We live in the age of the unicorn. No, not the mythical single-horned creature, but the age of the rapidly growing private company that is disrupting the status quo and receiving ‘billion-dollar’ valuations as their reward. While many have come to associate this new catch phrase with the valuation side of the equation, the more important part—to me—is the growth side of the equation. These so-called unicorns are demonstrating what every young business—whether it is 15 people, 50, or 500—aspires to do: namely, they want togrow…and they want to win.
Every industry and company has its own combination of factors that lead to its success. However, I thought it would be worthwhile to find out how these types businesses are using marketing, marketing automation technology, and customer engagement—to help fuel their growth.
Over the next few months, we’ll be publishing interviews with the heads of marketing at several of these high-growth companies. Not only can we all learn something about how marketing helped to drive their business—but, I think there are some personal lessons in here as well.
To kick it off, I spoke with Matt Epstein, vice president of marketing at human resources software company Zenefits. As someone who grew his marketing team from the ground up (and adopted Marketo as a foundational element, I might add), Matt’s insights into what companies need to do to jumpstart growth through marketing were simple, powerful, and enlightening.
Enjoy the conversation below, and look out for more insights from industry leaders on how marketing has led them to success in this Marketing First world.
Year Founded: 2013
Size of Marketing Team: 18
Marketing Stack Components: CRM, Marketing Automation, Data Analytics, Google applications for day-to-day
Number One Reason for Choosing Marketing Automation: Scalability, efficiency, ability to quickly A/B test en-masse
1. As Zenefits employee number one, you’ve been involved in the company’s growth from the very beginning. How does your approach marketing strategy today differ from when you started?
There are three things that have changed the most for me personally. The first was the shift to being a data-centric organization. I went from basically operating on zero data—making decisions with a finger in the wind—to a job that is 50 percent about data. A large part of my role that has transformed is establishing a solid reporting structure, from making sure we’re hitting our lead goals to most importantly making sure we’re acquiring customers profitably. We spent 12 months creating an attribution model for all of our campaigns—from email to paid media to content—that we report on on a weekly basis. This is something I’m very proud of. It’s not an easy thing to do, especially in marketing where you have so many channels.
Second thing is the shift to full-funnel campaigns. When I started, I was setting fireworks off right and left with no rhyme or reason. I would just wake up and say, “What can I do today to drive business?” Now we send an email that’s followed by a handwritten note, that’s followed up by a Twilio call, that’s followed up by a targeted YouTube ad, etc. The one thing about marketing is that it’s all about touches. It’s about connecting all of these separate campaigns—and obviously automation plays a large part of it—and finding a way to hit everyone in as consolidated a timeline as possible with the same message. It’s not easy, but it’s where things are starting to shift.
The third thing is optimizing for revenue. This may not be breaking news for most CMOs, but for me, shifting an organization to only think about revenue means that if you’re producing a piece of content, don’t look at how many leads you get, don’t look at how many demos you get, don’t look at how many opportunities you get—you should be cutting the cord or pouring more gasoline on the fire based off what revenue came in. What’s interesting about looking at revenue and not any of the other numbers is that it forces you to backtrack in the funnel and figure out where things went wrong. So now in everything we do, we start with the revenue number and nothing else.
2. Within your marketing automation platform—which you talked about—what have been the capabilities that were essential to drive that growth?
The thing beyond Marketo that makes automation possible, which for us has been essential for growth, is the structured data. Your automation is only as good as your data. We’ve invested a ton of resources into keeping our database clean. For our sales people, we have very rigorous rules that make sure when they speak to someone the fields are marked correctly. We closely track field updates—if you got off a call and there’s nothing updated, we know you’re not doing your job. This is essential for scoring on the prospecting side. Are you reaching out to the right people at the right time? This is every day now in marketing, but it was a new concept not too long ago.
At the end of the day, if you have bad data, you’re going to have bad automation, both for your prospects and for your customers.
3. One of the biggest problems that high-growth companies face is the ability to scale. Within marketing, how have you kept your customer interactions effective and genuine as you’ve expanded?
We do a lot of events. I believe events are one big opportunity to convince customers that a company’s view of the world is the right view. It makes the audience into evangelists, not users, because they believe in your mission and want to help you accomplish that mission. This makes customer events hugely impactful.
We also do a newsletter, which, again, is something that is status quo now. We keep it short, and our criteria for a newsletter are, of the three articles in there, did one actually help you? Did you learn something new that actually makes your business better? We are disrupting the brokerage industry, which is one of the last offline, very high-touch industries in the business world. We’re replacing people that take their customers out to lunch every day. This is our opportunity through Marketo to at-masse act as our customers’ trusted advisor.
The third thing is that we created a program called Zenefits Important People where we nurture a list of hundreds of customers as a pool of evangelists to make sure they are in line with our vision and that they know what’s going on in the company. This connection is essential because they’re the ones out selling Zenefits, and it is essential to have their buy-in and support.
The fourth thing is that our CEO Parker Conrad and I directly respond to customers and tweets, hop on sales calls, and work the support lines over holiday break. I think it’s very easy to lose touch with your customers. In fact, something I recommend all CMOs do is close at least one deal per year, especially if you’re a transactional company. At the end of the day, if you’re a marketer, you’re essentially a sales person. As soon as you stop hopping on calls and learning about customer pain points and convincing them you can solve them, your messaging will be off base.
4. You have 10,000+ customers—does marketing automation still primarily drive customer acquisition or are you using it to support goals like retention, upsell, etc.? What else are you driving through automation?
I’m incredibly passionate about helping our customers succeed. What’s been most interesting for me both in Marketo and in the category of automation itself is that I always assumed that the neatest things you could do were around demand generation. I think the untapped opportunity is retention and support.
A lot of companies manually look through a list of people who have not been reached out to in three months. Automating that process is not quite Skynet or Terminator, but it is something that eliminates the admin work and allows you to put your focus on doing what it takes to make them happy. You can score prospects like you score customers, making it incredibly complex through automation. Retention is the coolest part of automation because it’s so much cheaper to retain someone than to acquire them. It just makes sense.
5. Describe the marketing team’s relationship with sales. What was the biggest factor in aligning to the two areas of the business?
Everywhere I’ve worked prior to Zenefits, it’s always been a very contentious relationship. That’s never happened here. I think it’s because from day one our VP of Sales Sam Blond and I have been on the same page focusing on revenue. This all goes back to measurement. If you know your KPIs and are able to dig down and report on them accurately, there’s really no debate to be had. Because we have good reporting, if the sales team didn’t hit their number, we can track it back to something like the win rate going down, which could track back directly to getting dinged on a review site, etc. At the end of the day, there’s one person who owns every number and they’re held accountable. We’ve never played the blame game, because at the end of the day it’s about revenue, and if the number’s down, you have to figure out how to fix it.
6. What advice would you give to companies looking to fuel growth through marketing?
The top three for me would be one, to set big goals, the biggest goals you can possibly imagine, and don’t you dare put the word stretch before or after it. When Parker set a goal of going from one to 20 million, he forced me to think about it as if you had unlimited time or money. You only force yourself to do it if you’re forced to hit an incredibly aggressive goal.
The second thing is what I did for the first year and a half was I would constantly go through the exercise of stack ranking all the growth tools available to me, from PPC to social media. I stack ranked them according to what is taking to 10X what I’m doing today, and then everything else was secondary. I would use three of these tools at once, and the second one showed a flicker to life, I would pour gasoline on it and grow the flame. People lose focus and try to do everything at once or one big thing at once, and I think the most thing is to always make sure you’re always doing two to three hypotheses at once, but not losing focus and getting distracted by all the shiny objects.
The third would be don’t worry too much about automating, perfecting, and optimizing. We didn’t automate anything until over a year. One of my biggest things is if you release something and you’re happy with it, it means you took too long to do it. It’s all about just getting it out there and seeing if it works. If it works, then automate it.