In May 2011, I found myself standing in front of the Board of Directors of PowerReviews, the social commerce SaaS company that had recently hired me as its VP of Marketing, preparing to answer questions that I wasn’t really confident I knew the answers to.
How much do we have to spend in marketing to achieve our revenue goals? How many leads do we need to generate to achieve our new customer targets? How of many of those would be enterprise vs. mid-market customers? How could we ensure the fastest possible lead-to-sale velocity? And how effective are the campaigns we’re executing, anyway, and which ones should we be doubling down on?
As an experienced marketing executive, I answered those questions as I always had — by delivering the best information and judgment I could provide. The reality was that, at the time, it was extremely difficult to run any kind of decent analysis on all of those questions, and even then there were certain things that required me to rely on hunches.
The good news is that the Board bought it. The bad news is that I knew some of my responses were little more than educated guesses. And the Board was okay with it, because they had been trained, over many years, to have very low expectations for their CMOs’ ability to look into the future. (The awful and outdated “half of my marketing dollars are wasted” quote comes to mind).
“Ah-Ha” Moment #1: The Reliance on Gut Feeling
Now, I’m not suggesting that I purposefully fudged the numbers. I am saying that, at the time, there was little way of saying with certainty that the numbers I presented to the board were sufficiently reliable, given the magnitude of the decisions we faced.
Also, I’m not talking about basic metrics like number of leads produced, or cost-per-lead. Most marketing executives have some handle on the basics. The metrics I lacked were the ones that truly mattered — metrics that painted a picture about the future, not the past. Decisions we had yet to make. Course-corrections we could have made with confidence.
I had none of that.
That bothered me, I now realize, because it conflicted with my self-identity. I saw myself as a highly analytical person. In college, I had proudly completed a thesis in econometrics (since you ask: “The Decline of Intercity Rail Travel, 1945-1966: An Econometric Investigation”) and my first full-time job was at Bain & Company, as a junior consultant proficient at modeling leveraged buy-out scenarios. And though I loved marketing’s creative side — it was my first love, and I spent two summers in advertising — I had ultimately come up through the more left-brained product marketing ranks.
As I reflected on that Board meeting — my first ever, by the way, so there was some reflecting to do — I knew that data existed that would have allowed me to validate my hunches on those topics with concrete evidence. But there was no time for that. We were a small company with limited resources and big ambitions. I had to move on to the next project, the next analysis, and the next big decision.
Looking back, however, that experience was actually the first “ah-ha” moment that led me to found BrightFunnel.
“Ah-Ha” Moment #2: Marketing’s Lost Opportunity to Lead
A few months after that Board meeting, I participated in a series of executive offsites that were designed to determine the future direction of the company’s strategy and products. A key fork in the road was to decide if we were going to be big elephant hunters or focused on small and mid-sized retailers.
Seemingly, that should have been a relatively straightforward, fact-based process. In trying to understand, what size of customer was best suited for our solutions, for example, what we needed was conceptually simple: an understanding of conversion rates, velocities, and average selling prices by segment, from lead to close, and some actionable insight into what marketing campaigns and channels brought us that business.
Instead, the numbers were hard to come by. What’s more, even though questions of segmentation and go-to-market strategy are marketing’s home turf, I wasn’t able to play the leadership role that I could have, in driving us to a common understanding of the truth. Instead, despite our best intentions, we had multiple sets of numbers and opinions. And though the project was ultimately completed, a full two months later, I couldn’t shake the feeling that we should’ve been able to reach our conclusion faster and smarter. And by the time we reached the conclusions, we were relying on months-old data, with no ability to project the future.
There had to be a better way. I knew that the right analysis would have allowed us to reach the right decisions faster. But my team, nor I, simply hadn’t had the time to sit and analyze. There was content to create, campaigns to develop, and customers to acquire. And despite their best intentions, our sales operations and finance teams would often stop short of answering critical questions for marketing, such as through cohort analysis. After all, they too had day jobs.
“Ah-Ha” Moment #3: I’m Not Alone?
Despite the previous two experiences, I still hadn’t connected the dots that would eventually lead to BrightFunnel.
Then, on June 12th, 2012, Bazaarvoice acquired PowerReviews for $168 million.
Frankly, I felt an enormous sense of accomplishment. As a first-time CMO, I’d taken a 200-lead-per-month company and turned it one that consistently generated 3,000 leads per month. More importantly, we’d nearly tripled revenue (from a $6M run rate to $15M) in a year and a half.
Soon after that, a few VCs reached out to me, and I ended up having a few conversations both with those investors and their portfolio CEOs. Surprisingly, each confessed that they regularly dealt with the same lack of insights I had faced at a smaller company.
Ultimately, that led to my proverbial “I see dead people” moment.
I’m not alone? And this issue isn’t exclusive to smaller companies with limited resources?
Mind you, the folks I’d spoken with worked for leading SaaS companies (one of which, HootSuite, later became a customer) with much bigger, richer, and stronger teams than the one we had. And they were facing the same challenge?
At that point, I knew I had to tackle this problem that I had experienced, and that I now knew I wasn’t alone in. Though I didn’t yet know what shape that solution would take, I knew (and felt) that I had uncovered an issue I was both passionate about, and uniquely qualified to address. (Had I known Russell Wilson, I might have asked myself: “why not me?”).
Why I Felt Compelled to Found BrightFunnel
Deep down, I am — in the words of a former boss — a “truth seeker.” And I think many marketers (especially product marketing and demand gen types) are wired the same way. We love marketing for its unique combination of challenges requiring both the right and left brains. We’re creative, but we want to use data to validate our assumptions and turn them into actions with predictable results. But we lack the insights necessary to do so.
Yes, our teams have access to incredible marketing automation tools like Eloqua, Marketo, Pardot, Act-On and Hubspot. Sending emails and nurture campaigns through such platforms has never been easier. And our teams have systems to manage everything from online ads to webinars to A/B testing. But paradoxically, “seeing the whole elephant” has never been harder. As CMOs, many of our team members each have technology they rely on, but we are left flying blind.
And the key obstacle remains: How can we process all of this data and meld it into something that yields predictive, actionable revenue insight? How can we measure ourselves against meaningful external benchmarks?
In October of 2012, I decided to answer that question by foregoing enticing CMO job opportunities to found BrightFunnel. It was around that same time that my wife and I received the happy news that we were expecting our first child. So, foregoing a steady path in an already-established company for the uncertain one of starting a company was not an easy choice.
But then the five conversations I had with CMOs turned into 20, and then to 50. The patterns and problems everyone was facing were clear to me, and the way the future would unfold — had to unfold — was evident. CMOs needed to move into the same realm as their peers in executive suite. They needed to be able to make decisions that mattered. They needed to be able to get answers to their burning questions about how their activities and decisions tied to revenue outcomes.
Marketing needed to finally become a revenue function. Marketing needed to look forward, instead of being stuck neurotically glancing at a hazy rearview mirror.
At this point, our journey has really just begun. But I’m proud to say that a solution finally exists that can help CMOs address the oft-uncomfortable quagmire of determining the future revenue impact of each decision they make.
I just wish I’d thought of it before that board meeting in 2011…