Heather Zynczak on The Orbit Shift Podcast

S02E34

Marketing trends, ABM, and product-led growth for startups with Heather Zynczak

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Marketing leader Heather Zynczak talks about the emerging trends in marketing, how startups can get account-based marketing and product-led growth right.

The field of marketing has changed dramatically over the last twenty years. Nowadays, marketers are equipped with data to understand where their marketing spends are going and if it’s working for them. This also means that the tactics of twenty years are no longer effective in today’s environment. 

In this episode, we speak to marketing leader Heather Zynczak. She has spent more than 25 years in marketing, product, and revenue leadership positions at some of the world’s most successful tech companies. Heather spent over 4 years as CMO of Pluralsight, where she was responsible for all aspects of marketing and digital revenue. During her tenure there, the company grew B2B revenue by over 50% year-over-year to nearly half a billion dollars. 

Edited Excerpts  

Q. Tell us about your journey.

Heather: I did not start as a marketer. If you had told me when I was in college or graduating college that I would be in marketing one day, I would have laughed at you. 

My background is in finance and accounting, and my first job out of school was as a software developer. As I grew up through the ranks in product management and product strategy roles, I realized what I absolutely loved was growth. I moved into product marketing roles to launch new products, take them to the market, and help products grow. Eventually, that morphed into me moving into marketing. 

I’ve been CMO now at two different companies for the last 10+ years. Before that, I was at SAP running marketing for most of what SAP built about 3 billion in revenue a long time ago. 

Marketing has changed so much over the last 20 years that now it’s a place that a person like me can thrive and relish and love, whereas I don’t know if I would have been a good marketer 20 years ago when I started.

Q. How’s the marketing landscape changing these days? What are some of the trends that you’re seeing? 

Heather: There are so many buzzwords out there, but it still comes down to the fundamentals. Product-led growth is huge today, and you have to figure out as a marketer the story you’re going to tell about your product and how you will get people in front of it? 

The second thing that’s huge and has been for a long time is digital. This last year and a half with the quarantining, we’ve gotten better and even more so reliant on digital methods. It’s no longer about having a group of sales reps calling outbound and giving leads. It’s about leveraging digital from every single point all the way through to the renewal. 

Another thing is Account-Based Marketing (ABM). I don’t like the term because it’s just marketing and enterprise selling. Why would you want to go and market to accounts that you don’t want to sell to? Pick out the accounts you think are worth selling to, and don’t waste your money on accounts you don’t want to sell to. 

Q. How did you set up your product-led growth org at Pluralsight?  

Heather: When I was at Pluralsight, a little less than $100 million was digital revenue. Meaning no one from sales was involved. It was people coming to the website, checking out the product, and buying the product. 

My team owned that revenue number, and the CRO owned the sales number. The reason why was because those people were trying the product first monthly and then expanding it to their team. They were our best lead source. You look at companies like Slack or Dropbox; they have a similar model. Get people individually or in small groups at a low price point, let them see the product, and then the product sells itself. 

We worked hard to market both to the end-user and the ultimate large-scale buyer, like the CIO or CTO of a large company. But our best leads came from when we had somebody come in and try the product. We moved to a lot of free models as well that were wildly successful. 

Many companies make the mistake of going either or with a traditional sales model vs. a product-led growth model. I argue that you can do both. If you build a product that users love and will come in and try for free, or pay a small amount for, or do a team trial, you can pass them off eventually to a full-blown enterprise sales team. 

Q. What are some of the metrics that you can track for product usage? 

Heather: You should have full-blown dashboards for product usage just like you have dashboards on your sales funnel. 

You can look at how many people have been assigned licenses? How many unused licenses do you have? What’s the average usage? How many times are people logging in? What’s the Net Promoter Score of those users? 

You need to be data-driven on all of this, and when you start to see problems, you can address them. It might be as easy as addressing it with an email campaign to get people back to the product. It might be as difficult as putting boots on the ground with a specialist to help them get more people signed up and take advantage of the licenses.

Q. You’re a board member at several companies. What are some of the difficult questions that marketing has to answer to the board? 

Heather: You need to be prepared to come in and talk about how much money you’re spending, what you’re spending it on, and what the company is getting out of that marketing spend. 

How much pipeline are you creating? How much revenue are you creating? If you’re doing customer marketing, how much did you spend on customer marketing? What are your top three programs? How much did you increase retention? It needs to be data-driven, and the board needs to be able to look and say that you’re spending within the budget, you’re spending on things that seem to make sense, and that the results are significant.

Q. When you do get to product-market fit. What’s a good way to look at dividing your annual budgets?

Heather: It depends on the stage that you’re at and how much you rely on product-led digital revenue vs. traditional sales-led growth. The earlier stage you are and the higher growth you are, the more money you will spend on sales and marketing. The more you focus on product-led growth and digital methods, the more you will spend on marketing and the less you will spend on sales. The closer you get to becoming a public company, the more your marketing budget needs to decrease as a percentage of sales, not in terms of the total number because your revenue is still increasing. 

What do you spend your marketing budget on? I’m a big believer that every dollar you spend needs to show results. I haven’t had large budgets for creative or brand. You have to sit down with your CRO or your head of sales and your head of finance, and you figure out what percentage of revenue is marketing and how much money do you need to deliver that? What percentage of the pipeline is marketing going to deliver? And how much money do you need to deliver that? You can even get down to a cost per lead. You also need to decide how much money you’re going to spend on marketing to influence other things. For example, in field marketing to shorten sales cycles or in customer marketing to improve customer retention.  

Q. Tell us more about ABM and what it means for you. 

Heather: ABM is marketing for enterprises. It’s more than marketing; it’s your whole motion of how you take your product to market. 

It starts at the very beginning with sitting down with your sales team and having a strong alignment between sales and marketing to understand who your target customer is. That could be as broad as like, particular industries and size of companies and the titles within those companies. Or it could be as detailed as ‘these are the 25 accounts we really want to hit hard.’ 

Then you do all of your marketing, and your spending only on those people, because why would you spend money on anybody else? You create your messaging, branded content, and marketing campaigns for those specific accounts. On LinkedIn, you might say we only want these companies to see our ads. You target all of your sales enablement and call scripts at these accounts. It works this way down the entire funnel.

But it starts with getting your product team, product marketing team, and the sales team to sit down and make sure everyone is on the same page on who your buyer is. Then create a list of accounts and the buyers of those accounts and figuring out how to target them. 

Q. As a startup scales, how should founders look at building their marketing org? 

Heather: I’ve had so many conversations with founders looking to hire heads of marketing, and they all think they want a brand. But when you get down to it, they have to show results in revenue. 

So my argument would be if you’re at a relatively early stage, let’s say you’re below $50 million in revenue. You’re still at the stage where there is one product manager and one product marketer. You’re still fulfilling the founders’ vision. 

What you need at those stages, as you’re raising money and trying to grow, are marketers that help sales sell or help deliver digital revenue. Don’t go out and look for some amazing brand person in the marketplace. Because as a founder, you should know what your brand says. You’re the one that should be able to articulate that. A good marketer can always take your vision and make amazing marketing campaigns out of it. 

Focus on finding somebody who has a proven track record for delivering results in building the pipeline, driving digital revenue, working with sales to increase close rates, and whatever it is that you think you’re going to need to hit revenue. I’d focus on finding a marketer that helps with that. 

Q. What’s the biggest advice that you would give a startup founder?

Heather: Startup founders have four main roles. They have to have a strong vision of what the company is trying to achieve and where it’s going.

They have to be amazing at hiring. Focus on hiring. Hire before you think you need it because, by the time you are desperate for it, it’s going to be too late. 

And then the third thing is creating a culture. I’ve worked at places with really strong leaders like Oracle, and the culture at Oracle was Larry Ellison’s culture. The founder should set the culture good or bad. As a founder, be aware of that and be intentional about the culture that you’re setting. 

Finally, don’t run out of money; fundraising is key. 

The biggest advice I could give about marketing is to make sure your head of marketing and your head of sales get along like a house on fire. When you’re hiring a head of marketing and a head of sales, be extremely thoughtful. Whenever you have a situation where marketing is blaming sales or sales is blaming marketing, that is the first indication that the company will have massive revenue problems. So find two individuals that can work well together.

Q. How can our listeners reach out to you? 

Heather: Feel free to follow me on Twitter or LinkedIn

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