Q&A with Former DocuSign CEO Steve King

Throughout Steve King’s career as a successful CEO — including stops as the head of Zantaz (sold for $345 million in 2007) and DocuSign (recently valued at a reported $1.6 billion) — the tech veteran says he’s always been an ardent believer in the importance of investing in marketing.

“Some CEOs and board members aren’t big believers in the role marketing plays in scale, but I’ve always believed investing in marketing is one of the smartest things a growing company can do,” explains King (disclosure: a BrightFunnel advisor). “Ultimately, if you do it right and possess the intelligence necessary to pull the right levers, marketing is the kindling that helps you fuel a very powerful fire.”

The problem, of course, is that King – like many CEOs and board members – has also sometimes struggled to justify marketing investment without believable proof that those dollars will actually create positive revenue impact.

“Frankly, that’s a big pain point for a lot of senior leaders,” King says. “Even if you’re a big marketing supporter, it’s difficult to make big financial investments on pure gut feeling. There needs to be some convincing analytics that tell you your marketing investment will drive revenue, and that technology just didn’t exist when I was a CEO.”

Recently, I sat down with Steve to talk about that challenge, the importance of answering “why” when executives make marketing decisions, and how emerging technology is helping address this decision-making conundrum.

Nadim Hossain: We’ve talked before about the importance of being to answer “why” instead of just “what” in board meetings. Can you explain?

Steve King: Absolutely. So, answering “what” is relatively simple and it’s what most board meetings focus on. What are we doing? What are our goals? What are we forecasting for the next quarter? But answering only those types of questions fails to provide full context.

To really understand business performance, you need to be able to answer “why.” Why is what you’re doing working? Why are you investing in certain initiatives? Why are you trying to accomplish specific goals? Why do you want to invest more in marketing? If you can’t answer those questions, then you’re flying blind to a degree.

Nadim Hossain: That continues to be a challenge for most senior marketing executives, right?

Steve: Absolutely. And the other big hurdle preventing marketers from getting CEO or board-level buy-in is forecasting accuracy. That issue is tied to the “why/what” problem, but without forecasting accuracy it’s very difficult for a company to intelligently plan its investments – whether those investments are in marketing or another part of the organization.

I’m on four boards right now and each company is facing that challenge. It’s very difficult to tell if you’re going to hit your numbers until the end of the quarter, and by then you’re a little bit behind the eight ball. Obviously, various sales and marketing tools have made forecasting a little bit more predictable, but even those tools fail to fully bridge the gap between marketing activities and revenue results.

That’s a big frustration point for many board members. You have these forecasts, but the company is consistently missing its number and you don’t know why. The solution is to acquire more insight into opportunity flow throughout the sales process and determine which levers can be pulled to improve revenue results. Unfortunately, most board members don’t have access to that information.

Nadim: That’s a perfect segue into the need for marketing intelligence in modern businesses. Can you talk about how that information can help board members make better decisions?

Steve: If you’re able to collect marketing intelligence and analytics that are more closely tied to opportunities and revenue, then you’re on your way to solving each of the challenges I talked about above. Until recently, that intelligence was extremely difficult to come by, but it’s now very accessible if you’re using the right tools.

That last part – the right tools – is very important. Too many marketing technologies today are just addressing the “what” types of questions I mentioned above. They deliver endless volumes of data, but the problem with that data is that it doesn’t answer “why” on its own. You need powerful and contextually appropriate analytics to gain true insight into revenue performance, and most legacy sales and marketing technologies can’t offer that.

Nadim: So, how can CMOs provide greater predictability and more actionable revenue insights to their boards?

Steve: It’s a great question and, as a board member and former CEO, that predictability is so critically important. If you’re a high-growth company or have plans to go public, nothing will cause investors to lose faith in your business faster than repeatedly missed forecasts. It makes it seem like the company’s growth is stagnating, even if it isn’t.

Now, maybe those missed forecasts are anomalies or short-term execution mistakes, but if you can’t explain why those missed forecasts are happening then you’re in serious trouble.

So, what’s the solution? Obviously, products like BrightFunnel are great because they give you instant pipeline insight and allow you to get out in front of problems or forecasting hiccups before they become really destructive problems. That’s so critical. No sales or marketing technology will magically fix your company’s sales and marketing problems, but they can provide the intelligence you need to act more quickly, confidently, and intelligently.

Nadim: Great point, Steve. Last question from me – How important is it for sales and marketing technology to use a shared language for decision-making across multiple departments?

Steve: That’s a great question. From a board perspective, there are varying degrees of expertise with marketing systems. You might have some tech experts, but the board could also include folks who don’t have a marketing background and haven’t used those technologies.

With all of the systems being used today, there are numerous ways each tool describes certain processes, analytics, etc., and that makes it harder for boards to get to the “why” as quickly as possible. We don’t want to be overwhelmed with data or buzzwords – we just want to boil things down and make smarter decisions. Having one platform that does that would go a long way toward improving operational efficiency and decision-making effectiveness.