nerdy’s enrichment courses, in addition to its suite of 1-on-1 tutoring, and small and large group classes. As school leaders focused their resources and energy on keeping schools open, extracurricular programs were frequently put on hold or canceled altogether.. This created a gap for Nerdy to fill by expanding its existing enrichment programming such as its Star Courses to blend fun and learning together while enriching students outside of their traditional classroom lessons. Nerdy also partnered directly with schools to help expand their breadth of enrichment courses outside of a standard curriculum by offering a wider selection of programming. 

“One of the advantages of online is the availability of selection. It’s really hard for your local YMCA or school to deliver a broad option base of summer camps or afterschool programs. When you’re online, and have a purposeful platform like we do, that becomes possible,” says Adam. 

  • Permanent changes that marketers will have to adapt to as a result of the pandemic. 

As one of the leading online learning platforms, Nerdy saw increased demand during the pandemic. Even so, Adam cautions that marketers will have to adapt their measurement capabilities to better understand their audiences even after the pandemic. Because there’s far less visibility into a user’s journey with the recent privacy law reforms, Adam and his team utilize triangulation to understand customer decision-making from a variety of angles to understand how every dollar spent impacts a company’s bottom line. While tracking a user online will still be critical, other metrics will provide crucial insight into understanding and calculating marketing spend. As Adam explains, “[It’s] also understanding brand health metrics, it’s understanding survey data, and in multiple ways, understanding what’s happening underneath the hood so that you can get better and optimize.” 

To learn more, tune into Growth Hacks: How Nerdy Built Trust with Investors, Parents, and Students While Navigating an Ever-Changing Education Landscape

***

The views and opinions expressed are those of the speakers and do not necessarily reflect those of TCMI, Inc. or its affiliates (“TCV”). TCV has not verified the accuracy of any statements by the speakers and disclaims any responsibility therefor. This interview and blog post are not an offer to sell or the solicitation of an offer to purchase an interest in any private fund managed or sponsored by TCV or any of the securities of any company discussed. The TCV portfolio companies identified, if any, are not necessarily representative of all TCV investments, and no assumption should be made that the investments identified were or will be profitable. For a complete list of TCV investments, please visit www.tcv.com/all-companies/. For additional important disclaimers regarding this interview and blog post, please see “Informational Purposes Only” in the Terms of Use for TCV’s website, available at http://www.tcv.com/terms-of-use/.


How Nerdy Built Trust with Investors, Parents, and Students While Navigating an Ever-Changing Education Landscape

Nerdy (NYSE: NRDY), the EdTech leader behind companies like Varsity Tutors, which offer live instruction, online learning, self-study, and enrichment programs, saw its demand grow exponentially over the last few years, as parents and schools looked for ways to engage students throughout the pandemic and months of distance learning. The shift in learning from offline to online was already well underway, and as we’ve seen in many industries, the pandemic accelerated a systemic change that the company was custom-built to address. That demand alone would have been enough to drive demonstrable growth, yet Nerdy also chose to rework its marketing strategy and adapt its core product to be an even better partner to existing educational institutions. Doing so allowed Nerdy more ways to meet their customers – families and schools – where they were at and help address the critical learning challenges faced during these unprecedented times.

In this episode of Growth Hacks, Kunal and Katja speak to Adam Weber, Chief Marketing Officer at Nerdy, about the lessons he’s learned overseeing all aspects of the company’s marketing, including performance, product marketing, content, and customer relationship management. In addition to crafting Nerdy’s external narrative when the company was going public in 2021, Adam led a seismic shift in the company’s existing search-focused go-to market strategy, which helped build customer trust and credibility with pandemic-weary parents, teachers, and educational organizations. Adam also breaks down how he adapted his strategy when he joined Nerdy after five years leading marketing at Dollar Shave Club.

Key Takeaways:

  • The importance of marketing narrative in building investor trust when taking a company public
  • Why Adam prioritized understanding customer decision making when moving from Dollar Shave Club to Nerdy
  • How Nerdy shifted from a demand-driven, search-focused marketing strategy to a product-driven go-to market strategy
  • Why Nerdy leaned into enrichment rather than just education, and the payoff it had in building ongoing engagement with students and educational organizations
  • Permanent changes that marketers will have to adapt to as a result of COVID-19

To hear more on this, settle in and press play. 

Please find the transcript below, which has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Katja Gagen: Today we’re being joined by a consumer marketing expert. It is my pleasure to introduce Adam Weber who is CMO of Nerdy, a TCV portfolio company in the EdTech space. Adam leads marketing across performance, product marketing, communications, content, and CRM. Thanks for being on the podcast.

Adam Weber: Thank you. It’s a pleasure to be on the Growth Hacks podcast today.

Kunal Mehta: Awesome. Well, Adam, maybe you can just tell us where this podcast finds you today.

Adam Weber: I am recording live from my home office in Cincinnati, Ohio, which is where I am from and live with my wife and three kids.

Kunal Mehta: Cool. Maybe you can just give us the wonder years of how you got to where you are today.

Adam Weber: Yeah. I’ll give you the abridged version. I spent eight years at Procter & Gamble in brand management and brand marketing. Which was just awesome, foundational, the best quote unquote MBA you could get by learning in real life.

But probably more notably recently, I helped the marketing at Dollar Shave Club, which was also in the TCV portfolio. From the early days I was the 10th employee all the way, five plus years through when the company was acquired by Unilever in 2016. I got to do a little bit of everything in the marketing world, everything from performance marketing to brand creative content, which was really exciting. If you’re a right brain left brain marketer like myself I also, just to note, had a couple of I don’t want to call them failed, but far less successful startup roles before and after Dollar Shave Club.

So not everything was as rosy as it sounds.

Katja Gagen: It never really is, right? Because growth comes from learning and that comes from succeeding and failing.

Adam Weber: That’s right. A hundred percent.

Katja Gagen: And now you’re at Nerdy. Tell us, what is Nerdy all about?

Adam Weber: So Nerdy, which is led by our flagship consumer brand Varsity Tutors, connects experts and learners to deliver high quality live instruction and online learning in over 3000 subjects in really anything from kindergarten phonics to high school test prep to collegiate academic, even professional certifications.

We deliver it through multiple learning formats. We’re most known for our one-to-one tutoring, but we also deliver live classes in small group formats and in live large auditorium-like formats, and even have a personalized self-study solution to supplement. The company focuses in and really has built that business on the backs of technology and AI, which helps us deliver personalized learning at scale through our expert vetting, the algorithms that match the experts, the learners, and then through our purpose-built live learning platform, which really goes above and beyond the standard video face-to-face interfaces that exist like Zoom.

Kunal Mehta: Amazing. Your company just did a really nice job going public. Maybe you can tell us what a typical day is like, and what’s changed between being private versus being public from a marketing perspective.

Adam Weber: I think for us, our big principled approach to the process of going public, which, you know, does take a long time, was to just focus on the execution. We thought that was ultimately the best way to deliver the best return for our current investors that were with us when we were private and help us attract the right long-term investors. We have an amazing product. We have a really strong vision for the company. It’s this really transformative time in the category of education right now. We did our best to try and not let the process distract us too much from getting done what we needed to get done.

Kunal Mehta: I think that’s great advice for all marketers. Just continue to keep your heads down and focus. You’ve become an expert in the process of going public, and I think it would be good to just hear, for marketers that are in companies that are about to go public, what is it that they must do to get ready?

Adam Weber: I was actually pleasantly surprised by the process itself and actually what role me as a marketer was asked to play. And what I mean by that is I kind of thought that the process was like a financial only type of discussion. And look, I’ve helped raise different financial rounds in the private sector with Dollar Shave Club in previous years.

And I understood, especially in early-stage companies, the importance of the story and the narrative in those discussions, but I thought with later stage investors, that wouldn’t be as true. What I was really surprised by was that it wasn’t really all about the data. Obviously, financials matter and data are paid attention to, but it was really important to enroll potential investors, even at this late-stage institutional phase, to what makes the company unique, why we’re different and how it can grow into the future. That’s a fundamental aspect of what your job is as a marketer at these companies, and I was kind of thrust in to help develop that story and make sure it was clear and concise and delivered in a way that was interesting to the investment community. I think that was a really surprising and really exciting part of the process.

Katja Gagen: You also made the transition from Dollar Shave Club to EdTech, which is interesting. What are some of the main lessons as a marketer that you bought to Nerdy and what surprised you?

Adam Weber: It was a pretty significant change and particularly in the industry. I think that was probably what my biggest lesson was really understanding that when you transition and especially going from a personal care category to education, then you really have to understand the nuance and the differences between how customers make decisions.

So, for example, Dollar Shave Club: it’s a very affordable razor, you’re thinking about a $6 purchase. Customers will make those decisions very impulsively. In education or tutoring, it’s a highly considered, highly personal decision and people really want to build trust in and really be thoughtful about making that type of investment.

Our go-to markets had to be fundamentally different to reflect the different types of decisions, whether that was, if you think about Dollar Shave Club, our funnel was about just getting to the point of commitment quickly and reducing as much possible decision friction as could exist.

But in Varsity Tutors, we spent a lot of time developing a two-way communication with our customers, helping understand their needs so that we can build trust with them and make sure we deliver the best possible solution for them. I think that the biggest marketing takeaway and strategy change is that you’ve got to know the nuance and the decision-making for the category you’re in and make sure that your go-to market reflects it.

Katja Gagen: Tell us a little bit more about your go-to market strategy? How did you go about this when you joined, or what changes did you make during COVID?

Adam Weber: Maybe to overly simplify it, on the customer acquisition side, it is a very search-based category. There’s a lot of search volume, a lot of people start their discovery process for getting help in the Google bar. We do design a lot of our experiences around understanding that demand, understanding the intent in that demand and personalizing the website experiences and in the tele-sales experience, to basically cater to the different types of intent that come in through search. So that’s a big aspect of the go-to market, and one that’s been kind of really honed over time. Maybe on the flip side, one of the newer aspects of the go-to market and something that we did differently during COVID was we really switched and did a much more product led strategy for growth, which was we put our product experience at the top of the funnel, encouraged people to engage with us.

We offered to them for free through this initiative called star courses, which basically takes highly notable celebrity experts in a field. This was largely focused on K to 12 enrichment topics. So, think of astronauts, animators, experts. We allowed prospective clients to engage with us for free and go to these live classes that were taught by these well-known experts and get really unique experiences from our platform.

I think that helped us go to the top of funnel and build a lot of trust and credibility along the way. Then you nurture those relationships into, you know, more monetized, client base over time. We’re really thinking of our go-to market on the capture, the search query and demand that exists out there, but then also lead with our product experience and build trust at the top of the funnel with content and in interesting unique content.

Kunal Mehta: That’s awesome. You guys rolled out a ton of programs during COVID. I remember my daughter commenting on the astronaut sessions specifically and she just loved it. Maybe you can speak to those, the impact, and the lessons you learned during COVID.

Adam Weber: COVID’s had such a transformational impact on the education category. We were right dead smack in the middle of a lot of that transformation and change that’s occurred. Every metric we study, and track is showing just an incredible level of openness and willingness, and frankly, even now desired preference for learning online that didn’t exist pre COVID. One of the major things was just the change in our business has more and more people are willing to learn through technology which really sets us up for long-term success.

But I do think there was some underlying kind of short-term and potentially even over time trend lines that, that we see happening when I kind of mentioned about star courses, there was this huge growth in enrichment, a desire for people to actually blend fun and learning together which was kind of around pre COVID.

I think what really, really jump-started it was COVID because for a while there, learning was a chore through the schools in particular. It was tough whether it was done remotely, or it was done in isolation. I think that a lot of families turned to online learning as a place where they could bring together and enrich their students and make learning fun again.

We really leaned into that as a trend and really built out an enrichment program that didn’t even exist in our portfolio prior to COVID. The other major trend, and this is one that we kind of think is the most critical one is that learning right now matters more than it ever has.

COVID because of the impact it’s had on schools – I think there’s a McKinsey study that said this – set back students in K-12 by on average five months from where they should be based on their learning journey. I think the result of that is that learning and outcomes matter more than they ever have.

That’s great for our business because the product we deliver I think is absolutely the best thing you can do to address learning loss or to catch up or to get ahead. What we’re seeing as a trendline in our business and how we adapted to that is not only did we see that in our kind of direct-to-consumer business, but we saw and were able to partner with schools for really the first time in our business history.

We developed an institutional strategy that allowed us to go into schools who are catching the blunt force of this COVID learning loss problem. With a teacher shortage that’s happening nationwide, schools are looking for partners like us that can address that need not just in the short term, but now durably over the long-term we believe.

I think the two biggest pivots we’ve seen in our business, or I should say additions to our growth strategy, have been utilizing enrichment as a mechanism to get people into our ecosystem and to have fun while learning. We also address a lot of the academic needs that are in the market right now, by partnering directly with schools.

Katja Gagen: I think Nerdy, or Varsity Tutors, saved many parents during the pandemic, including myself with your virtual summer camps that were awesome because it’s such a variety of topics across various levels. Thank you so much.

Adam Weber: I mean, it is funny you say that. One of the advantages of online is the availability of selection. It’s really hard for your local YMCA or school to deliver a broad option base of summer camps, or afterschool programs. When you’re online and you have a purposeful platform like we do, that’s possible. We can offer 10, 15 different types of summer camps and afterschool programs that just can’t be offered on a local basis.

Katja Gagen: Thanks Adam. As you look into consumer markets, we want to drill deeper in a couple of areas where we’d love to get your input, as a CMO who’s worked for two iconic companies. During COVID, we found that changes that we thought were short-term might be a bit longer. What are some of the other permanent changes that marketers should be planning on?

Adam Weber: I think with all the changes right now in the privacy landscape, I think that marketers need to get really used to measurement being very tough, and I think it’s going to probably get worse before it gets better. Back in the Dollar Shave Club, there was certainly no perfectly insulated silver bullet to measurement, but we definitely had a good grasp on how every dollar you spent was impacting our bottom line.

I think in these days where we have less visibility to what’s happening in the user journey, and we’re able to track it to a far lesser degree than we used to, the key is about triangulation and really being able to get at it from multiple angles on what’s working and what’s not. Sometimes it’s through some of the measurement vehicles that exist in tracking a user online, but also understanding brand health metrics, understanding survey data, and in multiple ways, understanding what’s happening underneath the hood so that you can get better and optimize.

Kunal Mehta: Adam, thank you. We typically end our podcast with a series of rapid-fire questions. I wanted to start with a book and a movie that changed your life.

Adam Weber: On the book front, I don’t know that it’s any single book but I’m a huge fan of presidential biographies which I think really give you an inside track to how decision-making and leadership is really conducted at the highest levels of, really the world. So right now, I’m reading a book, Theodore Rex, which is about Teddy Roosevelt’s kind of formative years as a president, which I find really interesting and is one of the examples of that kind of genre that I really enjoy. On the movie front, I guess I’d go with Dead Poets Society. I watched Dead Poets Society for the first time as a high school junior in my English class. I think it really taught a lot of important things in life like, seizing the day, Carpe Diem, finding yourself, being true to yourself, taking risks. I think it was a really important movie at that stage of my life.

Katja Gagen: Thanks Adam. And since you are lifetime learner, what’s one skill you want to pick up or an area you want to learn more about next?

Adam Weber: Lifelong learning is super important for us at Nerdy and something we really believe in. For me, oddly enough I’m kind of starting to get into coding. I’ve never learned how to code. I’m not a developer but my kids who are seven, six and four, are really into coding right now.

And they actually learn on our platform at Varsity Tutors. Through that, I’ve been myself kind of starting to learn and spend more time coding not because I’m using it at work on a day-to-day basis, but because I find it intriguing and challenging. My kids are actually really heavily influencing my learning right now.

Kunal Mehta: I love the way kids just have that impact, right? I know our listeners would love to hear what your favorite marketing metrics are.

Adam Weber: Yeah, I think it’s tough to pick one. I guess ROAS to me is really critical as a marker of return on ad spend, you got to pay the bills and you got to be accountable as a marketer, especially as a CMO. I think ROAS is the ultimate metric of accountability.

But maybe the less notable metric that matters I pay attention to a lot is unaided awareness and I think it really shows the strength of your brand. It shows how top of mind you are in your category, and it usually is most correlated to growth over time. So unaided awareness is maybe the unsung hero of the metric landscape.

Katja Gagen: That’s really interesting. What’s a lesson learned in your career that you would want to pass onto your younger self?

Adam Weber: I think if I were to reflect back on my earlier years of my career, I think you’ve got to think about your career kind of more like chess, not checkers, and plan a couple of moves ahead and realize that not every role is your ultimate destination. When I left Procter & Gamble, I left for a lateral move, less money, not the best title but for me it was a role where I knew I could learn.

I had gaps in what it was going to take for me to become a great marketing leader or a CMO one day. That move out of P&G and into an e-commerce company allowed me to do that and it set me up for success to join Dollar Shave Club, which was obviously a great experience.

Kunal Mehta: I think there’s great wisdom in that, Adam, because the faster you learn, the faster you’re going to rise. So, closing those gaps really matter. Maybe we can end on the most interesting life hack.

Adam Weber: Life hack. This one I definitely have picked up since COVID — the walking meeting. We were remote from the company before COVID, we are now honestly fully remote. Most of my meetings are in video in my home office and I think it’s really important to be present on video for most meetings, but I will take probably one to two one-on-ones per day in all weather, and I will walk them.

It gives me energy. I can actually focus. I don’t multi-task. And of course, it kind of covers my exercise for the day. So, walking meetings is my big life hack.

Katja Gagen: That is awesome. We learned, Adam, that you’re not only a lifetime learner, but also now a lifetime walker. When it’s right, I’m hoping we can take you on a walk and talk more about everything we covered today, from what it’s like to build a CMO in a private and public company, to how CMOs should think about demand gen and why the customer experience matters now more than ever.

But also, how someone who was dealing in the consumer space with shaving and grooming products made the successful transition to the EdTech space. Thanks so much for being on the podcast today, Adam.

Adam Weber: Thanks for having me. This was a lot of fun. And I’d be happy to go on a walk with you any day.

***

The views and opinions expressed are those of the speakers and do not necessarily reflect those of TCMI, Inc. or its affiliates (“TCV”). TCV has not verified the accuracy of any statements by the speakers and disclaims any responsibility therefor. This interview and blog post are not an offer to sell or the solicitation of an offer to purchase an interest in any private fund managed or sponsored by TCV or any of the securities of any company discussed. The TCV portfolio companies identified, if any, are not necessarily representative of all TCV investments, and no assumption should be made that the investments identified were or will be profitable. For a complete list of TCV investments, please visit www.tcv.com/all-companies/. For additional important disclaimers regarding this interview and blog post, please see “Informational Purposes Only” in the Terms of Use for TCV’s website, available at http://www.tcv.com/terms-of-use/.


At Growth Enablement, Modernizing Sales Enablement Means Throwing Out the Old Playbook

In an increasingly competitive sales landscape, throwing out the playbook may seem like a bold strategy. But that’s exactly what Scott Santucci, president of the sales enablement consulting firm Growth Enablement, has been advising his clients to do. Commercial systems designed even as late as 2019 are likely full of complex trainings, outdated information, and other sorts of friction that can slow down the actual sales process. Instead, businesses should focus on systematically reducing the obstacles that stand in the way of sales progress to accelerate enablement.

In today’s episode of Growth Hacks, Katja and Kunal speak with Scott about how he’s viewing the evolution and current state of enablement, and how he’s adapting the traditional customer-centric approach to unlock value at a faster pace for both businesses and their customers. In addition to actionable tips on accelerating the sales enablement process, Scott walks us through combining perspectives from sales, marketing, and product to create a route to value. He also shares his strategies for simplifying metrics to measure commercial health. Lastly, he breaks down the importance of including diverse stakeholders from across the organization in the process of creating a new sales enablement playbook, and his top tips for salespeople just starting out.

Here’s what you’ll learn:

  • How to use the sales and marketing efficiency ratio to improve commercial health across an entire organization
  • The importance of having multiple perspectives in the room to improve sales enablement
  • Ways to identify the right route to value to clarify sales messaging and training
  • Tips for aligning organizational economic value with the needs of your customer base
  • Actionable strategies to eliminate friction in the sales process

To hear more on this, settle in and press play. 

Please find the transcript below, which has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Kunal Mehta: It’s my pleasure to introduce Scott Santucci to Growth Hacks. Scott is going to be presenting a bunch of Growth Hacks today. I met Scott when he was a research director at Forrester, where he founded the enablement practice, led research around executive buying, and built frameworks to give people a common language to talk about sales enablement, and sales productivity. After Forrester, he moved into more commercial roles, helping companies transform not only their sales process, but simplify their go-to-market. How awesome it is to have Scott Santucci in our metaverse. Welcome to Growth Hacks.

Scott Santucci: Thank you so much for having me, Kunal, and I just want to plug Growth Hacks. Having been in the research business for so long, the way that you are tackling these issues and being reflective and asking questions about what’s really happening, not what should be happening, it’s just really fantastic. Thank you for having me as a participant on your show, and I’m definitely a listener.

Katja Gagen: That’s awesome. Glad to hear that. Where does this podcast find you today, Scott?

Scott Santucci: I’m in Leesburg, Virginia, suburb of Washington, DC.

Katja Gagen: Scott, you’ve done a lot of research around sales enablement, and our listeners are excited to hear about this. Tell us in a few words, what is sales enablement, how has it evolved and why does it still pique your interest today?

Scott Santucci: To be simple about it, Katja, what is sales enablement? If you ask 10 people, you’ll get 15 different answers. So let me give you sort of two schools of thought. One would be sales enablement is about doing something for salespeople to help drive more revenue or more sales. That could be in the form of training. It could be in the form of leads. It could be a form of content, those kinds of activities.

Another school of thought is that sales enablement is about creating the overall system, including customers. Figuring out sales and marketing and product and making sure that environment is thriving better.

The reason I’m so interested in that bucket, and what makes me so compelled is that the world that we live in today is so interconnected that we have to have different strategies on how we optimize sales and marketing. To me, they’re directly related of looking at the ecosystem or the buying networks that we’re connected with our customers with.

Those are the things that I concentrate on and that’s where my research has always been. It’s that sales and marketing exist in order to drive growth, and we drive growth by making sure we’re always understanding what our customers are looking for, what kinds of problems they have, and also what stands in the way from them getting the value from our products and services.

Kunal Mehta: Scott, you have been an analyst, a practitioner, a consultant. You have talked to thousands of people. You are at the center of enablement. I’d really love to get your meta view on the state of enablement today.

Scott Santucci: I think the state of enablement today is the state of a lot of businesses. This is a adopt or die kind of situation. And I hate to be so bold but let me give you a headline of what I mean by that.

If you are following the practices of before either 2008 or before 2019, you are probably arming or gumming up your commercial system. You are probably producing lots of activities that are overly complex, like a training class or a marketing piece, rather than recognizing how much information salespeople have to synthesize and make it digestible for lots of people inside their customer network.

If you have always been a person who believes you work backwards from customers first, that’s never going to change. What’s different is how interconnected selling activities are today. How fast things move, how many people are involved and how those situations make the old strategies not suitable for 2021 and beyond.

Katja Gagen: That’s interesting Scott. Since you’ve been in the enablement business for some time, what’s an example of things working and where can companies miss the mark?

Scott Santucci: What works is creating things that actually take stuff away. Here’s a perfect example of a really great enablement program. Going in and identifying all of the obstacles that stand in the way, say, to produce a price quote and just systematically eliminating them and replacing it with something simpler. You would think that doing something like that is no big deal, but taking stuff away is not in most people’s muscle memory, so to systematically reduce things that stand in the way of making progress is great success.

Another example of something that’s great success is getting people in the room that have different backgrounds, to collaborate on a shared vision. It might be a picture, a map, a diagram of what the future could look like for customers. Having multiple perspectives involved and the discipline to get it on one sheet of paper means that picture is going to probably be more accessible to more people in those customers.

Those are two examples of things that work. I put them in the bucket of synthesis. Things that don’t work are more detailed training, plotting the Salesforce out, doing another heavy training activity to teach them more and more sales technique.

Kunal Mehta: Got it. Scott, I want to start with something we are both really passionate about, which is the sales and marketing efficiency ratio, or something you refer to as the commercial ratio and how you are using it to measure the health of sales and marketing. Scott, maybe before we get rolling into it, you could just explain what it is.

Scott Santucci: The commercial ratio is a measure of the overall health of a commercial system. That includes the revenue coming from customers, includes the spending that’s done for sales, and the spending that’s done for marketing.

The calculation is pretty straight forward; we got that from you guys. It’s the revenue growth divided by total sales and marketing spend. That gives you a ratio. Which gives you a relative health of how efficient the sales and marketing investments are.

Now that’s the calculation. What is it measuring? It assumes that the money spent for sales and marketing, its purpose is to drive revenue growth. There are situations where you would spend sales and marketing money to retain customers, but that’s what its focal point is.

Kunal Mehta: What was your aha moment when you first learned about it?

Scott Santucci: Having been a consultant for so long, one of the things that has always been challenging is how much data companies track about sales and marketing. One large client, they track over 5,000 different metrics for their sales organization. If you are tracking that amount of data, you are tracking nothing. What I’m a big believer in is, what’s the one metric that we can work backwards from that we want to move the needle from?

When we arrived at that commercial ratio from talking to other people inside your company, to have that one metric. The metric says to me, how do we, as a company work better together? How do we team up and be on the same page to go find more efficient ways to attract customers?

Where it became an aha moment to me is how do we stop the internal bickering to circle the wagons, go outside, and compete in the market and not compete inside our company.

Katja Gagen: That’s really interesting Scott. How do you use that ratio to bring people together or align them around a common goal?

Scott Santucci: That has been interesting. I think step number one is, let’s help everybody get on the same page behind it. Some people will reject it because it is not a ratio that they are familiar with, or it sounds like something that’s coming from finance.

I think step number one is let’s understand what the meaning of it is and step number two is to recognize that there is a sequence of events to get there and that we can get there together. By having a plan of stopping to do things that don’t work and finding ways to invest in things that do work. Having that narrative helps a lot.

I think what’s important though, is making sure you meet all of the different folks that would be involved in teaming together. You’ve got to meet them where they are first and then help them connect the dots, second.

Kunal Mehta: Scott, maybe you could just give us a practical example of how you’ve rolled this out at one of your customers now.

Scott Santucci: Let’s take a business with about $500 million in revenue in the security space, a SaaS company in the security space. Using the commercial ratio, as a way to say, if we want to improve the overall health of sales or profitability, let’s look at how we’re doing today. And using that ratio to say, what would it be if we went from .55 to .60, to .75 to 1.0, and why don’t we ask those questions of what would it look like?

Let’s simulate what that would look like in terms of our financial performance, what it would look like in terms of our organizations and help people envision what that would look like. In doing that process, what’s interesting is people move off the thing that they have to do right now in that moment, and they can start envisioning making incremental change.

Then from there could be doing things differently, and where should we start? Let’s look at your business like a portfolio of different revenue streams, and let’s segment it out differently and look at these different buckets in their own isolation.

What we’re looking to do is optimize or create the most value out of each of these revenue streams, and we want to take out as much friction as possible so that we make it much easier to do work and make sure that people agree with that. Then the next part is, let’s pick one of those things and work on something to tackle.

Katja Gagen: Right. And in the end, it’s all about value creation, right?

Scott Santucci: That’s right. Yes, exactly.

Katja Gagen: In that vein, you talk about the route to value, and how you combine what sales and marketing do to deliver that value. Give me an example.

Scott Santucci: That’s a great question. Let’s pick that same example that we were working backwards from, one of the things that we highlighted. So now that we have these different portfolios of revenue streams, and we have a good understanding about where their friction is. The idea of a route to value is a different way to think about a sales messaging and sales training.

A basic metaphor is to say, let’s recognize that we’re in the value creation business, to your point. What we want to do is help our clients along a journey from where they are today, the bad state, to where they want to get to, an envisioned future state that our company can take them.

We need to figure out what that journey looks like. We call that a value map, that’s where they want to get to. Now what the route to value is, is to say, let’s figure out what the change agent and the executive sponsor need to do to buy into that picture, and then help guide them through the decisions, the predictable decisions that they’re going to need to make through that journey.

It’s like plotting out a movie, in that there are predictable scenes that you can work backwards from. Then once you have that, you can determine, do we want our salespeople to be security subject matter experts? Or do we want them to be decision-making brokers, decision-making champions?

If you make them decision-making champions, things become a lot easier. You give them less materials; you can define very specific scenes. For marketing it’s capturing stories that match to each one of those scenes that you already have and organize that information to help salespeople.

A route to value is writing a future movie of where you want to take your customers. You are casting your clients as the heroes. Therefore, you are also casting your salespeople as the guides and then marketing is there to equip the salespeople with the tools that they need to help the clients, to navigate all of those different variables that they’re going to run into inside their organizations.

Katja Gagen: I like that. Scott, I’m getting my popcorn ready here for the movie roll out. After you’ve brought everyone in the company into this value creation, how do you make sure the economic value is aligned with what the customer wants?

Scott Santucci: The process of building a value map is very challenging. There’s a technique that we like to call model map match. The model part is, let’s model our customer’s world, what we’re looking at, isn’t interviewing customers about what products they want. That’s way too late in the game.

What we want to do is figure out what challenges do individual companies have that meet certain patterns. Let’s find out what’s the profile of the human that’s most likely to drive that forward. We call that person a change agent.

What do they look like? What’s their profile? You know that that person isn’t going to be successful unless they have an executive sponsor. If we understand what problems exist and we understand who these types of people are then the next thing that we can figure out is how do we build the information that they need to figure out why they need to change in the first place? And why now?

If you don’t have those things figured out, we put the burden on salespeople to figure it out and that’s really hard to do. When you have that information then Katja, it becomes pretty simple to figure out whether your value proposition matches those predictable conditions.

And then you have a scorecard and then you keep the validation from it by how well it’s testing in the field and how well it’s resonating. But you can always tweak it by bringing customers in to talk and react to it so there’s always ways to keep it fresh.

I think the challenge is just having the discipline to build it outside-in from the get-go.

Katja Gagen: I love that, Scott. Thank you. As always, we will finish our podcast with some rapid-fire questions. First one, what’s your go-to book?

Scott Santucci: I wish I had one go-to book. There are three books that I’ve read, and I keep reading over and over and over again. One is The Chaos Imperative, which is about embracing disruption and turning it into innovation. Another one is Antifragile, which is about turning disorder into a strategy. The third one is Switch, which is about how change actually happens and how you have to plot it out. You know how you can manufacture it and create an environment for change, rather than putting on the backs of individual people.

Kunal Mehta: Hey, Scott, what’s your biggest pet peeve?

Scott Santucci: My biggest pet peeve is for people who say salespeople should do X, Y, and Z, and they haven’t done it themselves.

Katja Gagen: What’s one piece of advice you would give someone starting out in sales.

Scott Santucci: Be curious. It’s not about you. It’s about the customer. Find out everything there is to know. What they think, find ways to be relatable with them. That’s the easiest path to being successful.

Katja Gagen: What was one thing you learned about yourself during the pandemic?

Scott Santucci: What I learned about myself during the pandemic is that going back to your roots of what you know and finding ways to challenge certain questions. So, doubling down on being more curious, what I did is kind of threw out my old playbook, I just threw it out and I decided I need to build one from scratch. I’m so grateful I did because a lot of the things in my old playbook just won’t work today, and I don’t think it’s coming back to where it was before.

Katja Gagen: Well, thanks for being with us today, Scott.

Scott Santucci: Thank you.

Katja Gagen: Thanks for listening to Growth Hacks. You can follow us on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, or wherever you listen. To learn more about us and TCV’s CEO and founder podcast, go to TCV.com or email us at growthhacks@tcv.com.

***

The views and opinions expressed are those of the speakers and do not necessarily reflect those of TCMI, Inc. or its affiliates (“TCV”). TCV has not verified the accuracy of any statements by the speakers and disclaims any responsibility therefor. This interview and blog post are not an offer to sell or the solicitation of an offer to purchase an interest in any private fund managed or sponsored by TCV or any of the securities of any company discussed. The TCV portfolio companies identified, if any, are not necessarily representative of all TCV investments, and no assumption should be made that the investments identified were or will be profitable. For a complete list of TCV investments, please visit www.tcv.com/all-companies/. For additional important disclaimers regarding this interview and blog post, please see “Informational Purposes Only” in the Terms of Use for TCV’s website, available at http://www.tcv.com/terms-of-use/.


Expanding Your Slate of Storytellers: How Cognite Uses Talent Across its Organization to Drive Global Visibility and Media Coverage

Building out a global communications operation that can create visibility across multiple markets can feel like a wild jumble of storytelling across time zones, especially in a startup’s nascent years. That’s why the marketing and communications team at Cognite, a SaaS company providing data liberation and contextualization services to industrial organizations, aligned behind a single goal: creating visibility immediately. The Cognite team took a unique approach to the task at hand. Rather than blitzing journalists across the globe as its first order of business, the team worked to build visibility inside Cognite, recruiting outside the box spokespeople and identifying unearthed story ideas that resonated with journalists.

In today’s episode of Growth Hacks, Katja and Kunal speak with Michelle Holford, the Oslo-based global head of public relations at Cognite. Michelle walks us through the power of relationship building both within your own organization and with journalists, and why nurturing those connections are a fundamental piece of Cognite’s PR strategy. She also explains how Cognite keeps employees connected across the globe, how to create a message in a box and how their media strategy helps Cognite constantly mine for creative stories.

Here’s what you’ll learn:

  • How to identify and media train non-traditional spokespeople for creative storytelling
  • Effective strategies for story mining throughout an organization
  • Cognite’s strategy for running media tours
  • The unexpected storytelling benefits of developing Cognite Radio, a news channel with updates for employees
  • Michelle’s must-haves for running a healthy global PR function that is aligned across all forms of earned and owned media

To hear more on this, settle in and press play. 

Please find the transcript below, which has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Katja Gagen: Hey everyone. Today we’re being joined by a PR expert in a truly global industry. It is my pleasure to introduce Michelle Holford, who is the global head of public relations at Cognite. Michelle has held roles in agencies that covered massive brands, like Ford, Bank of America, and Walgreens. We’ll cover a lot today, so get your popcorn ready. Michelle, welcome to Growth Hacks.

Michelle Holford: Thank you so much. Thanks for having me.

Kunal Mehta: Sure. Hey, Michelle, where does this podcast find you today?

Michelle Holford: Today you find me in the great state of Texas. Our global headquarters are in Oslo, Norway, where I live, but I’m connecting with our North American headquarter team today in Austin, as well as Houston.

Kunal Mehta: Fantastic, a true global citizen. Well, for our listeners that may not know what Cognite does, give us the elevator pitch.

Michelle Holford: We’re in the business of industrial transformation. We’re here to change the world, and that means we’re here to solve the challenge of asset intensive industries and their data issues.

Data intensive industries are oil and gas, power and utilities, and manufacturing. And they have the challenge of consuming and creating all sorts of data that isn’t connected. We provide the solution through Cognite Data Fusion, which is our industrial data ops platform, that liberates data, it contextualizes it and makes it actionable for everyone across the company.

Why companies choose us is because we turn their raw data into business value. In those industries, whether it’s oil and gas that needs to work on sustainability or product optimization, we’re here to connect and contextualize that data so that they can use it, as well as manufacturing with supply chains or power and utilities with grids and smart maintenance. If I could just give a quick illustration. In our personal lives, when we want to find what the weather looks like, we turn to our iPhone. And it connects our data and tells us what it’s going to look like in different parts of the world for weather or where to eat through Yelp.

It’s all connected. So that’s happening in our consumer world, but in industry, especially asset intensive industry, it’s kind of like 1984. There’s large amounts of data that come from different sources, whether it’s images or Excel sheets, and they’re not connected. We’re here to take that raw data and turn it into business value for heavy asset industry, because they haven’t had their iPhone moment.

Katja Gagen: That’s awesome. And Michelle, you lead communications and PR. How do you strategically plan PR and what are some of the key initiatives you’re driving at Cognite?

Michelle Holford: When I joined Cognite a year and a half ago, we were only three and a half years old, small, but mighty and on a huge trajectory. It was very important to create visibility immediately. We had wonderful clients, some of them supermajors from around the world, but we needed to tell the world about what we were doing.

We’re very visible in the Nordics and around Europe, but we’re planting a flag in the North American region, as well as Singapore, Japan, and the UK. So immediately I needed to create visibility, both for myself and our MarComms team in the company. So that we had the buy-in and connectedness with sales, product marketing, the executive management team.

Visibility was number one. And I had to make sure that I was playing both sides of the track to create visibility, both for Cognite, but also for our function within the company. We had to really get our in-house together, we built a studio at Cognite to make sure that we could media train and make sure everybody was on board.

That included connecting initially with partners, whether it was Microsoft or Pinnacle or whoever we were partnering with to make sure that I understood their best stories and how we could work together.

It meant developing a media bench of spokespeople across ages and expertise in different locations around the world. It was really about strengthening an already great program and adding the tools and expertise necessary to create visibility for both the company and myself with journalists around the world. They knew I was representing Cognite and can count on me when I reached out to them.

Kunal Mehta: Awesome. Hey, maybe you can just share, what is Cognite Radio? What was the idea behind it?

Michelle Holford: When we all went to a global pandemic, we’re built on keeping asset intensive companies connected through data. If we can’t do that ourselves, there’s a problem. We have some brilliant people on our team that excel in hosting and communications.

We decided that if we couldn’t fly to the U.S. or Japan or Singapore, we were going to create a way that all of our data wasn’t in silos. We created Cognite Radio, which was a daily program to make sure that people didn’t feel isolated working from home during COVID and that they knew what was happening at Cognite, what was happening with our clients. And we shared the love worldwide. We even had a Cognite After Dark where we played music, but it was a way to connect everybody. And we had speakers come and join us and tell great stories. It was a way to make sure that we were all connected and not working in silos so that we could innovate in the best way possible outside of our regular meetings, which we were having, but to really create some culture and excitement around what was going to happen next.

Katja Gagen: That’s awesome. And Michelle, in that vein, it looks like you have a really deep bench of speakers. And I know in some of our portfolio companies, finding someone who can speak with the media is not an easy task. How did you get people engaged, and how do you get people to want to work with you and want to get in front of the media?

Michelle Holford: I know it’s really common to just have your CEO or your executive management team kind of be trotted out into the media, and that’s fabulous. You know, Markus Lervik, our CEO is wonderful. So is Francois in the United States. But we needed to have different perspectives to tell the story of Cognite.

How we cultivated interest is that we started hosting kitchen talks and story mining sessions throughout the company. Some of them would be after hours, and sometimes it would be during the day, but we could invite all of our stakeholders and say, come learn what PR is about. Come learn what brand is about. Come learn what social media is about and what we do in events.

We would talk through what we do and how it might help them in their own position, whether it’s sales, whether it’s customer success. They could understand what was being said about Cognite in the media, or how to post on LinkedIn.

For me, PR is all about relationships. I like to show up where people are and go to the robotics meetings and go to the engineering meetings and the product marketing meetings and say, I’m here to be your resource. Through those relationships and them learning more, people start to raise their hand and say, I think I might have something to offer.

We asked for volunteers, but we also target folks that we think have something to say. So we have Carolina Torres who used to work for BP for 30 years, now wanted to move her expertise from one of our customers to worldwide. Her history with BP and a woman in oil and gas, she is a great candidate and so relatable and wonderful. But so are our younger individuals that are just starting, that are concerned about the energy transition and want to talk about sustainability. We try and find those who have the most interesting perspectives So we’re always looking for opportunities to connect Cogniters to best tell the Cognite story.

Kunal Mehta: That is golden. I’m just curious, what do you mean by story mining?

Michelle Holford: Story mining means going to meet people where they are in their expertise and really asking them what problems they’re solving. When you’re in robotics or you’re in engineering or you’re in your lane in manufacturing, you can be so focused on problems you’re solving that you’re not gonna think to call the PR team.

It’s incumbent on PR professionals to go where those meetings are already happening. They’re probably having weekly meetings to touch base with their team. Sit in on those meetings, invite yourself to different opportunities or off-sites they’re having and ask questions.

What do you mean by that? You’re solving this problem for Statnett, the national grid of Norway? What does that look like? How much money did you save? Ask them questions, almost like you’re the reporter asking, tell me more. What does this look like? What’s the impact? Do we have images? Do we have B roll? You have this bank of information that you can think about creatively, how to weave together to tell stories year round.

Kunal Mehta: That it’s such a great growth hack. I think when Katja and I look at public relations, one of the bleeding arteries we see is that PR is often cast to an agency and that doesn’t yield the anticipated result. Maybe you can walk us through the must-haves for a healthy PR function.

Michelle Holford: I think it starts with credibility of public relations. PR is what other people say about you when you’re not in the room. And there’s a lot of tools in our toolbox, right? It includes the agency, and I have been on the agency side. And now that I’m in-house, I value that piece of the puzzle. But it really is one piece. It’s one tool in telling the best story for your organization. You want to stand shoulder to shoulder with them and make sure they’re equipped and greened and can represent you at all times.

You’re going to need to make sure that you are all aligned. This includes your MarComms team and your public relations team. You want to be aligned on visibility and the goals of the executive management team. This includes earned media, shared media, which is connecting with our partner team, owned media, like Ignite News, and paid media, our digital campaigns or advertising.

A healthy public relations function means everybody is working in sync in an integrated way and connecting with go-to-market plans with the different verticals to make sure you understand what their goals are. We’re setting the strategy, but we’re making sure we’re connected to the company goals, sales goals, marketing goals, and at the same time, trying to be as creative as possible with our storytelling.

Kunal Mehta: Michelle, one of the strategic uses of PR that Cognite uses is media tours. And you guys even fly in media to your events, which is amazing. For companies that don’t routinely conduct these media tours, maybe you can just walk us through your playbook.

Michelle Holford: Media tours are a very important way to connect with journalists around the world to increase visibility. The story is really in the strategy. What are you trying to say during a media tour? It involves three steps for us at Cognite. It’s the prep, it’s the pitching, and it’s the resource. And let me talk through what that means.

We’re creating a story in a box before you even conduct a media tour. What are you trying to say? What is the news? What’s the creative angle? And that story in a box, the prep part needs to have impact. What are you communicating and what impact does it have on the industry? Who is going to help tell you that story?

Is it a client? Is it a partner? Is it an influencer? Do you have stats to support it? What kind of dollars or hours are being saved by using the solution you’re talking about? What does that look like? Are there images, is there B roll? Prepare for a media tour by making sure you have your story in a box already buttoned up. That’s how you prepare.

Second, which is kind of the end part of the prep is, you should not be reaching out to journalists, that should not be at the first time they’re hearing from you. Do your homework ahead of time and create relationships with journalists locally and internationally, by connecting with them online, on calls, to make sure that they know who your company is and what you’re about, so that when they get an invitation to a media tour, it’s not cold.

Then you’re pitching them. Then it’s time for them to actually learn that you’re going to do a media tour, and what you are selling should be specific. You are going to have this amount of time with these executives. You’re going to meet with them and they’re going to talk about how Norway is the new Silicon Valley, specifically Oslo, and what that looks like for investing in Europe. Or why people are putting their money on Europe, as far as industrial digitalization and moving the needle.

Think about specifically what that pitch is, who is going to be there, and what it’s going to do for that reporter. Is it included in their beat? What’s it going to do for the audience? And then just know that once you complete these tours, that it may not result in media coverage. You will be used more often than not as a resource for the next time they’re talking about something related to that issue.

Katja Gagen: Wonderful. We’re gonna give you a few rapid fire questions. Michelle, tell us what book are you reading right now?

Michelle Holford: I’m obsessed with Katie Couric’s new book Going There. Just a connection with journalism and a woman in the business. I’m just starting.

Katja Gagen: And what’s your go-to book that changed your life and that you go back to a lot.

Michelle Holford: Wow. I like The Road Less Travelled. Like I’m one of those people, let’s not do it the normal way. Let’s think outside the box. And I think about that book a lot. I read it in college and I think about it a lot.

Katja Gagen: I also know that Cognite just published one. What’s that all about?

Michelle Holford: Industrial data ops is going to be the way of the future, how data is connected in business worldwide, especially in asset intensive industries. We wanted to create a really easy user guide manual for companies to kind of do a wellness check on their digital maturity and how connected their data is.

There’s an easy to read guide that walks you through what industrial data ops is and how you can use it to get business value from your data. It’s really a guide for industry. It’s downloadable and it’s free at our website, Cognite.com.

Kunal Mehta: Awesome. What skill are you trying to develop right now?

Michelle Holford: I’m trying to learn Norwegian since I live in Norway now. That’s a brief answer. Otherwise, I’m trying to really sharpen my skills on how to help launch this platform from a creative content view from our side, from Cognite.

Katja Gagen: I would like to know what’s your favorite metric when it comes to communications and PR.

Michelle Holford: Selfishly, I think some people think it’s outdated, but I like AVE. I like the Add Value Equivalency. I like to put a number in front of folks to say, if you would have bought these column inches or this white space or this airtime, this is what earned media brings. I like to bring value to what the industry does.

I also like to see what the competitors are doing and if we’re beating them in share of voice in the news that month or also followers, like that’s also intriguing too.

Katja Gagen: That’s awesome. And Michelle, you’ve lived both in the U.S. and of course now in Europe, what do you like about both and how do you adjust your PR programs to suit both markets?

Michelle Holford: I appreciate that question. I moved to Norway a year and a half ago. And what I appreciate about Europe is how technologically advanced it is. In Norway, I haven’t touched cash, dollars or coins, in a year and a half until I got here. It’s so easy to use your phone for everything you do in Norway, whether it’s your taxes, which is a one-step shop, whether it’s public transportation, they’re constantly innovating. And because there’s so many countries that are connected, they’re sharing information.

What I appreciate about the U.S. It’s probably the options. I have a suitcase ready to be filled with things they don’t sell in Norway that are my favorite brands or things that I miss from Norway, but obviously I miss my friends and family. There are advantages of both, and I love being able to live in both countries.

In the U.S. we’re much more comfortable saying, we are amazing! This is what we do! And this is why you should know about us! And in Norway, it’s a very modest, humble country. It’s very flat structured. As an American, I’m constantly pushing, saying, we’re the first unicorn in Norway! We have to tell that news! And you have folks saying, oh, that would be bragging. We’re not sure we want to talk about that. Can we talk about it in a different way? I have to think through what is going to resonate and what is going to land with journalists in a way that isn’t so boastful, but also push our teams in Norway to tell our good news and to tell our story.

It definitely modifies how our PR team operates in each country, by who the audience is and what’s appropriate.

Katja Gagen: Awesome. Well, thank you so much, Michelle. We covered a lot today, as we promised earlier, thanks for being on the show today, Michelle.

Michelle Holford: Well, as they would say in Norway, tusen takk, which means thank you. Thank you for having me.

***

The views and opinions expressed are those of the speakers and do not necessarily reflect those of TCMI, Inc. or its affiliates (“TCV”). TCV has not verified the accuracy of any statements by the speakers and disclaims any responsibility therefor. This interview and blog post are not an offer to sell or the solicitation of an offer to purchase an interest in any private fund managed or sponsored by TCV or any of the securities of any company discussed. The TCV portfolio companies identified, if any, are not necessarily representative of all TCV investments, and no assumption should be made that the investments identified were or will be profitable. For a complete list of TCV investments, please visit www.tcv.com/all-companies/. For additional important disclaimers regarding this interview and blog post, please see “Informational Purposes Only” in the Terms of Use for TCV’s website, available at http://www.tcv.com/terms-of-use/.


Product-Focused Storytelling: How Redis Rebranded and Refined its Marketing to Connect Deeply with the Developer Community

Growth Hacks – Moving the Metric

When open-source database company, Redis decided to undergo a rebrand, their first order of business was to identify what the rebrand was solving for. In Redis’ case, they wanted to connect even deeper with the developer community and unify the entire Redis community towards a single vision. To harness the power of the developer community, Redis adopted product-focused storytelling and prioritized building a growth funnel to fuel bottoms up adoption. By building that bridge between the Redis product and its key audiences, the company now has a pipeline to a community that not only knows about early life-cycle Redis products, but whose usage can better inform Redis’ demand funnel as well.

In the latest episode of Growth Hacks, Katja and Kunal speak with Mike Anand, CMO of TCV portfolio company, Redis. Mike explains how Redis derived its product-focused marketing strategy as part of its larger rebrand, and how that strategy has helped Redis build a vocal community of developers. He also talks through his top priorities as he makes Redis’ marketing operations more agile and data-driven, and how Redis has taken a use case first approach with analysts to build stronger relationships and garner better coverage.

Here’s what you’ll learn:

  • How to run an effective rebrand that resonates with your primary audience
  • Using outside-in messaging to become a product-focused storyteller
  • Unlocking the benefits of building growth and demand funnels in tandem
  • Leveraging use cases to build strong relationships with analysts
  • Why making marketing at Redis more agile and data-driven is a “number one priority”
  • The importance of mission and social responsibility in modern recruitment

To hear more on this, settle in and press play.

Please find the transcript below, which has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Kunal Mehta: Well, today we have the privilege of being joined by one of the coolest marketers in the portfolio and a veteran in the software industry. It’s my pleasure to introduce you to Mike Anand, the CMO of Redis. Mike also held roles in large companies like Amazon and emerging companies like AppD.

He’s going to be sharing his experience in leading the transformation of the Redis brand. Mike, welcome to Growth Hacks.

Mike Anand: It’s a pleasure to be here today on the best podcast in the universe.

Katja Gagen: Awesome and we love to have you. I know we’ve been attached since we had made the first investment in Redis, but for our listeners, tell us one fact that nobody knows about you.

Mike Anand: One is that I have a twin brother and I’m five minutes older than him. I met my wife while she was looking for volunteers for Earth Day.

I’m blessed with two kids, a son, and a daughter. I have the best of both worlds.

Kunal Mehta: Fantastic. I’m sure you let your brother know you’re older than him. For our listeners that don’t know what Redis does, maybe you can give us a quick elevator pitch.

Mike Anand: Before the elevator pitch, I’ll just give you the framing from the outside-in. If I take that outside-in view, we’re at the intersection of two developer-driven trends. Mass rapid adoption of open-source software and the cloud itself. And that is fueling tremendous innovation in the database market.

I mean, look at all the database companies that have emerged in the last 10 years that are attracting a huge amount of investments. So Redis’ unique differentiator is really about simplicity for developers, to help them build real time applications for the real time world.

As enterprises see disruptors from digital native companies, a whole new adoption of technologies and tools like Redis allow them to move faster, innovate faster, and create differentiated experiences for their customers.

Katja Gagen: That’s great, Mike. And across industries, organizations are accelerating the digital or cloud transformation for long-term growth and profitability. But we also know that organizations remain untested in the face of digital challenges. And their digital readiness is a bit uncertain.

What’s your take on that? And who do you believe will be the biggest winner in this trend?

Mike Anand: Yeah, Katja. Look, I think change is hard, right? If you want massive change in an organization, I believe you have to make it personal and you have to make it about people. There isn’t a technology that offers a silver bullet. You’re asking people to change the processes that they have relied on successfully for years.

I believe the heart of a successful transformation is really lining up your business objectives to your DNA and really understand how it ties to your team. And paramount to all of this is making sure that you have an executive sponsorship. And I believe the big winners are those who set goals and objectives and then gain alignment. But actually, start small and then gradually add more complexity and scope, based on what they have learned.

Kunal Mehta: What are the major trends in digital transformation that companies should be paying close attention to, and who do you believe has advanced in these key areas?

Mike Anand: You know, I think innovation and transformation is all around us. If you look at the FinServ industries, they’ve always been leaders in everything from customer experiences to new products. I mean, how people bank, how we invest today, how we trade stocks. All of it is upside down from when I grew up. Retail and that whole sector has been forced to adapt by Amazon and even more so accelerated under COVID. Healthcare is seeing early innovation and transformation across patient communications to prescription delivery, really exciting stuff happening around drug discoveries.

I think the biggest example is entertainment. Gaming is now the world’s biggest form of entertainment with 2.7 billion players and getting bigger every day. Gaming is now bigger than the movie industry and sports industry combined.

Kunal Mehta: Wow, that’s an incredible stat. I’d love to hear a story about how Redis is equipping some of these companies to grow so quickly.

Mike Anand: I think if you look at all these industries, what do they have in common? They have to differentiate themselves from digital native companies. They have to provide experiences for consumers, like never before.

If you think about the world’s largest taxi company, owns no taxis. The largest content creator doesn’t have a writing staff. But one thing that is common is that it’s about age of real time. And Redis is the fastest database out there helping all these companies across all these industries, where they need to make sure that their applications can leverage the real time data to drive business intelligence and insights.

Kunal Mehta: Outstanding. And I think that foundational firepower is critical to all of those transformations that people are talking about.

Katja Gagen: I know Mike, you just did a rebrand at Redis. How did you go about this? How did you lay the foundation and how did you build on it?

Mike Anand: I think it’s really important when you start a rebranding exercise, to keep it simple, keep your messaging simple. You need to build a pool of people that you can use as your listening post, as also the people that you can understand and dive deeper with. And I think also the second-most important thing that you have to think about is, why are you actually doing the rebrand? In our case, a rebranding exercise was all about breaking the silos between our open-source project and the company, which was perceived as only focused on commercial business.

You have to really understand why are you rebranding? And then when you think about creating the buzz and excitement it’s very, very tempting to out-think yourself. But as you build that process, as you build that engine to create noise and buzz, you really have to think about, how can you tie this launch to the stakeholders, right? And who are the key stakeholders that you want to make an impact with?

This is where your tone matters. This is where leveraging your simplicity of your message matters. I would try to bucketize the activities in those larger categories.

Kunal Mehta: You know, my follow up Mike is when I look at your work specifically with the analyst community, it went from largely on the fringe to big mindshare with key analysts. Maybe you can just give us the three things you did to grow your mindshare with companies like Gartner.

Mike Anand: When think about analysts and then community, I really think about building a relationship. Look, analyst community has a tremendous power and knowledge of what is painful for your customers. The first part of connecting and building that journey with that analyst community is to not only just make a hard pitch and sell them what your products can do, but it’s actually help you understand from them better, what do your customers need? It is no longer about companies; it’s about use cases. When you reach out to analysts, I highly recommend you, you step away from, ‘Hey, how many inquiries are you getting about X technology or Y?’ Really focus on use cases.

That was the angle that we took at Redis to help us understand the use cases that matters to the customers, tie our story to those use cases, and then build and foster a relationship from that point on. That way both of us get mutual benefit out of the conversations.

Kunal Mehta: I think we have kismet on this. The use cases are worth so much with the analysts and then even introducing them to some of the companies that are driving this innovation – just a well done move there.

Katja Gagen: I agree. And I think what’s also true is we’ve seen things are evolving right? In the technology business, but also when it comes to the role of the CMO. Mike, how have you adapted over the years and how have you seen the role of marketing change? Tell us a little bit more about field marketing and account-based marketing, that are some of your sweet spots.

Mike Anand: It’s a very exciting time to be in marketing. Marketing is going through tremendous evolution. The enterprise buying journey has completely changed. Developers hold a special power and the new ITDMs, right? And if you think about it, buyers are anonymous and distributed, sales is getting involved later and later in the cycle.

I truly believe that modern CMOs have to think about and take the role differently. And they have to become a bigger partner to the CEOs, and the role is bigger than just creating demand and building brand. Modern CMOs, I think, really have to be technology forward leaders. They have to be agile, and data driven. And they have to find a way to inject technology in a sensible way that allows them to get both the leading and lagging insights about the business itself.

Second, I really think that CMOs have to think about not just being storytellers, but product focused storytellers. They have to build the bridge between what’s being built and sold, but they also have to be the community builders out there. Get the community to participate in promoting your story and your technology.

Lastly, about ABM, it’s very exciting, it’s all the rage. But the way I encourage people to think about it is actually think about account-based revenue. Because that’s when you can tie both sales and marketing to joint MBOs.

Kunal Mehta: Well in this shift that you’re talking about, how are you creating top-of-the-funnel motions?

Mike Anand: Yeah, Kunal, it’s a perfect segue, right? I really think that there are two funnels. There are growth funnel and demand funnel. Early on in the company life cycle, a lot of people are focused on growth funnel, but for a company like Redis and where we are at the stage of ARR and the growth that we are, I’m really building two funnels in parallel.

Product led growth funnel, is all about creating the groundswell among developers and creating those little fires everywhere. And it doesn’t matter if some of these sign ups don’t convert into enterprise business, it’s okay. We just have to let people get their hands on the product and experience for themselves the benefits that Redis provides to give them real time data, to build their applications.

For the demand funnel, it’s about taking those product qualified leads, and understanding, out of those, what are the population? What are the accounts? What are the segments that you really need to engage, that you really need to go after?

How can you leverage the product usage data to actually drive insights for your demand funnel? And then if you can marry those two together, then I think you can build a very healthy top of the funnel business.

Kunal Mehta: Outstanding. Mike, as a marketing organization, what are the biggest challenges you are facing right now?

Mike Anand: One of the biggest things for us, that I’m focused on marketing, is how to make marketing in general, more agile. Traditionally, marketers have relied on a certain set of metrics and a longer bake-off, to be able to make the impact. And for the world that we really live in, my number one priority and the goal for marketing organization to become more agile and data driven. And it’s identifying those leading indicators that gives me an idea of how each of our campaigns are doing, and when and how we need to course correct.

The second big challenge is we have some really exciting products out there that are early in their product life cycle. So, it’s about creating that awareness of those products in the mindsets of Redis developers, and customers and partners. This is where I alluded to the comments about, you have to really make the messaging all about product and product focus with an outside-in driving messaging.

I think the third one is, we are today sitting in the age of a great resignation. I think, as a marketing leader, you have to really think about your team and who’s on the bus. What sort of people do you want on the team? But how can you connect what these people want, to a bigger, broader mission than the job itself. What role does the marketing organization play in taking social responsibility? And that mission is bigger than just the job and the company itself.

Katja Gagen: Awesome. Thanks so much, Mike, we’re going to shift now to a rapid-fire format and ask you a couple of quick questions. I’ll let Kunal start.

Kunal Mehta: As you walk into your office in the morning, what’s your favorite metric to look at, where you know things are going well?

Mike Anand: One of my favorite metrics is sales velocity and knowing how quickly we can convert those leads into a closed one. That’s got to be my favorite.

Kunal Mehta: Maybe you can talk about the company you admire the most today and why.

Mike Anand: Yeah, I’ve had three related careers, Kunal. As a product manager, I really loved the working backwards approach from the customer for Intuit. They make such a complex products like taxes and accounting, and they make it so simple. As a storyteller, really enjoyed Stripe’s journey of how they tied the story into their products and the evolution of that.

As a full stack marketer, I really get excited about looking at some of the consumer companies who inject fun and personalization into the brands and how B2B companies learn from it. A few examples of that are Pinterest and NextDoor that are building communities, it’s super relevant to us. Target is another one that makes shopping fun and how they take on Amazon. A small brand like Tieks, who sell only one product out there, but they make it personal, they make it simple, and they give you that experience every time you get that box that is so unique. And I think there’s a lot that B2B companies can learn from some of those brands in the consumer world.

Katja Gagen: Thanks Mike. If you were to mentor someone who wanted to get their feet wet in the marketing pool, what’s your advice for getting started? How do you build your career?

Mike Anand: I think you have to really find a way, Katja, and try a few different things. You’re going to get a lot of advice. You’re going to get a lot of coaching. But you have to really take your journey and really think about what’s important to you.

Early in your life, I would really ask you to expose yourself to a few different roles, a few different types of companies. Go work for a big company and understand how things work, but then also go work for a startup, where there are no swim lanes, there are no processes, and you have to disrupt yourself almost every single day. Think about it from that perspective and stay hungry.

Kunal Mehta: Mike, if I was working for you, what would be your biggest pet peeve?

Mike Anand: I’d be blessed if you were on the team, but at the same time, look, kindness is not an optional, I’m an empathy driven leader. It’s a mandatory requirement.

Second is preparation. Meetings in the zoom world are happening all the time. Every five-minute conversation is now a meeting. One of my biggest pet peeves is showing up to the meetings unprepared. I really want people to do the due diligence of putting together, hey, what is the outcome you want to drive from the meeting? Why are you coming to the meeting? What are people going to get? And do the prep work before you show up to the meeting so you can drive a better outcome out of it.

Katja Gagen: Thanks so much, Mike, for sharing all these nuggets of gold with us. I really like how you emphasize that brands start with empathy and listening. And you talked us through the process of how you can build a brand that galvanizes both your developer community, but also internal stakeholders.

The other takeaway I really liked is to keep the message simple. It’s easier said than done, but it’s something that is so important. And lastly, how the role of the CMO has changed and what it takes today, and in the future, to be successful.

Katja Gagen: Thanks for being on the podcast, Mike.

Mike Anand: Thank you for having me. It was a pleasure.

***

The views and opinions expressed are those of the speakers and do not necessarily reflect those of TCMI, Inc. or its affiliates (“TCV”). TCV has not verified the accuracy of any statements by the speakers and disclaims any responsibility therefor. This interview and blog post are not an offer to sell or the solicitation of an offer to purchase an interest in any private fund managed or sponsored by TCV or any of the securities of any company discussed. The TCV portfolio companies identified, if any, are not necessarily representative of all TCV investments, and no assumption should be made that the investments identified were or will be profitable. For a complete list of TCV investments, please visit www.tcv.com/all-companies/. For additional important disclaimers regarding this interview and blog post, please see “Informational Purposes Only” in the Terms of Use for TCV’s website, available at http://www.tcv.com/terms-of-use/.


Lessons from Strava: Working with Press and Teams to Move the Growth Needle, Foster Inclusion, and Establish a Purpose-Driven Narrative

Every communications professional has seen it: a tweet from a journalist bemoaning the raft of irrelevant pitches they receive on a daily basis. How can companies cut through the noise to place stories that reflect well upon the business, and move the needle when it comes to brand perception and growth? That’s something Strava has navigated while building a purpose-driven narrative for over 90 million athletes across almost 200 countries.

In the latest episode of Growth Hacks, Katja and Kunal speak with Andrew Vontz, VP of Communications at TCV company Strava. Andrew also hosts his own podcast – Choose The Hard Way, where he talks with leaders in sports, tech, business, the military and more about peak performance and how to overcome obstacles to do great things. Andrew started his career as a journalist before moving into marketing and communications. He shares his insider perspective into what it takes to place a story that reporters are motivated to tell, and how to prepare internal stakeholders on what that story might look like when it runs. He also talks about how organizations can use earned media to drive growth, and how to conduct crisis communications prep before disaster strikes. Andrew also walks us through Strava’s playbook on establishing its purpose-driven narrative both internally and externally and what it takes to engage a global community. 

Here’s what you’ll learn:

  • Being user-centric rather than you-centric when working with journalists
  • Why it’s important to educate stakeholders on how press coverage operates
  • Using earned media to drive growth
  • Preparing for a crisis before it happens
  • Effective ways to be known as a mission or purpose driven organization

To hear more on this, settle in and press play.

Please find the transcript below, which has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Katja Gagen: Hello everyone, we are excited to have Andrew Vontz today on the podcast. Andrew went from being a journalist for the LA times, Rolling Stone, and others, to joining Strava’s executive team and leading communications.

And for all fitness aficionados listening, Strava is a social platform for athletes and the largest sports community in the world, with over 95 million athletes in 195 countries on the platform. We are excited to hear from Andrew about how communications can help drive business success and how he keeps this incredible community engaged.

Welcome to Growth Hacks, Andrew.

Andrew Vontz: Hey, thanks, Katja. It’s great to be here with you and Kunal.

Kunal Mehta: Well, I know you’re going to bring the heat today, Andrew. I just want to know where does this podcast find you today?

Andrew Vontz: It finds me in rural Maine where the leaves are falling, and there are pumpkins everywhere. We actually have a pumpkin that we grew from throwing a pumpkin into the compost pile last year, it grew into like a three foot in diameter pumpkin, lo and behold.

Kunal Mehta: That’s amazing.

Katja Gagen: That’s awesome. And Andrew, you have a pretty unique background that spans art to journalism, and now heading up comms at Strava. How did you end up where you are?

Andrew Vontz: I think I ended up where I am because I’ve always been a very curious person and I’ve always loved storytelling. And the red thread of my career has really been people, places, and things at the limits of human experience. Whether that was the work that I did as a freelance journalist for over a decade, the work that I did as the head of content at TRX, which is a human performance company that worked to democratize world-class human performance for everyone, or now at Strava. And over time, I eventually joined the executive team and I’m now the Vice President of Communications.

And outside of that, I also have my own podcast, it’s called “Choose the Hard Way”, and it’s about the obstacles people overcome to do great things. So that red thread is still running throughout my career.

Kunal Mehta: Fantastic. Well, Andrew, I know Strava is Swedish for strive, which epitomizes attitude and ambition. How do you bring that to life with the communication strategy at Strava?

Andrew Vontz: Yeah, Kunal. It’s really about always thinking bigger, always in all ways. So that’s, however well things are going, how can we think about what’s the next step? What’s the much bigger version of that? What’s the version of that that makes us feel a little bit anxious, a little bit uncomfortable because it seems so audacious? So that’s really what strive is about in the communications domain.

Kunal Mehta: Andrew, you’ve been a journalist for over a decade. What should companies know about the way journalists think about stories?

Andrew Vontz: When you’re working with media, it can provide the most valuable form of third-party validation that you can get. It’s like going to a party and having your best friend tell you how awesome something is versus you talking about yourself.

What you want to keep in mind when you’re working with press is: yeah, you would love to have other people telling your story on your behalf and singing your praises, but you really have to be user-centric versus you-centric. There are definitely things that you would ideally like to get out of press coverage, but you also need to think about what does that journalist need? What does their readership need? What does that outlet need? What’s going to help them sell this story internally and get it placed? And you really have to begin with the end in mind.

I think in addition to that, it’s really important to educate your teammates from across the organization and to really set realistic expectations about how press coverage might roll out.

All great stories are really high contrast. They’re high tension. They’re definitely going to contain opposing points of view, and you just need to prepare people for that, educate them, and bring them along so that they know what’s going to show up in a story, why it’s going to show up, and how it might show up.

Katja Gagen: That’s awesome advice because we sometimes hear from our companies that they think of PR as paid marketing copy, and they just have to pick up the phone and speak to a reporter and out comes a piece that highlights everything you want to say about your company. We know that this is far from the truth.

How can press coverage or media coverage support growth in the business? Can you share some examples?

Andrew Vontz: For sure, Katja. I’ll give you an example that’s worked really well for us. We do an annual Year In Sport press report. And what it really does is aligns our proprietary data insights because Strava really is de facto the record of the world’s athletic activities.

It’s contained everything from people winning medals, to Tour de France stages to, hey, what are the trends that have happened during the pandemic as walking and hiking really took off and more people than ever before were riding bikes. Finding ways to align stories that only we can tell with moments in time when there’s a high degree of cultural curiosity around specific topics that can enable really large-scale brand awareness.

Going back to providing reporters with ingredients and stories that are useful for them to sell stories internally and also to service their readership. I think that’s just like a really great example of one way you can do it.

Kunal Mehta: Fantastic. Andrew, as I think about Strava, they’re adding 2 million athletes a month during the pandemic, and they’re still growing incredibly fast. I just read an article that says something like 20% of employees will continue to work remotely. How have you overcome the challenges of managing your team working remotely during this hyper-growth period?

Andrew Vontz: I think one of the advantages that we have is prior to the pandemic, and really, since our inception, Strava has been a highly global company. We have athletes in 195 countries, and we have teammates on the ground in seven key geographies around the world, seven different countries on four different continents.

It’s given us the opportunity to really grow and come together as a team and really working on making sure we’re calling all the voices on the team in, that we’re being as inclusive as possible in this remote work environment. And really thinking about what are the systems and processes that do foster that sense of inclusion, that make people able to provide their highest level of contribution? And really thinking through what are the channels that they need to do that?

Because the reality is just adding more meetings is just going to add up to a lot more meetings. You have a finite amount of time that you can get together, so it’s getting people into the right spaces at the right moment.

When you’re in those contexts, invite everybody into the conversation. Going back to what does strive mean within a context of our comms team? Part of what it means is always pushing ourselves to think bigger, to think about how can we do everything better?

Even if things are going really well, what does it look like beyond the horizon to do way, way, way better than we might imagine is possible at the moment? No one has a monopoly on great ideas, and you want everybody to feel included. I try to talk about decisions I’ve made or things that we’ve tried in the org that haven’t gone well, because I also have to model risk taking and that failure is okay, because I certainly am not making perfect decisions all the time.

Katja Gagen: I like, Andrew, how you’re creating an environment that’s both inclusive, but also pushing the team to try new things, even when everything is going well.

Shifting gears for a moment, every organization goes through a phase where there are challenges. What does it take to successfully manage those and how have you done that?

Andrew Vontz: Well, the best advice I can give is you want to plan for rainy days, because honestly, if you have any level of success, at some point you were definitely going to have a storm in your future. And before one happens, you want to be prepared. If you do find yourself managing a crisis, you want to try to find a way to turn that challenge into an opportunity.

Let me tell you about something that happened at Strava back in 2018. We have something called the heat map. It’s really a treasured community resource that our athletes use to discover new places to ride, to run, and really just to enjoy the sports they love. It only contains aggregate de-identified data and athletes can opt out of sharing their information into the heat map at any time.

Back in 2018, someone on Twitter said they had found secret military bases on the heat map. And this took off in the news and we ended up having 2000 media inquiries in about 48 hours. I would just say, first of all, when a crisis happens, you have to say calm. It’s important that you move at your own pace and that you work with stakeholders across the organization to understand what’s going on before you do anything.

That’s what we did. We take the privacy of our athletes very seriously. And we really used this incident as an opportunity to build more trust with our athletes and with our community and to educate the world about our simple privacy controls and settings.

At that moment in time, the story ended up on national broadcast and every major newspaper in the U S and around the world online. We managed the crisis to a resolution where the coverage was 90% positive or neutral.

Here’s what you can do if you want to get ready. I definitely recommend getting a steer from advisers or outside experts who can help you think through the full range of crises you might face, and to start preparing for them. A book I recommend is The Checklist Manifesto, by Atul Gawande.

It covers how professionals in high stress, high consequence environments, like medical doctors performing surgery, or how pilots flying commercial airlines use checklists for everything that they do. Use these checklists to boil down complex operations, to really the simplest, clearest set of decisions possible, trying to make everything binary and really make communication across the team as frictionless, simple, direct as possible.

Try to think through anything that might potentially pop up and then try to spell out exactly how you’re going to meet that moment. And if you do that, you’ll be as prepared as you possibly can be when your rainy day comes.

Katja Gagen: That’s super helpful. We talked a little bit earlier about Strava meaning to strive. A lot of companies today want to be known for a specific mission or purpose. What are the most effective ways you have made that happen at Strava?

Andrew Vontz: I think when it comes to thought leadership, some people think about thought leadership as, hey, we just need to like stick our leaders on the right stages at the right conferences. And then miraculously, we’re going to be known as the world’s leading authority on X.

Thought leadership starts with the intent to be the world’s best at something, and that’s a very worthy endeavor. Equally, you need to be really honest about where are you at today? Where do you want to be in the future? How credible are you on this topic? And what commitment do you have to action? And I’ll just give you an example.

At Strava, we serve athletes. And we say that what’s awesome for athletes is awesome for our business and in turn, that can be awesome for the world at large. We say that athlete awesome equals business awesome.

We are the platform at the center of connected fitness. We have over 400 partners whose apps, hardware, experiences, connect into Strava where they can be extended, and people can enjoy them. And we’re a place where every effort counts. We have something called Strava Metro. And Metro takes aggregate de-identified data, and we provide a really easy to use tool to vetted municipalities and urban planners, so that they can create better and safer pedestrian and cycling infrastructure in cities so that people can get around under their own power as safely and effectively as possible in cities. Because really humans are the original autonomous vehicle, and they are the future of cities.

What we aspire to, is to be a positive force to help create change in the space so that everyone has equal access to pedestrian and cycling infrastructure and more broadly to create greater equity in sport. And that’s an area where we want to be an even bigger thought leader and a bigger force over time.

We know where we are at today. And we know the gap that we want to close, and we have to be really honest about where we’re at and what we want to do.

Kunal Mehta: I love that approach towards DEI, and I’m sure we could spend the entire podcast talking about that.

We typically end with some rapid-fire questions. I just wanted to start with, we have a wide range of listeners, Andrew, and many of them are younger as well. Perhaps you can tell us something you wish your younger self knew.

Andrew Vontz: I’d say, my podcast is called “Choose the Hard Way” for a reason, because for better or worse, that’s something I’ve done many times in my life. And it’s really about the idea that you are what you overcome. I think that’s what I’d tell my younger self that it’s about the power of marginal gains.

Every obstacle you might run into in your life is really an opportunity to move towards your next success. And all of the knowledge that you’ve accrued, that’s just insight that you can take into whatever you do next.

It goes back to this agile development mentality, that comes from software engineering and business development, but you can really apply it to anything. Keep what works, throw away what doesn’t and test new hypotheses and keep growing.

Kunal Mehta: Awesome. Keep growing for sure. I also want to ask you, what’s a convention that you wish did not hold true today?

Andrew Vontz: Something I’ve been thinking about a lot because of a guest I had on my podcast recently, his name’s Hector Guadalupe and he’s the founder of an organization called A Second U Foundation.

He works with formerly incarcerated individuals. And provides training and education for them to start their own fitness businesses. And it’s really foregrounded for me, the importance of second chances. I think that that’s something that I would like to see transformed in society.

Katja Gagen: That’s wonderful, thanks Andrew. One other question is who do you follow on social media?

Andrew Vontz: One of my favorite people to follow on social media is Rahsaan Bahati. He’s a multi-time national champion and one of my favorite cyclists of all time. I lived in LA for over 15 years, and he used to be out on a lot of group rides that I was on. I always looked up to him, his accomplishments as an athlete.

Rahsaan has something called the Bahati Foundation. Its mission is to support inner city youth and underserved communities through cycling outreach. I think the work that he’s doing to bridge the equity and access gap in cycling is incredibly powerful.

Katja Gagen: That’s awesome, and if I were to summarize our conversation – hard work and rapid learning are the ultimate Growth Hacks. One more question, how do you energize and instill rapid learning at Strava?

Andrew Vontz: I think one of the ways that I try to do that is by modeling vulnerability. And trying to float big, risky ideas and trying to push myself beyond what feels safe. Because when I’m starting to feel anxious about something that we’re trying to do, because it feels overly ambitious, anxiety metabolized a different way is excitement. And that’s when I know I’m in the right territory because we’re about to break through. And that’s really what I want the team to get to experience, because I want everybody to have that feeling of autonomy, of growth, of really operating at the edge of their ability, because I know that that’s where we can do our very best work.

Katja Gagen: That’s wonderful. Thanks so much, Andrew, for sharing your insights with us from being a journalist to an athlete, and also the head of communications. Thanks for being on the show today.

Andrew Vontz: Yeah, thanks so much. It’s great to be here.

***

The views and opinions expressed are those of the speakers and do not necessarily reflect those of TCMI, Inc. or its affiliates (“TCV”). TCV has not verified the accuracy of any statements by the speakers and disclaims any responsibility therefor. This interview and blog post are not an offer to sell or the solicitation of an offer to purchase an interest in any private fund managed or sponsored by TCV or any of the securities of any company discussed. The TCV portfolio companies identified, if any, are not necessarily representative of all TCV investments, and no assumption should be made that the investments identified were or will be profitable. For a complete list of TCV investments, please visit www.tcv.com/all-companies/. For additional important disclaimers regarding this interview and blog post, please see “Informational Purposes Only” in the Terms of Use for TCV’s website, available at http://www.tcv.com/terms-of-use/.


Elevating Community Building to Drive Meaningful Growth

Community building is the type of phrase that gets thrown around growth marketing so often it can seem like a box to check, rather than a strategic part of a comprehensive growth strategy. Still, there is a growing stable of modern brands that have created unique, vocal, loyal communities, and leveraged the power of those communities for incredible growth and success. Companies like Airbnb, Glossier, Peloton, and Twitter have all fostered community, and done so in different ways, without sacrificing on the primary goal of scaling a business. 

In the latest episode of Growth Hacks, Katja and Kunal speak with Jonathan Mildenhall, the founder and Chairman of the strategic branding firm, TwentyFirstCenturyBrand, and former CMO of Airbnb. Jonathan recounts his experience with building modern brands that resonate with the communities they serve and explains how to build a strategic blueprint that allows companies to unlock growth in the areas they want to activate. He also gives us his playbook for building communities that can meaningfully drive growth, and why he believes community building has to come from the very top to be truly effective. 

Here’s what you’ll learn: 

  • The four pillars of a modern 21st century brand that’s built to scale
  • How to perform a deep analysis on your own company and create a strategic blueprint to activate on each pillar
  • Specific strategies on building a community that can meaningfully drive growth and brand perception
  • Why strategic community building has to come from the C-suite
  • Lessons B2B marketers can take from B2C campaigns when it comes to eliciting an emotional connection

To hear more on this, settle in and press play.

***

The views and opinions expressed are those of the speakers and do not necessarily reflect those of TCMI, Inc. or its affiliates (“TCV”). TCV has not verified the accuracy of any statements by the speakers and disclaims any responsibility therefor. This interview and blog post are not an offer to sell or the solicitation of an offer to purchase an interest in any private fund managed or sponsored by TCV or any of the securities of any company discussed. The TCV portfolio companies identified, if any, are not necessarily representative of all TCV investments, and no assumption should be made that the investments identified were or will be profitable. For a complete list of TCV investments, please visit www.tcv.com/all-companies/. For additional important disclaimers regarding this interview and blog post, please see “Informational Purposes Only” in the Terms of Use for TCV’s website, available at http://www.tcv.com/terms-of-use/.


Treating Employees Like End Consumers: How Zillow Scaled Successfully While Reinventing the Traditional Growth Playbook

As home buying juggernaut and TCV portfolio company Zillow grew, it placed employee engagement and company culture at the forefront of its operations — even as it scaled and acquired large companies with their own cultures and moda operandi. While improving hiring and retention is a key part of any leader’s growth strategy, Zillow took it a step further by treating employee engagement as a central component to future growth.

In the latest episode of Growth Hacks, Katja and Kunal are joined by TCV Venture Partner Amy Bohutinsky, who worked at Zillow as CMO and later became COO, before joining the company’s board. Amy discusses why Zillow focused on employee engagement and treating employees like other companies do end customers as a driver for growth. She also walks us through her unique perspective on navigating operational challenges such as successful corporate mergers, and the metric she thinks more C-suite leaders should be paying attention to. In addition to Zillow, Amy serves on the boards of Modsy and Duolingo, and tells listeners about the issues that are top of mind in the boardroom.

Here’s what you’ll learn:

  • Why Zillow focused on product over marketing to drive early growth
  • Strategies for successfully merging companies post-acquisition
  • How shared values in a shared language build connective tissue between disparate teams
  • The most important metrics all C-suite leaders should be paying attention to
  • What corporate boards are most concerned with today

Please find the transcript below, which has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Katja Gagen: I’m thrilled to have Amy Bohutinsky with me today. Former CMO and COO of Zillow, a venture partner at TCV, and board member of Zillow, Duolingo, Modsy and many others. Amy your career has been highly unusual. You went from journalist to CMO, to COO reporting to boards, and now being on multiple boards yourself. We’re so excited to have you today. Welcome to Growth Hacks.

Amy Bohutinsky: Well, thank you for having me. I’m excited to be here.

Kunal Mehta: Well, thanks, Amy. Thanks for joining us. Where does this podcast find you today?

Amy Bohutinsky: It finds me in Seattle, hiding in my bedroom, which is the quietest place in the house right now, hoping my dog doesn’t bark in the middle of this.

Kunal Mehta: Awesome. And maybe you can tell us a little bit about yourself and how you got started in tech.

Amy Bohutinsky: Sure. I started my career as a broadcast journalist. And within a couple of years the first big tech boom was happening in San Francisco. I transitioned over to doing PR for tech companies and within a number of years, that broadened to a couple of different tech companies. From PR into marketing, I was on the ground floor at Zillow when it first started and over the next 14 years, went from PR to CMO to COO. Today I’m on the board of Zillow and a couple of other awesome companies.

Katja Gagen: And at Zillow, which is also a TCV company, you started with zero marketing budget. Tell us how you made things work.

Amy Bohutinsky: When we started Zillow, we started with let’s see if we can build a household name off of organic traffic. You know, here it was in 2005, we had all been in tech to see this first round of internet companies kind of boom and bust, many of them blowing a lot of money on expensive brand marketing before they had a fully proven out revenue model.

It was a point in time where we didn’t want that to happen. We wanted our venture capital dollars to stretch, but we also saw an opportunity to build a company in a really different way, which was to focus deeply on product. Product as the absolute best marketing we could have. So yeah, for many years there wasn’t a marketing budget. It was focused on product, and when I was CMO, we probably didn’t start spending significantly on the brand until about seven or eight years in and after we’d become a public company.

Kunal Mehta: I think the scrappiness and the growth hack of no budget is amazing. You know, a lot of our companies want to use PR and brand to generate demand, but they struggle with it. How did you guys make that successful?

Amy Bohutinsky: We were constantly asking ourselves not just is this what we think people want but is this something that we think people will talk about. Real estate is such a stress driven transaction. How do we make this fun and provocative and visual and exciting, and actually draw out some of the fun of looking into homes and dreaming about homes?

Acouple of key decisions we made. One was, we decided in the early days, instead of just putting a whole bunch of data about individual homes on a page about that home to empower people, what if we boil it down to one number? And we give it a snappy name and call it the Zestimate. We visually put that on top of every rooftop in America so that you can come on our site, and you can fly over rooftops and get an idea. And pop into any single home and say, what’s that home worth? This was pretty revolutionary back in 2005, when before that, nothing had been online at all about homes and real estate.

Katja Gagen: That’s awesome. And as you evolved as a company, what were some of your biggest learnings?

Amy Bohutinsky: We did a lot of things well. One thing we did not do well in the early days is we didn’t pay enough attention to SEO and the big impact that could have on our business in a category where people are constantly searching in the category of real estate.

It was probably not until about four years in that we started getting serious about it. Others in our category had been serious about it for a couple of years and we had a lot of years of catching up to do. I see companies make that mistake all the time.

Katja Gagen: After you became CMO that you then transition to COO, which is a little unusual. So what were some of the skills that you carried over from your CMO role and what surprised you?

Amy Bohutinsky: A big part of that role was internally looking at our employees and understanding how we hire the absolute best people we can, but also how do we retain those people. How do we create company where people really want to work and feel like they can do the best work of their career and that they belong. And a big part of that is skills that are really relevant to marketing.

Number one, it’s understanding your end consumer, your employees and really listening to what they have to say as you make decisions throughout the company, and as you scale and grow the company and build teams. So, I actually found that a lot of my skills within marketing were pretty transferable into the COO role, which for me was all about helping to scale our employee base, helping to retain what was so special about our culture from the early years. And as we made various acquisitions, focusing on a lot of the people sides of those acquisitions as well.

Katja Gagen: That’s a good segue, Amy, because Zillow has been very active in the M&A space, acquiring more than a dozen companies in less than a decade. And that included Trulia, which was a 2.5 billion acquisition. Tell us about how you made this unusual marriage between the two companies work.

Amy Bohutinsky: One of the things we found in many of the acquisitions we made is that culture and core values really matter in the post-acquisition stage and those really should be a part of the due diligence. With Trulia in particular, right around the time I became COO, we had just acquired Trulia and our employee base at the time went from I think, 1,200 to 2,400 overnight. Two companies that had been rivals for many years.

Something that was really important frankly, was just listening to what was important to Trulia employees. And then moving forward, how do we combine what’s great about the two companies? One example was each company had a different set of driving core values. We came out with a new set for the combined company the next year that combined both sets. That gave a nod to what was great about both, but also showed that we were bringing two companies together and two different cultures together and creating something new.

The small things really matter too. And I’ll give you an example of this. When Zillow acquired Trulia, Trulia had had a tradition in the 10 years it had been around that whenever a new employee joins Trulia, they get a Trulia backpack. That was something that was actually very culturally important to the company. People walked around the streets of San Francisco with their Trulia backpacks. Everybody loved these backpacks.

Within the HR department, a decision was made at Zillow of, okay, well, we have this other package of stuff we give people, let’s just make that universal across the company. And that really upset people, the kind of taking away of the backpack. It may seem from a numbers basis or efficiency basis to be a very small thing, but from a cultural basis, it was meaningful. It was something that after a couple months of it, we brought it back and we said, you know what? All our different brands can have different ways that they welcome people. Let’s let the local teams make this decision and let’s not have this be something that comes from corporate. Because sometimes something small like that can do much more harm than good. It can be bruising to people who are already feeling some uncertainty around all of the newness with being a part of a new company.

Kunal Mehta: I think that’s so important to bring that up. And as you moved into your COO role, you had this obligation almost to drive more connective tissue with sales, marketing, products. Three groups that often work in silos. Maybe you can talk a little bit about your playbook.

Amy Bohutinsky: Well, one thing that we always believed in very strongly were shared values across all departments. While different departments may operate under different leaders and different constructs, they all share a common set of core values, which are ultimately how work gets done. The other thing were our product personas or the people we build for. This is another thing that, a lot of companies talk about personas or demographics, but at Zillow, we actually had a set of personas. They had names, they had photos, they had a whole life construct. And if you walked into any meeting at Zillow, and if you walk into any meeting at Zillow today, you will hear people talking about Beth and about Allen and about Susan.

These are individual personas that everyone across every department at the company understands deeply as to who are the people that we build for? Who are the people that we communicate with? Who are the people that we sell to? Who are the people that we market to? And how do we see them as actual individuals? When you have those shared values in that shared language, and frankly that shared north star, it makes it a lot easier for collaboration and decisions across different areas of the company.

Kunal Mehta: Fantastic. If I shift your lens over to being on boards, what do the executive team ask you about the most?

Amy Bohutinsky: In recent years, there has definitely been more of an emphasis in the boards I’m on, on the people side of the business. It used to be in many boards that boards talked about financials and business and strategy and the business side, but never really got into the people. And a really important shift that I’ve seen happening in the last, 7, 8, 9 years that I’ve been on boards, is much more conversation about employees, employee mental health, about equity and belonging within the company and looking deeply at diversity stats.

These are conversations that used to be relegated to an HR department that are now, across leadership teams, and I’m happy to say, across boardrooms too. Because this is an incredibly important emphasis that frankly should have been there all along, but I’m happy to see, on all the boards I’m on certainly, we spend quite a bit of time on that. But I’m hearing from other board members it’s happening in a lot of places as well.

Katja Gagen: And that’s so important, Amy. I’m glad you are also a catalyst for these conversations. I do hope we’ll see more of them across the board. We always finish with a quick fire. So we’re gonna shoot a few at you.

Kunal Mehta: Hey, what’s your go-to book? The one that provides you the most value.

Amy Bohutinsky: I read a book a couple of years ago. It was called The Second Mountain by David Brooks. At its core, it was talking about the human journey of, so much of what you want in life is ego-driven and we all drive up this first mountain. A lot of it has to do with career, things we want in our career that are frankly driven by our ego. Not necessarily driven by our curiosity or what we’d like to learn or what fulfills us the most. And the crux of the book is about getting to this second mountain.

So everyone kind of climbed the ego-driven first, but how do you get to the second mountain where you’re work and your home life and how you spend your time ultimately becomes more fulfilling and less about the ego and more about what you offer to the world outside of you. I found this book super compelling and it’s something that just on a very frequent basis, I think back on in decisions I make and in people I come into contact with, and I find application in the business world all the time.

Katja Gagen: I love that. I read the book as well. And what really struck me, Amy is what you’re saying is you go from that ego-driven mountain to a life that is in service of others. And that probably ties into the current conversations you have in board meetings that are also aimed at how can you make a team feel healthy and happy?

Amy Bohutinsky: That’s right. And it ties into, the broad practice of marketing, which is so much about understanding the customer or the consumer at the other end, having empathy for that person and then doing your work in service of that north star and that customer. And I found out there’s a lot of parallels in that as well.

Katja Gagen: Right. What are some fun facts about Zillow?

Amy Bohutinsky: Well, one fun fact is that there is meaning behind the name. It may sound like a nonsensical word. But early days when we were trying to figure out what we would call this. We were looking at two categories of words that were evocative of what we were trying to build. And Zillow comes from the word zillions, as in zillions of data points, and pillow, where you lay your head to rest at night.

It was this combination of data to empower you to make smarter decisions about this important emotional place — where you have your family and your life, and you lay your head to rest at night. And how do we combine the two? So zillions of pillows.

Kunal Mehta: Fantastic. When you were a CMO, what was the most critical metric you followed?

Amy Bohutinsky: Well, I’m going to say this in retrospect, with some wisdom, many years past being CMO. What I think the most important metric CMOs and leaders should follow is employee engagement. The absolute best work you can do comes from hiring and retaining the absolute best people you can. And that data point of employee engagement at your organization, being able to look at that both broadly across the organization, but by team and understand which teams of people and which individuals are happy and likely to stay and satisfied.

When they’re not understanding why, that is, I think, the most important metric you can follow any day. And if you get that right. Then it’s a whole lot easier to meet all of the business-related metrics that you need.

Katja Gagen: And speaking of hiring and employee engagement, what’s your favorite question that you ask during an interview?

Amy Bohutinsky: As an interviewer, I like to get people to tell stories. And I like to ask open-ended “tell me about the situation” type questions, where they have to walk me through a story. It helps me to understand their curiosity, their different decision points and why they made the decisions they did. What I want to hear from people is, do they approach problems in their career with, the question of what can I learn in this? Not what can I achieve in this? Sort of going back to The Second Mountain, the book we talked about, is trying to understand, do they make decisions when it’s about them or do they make decisions when it’s about broadening their scope of learning, being curious about others.

Do they see that as a core foundation of leading them to sort of their ultimate goals. Another question kind of like that, that I like to ask, is just tell me the story of your career. And then as they go through it, I’ll ask some questions and there’s a lot you can learn just from how people approach that story, what lens they approach it with and how they summarize the different decision points and the decisions they made.

Katja Gagen: Well, thank you so much, Amy. It was wonderful to have you on the podcast today. Thanks for being on Growth Hacks.

Amy Bohutinsky: Thank you for having me this was fun.

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