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 Commercial systems designed even as late as 2019 are likely full of complex trainings, outdated information, and other sorts of friction that can slow down the actual sales process.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 or email us at


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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,

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 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

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 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

Making Community Building More Than a Catchphrase to Unlock Growth – Jonathan Mildenhall Shares Lessons from Airbnb and More for Companies of All Sizes

Growth Hacks – Moving the Metric

Brands like Airbnb and Peloton that have been able to build a loyal community around their products, may seem to have cultivated that community size through an alchemical mix of marketing spend, timing, and luck. But it doesn’t have to be so opaque — especially not for businesses that make community building an essential part of their blueprint to growth, even from the early days. 

In this episode of Growth Hacks, Kunal and Katja talk to Jonathan Mildenhall, former CMO of Airbnb and founder and Chairman of strategic branding firm, TwentyFirstCenturyBrand, about ways to articulate the narrative of a modern brand – with community building as a key element. Jonathan walks us through a four-pillar process for creating strategic blueprints to build brand narrative, and tips for B2B brands to elicit the sort of emotional resonance that B2C brands have found with customers. 

Key Takeaways:

  • The four pillars of a modern 21st century brand that’s built to scale. Community isn’t just something that comes once a brand has been built. In fact, having a vocal, loyal community is one of the four core pillars of building a modern-day company. In addition to community building, the other three pillars for twenty-first century brands are being purpose driven, making sure your technology is well-designed and human, and focusing on storytelling.
  • How to perform a deep analysis on your own company and create a strategic blueprint to activate on each pillar. One of the first things Jonathan and his team at TwentyFirstCenturyBrand do when building out a new brand is to sit down with the founders and leaders of the company to do what they call a deep extraction. The purpose is to get a better understanding of the brand’s potential size and aspirations. “I don’t just mean in total numbers and size of revenue, but in terms of its cultural impact. We like to say we’re revealing the soul and purpose of the company back to the founding team,” Jonathan says.
  • Specific strategies on building a community that can meaningfully drive growth and brand perception. When Jonathan was the CMO of Airbnb, they had to get creative about how to use their marketing spend, which was a fraction of their competitors’ budgets. Jonathan’s team decided to activate Airbnb’s community of hosts to tell stories, by providing them photographers to take photos of their rentals and turn that into marketing collateral. Those community stories helped drive Airbnb’s initial brand narrative and turned those same hosts into vocal advocates for Airbnb with cities and potential users. Per Jonathan, “if you get community right, you can reduce acquisition costs, content creation costs, and you can drive referrals, word of mouth, and the brand narrative in ways that are unprecedented for marketers.” 
  • Why strategic community building has to come from the C-suite. Community building is an ongoing process and a two-way conversation; not just when a brand needs the community to telegraph its approval. It’s why Jonathan believes that community engagement should come from company leadership, who can maintain that dialog with followers of the brand and the wider community: “The chief executive’s voice and presence needs to be heard.”
  • Lessons B2B marketers can take from B2C campaigns when it comes to eliciting an emotional connection. Whether you’re a B2B company or a B2C company, Jonathan urges marketing teams to think about more than selling a product, and instead focus on the human being receiving the message, and whether that message moves them emotionally. His advice for B2B marketers? “I would love it if B2B businesses made a greater effort to move audiences emotionally and treat them as human beings, as opposed to somebody on the other side of a business transaction,” says Jonathan.

To learn more, tune into Growth Hacks: Elevating Community Building to Drive Meaningful Growth


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 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

Product, People, and Employee Engagement: How Zillow’s Path to Growth Eschewed the Traditional Marketing Playbook

Growth Hacks – Moving the Metric

Nowadays, growth minded leaders know that a strong corporate culture and engaged employees are a central part of any company’s growth playbook. Yet when Zillow first launched, placing people on the same level as product innovation was an audacious move. Still, Zillow took the time to invest in improving its employee engagement, knowing that engaged employees were the bedrock for a company’s long-term success.

On this episode of Growth Hacks, Kunal and Katja talk to TCV Venture Partner and former CMO, COO, and current Zillow board member, Amy Bohutinsky. We discuss Amy’s perspective on C-suite leadership and bucking the traditional marketing and operational playbooks in order to drive growth and create better company cohesion. As board member of various technology companies, Amy also walks us through what boards are discussing now more than ever.

Key Takeaways

  • Why Zillow focused on product over marketing to drive early growth. When Zillow launched in 2004, they’d seen many of their startup peers spend lots of money on brand marketing without a proven revenue model. Rather than tread the same path, Amy says the Zillow team “saw an opportunity to build a company in a really different way, which was to focus deeply on product. Product was absolutely the best marketing we could have.” By adopting a no budget marketing budget, the team was further incentivized to create products, like Zillow’s Zestimate, that customers would truly love using.
  • Strategies for successfully merging companies post-acquisition. As Zillow has grown, it’s acquired companies of all sizes, including its $2.5 billion acquisition of fellow real estate juggernaut Trulia. To navigate a smoother post-acquisition merger after she became COO, Amy took a page from her former CMO playbook when considering how to best scale Zillow’s employee base while retaining what was special about its culture. During the Trulia acquisition, the companies combined their individual sets of values to create a new shared set of driving core values. “That gave a nod to what was great about both, but also showed that we were bridging two companies together and two different cultures together and creating something new,” says Amy.
  • How shared values in a shared language build connective tissue between disparate teams. One of Amy’s goals during her time as Zillow’s COO was to drive better cohesion between sales, marketing, and product. Though each team had its own values in addition to Zillow’s shared corporate values, everyone across the company bought into what Zillow called its “product personas” — mental sketches of the people they built for. “They had names, they had photos, they had a whole life…And these are individual personas that everyone across every department at the company understands deeply,” says Amy.
  • The most important metrics all C-suite leaders should be paying attention to. When Amy shifted her role from CMO to COO, she viewed Zillow employees the same way she did end consumers; what did they have to say, what were their concerns, and what could Zillow do to make sure they retained the workforce that made them successful. Even now, Amy says all C-suite leaders should be paying attention to a key metric: employee engagement. “If you get that right, it’s a whole lot easier to meet all of the business-related metrics you need.”
  • What corporate boards are most concerned with currently. In addition to the board of Zillow, Amy sits on the boards of Modsy and Duolingo, and has sat on the boards of companies including Gap and HotelTonight. She says that in the last seven to ten years, the conversation on boards has shifted away from growth at all costs to an emphasis on people and how to keep and retain a healthy workforce.

To learn more, tune into Growth Hacks: Treating Employees Like End Consumers: How Zillow Scaled Successfully While Reinventing the Traditional Growth Playbook


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 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

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.


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 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

TCV 2020 Summer Newsletter

Keeping our team members safe and helping our companies navigate COVID-19 and prepare for the rebound has been our main focus at TCV. Our Portfolio Operations group, along with our Investment, Legal, Marketing and Capital Markets teams, are providing a surge of support for our companies. The takeaways of these efforts are the main themes of this newsletter. We hope that you will find nuggets you can apply in your business, in areas such as talent, sales and marketing, systems and technology, and more.

Brands with a Purpose

Even the most hardened left-brain investor can recognize the genius of Jonathan Mildenhall. While leading the marketing organizations at Coca-Cola and Airbnb, Jonathan focused each of these brands on an authentic and emotive purpose that cut through the cynicism of modern consumerism to create connection and change human behavior based on shared values. Jonathan was kind enough to share with TCV GP David Yuan his stories and experiences leading Coca-Cola and Airbnb marketing, as well as his new venture, TwentyFirstCenturyBrand.

Key takeaways from this wide-ranging conversation include:

  • Energizing an icon, helping Coca-Cola reclaim and extend its emotional core
  • Authenticity as an enduring and compounding competitive advantage
  • How aligning brands with core human needs can change consumer behavior

For this and a lot more from one of the most creative and successful marketers of this century, settle back and click play.



The statements, 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 is 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 For additional important disclaimers, please see “Informational Purposes Only” in the Terms of Use for TCV’s website, available at