Johanna Flower, Former CMO of Crowdstrike on building a marketing org that can take your startup to an IPO

Marketing leader Johanna Flower breaks down how to build a marketing team from scratch, what functions to build out, who to hire and what KPIs to monitor as you take your company from startup to an initial public offering.

When Johanna Flower joined Crowdstrike in late 2014, cybersecurity was a growing field with a large number of vendors supplying solutions to enterprises. Worldwide spending on information security was expected to grow 4.7% to $75 billion in 2015, according to Gartner. Dozens of companies with competing products were in the market. Through her six-year career at the company, Johanna successfully led Crowdstrike’s marketing organization to differentiate the product, launch outside the United States and cross over $700 million Annual Recurring Revenue (ARR) all the way to a successful Initial Public Offering in 2019. In this episode, the marketing leader takes us through her journey at Crowdstrike and explains how to build a world-class marketing org that can take a company public.

Edited Excerpts

Q. Johanna, can you walk us through your career journey and your work with CrowdStrike? 

A. I have always been a part of startups. I love building, scaling, fighting to win, and differentiating in the market. I’ve spent more than 20 years in the cybersecurity space in various go-to-market roles. I’ve worn the sales hat as well as the marketing hat and been involved in a lot of operational work as well. I’ve seen the industry grow from where no one knew what cybersecurity was back in the late 90s, to now being mainstream.

I joined Crowdstrike back in 2014, spent over five years there, and helped build the marketing function more or less from scratch. We grew to over $700 million in ARR all the way through to a successful IPO in 2019. 

When I joined Crowdtrike they had launched just a few years earlier and the company was about 100 people. Their technology was ready but the brand was relatively unknown. They had only large enterprise customers and they brought me on board to help take the company to market, help them build brands, as well as gradually start launching outside of the United States and make Crowdstrike known to a broader audience. 

As part of that, I had to build out the marketing function. I had to invest in brand building and demand generation. The other thing that was really important was to figure out how to differentiate in a very, very busy market. At the time there were over 30 vendors that claimed to do the same thing and it was important early on to start building out compelling messages, differentiation, and proof that our technology solves problems better than the competition.

Q. When you talk about brand building and demand generation, do they go hand in hand?

A. When you’re a startup, you have to be so focused. First, you have to identify who is your true target audience, who’s ready to listen to you and try your product or even buy your product. Think about the market segment and persona you’re going after. Then really spend time figuring out how to get in front of that audience. No startup can start with brand building globally in every market segment. It doesn’t happen that way, you don’t have the money, you don’t have the resources or the backing to be able to do it. 

The most important thing for a startup is to start with demand generation focused on really identifying your target audience. Once you have identified that, you start targeting that audience and winning customers over. Leveraging customer success stories and making your customers your most important promotional tool is extremely useful. Peer references and customer advocates are probably the most powerful thing that you can build within your marketing program. 

I would also say that branding is sometimes misunderstood. A lot of people think about branding as big advertising and expensive campaigns. But even when you’re targeting a specific audience, you’re brand building, you’re just brand building within that core audience that you start going after.

Q. How do you come up with a differentiated message from your competitors and how do you get it in front of your audience? What’s been your approach like?

A. I was fortunate at Crowdstrike because their technology was differentiated already. It was a new way of solving an old problem. They went with a pure cloud-native approach to endpoint security, which had not really been done before in the industry and that was my hook. 

My focus was on educating the market on why this new approach to security was going to solve the customer problems more effectively — smarter and faster. When you are in the tech or SaaS businesses, get the tool in front of your practitioners, get the technology to be used and listen to your customers. 

At CrowdStrike, there was a lot of work making sure that the customers were involved and provided feedback, and that we built technology that was going to be not just used by our customers, but the technology that was going to empower them to do a better job in their roles.

Another really important thing, especially if you’re in enterprise, is to educate analysts like Gartner, Forrester, and others. They have customers that subscribe to them and go to them and ask for their opinions and their views. We spent a lot of effort making sure that we were understood by the analysts, and that the analysts felt that our technology was good for their customers.

Q. How did you go about building the marketing team in the initial days?

A. The first two critical functions that you need in any startup are product marketing and demand generation. Product marketing needs to have that dedicated internal resource that wakes up every day thinking about how do we differentiate ourselves, how do we win in the market. 

The second piece is demand generation. You need a business marketeer. Someone that can take all of the work that the product marketing function has created, and turn it into compelling campaigns that are well thought through and aligned with sales effort so that you go after the right target audience and then constantly assess what’s working, what’s not working, how can I improve the efficiency and the effectiveness of my campaigns. That’s the role of demand generation. 

Q. What should startups be looking for in early hires of the product marketing and demand generation functions? 

A. For product marketing, I feel very strongly about hiring someone with real technical depth. What you really want is someone that can have a seat at the table with your product teams and your engineering team. Someone that is interested enough and excited enough about the industry that you’re in. 

For demand generation, in today’s world, you have to have someone that has depth in digital. There needs to be someone who understands how to build that customer journey and leverage various opportunities you have within the digital world. I’ve also seen the benefit of hiring a demand generation person that really gets excited about revenue growth, someone that truly wants to be that partner with sales, who sees themselves working hand in glove with the sales team. 

Q. What are the different marketing KPIs that you need to focus on at different stages of the company? 

A. Marketing is first and foremost, a growth engine for the organization and I live and die by four key marketing KPIs. 

The first one is unique contacts, especially when you’re in the startup phase. You have to grow that database and make sure that you have customers or prospects that you can contact.

The second one is new sales opportunities, in my view, it’s really about sales, accepting them into your forecast, and making sure that it’s a genuine opportunity that we can track as a forecastable pipeline. 

The third one is the new pipeline generated. Every company is looking to grow. How do you grow? You have to identify new pipeline and understand what percentage of that pipeline gets converted into sales. 

Last but not least always be focused on what is driven through your activities. What is resulting in actual new sales?

Over time, you can look at other things. Within the SaaS business, customer health is important. Are you bringing in a customer and growing them over time? What is your net retention rate? Are you able to upsell them? Customer health — what’s their NPS score? References — making sure that you have customers that are willing to speak on behalf of you, share their stories, or speak to another peer in the industry. Those are also very important KPIs.

Q. When you’re a marketeer, how do you balance data-driven decision-making versus over-analyzing the data and spending too much time on data? 

A. First and foremost, I would look at what is your customer journey. If you have not defined your customer journey, you should do it now. Once you understand that customer journey you align your data with that journey to understand what levers you have. The other thing that is really important is doing a lot of testing and understanding what the data is telling you in terms of what’s working and what’s not working. 

I’ve had team members that produce a piece of content and they come back and they say: We had 2000 downloads of the content. That’s fantastic. But who downloaded it? When in the sales cycle did they download it? Did it lead to a prospect? Did they lead to the pipeline? How many did we convert into sales? So looking at pieces individually can be interesting, but it’s really about looking at everything that follows that customer journey so that you can make decisions in terms of what is working, what is not, what conversion rates do we have and what can be improved.

Q. You’re a big believer in field marketing and events, and a lot of startups don’t really have the budget for big events. And even if they get to a trade show, they usually shoved into a corner where they don’t get the right display. What are some of the tactics that founders and early-stage startups can use to maximize these events?

A. The field marketing function is critical in building that local level connection with the sales team and the local partners and making sure that you have a joint sales and marketing plan to achieve success for your region. In addition, if you’re operating out of international markets, that requires language support then that local field marketing person is really the mini chief marketing officer for that region. When it comes to events, I have seen great success at key conferences. But what’s critical is that it’s conferences that are attracting your audience. Don’t do trade shows for the sake of doing trade shows. Make sure that you go to local conferences that are able to attract your target audience. What I’ve seen working really well is to turn it into a campaign, make sure that you’re there, make sure that you proactively reach out to your target audience, and invite them to come and meet with you. If you have the funds and you want to do some branding, fantastic. 

However, it’s often what happens around trade shows where I’ve seen the greatest success. Get your subject matter experts to meet prospective customers. There might be an opportunity to do something from a media perspective. Put out an announcement about a new solution. Create some buzz around what you’re doing. There are so many ways that you can utilize a conference without even having a trade show booth. In fact, in the early stages of Crowdstrike, there were conferences we would go to, and we didn’t even have a booth in the beginning. Instead, we set up somewhere local in that city and really created more of a sales lead activity to get in front of the customers that we knew were going to be in those cities at that time.

Q. How do you achieve marketing and sales alignment?

A. It comes down to alignment between the top leaders. I’ve always made sure that I have a very strong relationship with the head of product or engineering as well as the head of sales. If you can align the top leaders in those three functions to understand how we can win together and understand each other’s goals that’s where it starts.

One thing that I did at Crowdstrike together with our Chief Product Officer that was really effective was having quarterly interlock meetings, where my product marketing team and the product team as well as some other critical functions came together and really understood the roadmap. We would also look at joint KPIs in terms of how the products are performing. And we looked ahead to see what makes sense from announcements, product launches, and campaign initiatives. And it really allowed us to have a broader business discussion about where we were heading with our technology, how we can make our company successful, and how we can come up with a joint plan and align on that. That was extremely helpful and something that I would highly recommend. 

When it comes to sales, it is a matter of setting the core goals together. You want to make sure that you start the year understanding the existing pipeline. Identify gaps and find ways to fill that gap together. In addition to that, you don’t want sales to have their own reporting and marketing to have their own reporting, and you spend time fighting over which reports are correct. Make sure that you have one unified approach to your metrics and reporting so that you all look at the same data. 

At Crowdstrike sales and marketing teams brought new technologies together. We vetted it together, we funded it together and we built it together. It’s really important because it comes back to that customer journey. How do you track the customer journey and your core KPIs as the sales and marketing organization if you don’t look at the same sheet of paper? 

Q. How do you make sure that all the employees of your company are on brand when they talk to anybody outside of the company?

A. Every company has to invest in a brand promise. A brand promise is more than a tagline. It’s what you live up to in your culture, what your company represents, how the individuals in your organization feel, all the way to how customers feel about you. It really becomes your rally cry. 

At Crowdstrike, we had the brand promise of ‘we stop breaches’ and it was more than just three words. It was actually something we lived up to. The way that we built our technology was to stop breaches, the way we expanded our capabilities was to continue to help stop breaches and doing it even more extensively. 

Creating that rally-cry and then making sure that it’s something that everyone from the top-down lives up to and believes in, and are proud of, is really important. Once you have found that brand promise and identified that rally-cry, be consistent and stick to it. Make sure that you start every all hands talking about your brand promise, make sure that your corporate pitch includes your brand promise, make sure that it’s part of your stories, and how you articulate your value. All the way through to new hires, make sure it’s part of your new hire training. 

Q. What’s the best way for our listeners to reach you?

A. I’m on LinkedIn and Twitter, you can connect with me there. I’m always interested in connecting with founders and people that are part of this startup journey and I enjoy learning about companies and love to contribute wherever I can.

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