What is the single most effective – and least expensive – marketing channel available to all businesses?
This week on The Inbound Success Podcast, BirdEye Head of Marketing Sam Mallikarjunan shares why your customers are your best marketing channel and how BirdEye is developing a platform designed to help businesses leverage trust – via customer evangelism – at scale.
From his year’s spent as “the face of HubSpot” to teaching marketing at Harvard to taking over marketing for BirdEye, a martech SaaS startup, Sam has gathered fascinating insights into what it takes to build a high growth business and the role that marketing plays in that process.
Listen to the podcast to hear Sam’s thoughts on leveraging customers for your marketing and to learn more about his plans for marketing BirdEye.
Sam Mallikarjunan (guest): Thanks for having me.
Sam and I recording this episode
Kathleen: I’m excited to speak with you. You told me that this is going to be your first podcast since joining BirdEye, so I’m really excited to dig in and learn a little bit more about it and share that with the audience, but also talk about some of the things you’ve learned throughout your career because you have a really interesting background with many years at HubSpot, and you’re doing some teaching now. I have a lot of questions that I want to ask you!
Sam: I’m looking forward to it. It’s been a weird ride, so we can go in whatever direction you want.
Kathleen: Great. Well, why don’t we start by having you tell the audience a little bit about yourself, and your background, and how you wound up where you are today.
Sam: Sure. So my name is Sam Mallikarjunan. If you can’t pronounce it, you can Google anything even close to it and you’ll generally find me.
For seven years, I worked at HubSpot, which if your listeners don’t know, is a software company based out of Boston.
For the last three or so years, I was teaching the advanced digital marketing course at Harvard University.
And then for all of last year, as we discussed before we started recording, I lived in a van, both teaching at Harvard, and then also I was HubSpot’s full time speaker. So I spoke in 49 US states and about eight other countries last year on a range of topics: innovation, and innovation marketing management, et cetera, marketing strategy. (to learn more about Sam’s adventures traveling the world and living in a van, check out the “Sam from the Van” Facebook page)
So now, however, what people thought would never happen is happening. They used to joke that we could change my name to “Sam from HubSpot,” so that people didn’t have to say Mallikarjunan. But no, I have left. I have left and taken over as Head of Marketing at birdeye.com, which is based in Dallas. So I’m moving from Tampa to Dallas, and I’m really, really, really excited because it feels …
First of all, we share some board members with HubSpot, so it’s kind of similar in that way. But second of all, it feels like HubSpot did back in the early days. So I’m very, very excited.
Kathleen: Oh that’s great. So true confession, both times I’ve heard you say, “I lived in a van,” in my head what comes up is Chris Farley. And I want to say, “Was it down by the river?”
Sam: Many times it was down by a river. We posted on Instagram, everybody got their joke, ha ha ha, very funny.
Kathleen: I’m sure it’s not the first time you’ve heard someone say that. I’m not super original in that.
Sam: In fact, if you bust out, “Do you like green eggs and ham,” based on my name, between those two jokes, you’ll have hit about 50% of the recurring jokes that I’ve heard in my life.
Kathleen: Oh, I didn’t even think of that.
Kathleen: Alright. Well, fascinating kind of journey to where you are.
Can you share what was it that prompted you to leave HubSpot after so many years? Because you were there for a long time, and I mean, when I hear what you’ve been doing – you were Head of Experimental Marketing, you were the full time speaker – I mean some of those gigs sound like dream jobs. What got you to move on?
Sam: So here’s the weird thing about dream jobs, is that once you do it long enough, it becomes work again. And then also, I had an enormous privilege being at HubSpot and getting to work with and under some incredible people. HubSpot was the same size when I joined it as BirdEye is now, but I always had Brian Halligan and Dharmesh Shah, the two co-founders. I had Mike Volpe, the former CMO, Kipp Bodnar, the current CMO … I always had them to fall back on, right? It was never … There was always a limit to how much damage I could actually do to the long term success of the company.
HubSpot’s huge now. I think it crossed the five billion dollar market cap rate, 2300 employees and something like seven or eight global offices. It’s absolutely huge and to be honest, I could have spent the rest of my life at HubSpot and been absolutely happy. But what I wanted to see is if I could do it if I didn’t have Volpe, and Kipp, and everybody else to fall back on.
Sam: So now I’m the Head of Marketing for a company that’s the size that HubSpot was when I joined it, and if I fail I have nobody to blame but myself.
HubSpot’s always had this role where if you have good trust with your manager you should be able to tell your manager when you think it’s time to move on. So Kipp, and Dharmesh, and everybody always said that to me, “If you eventually want to leave the company, let us know and we’ll help you find something awesome.”
And so I did, about six months ago I told them that, “Hey, I really want to try and do this on my own.” So I had a freelancer make me a list of 144 different start-ups in the U.S., post-Series-B, pre-IPO, either MarTech SaaS, blockchain or AI. I shortlisted those into three categories of pretty cool, really cool, and insanely cool. And then I got introductions, and feedback, and everything else from my bosses, from the people on the Executive Team. From those 144, I chose BirdEye.
Kathleen: That’s amazing actually. I mean, it says a lot, first of all, for HubSpot’s culture that they’ve created an environment where you can go and feel safe saying basically, “I’m mentally getting ready to leave.” That’s a scary proposition for anybody, but I think it’s wonderful that that environment exists there.
Sam: It’s good both ways, right? Because it’s a good retention mechanism. So I have turned down two formal CMO offers in the last several years, and many, many more opportunities and it’s because they’ve made me really snobby. I would look at it and I would be like, “I bet Brian, and Dharmesh, and Kipp, between us we could find something even better.”
So it was never a surprise to them, it always gave them an opportunity to move me internally. Almost every time you see a job in the last five years that I’ve moved internally at HubSpot on my LinkedIn profile it’s because Sam was thinking about leaving, and we figured out a way to make it better for me to stay. And, obviously, it’s good for the employee, right?
Probably the most interesting opportunities in my professional career was a couple months ago. I’m literally sitting at breakfast with my boss, texting back and forth with my new boss negotiating comp. Most people hide the fact that they’re looking for a new job from their boss? My boss helped me negotiate comp. Which is good, because I had never heard of things like single option triggers and stuff like that.
Kathleen: Yeah. That’s amazing and it’s also really smart on the part of the employer because, especially if you’re talking about key personnel. I mean, really in the technology space any personnel it seems like is key, but particularly someone like yourself who’s been there so long. You’re the kind of person who’s hard to replace, and so having that ramp or that runway to know that you’re ready for that departure as an employer is really great as well.
Such an interesting process that you went through. What an incredible opportunity to get introductions – warm introductions – to all those companies.
Now you have me dying to learn more about BirdEye because I want to know what it is about this company that made it the one, right? I feel like you were on The Bachelor and there are all these companies handing you roses and you chose this one.
Sam: Yeah. So first off, you’re right. They functionally got six month’s notice, so it was a little sad actually, by the time I left they no longer needed me because they had a replacement. So I didn’t have that … you know. I don’t know, it was both good and bad.
Sam: Yeah, so BirdEye. There was a couple of things I was looking for, right?
One was I wanted to work for a company where solving the problem was meaningful. What I loved about HubSpot in the early days was inbound marketing felt right. You know? The way the world was was that you made money by pissing people off. I used to train … Those annoying people in the mall who try and sell you cell phones? I used to train them, so that was my background.
But it felt wrong. I was never happy about it, the work that I was doing.
Inbound marketing felt right. You should be able to build a big, profitable business off of creating an experience that people love on the internet and in all of your market.
What I love about BirdEye was that it felt right too, which is – the website we’re still working on, clarifying our value propositions – but the way that I think about it is if you’re a world class dentist, or a lawyer, or autobody repair shop, or whatever, you should not also have to be a world class internet marketing professional. You should be able to just be good at your job and empower your customers with a framework that’s going to help you grow your business.
Obviously the opposite is true, which is that if you ask your local mechanic how they feel about the local big dealerships, they’re going to say the work is subpar and overpriced. Same thing if you asked most dentists, or lawyers, or whatever the small business is.
So I loved that bit of it, where every day I come into work, my team comes into work, the better we do our jobs, the closer we are towards shifting the world of business the way that it should be.
I also just like it too because I love things that are unfair advantages that really irritate large entrenched companies. So for a hundred years functionally, the business growth has been about, “Can my Sales and Marketing team beat up your Sales and Marketing team? Can we just sell better than you?” In this day and age, I think as we’ve seen with companies like United, right – great Sales and Marketing team at United – but if you piss off the customers there’s no defense from that anymore.
Kathleen: Oh yeah.
Sam: Right? So it’s not this marginal battle anymore. Companies like BirdEye came and flipped the table over and it says that, “My community of empowered community fans can just obliterate your Sales and Marketing team.”
That’s what I loved about it. So it was the mission, it was the brand. I mean, it’s a MarTech SaaS company with executives that I love and it’s a very comfortable fit. But for me, I wanted to do what Brian and Dharmesh and Mike did for inbound marketing, which is create that movement.
I wanted to do that for what I honestly think … We haven’t finished defining it yet, but this has got to be the next wave in growth, right? The only thing that matters about you is how empowered customers are that like you. Because you don’t want the only empowered customers to be the ones that don’t like you.
Kathleen: You know, it really resonated because you talk about doctors, and dentists, and lawyers, and people like that. I owned an agency for 11 years and I had many of them as clients, and the best campaigns we did – in fact we won HubSpot’s first ever Client Campaign of the Year award back in 2015 for work we did for a LASIK eye surgeon.
The reason it was so successful is, it was kind of like what you’re talking about mixed with a little dash of influencer marketing. We found a guy that happened to have a really strong Facebook presence, and out of nothing but dumb luck figured out that he wore glasses, would love to have LASIK.
We paired him up with a doctor, they agreed to do the surgery at no cost if he would just blog and talk about his experience, good, bad, or otherwise, there was no requirement that it could only be positive. He had a great experience; he went and vlogged, and blogged, and just spoke to his audience about it and that campaign far and away crushed anything else we’ve ever done.
Especially with things like healthcare and attorneys, you really trust your friends and those people in your network so much more than you trust an e-book, because we did plenty of those too. But it wasn’t the e-book that killed it for us, it was this guy telling his story and personally endorsing the doctor and the procedure that was the lightening in a bottle. So I can totally see how that’s so important.
Sam: Yeah, now the question is, can you do that 100,000 times, right?
Sam: Especially for local marketing, there’s not always local influencers who you go to to determine what dentist you go to. For dentists it’s funny, it’s the old joke, it’s a cliché. It’s, “What do you call the person who graduated last in their class in medical school? You call them doctor.”
Sam: So the only way that I, as a patient, or whatever, can tell the difference between Dr. A and Dr. B is what their patients say about them online. And yeah, we trust them way more than what people say about themselves.
I think the other thing that’s changed is the passionate relationship we have with certain brands. It feels new. I don’t have data on this, but it feels super new. I love using Uber as an example, because Uber in 2011 was banned by the state of Massachusetts for 23 hours. It’s the fastest I’ve ever seen government move. And it’s not because Uber had a bunch of lobbyists then like they do now, it’s because … We literally got a phone call from the mayor of Boston’s office at the HubSpot office asking us to stop slamming them on Twitter. It was a decision by the governor’s office, not the mayor’s office, and we just didn’t know that.
Uber got hundreds of people to show up to the Cambridge City Council meeting, which is used to a dozen or so people showing up. When I see that and I see things like what happened with United, or I see things both good and bad, communities of customers rising to your defense, or communities of customers tearing you down, there’s something there.
Kathleen: Oh, it’s incredibly powerful. I was going to say Uber is a study in and of itself of both dynamics, like how it can go well and how it can go not so well.
You said a word that I think is so important, which is trust. You know, one of my colleagues at IMPACT is Marcus Sheridan. I’ve seen him speak numerous times and he has this one thing he always says that I find so powerful, which is that, “Every company is in the same business, whether you’re Uber selling rides, or you’re McDonald’s selling hamburgers, or whether you’re HubSpot selling software.”
When you boil it down, they’re really selling trust, because if somebody can’t trust you they’re not going to buy from you.
Just like my campaign, even though we had an influencer, it’s really no different than if I go on Facebook and ask my friends. It’s about who do I trust, who’s opinion do I trust?
So it sounds like what you’re building is something that helps you leverage trust at scale.
Sam: I like that, “Leverage trust at scale.”
Kathleen: There you go, you can put that on the website.
Sam: When I teach at Harvard there’s a metaphor I like to use, which is about how all economists, of which business is a subset, of which marketing is a subset, have physics envy, right?
In physics, I can drop this pen a hundred times out of a hundred, and it’s going to fall and hit the ground. I can stand in Harvard Square handing out a hundred $1 bills and at least 20 people will make the irrational decision, they’ll call me a “chowda head” and keep walking, right?
We work in a profession where it’s not this simple, “If this, then that, zero in one binary value,” marketing is a social science, economics and all of business is a social science and the definition of social science is, “A science about which we are very uncertain.”
Sam: The most important variable, by far, is exactly what you said, which is that trust. That’s what separates us from all of the other professional disciplines, is our dentists, or lawyers, right? Whatever, they know there’s something objectively true that they can work against.
We have to work in an environment where that’s never the case, things are always changing. The one constant is it doesn’t matter how compelling the argument is, or how cheap it is, or how cool it is, whatever, if there’s no trust that’s the deal breaker.
Sam: Fell out of your hand while I’m standing in the square.
Kathleen: Yeah. So, I would love it if you could talk a little bit about how you see this playing out for companies, whether these are dental practices, law firms, any other type of company in terms of trying to leverage trust at scale. What does that really look like and how does that manifest in terms of a company’s marketing? And you using that at all with BirdEye or planning to use it at all?
Sam: Yeah, well first of all, you should always drink your own champagne, eat your own dog food, whatever metaphor you want to use, so we definitely are … That’s really important to us because people want to buy from a company that sells to people like them. So we’re not done with this yet, but you’ll notice that soon, if you come to the BirdEye website from one of our dental ad campaigns it’s all going to show you reviews and stories of dentists versus lawyers, right? That would be very different.
I will say one of the cool things, again, about how this is like HubSpot was in the early days is you remember how easy blogging was back in 2011? 2010?
Sam: I mean, it was great. If you had a blog, you were light years ahead of the curve, right? If you were blogging frequently, you would win your market, right? I had a toenail fungus remover company, I had knee scooters, I had mortgage companies, if you just did the work, you’d be fine and absolutely crush it. Now that’s really hard, growing your traffic, your acquisition engine off of blogging is really, really hard because it’s a very crowded space.
The good thing about reputation marketing, reviews, and leveraging your customer base like that is almost universally everyone is really bad at it.
The large companies, like T-Mobile sends me an NPS survey, right, which is one way to begin the conversation about leaving a review, and whenever a company does it I always give them a zero because I know I’m not going to mess with their data that bad. I want to see if there’s follow up. If I send you a zero … If I send you a 10, right, yes, I’m absolutely going to recommend you, you should send me a link. Say, “Hey, here’s an easy way to do that.”
Sam: If I send you a zero, I would expect that a company would have that mentality of following up with me to find out way. Almost no one does.
T-Mobile, Verizon… you know, as much as I hate to admit, even at HubSpot it was still a very basic implementation of no, somebody gave you a bad NPS score whether or not they’d get a follow up. You know, if you do it at all, you’re going to be in good shape.
Asking your customers for reviews is still innovative as weird as that sounds. We don’t feel that way because we see everybody moving in this direction. You and I see lots of people are talking about this sort of thing, but the vast majority of businesses and the vast majority of markets don’t even ask their customers for reviews. If their customers say something negative, they don’t follow up, and if their customers say something positive they don’t use that in any way.
They don’t put it in their email. They don’t put it on their website, they don’t put it in their ads, so the-
Kathleen: Why do you think that is?
Sam: Well, you know, the bell curve of adoption, right? So you’ve always got the people who are the innovators and the early adopters who are going to try everything just because it’s new, and they’re worried about being second place, and you know, we just haven’t got there with some of the technologies and behaviors that are new.
Stuff like Bird Eye is new. How important reviews are may not feel new, but it’s relatively new to the world of business. It’s not been around for 30 years. The underlying concepts have, but the websites – Yelp hasn’t been around for 30 years sort of thing.
The other thing is that, you know, if you’ve read ‘The Innovator’s Dilemma’ by Clayton Christensen it’s a really great book. I have a different concept of the innovator’s dilemma, which is that it’s really, really easy to be innovative when things are going well, because you have lots of breathing room. It’s really, really easy to be innovative when things are going really poorly.
So like, when I first applied to HubSpot I didn’t apply. I built hiremeHubSpot.com and ran ads targeting people who worked at HubSpot to register for the free webinar on why you should hire me. It’s because I was a college drop out with no previous experience, so you know, when you have no chance of success it’s easy to be innovative.
It’s the middle area where things are going okay, but if you mess up they could go off the rails really quickly where it’s hard to be innovative, and that’s where most of the world of small business is right now.
You know, if you’re a dentist or a lawyer, auto repair shop, whatever, you’re running on pretty thin margins. You’re having to fight pretty hard to get your customers. You’re already behind the curve, because you don’t know the highly technical things, like local SEO and PPC. You generally don’t have a sophisticated understanding of the marketing engine behind that, and you don’t have the luxury to be innovative, so that’s, again, one of the things I loved about Bird Eye was we try and take some of the hard work out of that and make it a little more attainable.
Kathleen: So focusing on reviews for a second, because that seems like it’s a big part of this, you know, you want to get a customer to review you, and I’ve worked with different companies and talked to them about this, and you know, some of the times it seems like they don’t do it because they’re just afraid to ask. Other times, they don’t know how to ask, so can you talk about what is the right way to ask for a review?
How do you navigate that process in a way that doesn’t seem too pushy and doesn’t seem like you’re placing too much of a burden on the customer?
Sam: I mean, so NPS, the net promoter score, is sort of an easy cheat, because it asks on a scale of zero to 10 how likely are you to refer us to a friend or colleague. If they give you a zero through six you should follow up immediately, right? Sevens and eights are passives, and nines and 10s are promoters. You would really only tell the people who would give you a nine or a 10, “Hey, that’s awesome. I’m glad you were happy. Can you share your story with the world?”
Then, everybody who’s less than that you would put them into a service remediation process, right? Just send a text message to the business owner or whatever you want to do to follow up with this customer because they’re unhappy.
I definitely think you’re right, which is that people are somewhat afraid of the answer, because it is, especially for small businesses, highly personal. This is … I put my blood, my sweat, and my money, and my risk and everything into this business that I built, and then to actively solicit anybody to say anything negative about it is hard. It’s a hard thing to do emotionally.
There’s a humility in that, which is that you’ve got to know that you’re never going to be perfect, and as we say here it’s not about being the best. It’s about being the best at getting better.
We have a tool that tells you all of the things that your customers hate in a market. You can look at it just by your company or you can look at it by your entire industry.
Kathleen: Oh, that’s really interesting. Like if you’re a dentist, is it the anonymized aggregate feedback from all the dental-
Sam: Yeah. Cool thing about our industry is most of the data set we’re working with is public, so I call it our blue ocean finder for the business strategy nerds who are listening to the podcast, because you can literally plot what’s important to my customers and which competitors are bad at that? You can adjust your strategy accordingly.
Also, on the more micro level you can say what’s important to my customers that I’m bad at? What’s important to my customers that I’m good at? Then, you make the decision. Do I fix the things that I’m bad at or do I stop doing those things entirely, or what, right? The exact same process you’d follow going through a blue ocean strategy canvas.
Yeah, it’s about listening but not just about hearing, right? It’s actually listening and making change based on that.
Kathleen: And what industries do you currently have that for?
Sam: So the really good ones for us so far, the people who have been willing to take a risk, are people like dentists and lawyers and auto body repair shops. We’re working on our own buyer persona exercise right now, so you’ll forgive me. I don’t have a nice “Marketing Mary” to show you like we had at HubSpot.
The key variables for us are people who their customers don’t want to be their customer, so like divorce lawyer, collision repair shops, etc. People for whom differentiation is very difficult, like dentists. And then people for whom the consequences of the decision are extremely severe, right?
Sam: Surgeons. Well, wedding venues, that sort of thing, right? You mess that up you can’t get that back, right?
Sam: So those are generally the three psychographic categories of businesses that we’re looking at right now.
Kathleen: Interesting. So for example, if I were to go on and I wanted to get that industry-wide view of what customers are and are not happy with, could I get that right now for marketing agencies for example or is there a certain pick list I need to choose from?
Sam: I don’t know if we have marketing agency … We should. We have advertising and media as one of our categories in our database, but we’re a startup, so you know exactly what that means-
Kathleen: Oh yeah.
Sam: -which is that odds are all of the data exists. It’s just a question of if anybody has asked that question before. That’d be a fun follow up to do for the podcast.
Kathleen: I mean, I have a feeling I know the answer, but you know, you can’t assume. It would be interesting to look. I’d love to play around with that at some point, so if you ever want a beta tester for agencies, you know who to call.
Sam: Absolutely. Yeah.
Kathleen: I think that kind of competitive intelligence is really interesting, and one of the things you said really struck me, which is that it’s not just about understanding how to change your messaging and your marketing. You could truly use that to make very fundamental decisions about your product offering, your service offering, what you want to do as a company, you know? Do we cut certain services because we’re just never going to be great at it and it’s a huge pain point? There are some really interesting potential in terms of how that data can be used.
Sam: We haven’t even begun to tap into this, but you’re right. It’s the lipstick on a pig. If you’re changing your sales and marketing but not changing who you really are, in 2018 you’re going to be found out, and you’re going to be found out because your customers are going to sell you out hard.
Sam: They’re going to hop on Google, Facebook, and everything else like that and tell people that your marketing does not match up with the customer experience.
I will say man, you’re getting me excited here, because it is super fascinating. You know, when we think about the world of disruptive innovation and – forgive me for the Harvard jargon terms here, right – but you think about things like the extendable core, which is what’s the thing that a business should lean on to survive the disruption of its market? The classic example here is, like, hotels, right? Have you ever stayed in an Airbnb?
Kathleen: Oh yeah.
Sam: Yeah, have you ever attended a conference in an Airbnb?
Sam: Yeah, right? So there’s some things that Airbnb simply can’t do without adopting the same cost structure. Turns out they’re really important. So business travelers, there’s a reason Airbnb’s never really nailed business travel. It’s because of the standardization.
You can look at what is important to the customers who are leaving me and what is important to the customers who are staying around? You can look at some of those mappings, and you know, if I’m Marriott hotel group right now, I’m not actually worried about spending too much time solving for the destination vacation traveler, right? I’m really focused on events. I’m focused on business travel.
I landed here in Palo Alto at 12:30 in the morning, didn’t matter. I walked into the Sheraton. I know exactly what the lobby looks like even though I’ve never been to this hotel. That’s what I value. I don’t have to think about it.
Kathleen: Yeah, yeah.
Sam: So yeah, you’re absolutely right. There’s a lot of interesting data that can come from the fact that we now have the ability to listen to our customers at scale and make decisions.
Kathleen: I’m always struck by how many companies have that information – like have it in their hands, not just have access to it, but have been given it – and don’t do anything with it.
Sam: Most of them.
Kathleen: Yeah, it’s kind of shocking actually.
Sam: So this is going to sound super weird I guess, but I don’t work at HubSpot anymore, so I’m allowed to say nice things about them. HubSpot was so humble by the way that we never felt comfortable bragging about ourselves. You know, in DC they have the beltway syndrome, right? Everybody in DC thinks everybody else in the world sees things the way people in DC do.
At HubSpot we had “sprocket syndrome,” which is we thought everybody in the world was just as sophisticated in their concepts of economics and growth and business as we were, which isn’t true, right?
You know, things are changing so fast. What was the Deloitte research? The average life span of a knowledge stock, a competitive piece of information like a knowledge that you own, is down to like five years. Whatever it is you own that you’re basing your business on, much less your career on, you can expect to be a differentiator for something like five years as opposed to we literally used to name our families after what we did.
You were Smith, you were a Wainright, you made wagons, whatever. Now, it’s like you can’t even name your company after what you do, right? Like you know, it’s hard to even have a job title after what you do, because everything changes so fast. The mechanisms for perpetual learning and keeping up with all of that, I just don’t think most professionals and definitely most businesses haven’t figured out.
Kathleen: Yeah, you know, it’s so funny that you just said that about the pace of change, because as I was telling you before we started, I just came back from a two week vacation, and I’m going to fly my geek flag now.
On vacation, I decided to read ‘Becoming Steve Jobs’. There’s probably a lot I could have read, but for some reason I was really into that. And you know, I lived through the whole evolution of Apple. I’m old enough that I was working pre-Apple, but yet I had forgotten how quickly all of that happened – how we went from we didn’t even have personal computers to “wow, we have a laptop,” to “oh my gosh, now we have a little music player and iTunes,” and then “we have phones that are full screen and tablets.” I mean, rereading it was really both exciting but also kind of frightening.
I have an 11 year old, and all I could think was “wow, I just have no idea what the future holds for him when I read this book.”
It’s true. When I think about any business, you know, my company that I used to own, we were EOS practitioners, the entrepreneurial operating system, and they talk about having your long term plan. I don’t know how you could ever have more than a … You could have a three year plan, but it’s going to change dramatically, right? I don’t even know how you could have a five year plan anymore. It used to be when I graduated from business school it was all about the rolling five year plan. I just think that would be a piece of fiction today if I created it.
Sam: Yeah. There’s somebody … I don’t remember who it is. They had this great graphic of the pace of change, and if you went back to 10,000 BC you could bring somebody forward in time to 5,000 BC before they saw something that fundamentally challenged their world view, and then 5,000 BC, okay, to 2,000 BC and then 2,000 BC to zero BC. You’re starting to see some innovation. Zero BC to like 1,000 BC, very different world. 1000 BC to 1500 – hugely different world, and now if you brought somebody from the early 1900s to just 100 years later it’s nuts. If you brought somebody even just from the 60s or the 70s-
Sam: -right just with no context, they saw everything new, this is dark magic, right? It’s incredible. That pace of change is accelerating, and the virtue of planning is being replaced by the virtue of adaptability.
Sam: It is not nearly as important to me. When I’m interviewing people, for example, it’s not nearly as important to me for most roles whether or not you have deep domain experience. What matters to me is your ability to comprehend new concepts that you’ve never studied before and your ability to adapt to change, because you know, it’s a cliché that the only constant is change, but that used to be true, and now it is not only true, it is the defining characteristic of what life is for all of us.
If you can’t be adaptable, if you can’t wrap your mind around concepts that you’ve never even been presented with before, you’re not going to survive – definitely not in the world of business.
Kathleen: Yeah, and the other fascinating thing that came out of me reading that book was Steve Jobs talked about how there’s a difference between people who are focused on improving what already exists – which he kind of looked at as the Microsoft model – and seeing what doesn’t exist but what is fundamentally needed. That’s what obviously he saw as the Apple model.
It’s a really interesting construct if you think about it, because if you’re only working off of the existing reality and looking to improve it, you can only experience change so quickly, whereas if you kind of forget about the reality and are able to think about what’s not here that should be, all of a sudden you get these leaps and bounds that start to happen.
That’s a tough ask for a lot of people though. I don’t think there’s a large percentage of people that are comfortable in that realm.
Sam: Yeah, I mean, if you do what everyone else does you get what everyone else gets sort of thing, right?
Again, it’s one of the reasons I loved this company is, for a century it’s sales and marketing versus sales and marketing team, and now it’s we’re flipping the table and doing something new.
I think part of that is the way that we grow up, right? We grow up not learning how to think but learning what to think. It’s this graded progression, right? It’s still amazing to me when people come out of college and they come into their first role and there’s all these stereotypes about them needing positive feedback. That’s because that’s how they were raised, right? Like “I do the thing, and then I get this” – it’s an “If this then that” sort of world.
Kathleen: Everyone gets a trophy.
Sam: Yeah, I study … Not everybody just getting a trophy, but it’s even the high performers, the exceptionally good people were told that the way to be exceptionally good, okay, you study, you take the test, you get an A, and then the assumption was you get a job, which everybody who’s graduated college in the last five years knows that’s not true.
You know, and now we live in a fundamentally different world where we have to take everybody who grew up in that universe and teach them something new. We also need to start teaching our kids and future generations it is not about knowing the thing. It’s about knowing the way to think and knowing new ways to think and processing it that way.
When I’m in an argument at a bar, it’s not a question of whether or not I can figure out who was batting for the Red Sox in the 1986 World Cup or something like that. I can just ask my phone that. What matters way more is that I know that I should ask that question and why that question’s important. Some of the stuff, it’s not as clear. It’s not this logical, linear progression.
Kathleen: Yeah, man, that makes parenting sound more intimidating.
Sam: It is. I don’t have kids, but good luck, right?
Kathleen: I’m not convinced I’m doing a great job, so … No. It’s a lot to think about, and it’s pretty overwhelming, but love the philosophical bent that this conversation took, because this is all really important stuff, and it’s easy to sink into just talking about tactics, because marketers love that, and it’s easy to say, “Oh, give me a 10 point checklist of the things I should do to be successful,” but a lot of times the reality really is it’s not a 10 point checklist, it’s take a step back and think differently.
Sam: For everyone listening to this, if you ever come across a blog article that says “here’s exactly what you need to do,” that means that it has been codified to the point, like “10 steps to do whatever,” it has been codified to the point that everybody else in your industry knows it too. Right?
This is why it’s valuable, because it’s hard. It’s because it’s not clearly defined. I can’t just write a roadmap for you, I don’t even have a name for this movement, yet. Right?
What’s my inbound marketing? We haven’t figured that out yet, but I can tell you it’s important, and you and I know intuitively we believe that it’s important, and the people who are going to grow by leaps and bounds, 10-X, 100-X, are going to be people who work with people like you and me to figure that out, not the people who wait to, you know, AOL still makes what, 20 million a year, or something like that off of their dial up internet subscription? Those sorts of people are not going to be the ones who are going to figure this stuff out, and are going to make that big change.
Kathleen: Unless everything old is new again, and dial up comes back just like record players did. Kidding.
You have all these years of really interesting experience at HubSpot. I mean, you were with other companies before that. You’ve been in marketing roles for a very long time, you taught marketing at Harvard. You’re coming into this role at BirdEye, I would love to just hear a little bit about what are you planning to do with BirdEye, what’s in your roadmap that you think is going to really help you achieve the goals that you set out?
BirdEye’s Marketing Roadmap
Sam: Yeah. This isn’t like the cool thing to say, but what matters most is the fundamental mechanics, right?
We have to execute consistently over time. We have to build a team that’s aligned very closely with an inside sales team. That’s why I’m moving to Dallas, by the way, that’s where most of the sales team is, even though we have a Palo Alto office. I’m building the marketing team where the sales team is. We’ve got to measure the right things. We’ve got to train and empower folks. We got to build just the disciplined cadence.
That sounds easy. That is not easy, right? Making sure that people are aligned. Making sure that people can execute. Making sure that the right people are on the bus, because there are some people at this company, and at all companies who help them get from zero dollars to the run rate they’re at now. But the people who are going to help you get from $30 million dollars to $300 million dollars are not necessarily the same people, and the people who are going to help you get from $30 million to $300 billion dollars, are not necessarily the same people.
Making that transition smooth, making sure that you’re recruiting people who are good fits, that’s all the basics, right?
The next thing that I wanted to do is this is a community play. We have to build a movement here. We have to build something like inbound marketing.
It was such a moment of pride for me, it was actually 2015 on Google Trends the phrase inbound marketing exceeded the phrase cold calling.
Kathleen: Oh, that’s awesome.
Sam: We won. It was great.
We need to figure that out. What that is on our end, and we need to… Again this is the innovators, the real innovator’s dilemma, is things aren’t going bad, but they’re also, we’re not like 10-Xing for no reason, so it’s how do we make the time, and make sure that everybody on my team is carving out that bandwidth to do the things that for lack of a better term are end plus one, they’re innovative. Right? How do we have a podcast that tells the story of peoples’ favorite customers?
So I used to host an AM talk radio show, AM/FM talk radio show about cigars, right?
Kathleen: I was sniffing around online, and I saw on your LinkedIn profile that you once worked for a company called cheaphumidors.com, is that right? Do I have that right?
Sam: Yeah. This was before that, but yeah.
Kathleen: I totally wanted to ask you about that, but we’ll do that in a separate conversation.
Sam: This was before that, but every cigar lounge, like Cheap Humidors is another good example, but every cigar lounge in the country, I joke, has somebody named Rex who remembers Cuba before the revolution. He’s usually a great guy to talk to, you can sit down and have great conversation, and what we are selling is that kernel, that relationship between the business owner and their favorite customer. That is just storytelling gold.
Sam: Right? We’ve really got to nail that. We’ve got to know the strategy better than everything else. On Cheap Humidors, by the way, don’t judge me, because back then exact match domains were really important, so if you googled cheap humidors …
Kathleen: I was going to say it’s probably a domain a lot of people would like to own.
Sam: Yeah. Now, I mean, with RankBrain and everything it’s more about the conceptual topic extraction from the search engines-
Sam: And stuff like that. You could call yourselves reallylowcosthumidors.com and somebody googles really low cost humidors they’re not necessarily going to find you.
Sam: Marketing – it’s hard. It used to be easy. Well, it used to be way easier.
The problem is, is now we’ve got brilliant people, who their minds are working against yours, and you’re really fighting, you know, at least if you’re following the old sales and marketing team versus sales and marketing team you’re following this optimization, this game of inches, sort of thing, and it’s hard. I can’t do seven eCommerce applications of LOLcats any more – it’s one of my favorite articles I wrote.
Kathleen: It’s hard, but I’ve got to tell you, in some ways I think it’s great for smaller businesses, because when it wasn’t so hard, when you could game the search engines, you could basically buy your way to the top, and that favors people with deeper pockets. You could never compete against them.
I feel like now, if you’re willing to put in the elbow grease and really create awesome content, you have a shot, and that’s a matter of time. Granted, time is always at a premium for everybody, but in some funny ways there’s a little more of an even playing field than before, but I could be wrong about that.
Sam: Not to sound too self promotional, but again there was a reason I chose to work for this company, all of the arch of history has bent – business history at least – has bent towards doing the right thing, being more profitable, right?
You could never run a business model now based off of the horrible things that people used to do back in the day. The way they treated their workers, for example, much less the way they treated their customers, or their competitors. The cool thing is companies like Google – whether we like to admit it or not – have forced us to do better marketing. Doing the right thing is now good business.
Sam: And that feels great, right? Because when I talk about T-Mobile, I could do that sales pitch in Spanish, even though I don’t speak Spanish, right? Because it didn’t matter. I didn’t care what you were going to say back to me, you were either going to sign it or you’re going to walk away, so it didn’t matter to me that I understood what I was saying. I didn’t feel good about that, right? It was just the best way to make money at the time.
Now, like creating a good value-added inbound experience is the best way to make money, and that’s again what I love about this company, which is the best way to make money should be being good at your job, like serving customers well, and I think all of the weight and inertia of the history of business is driving us towards this point, where whether it’s Google, whether it’s Yelp, whether it’s Facebook, or whatever, you’re going to have to solve that bit, or you’re never going to succeed in business.
Kathleen’s Two Questions
Kathleen: I want to ask you my favorite two questions that I ask everybody, because I think you’ve given me the perfect segue into it, and we’ve talked about how to be successful in business these days you have to right by your customers.
When you think about the world of companies, and brands, and even individual marketers out there, my usual question is, who do you think is doing inbound marketing really well, but I’m going to put a little twist on that, and say, who do you think is doing inbound marketing really well by virtue of how they are kind of nurturing, and building, and leveraging that trust with the customer?
Sam: Yeah. HubSpot does a good job, that’s way to softball of an answer.
You know what I really love, and this is one of my favorite business models in the world, is Netflix, because Netflix has scaled the relationship. I’ve rented more than 900 movies through Netflix, and I do that because I know that every time I give them that information, they’re going to listen and use that to make my experience better.
If the internet is about bringing together some of these groups of people with similar interests, Netflix does that beautifully, because it figures out, “Hey, listen, like you like Star Trek, I like Star Trek – people may not put the two of us next together on a demographics sheet, but Netflix will put us back together.” The more information we give it, the more valuable that relationship becomes.
I actually couldn’t leave Netflix now, like let’s say you launched your own streaming service for a $1.00 a month, I still wouldn’t leave Netflix, because there’s so much value in the history of that relationship that I have.
They’re probably my favorite from the customer delight, and customer retention perspective. From the actual using your customers to grow, Apple is still amazing, because there’s three things you can never talk about at a party or at an office. Right? Politics, religion, and PC versus MAC, because no one can have a rational conversation about that, and –
Kathleen: Or jiffy versus giffy, at least in our office.
Sam: Whoa, that’s true.
You start talking about MAC, and the MAC fans will just like, they’re so passionate, they’re so ravenous. Right? And Apple actually does a pretty good job of leveraging those evangelists. So do companies like Uber. You know Uber grew enormously fast, because I told everybody to take Uber, you know, companies that did not have that like Lyft, Lyft started about the same time, if not slightly before Uber, but what they never nailed was that customer evangelism piece, and so that’s why Uber managed to outgrow them. Those are some companies that I think do it right.
Kathleen: Yeah. Those are great recommendations.
You also touched on the fact that marketing is changing so quickly, and that you look for people who are able to keep pace with that change, and are able to embrace, and quickly learn and understand new concepts. Given that pace of change, how do you personally stay up to date, and educate yourself on everything that’s happening in the world of digital marketing?
Sam: Yeah. That is a difficult question, which unfortunately has a difficult answer, which is that we are, especially in this day and age, like our own businesses. My fathers generation, my grandfathers generation, could expect to work for one company their entire life, get a pension, and move on.
We have to think about ourselves as businesses. We’re generally not going to stay with the same company for our entire lives and then get a pension, and whatever, which we define ourselves that way.
We have to start thinking about disruptive innovation the same way they do. There’s a few core characteristics of that. One, is get ridiculously good at defining the value you bring. We call this the “jobs to be done framework.” Henry Ford had the most famous quote, if he’d ask his customers what they wanted they would have said a faster horse.. Obviously he didn’t found the Ford Horse Breeding Corporation. He founded the Ford Motor Company.
Kathleen: That goes back to the Steve Job’s thing-
Kathleen: Find the thing that’s missing.
Sam: Right now, if I asked my boss what he wants me to do, he’s going to say, “Drive more leads for the sales team.” That’s not really what it is. Right? That’s not the value that I bring. The value that I bring is the coaching, and unique perspective, et cetera, so I have focused not on the tactics of marketing, but I’m focusing, and I’m ridiculously good at coaching, and ridiculously good at strategy, not, and that’s sort of self disruption.
That self disruption is the next piece, so you define your value, you need to be really, really paranoid.
The best companies, like HubSpot Labs, for example, are those who are continually investing in testing whether or not they can provide more value for their customers than the core model.
So the free version of HubSpot, right? For example, we knew somebody was going to do that eventually, and it might as well be us and not some random nerd out of MIT’s basement who does it, don’t fight, it’s uncomfortable, but don’t fight the change. Lean into that change, and be very, very, like… get comfortable with change.
The value that I’m adding to business right now is probably not going to be, as you said, the value that I’m adding to five years, it’s going to be something different. We have to be comfortable with that.
Now, the flip side of that is adopting this mindset of continuous learning, which is, I hate when people ask me for book recommendations, because very rarely do I feel you have to read the entire book to get the point.
Sam: And it’s way more interesting to me to see specific blog articles, like send me the three most interesting blog articles that you’ve read in the last six months on recruiting marketers.
You could probably do that, and that would take a shorter amount of my time, and add more value than you telling me to read random books on hiring.
That self selection comes from joining communities, not from going and getting a degree, not from trying to read a book a day, or something like that, but from joining communities and asking those hard questions, and never being afraid to ask stupid questions. That is my greatest pet peeve.
We saw this on inbound.org, so I ran Labs, which built inbound.org, HubSpot’s community site, people never wanted to use our “Quora for Marketers” that we built because they were terrified of looking like they didn’t already know the answer, those are the people who are going to find it very hard to have long successful careers. The fear of asking stupid questions is how company’s are killed, the fear of asking stupid questions is also how careers are killed.
Where to Find Sam (and BirdEye) Online
Kathleen: Yeah. That’s great advice. Wow. There is so much to think about, and this was really fun. I’m so glad I got to be the first person to talk to you about BirdEye, and excited to check it out myself, and hopefully learn a little bit more about what people do and do not like about marketing agencies. If somebody has a question, wants to followup with you, and learn more, what’s the best way for them to connect with you online?
Sam: Again, if you Google anything close to my name you will find my website, my Twitter, my LinkedIn. I answer every website inquiry, every tweet, every LinkedIn message.
Before you do that, if you’re going to ask me for an opinion on something my one favor that I would ask you go check out the BirdEye website, and try to do something. I’m not trying to get you to buy here, what I want you to do, though, is play around with it, see what things break, see what things are interesting to you, and then let’s talk about that, too. We’re a startup just like HubSpot was back in the day. A startup is a temporary organization in search of a repeatable business model, so I want feedback from you all now that I don’t have Kip and Volpe and Dharmesh and Halligan, and everybody else to hide behind. Yeah. Definitely, please do that, and reach out to me if you want. I’d love to talk.
Kathleen: All right. Awesome. I’m going to put all those links in the show notes, so that if people don’t know how to spell your name they can just go to the show notes, click the link, and find it, but we’ll also of course put links into BirdEye, so that they can go and try to find all the bugs, and expose the weaknesses, and then make that the platform for their conversation with you. Great.
Thank you so much, Sam. I really appreciate it.
If you are listening, and you found some value in today’s conversation, I would really appreciate it if you consider giving the podcast a review on iTunes, or Stitcher, or whatever platform you chose to listen on, and if you know somebody doing kick ass inbound marketing work tweet me @workmommywork, because I would love to interview them. Thanks again, Sam.
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