AMA: Sam Mallikarjunan of HubSpot

Martin MacDonald AMA
AMA: Martin MacDonald of Orbitz
February 29, 2016
AMA: Amir Shevat of Slack
March 28, 2016


The Sam Mallikarjunan AMA is happening on Tuesday March 29th, 2016 (1pm EST)

Sam Mallikarjunan researches corporate strategy at HubSpot and is the former Head of Growth at HubSpot Labs, the somewhat-secret experimental arm of the world’s #1 Sales & Marketing platform. Sam is also the co-author of the book “How To Sell Better Than Amazon” (which, yes, is ironically available for purchase on Amazon).”
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Sam Mallikarjunan – Executive Strategist at HubSpot, former Head of Growth for HubSpot Labs – Transcript

 

Welcome to today’s AMA with Sam Mallikarjunan, Executive Strategist at HubSpot, former Head of Growth for HubSpot Labs. Feel free to ask him anything you want about marketing, favorite colors, or baroque artistry!

The AMA with Sam was held on March 29th, 2016. This transcript has been edited for punctuation, grammar, etc.

 

Craft beers?

I wouldn’t say I’m a craft beer nerd, but I generally like to stick to stouts. Meadhall in Cambridge usually has a good selection.

What’s the latest cigar you purchased? What’s the latest Scotch you purchased? I recently saw you moved on from HubSpot Labs. What is your new position with HubSpot?

Last cigar I purchased was the Perdomo Champagne. Great morning cigar, pairs well with scrambled eggs and coffee. Last scotch was the Ardbeg Uigeadail. My new position at HubSpot is managing the ReadThink.com publication, which actually leads nicely into the next question!

As a well-established company, what’s HubSpot’s biggest challenge in terms of growth at the moment? In other words, how do you grow when your company is a household name for your target audience?

Our biggest challenge to growth isn’t actually brand recognition, it’s that most marketers still don’t _use_things like marketing automation, analytics, personalization, etc. Especially in the SMB market where we are now, it’s still very much trying to educate the market. That’s still in its infancy.

I came into marketing from software development, so for me it’s the only way I know how to market.

Yeah, when I ran Labs with inbound.org and such we just had “growth” as well. When marketing+product drive growth together, that makes “growth” the same basic idea as “smarketing” (“prarketing” just doesn’t have the same ring, lol).

Who are some people in the space you look up to?

Dharmesh, Gary Vee (that guy is freaking everywhere). I’m generally a big fan of teams, as well. Slack has done a great job. Shopify made some interesting moves realigning around holistic growth — that took some executive courage.

What is one cool perk of HubSpot Labs that outsiders don’t know about?

Free books program and five-year sabbatical are probably my two favorites. Seriously. All the free books you can read. Not a huge expense but disproportionately cool.

How did your team get started becoming one of the go-to spots for business online marketing? Looking to develop a community in a different niche.

I’m going to give you the cliche inbound marketing answer here: We created a f*ck ton of free value through our content and tools. That bought us a lot of attention and a lot of good will which translated into future growth opportunities.

Have you read Daniel Lyons’ book and do you recommend it?

I’m sure Dan worked very hard on it.

Better question, are you mentioned in the book? Like… the guy who won the most nerf ball fights?

As far as I know, I’m not mentioned in the book, but I haven’t read it. I might just, to try and understand what went wrong with his experience there, but it hasn’t made my queue yet.

In our sales process, customers often have complex requirements that need to be mapped out before handed to our operations team along with the deal. Is there a recommended best practice instead of listing 100 different fields in the deal, to conditional display them? Have you ever thought of integrating payments some way into your product? Seems like a logical next step after customer acquisition.

Depending on the customer value, you’d have to adapt the model. At HubSpot, the customers are pretty darn valuable economically, so we have meetings between the sales rep and the account manager and the implementation specialist where they review the notes and the customer requirements before kicking off.

Did your HireMeHubSpot page help with your hiring?

I can say with 100% certainty that HubSpot would not have hired a college dropout with minimal experience without running that campaign. I knew I wasn’t going to get hired, and that was very liberating. It let me do something really weird like HireMeHubSpot. If anything, though, I delayed launching it for too long.

What made HubSpot go with medium for readthink.com? Figured you guys would roll with your own software – work on that at funnel.

A few things: 1) It has a strong audience of executives and sophisticated early adopters in content. Good audience for us. 2) Medium has a built-in audience that we really wanted to explore the dynamics of. If you’re interested in my thoughts on Medium, I wrote an article on Medium about Medium

https://readthink.com/why-medium-works-16e9ef818f66#.o4lk7uz6u ReadThink has no funnel goals, to be clear.

Under what umbrella of HubSpot is the readthink.com project under? I would have assumed something like this would be an ambition of HubSpot Labs.

The content team led by Corey Wainwright. It’s not Labs, since we’re really not building anything.

What are some of the biz goals for readthink.com? Did you assemble a journalism team or using an existing HubSpot editorial process / talent?

The business goals are to “win” that platform (we think of it more along the lines of Twitter because of the community piece) and to start to build more mind share with highly sophisticated marketers and executives. As our tool set has become more sophisticated, so has the sort of customer we can service. Our “internet Ian” buyer persona which used to be exclusionary is not so bad now.

What is the book you recommend to people the most?

Probably Lean Startup or Innovator’s Dilemma. Both are basically required reading IMHO.

I’m such a fan of HubSpot materials, I am constantly telling my coworkers about the company.

Thanks! If you have any feedback, feel free to less us know – that’s really great to hear. It’s nice to be in marketing where people don’t hate you for what you do.(lol)

What’s your best SEO tip that no one knows?

Old. Content. Seriously, it’s a gold mine. http://blog.HubSpot.com/marketing/historical-blog-seo-conversion-optimization 

What successes have you had in finding other creative paid advertising that seemed to work well in the SMB market for HubSpot?

Lookalike audiences and retargeting have done well for us, but paid is still a very small part of our acquisition funnel. It’s just hard to get the economics to work. PPC isn’t ruined by people smarter than you, it’s ruined by people dumber than you not governing their bids to their economics.

What are a few indispensable tools in your marketing toolbelt? (outside of HubSpot of course 🙂

CloudScrape, which just changed its name. I used the heck out of them to try and do data analysis of various websites. HemingwayApp.com is probably the least known but most important content tool in the world. I was also a big fan of GoChime when I used them, but it’s been a while. Also, CrystalKnows. You gotta get that. It’s fantastic.

Looks like CloudScrape is actually Dexi.io now.

Yeah, I haven’t dug into what that change means. It was such an easy tool beforehand.

Can you talk a little about your project Verytas and the importance of truth and transparency online?

Oh snap, you scooped my shameless plug for later https://www.indiegogo.com/projects/verytas-a-new-start-for-the-web

Basically my old tech lead from Labs and I are building an independent project (not HubSpot related) to try and make it less profitable to write crap content (or even entirely fake news) and make it cheaper to produce well researched and accurate content.I’m pretty passionate about this topic, obviously. Basically, it’s a browser extension that reads the posts/images/links you see on Facebook and Twitter and lets you know if they can be verified by original source citations.If not, it highlights it in red with links to the data. If so, green also with links. Satire gets highlighted purple, and things that have conflicting citations get yellowed.We’re using a combination of machine learning and stochastic ordering to create our own algorithm for credibility, but it’s mostly community powered. Moving on…

Sweet, man – Verytas is definitely needed. Will check it out. Thanks for bringing truth to the interwebs.

More about me since there’s a lull: Labs was an almost entirely remote team. I also built our beachhead selling into the eCommerce market. I also managed our team that led our expansion into the Latin American market (only time in my life I’ve ever been able to PPC my way out of growth challenges — holy crap PPC there is cheap).Managing a remote team was definitely the greatest management challenge I ever had.

What else falls under HubSpot labs? readthink.com, inbound.org, Sidekick–anything else?

Sidekick (formerly Signals, now HubSpot Sales) also fell under Labs. FreeStockPhotos.org. MarketingGrader. Basically, if it’s not related to the core product, it falls under Labs until it grows up and proves itself. Then it gets a dedicated team (like HubSpot Sales has now).

BTW, if anyone is ever trying to scrape inbound.org— stop. They’ll give you API access.I wish more websites would do that.

Since it looks to have gone away after your purchase, which parts of the Rekindle technology did you guys actually use in your architecture …. or was that strictly a move to acquire good people?

TBH we rarely retain the original code from acquisitions I’ve seen us make in the past. We tried that with Performable in 2011, and it wasn’t a good experience for customers. Being a SaaS subscription model, it’s actually better economics for us to take the longer time and use the talent to rebuild what they had made on our stack with our processes, than it is to try and hack it together.

I was wondering what HubSpots go to sources were?

We do have a _ton_of data that anyone can use at research.HubSpot.com, but we also use data from other sources. We’ll pick a topic (e.g. technical SEO) and then go _find_the best sources to guide the content. emarketer, Moz, lots of places we like – we cite if it’s useful. But it all starts with the topic.

Does HubSpot hire remote talent and how was your experience managing remote team members so challenging?

As a general rule, no. Labs was the only fully remote team at HubSpot, because we needed to assemble Earth’s Mightiest Heroes for specific projects, and not everyone wants to live in Boston. What made it challenging was the loss of team bonding and the random collisions that lead to so much great problem solving, especially in a startup. Someone couldn’t just turn around in her chair and sigh, “UGH I WISH WE HAD X BECAUSE IT WOULD MAKE LIFE BETTER,” she’d have to type it into Slack. And not everyone is comfortable with that. And it leaves things open to interpretation without tone. The team cohesion was the biggest issue with remote teams. That and the pace of work — we had a ton of folks in Romania, and we eventually had to tell them to basically work on the EST schedule because it was slowing things down so much.

How did you overcome your remote management challenges?

I’m not sure I’d say we ever overcame them. I talked with folks from Buffer and BuySellAds and other fully remote teams, and those problems are basically universal with remote teams. We had one team get together, but that’s stupid expensive with folks from all over the world _and_not everyone was comfortable with that. We had some folks on the team who work remotely _because_they’re not comfortable with social interaction in person, though they were brilliant at their jobs.

 I tried to handle it by over-indexing communication. Weekly one on ones as much as possible, and doing my best to make sure I at least understood how people were feeling, and I gave people a venue to vent that wasn’t Slack. The stuff you’d normally do at a bar with your best work friend, remote teams don’t have an outlet for.I also conducted employee NPS surveys and other feedback tools (15five was the tool), to try and make sure that I was ahead of any issues.

The Romanians Are Coming … what do you think about our digital knowledge?

I think the dev and design talent in Romania is _phenomenal_. I don’t know much about the general market because it wasn’t a target for us. Eastern Europe in general has some of the best dev talent in the world right now, IMHO.

I’d say SEMrush agrees with you, all of their Eastern European offices are all developers. I was surprised to see one in Cyprus, haha…

https://www.semrush.com/about/

On hiring, what are some tips / best practices you recommend or utilize in your own hiring process?

If a question is designed to make the interviewer feel smart, slap yourself. “How many golf balls fit on Madison Avenue?” Really? I’m 110% in favor of asking candidates to solve problems during the interview, but we can use real world examples, particularly outside of dev where we’re not trying to select for such abstract math. The question I usually like to ask is one I’m facing at the time, so it’s a two-fer. “We’re thinking of expanding into LatAm, should we get a ccTLD for each country and run each website separately? The DACH folks say that people really care about the ccTLD being their country before they trust it.” What I’m looking for there is to have them challenge that assumption for the new market. If they don’t, I’ll feed it to them anyways, because I want to see _how_they’d challenge that assumption.

I’m less concerned about the resume and the skills they have now as I am about _who_they are. Can they learn and adapt? Can they problem solve independently? If not, they may not be a good fit for us, because we tend to operate in markets with high levels of uncertainty.

We had never built a community before, so we needed someone like Ed Fry (great guy if you don’t know him) in the early days to constantly challenge the assumptions we were making.

Rookie question… what’s DACH? (Google let me down)

Deutschland, Austria & Switzerland, I’m pretty sure. In general, we use it to refer to our German market because one team runs that whole region. Regional acronyms are tough. ASEAN and MENA (Association of South East Asian Nations I think and Middle East and Northern Africa) are the two I learned most recently. As you grow, that granular segmentation becomes more and more important.

 FWIW, DACH consumers actually _do_really care about the .de ccTLD. They have a hard time trusting sites without it. LatAm couldn’t care less though. #SpoilerAlerts

haha AMA question from Twitter: https://twitter.com/Chefmattrock/status/714873399818981376

What cigar would you pair with this? #askmeanything

I’d go with something Connecticut shade. Maybe the new Padron Connecticut, or if you want something a little fuller and spicier, the Cubanacan.

What are some of the biggest green field opportunities you see for startups? Any industries you’re particularly bullish on?

I’m bullish on market networks, although they’re obscenely hard to pull off. I’m also bullish on platform strategies, which is why I’m such a _huge_ fan of Medium. They’ve positioned themselves to eat a lot of people’s lunches, depending on what looks good to them. On-demand everything is eventually going to be a reality.

Also, related question: any advice you would give companies just starting out?

Start small. Validate small assumptions first. I often just spin up a landing page, an animated explainer video ($300 on Freelancer.com), and throw $200 of Facebook PPC at it before we build any code.$500 is a whole lot better than wasting 6 weeks of Dev time.

 Also, focus focusfocus. I can feel Dharmesh (who was my boss at Labs) sitting on my shoulder chiding me about this. There are always fascinating and valuable opportunities to tackle. The startups that make it are the ones that are great at ignoring billion dollar opportunities.

 We use a strategic framework called M-SPOT (Mission, Strategy, playbook, omissions, targets). By _far_, IMHO, the most important piece is to define omissions.It can be tough on team morale and culture when you have really smart entrepreneurial people, but it’s CRITICAL to be able to say, “I know we suck at this, and we’re going to be okay with that for now.”Or, “Yes, I know X is a huge opportunity, but we’re not going to dedicate ANY resources so that we can focus.”

 Any more questions? I think I’ve burned my hour and don’t want to keep anyone.

Thanks a ton for spending this hour with us!

My pleasure. Take care folks, and feel free to tweet me @mallikarjunanany time in the future!

 I’ll go to shameless plugs and drop my Verytas link there now.