I was ion interactive’s acting CMO. Since I was primarily ion’s CEO, that meant my CMO role was secondary. I spent between 10% and 40% of my time each week running marketing. That wide variance was the result of the varying demands of the CEO function and was complicated by the fact that I was bootstrapping marketing.
ion always had to punch way beyond its weight class. This was true for the bootstrapped company as a whole, and I think especially true of bootstrapping marketing. We looked and sounded like a much bigger organization. We had to. We were marketing and selling a mission-critical solution to enterprise marketers.
Being the marketer among my co-founders meant I had the responsibility to deliver the absolute best, most ambitious marketing ideas and execution. We had to look, feel and authentically be the best in our space. And, like everything at ion, that level of excellence had to be produced consistently on bootstrapped budgets. We had to deliver a lot with a little.
Bootstrapping Marketing Starts and Ends with Efficacy
Our growth was dictated by the volume and quality of leads we were able to generate at the top of the funnel. The more efficient we could be, the more qualified leads our sales team would have to farm. Most years, marketing generated leads represented >95% of all deals. That’s too high, and we did end up adding more predictable sales generated leads to bring that percentage down. But, until recently, >95% was the norm. Efficacy was job one.
We were always striving to be our own best example. Marketing a martech SaaS to marketers meant being our own best R&D program. I took it as a personal challenge to invent new ways to use our platform to illustrate its value. If we weren’t going to produce extraordinary landing experiences and interactive content using our platform, then why would we expect our customers to do those things? We had to show them, not tell them.
Over the years, I experimented with the composition of the marketing team. As ion scaled, so did my budget, but I was always trying to keep that growth in spend rather than payroll.
Bad Leadership Hires Meant Lost Momentum
A couple of times we brought in senior leadership. Each time we did that slowed momentum. Many marketing leaders have pet tools, and switching to their preferred tools is important to them. The problem with that is the relative parity among tools in a category. You end up suffering through the hard and soft switching cost only to find similar performance on the other side. That meant three-to-six months of lost momentum each time. What’s worse is that both of these leadership experiments ended badly. One moved away for personal reasons and the other just didn’t perform. I’m a control freak.
So back to me at the marketing helm. There were always bootstrapped constraints on the marketing team. But, I always had a kick-ass, talented interactive graphic designer and I always had at least one marketing manager. Most of the time, I also had some form of marketing coordinator to handle the grunt work. When we we smaller, these roles were part time—shared with other departments within the company. This worked well and enabled us to execute at a high level with very talented people, even on bootstrapped budgets. Even as we scaled, as we needed more multidisciplinary help, we ‘bought’ percentages of passionate people from other internal teams to fill in the blanks.
Delineating Paid vs. Unpaid
I viewed anything paid as one thing and anything unpaid as another. This was my basic way of delineating responsibilities among marketing managers. Paid vehicles had shared metrics, accountability and management norms that could be honed for efficacy. I centralized those responsibilities even when they ranged from paid search, to events, to primary research. If it was paid, it lived with the same marketing manager, period. This also kept spending centralized and easier to control.
There’s a lot more unpaid than paid. There’s content creation and production—across owned/earned writing, webinars, videos, long-format white papers/ebooks, interactive tools and much more. Then there’s advocacy/customer marketing. And multi-stream nurture. And social. And SEO. And product marketing. And so on and so forth. I would divvy responsibilities up based on the talents and skills of each marketing manager. And when there wasn’t a good fit, I was perfectly willing to shuffle things around.
What worked and what didn’t was always black and white. Metrics ruled the roost from the highest-level KPIs to the lowest-level behaviors. It’s safe to say that I was unwilling to put more than 10% of the marketing team’s overall resources and effort into anything that wasn’t objectively measurable. If something or someone doesn’t perform, I want to KNOW it, not guess or THINK it.
Process for Sanity
A big part of being able to manage marketing as a side hustle to being CEO was process. I love processes, but hate over processing, if that makes sense. My balance was to adopt a very loose agile methodology. We had three-week sprints, sprint plannings, loose retrospectives and daily stand-ups. We didn’t go deeper than that as I didn’t have the personal bandwidth to manage it tighter than that. We used Trello as our sprint management tool and everything and everyone lived and breathed cards. Our process kept everyone focused and accountable. Trello gave me a way to tune in whenever I could and understand exactly where everything stood without participating consistently.
Okay, it wasn’t my intent, but this evolved into a bit of an introductory post. There’s a lot more to say and explain about hiring, team structure, agile, metrics, content, testing and on and on. I’ll get there. For now, marketing success was the product of talented people executing intentionally and efficiently against bold ideas guided by metrics. That’s a mouthful, but I think it’s true. Maybe I should have called this ‘confessions of a part-time CMO’?