Growth Marketing Conference: How Silicon Valley gurus and CMOs hack growth

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Everyone in the B2B world has heard about proverbial Silicon Valley garage startups that grew into the likes of Apple Computer, Hewlett Packard and many other household names. But exactly how did those firm founders and first chief marketers do it? At the  Growth Marketing Conference in San Francisco, several successful entrepreneurs revealed the secrets of their success during the session “Founder and CMO Panel: From Zero to Millions.”

Featuring Sara Varni, senior vice president, marketing, Salesforce; Michelle Zatlyn, co-founder, CloudFlare; Aaron Kahlow, CEO and founder, Online Marketing Institute; and Will Bunker, founding partner, GrowthX, the panel revealed how they started from the bottom and now they’re here, to quote Drake, thanks to growth marketing.

Favorite growth hacks

To open the session, the panelists revealed their favorite growth hacks. At CloudFlare, a web performance and security startup, Zatlyn’s fave growth hack revolves around posting authentic blogs that at the same time are technical. For Varni at CRM juggernaut Salesforce, she favors focusing on one metric every day that everybody in the enterprise knows to keep them all “rowing in the same direction,” she said.

For example, at Salesforce they might focus on installs of the Lightning Console, Trailhead training platform or SalesforceIQ and integration. According to Varni, the organization will focus on those for the marketing plan.

“We would see the effect of product launches and customer newsletter opens (reflected in the number of installs),” Varni said. “But marketers have to carefully pick a metric that changes every day (in order to measure growth).”

Indeed, Zatlyn concurred that metrics were integral to show progress to her startup’s board of directors. As a startup now gaining scale, CloudFlare originally had to pick metrics that gave an idea of forward momentum before it generated revenue.

“This was important for recruiting and early on was powerful to get the right people on the team,” Zatlyn said.

Meanwhile, out in Dallas where Bunker of seed-stage funder GrowthX had an early startup that raised $9000 in capital, profit remained the obvious metric. As a former industrial engineer, Bunker operated by a saying with words to the effect that he wanted the most money for the least amount of work. To measure that he devised a screen that showed how much money each of his startup workers made for the company every week.

At Online Marketing Institute, Kahlow advocated building a viable product before concerns about making money.

“Look at the stage you’re at,” he said. “It depends where you are. There’s no magic bullet.”

The 411 on vendor switching

Of the biggest mistakes the panelists made in their careers, Varni cited an actionable anecdote about switching out vendors. In the past, she has struggled at Salesforce with the frequency of vendor switching.

“It (vendor switching) depends on the stage of your product,” she said. “It’s hard to nail down the frequency, so you should go product by product. The operational churn is just not worth it.”

In the end, Varni advised that B2B professionals should wait a few rounds of implementation to see if a product gets better before switching. This can apply to marketing automation as well as other B2B applications.

How leadership counts

A problem that many B2B startups will face is how to staff. A subset of that challenge remains picking team leaders. How do you look at intangibles that take a product leader to a team leader, Kahlow posed as a rhetorical question.

At his former startup, Bunker built all the engineering from zero to 70 employees. After that, he no longer could build all the engineering himself and had to be mindful about when to switch to a team leader model. In the process, he had to ask himself, “Do the others have the same vision?”

When Zatlyn had her first meeting with the CloudFlare board of directors, she went along with the other two co-founders and two vice presidents. These were figuratively—if not virtually—all the employees that CloudFlare had at the time. The upshot: the board seemingly came away unimpressed by these vainglorious titles when they asked how many people these VPs had hired and fired. The result: CloudFlare got rid of all titles and instituted a flat hierarchy.

Zatlyn now realizes that B2B companies only need VP titles when they’ve scaled to 90 people. Then B2B startups should see if their team leaders have grown into VP roles or if they need to look externally. Even though many startups think that giving out lofty titles is cost-free, it complicates the organizational chart when an external person is brought on to manage a team of “VPs.” Then you have to establish an early round of senior vice presidents, according to Zatlyn.

Varni brought the idea of titles back to a personal level when she discussed the difficulty some people have going from an individual contributor to a leader role.

“Let go,” she said. “You can’t be involved in everything. Empower your team. Then you can get out of the way and think strategically.”

“When you lead, the most important thing is (your) perspective,” Kahlow said. “You’re the only one who sees all the pieces. It’s not important how much you do; what’s important is driving things forward.”

The panel at the Growth Marketing Conference session "Founder and CMO Panel: From Zero to Millions"
The panel at the Growth Marketing Conference session “Founder and CMO Panel: From Zero to Millions”

Inside marketing influence

As most B2B practitioners know, many debate the role of marketing in business success. The panel was no different and offered a variety of viewpoints on the issue.

The way Bunker sees it, marketing contributes to business success in two ways: by decreasing the cost to acquire customers and increasing revenue.

You have to look at the number of marketing influenced leads in the sales pipeline, according to Varni. At Salesforce, marketing deals with the heads of sales by showing them the same set of metrics every time they meet so they become familiar with what marketing influenced leads look like.

Kahlow had an interesting suggestion to prove the value of marketing on business results: Tell the sales department that you will stop all marketing programs for a period of time—such as a quarter—and ask them if they will make their numbers. Then see how many sales heads say “yes.”

Staying disciplined

To close, the panel cited some micro hacks to stay disciplined in pursuit of zero-to-hero growth:

  • Bunker—write down 20 things that you want to learn which will influence you five to 10 years into the future
  • Varni—look at B2C marketing techniques, such as your Facebook feed, and ask yourself what makes you click on certain items and how you can apply the same methods in B2B
  • Zatlyn—for small startups, write a three-week plan on sticky notes on a whiteboard and at the end of the three weeks have the people responsible for specific tasks take down their sticky notes to help them take ownership
  • Kahlow—don’t read email before 10 a.m. in order to avoid getting sucked into a reactive email spiral and be mindful of what matters to you and follow through on proactive tasks to reach those objectives

For more coverage of the Growth Marketing Conference, click here.

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Derek Handova

Derek Handova

Derek Handova is a veteran journalist writing on various B2B vertical beats. He started out as associate editor of Micro Publishing News, a pioneer in coverage of the desktop publishing space and more recently as a freelance writer for Digital Journal, Economy Lead (finance and IR beats) and Intelligent Utility (electrical transmission and distribution beats).