Marketing Early Stage Companies: The Sales and Marketing Partnership

Whether you are an established company or in the early stages of growth, marketing is key and its rules have changed. Marketing must not only build a brand, but also contribute to the development of a long-term pipeline of new business.

George Ravich, President of Ravco Marketing, is a CMO veteran for a variety of companies in the FinTech and InsurTech industries. In this episode of Expert Opinion, George talks about the changing role of the CMO, how marketing and sales have evolved, and best practices for keeping up with must-have digital marketing tools.



Topics included in this podcast:

Using the right marketing for the right stage of your business
The sales and marketing relationship: account-based marketing
Marketing technology platforms: there is something for everyone
How your positioning can strengthen your messaging and marketing


Episode Transcript

Welcome to Expert Opinion, the BrandingBusiness forum where leaders share their views, insights, and experiences from the world of B2B branding. And now, here’s your host.

Andrea Fabbri:  Welcome, everybody. This is Andrea Fabbri, managing director for BrandingBusiness in New York City. Today, I have the pleasure of having a really interesting conversation with George Ravich. George is a veteran of the FinTech and insurance tech industries. He’s been a CMO of five industry-leading companies, such as Fundtech, Synechron, and Earnix, just to mention a few. During his more than 25 years as a marketing leader, he has become known as an innovator and a subject matter expert on transaction banking, predictive analytics, and digital transformation. He also now leads his own marketing-consulting firm that is focused on building the marketing foundations for high-growth companies, as well as developing a marketing function in preparation for an investment exit. George, thanks so much for being with us today.

George Ravich:  Thanks for having me. It’s a pleasure.

Andrea Fabbri:  All right, George. Today, the focus of this podcast is really about marketing, and particularly marketing as a means to assist and to help companies that are in the ages, in the early stages of their growth. No doubt, COVID-19 has created a very challenging environment for businesses of all sizes, but as they say, right, out of crisis, there is always opportunity. There are always opportunities, and there are always new leaders that emerge, and these new leaders are often young startups or companies that have maybe been in business five years, six years, and they see opportunities in disruptions. They do that because they have the agility and maybe they have a new value proposition that quickly gains traction in the marketplace.

Andrea Fabbri:  Now, based on my experience, when I think of most of these young companies trying to break through and accelerate their growth curve and take advantage of the opportunity, the focus still tends to always be on product, always on the technology, always on meeting … always on sales to meet monthly revenue targets, and marketing and branding are seen as sort of either an expensive activity. You hear always comments, “We’re not Geico,” or, “We’re not Chase,” depending on the industry, and often seen or confined to collateral, website, trade shows. Although, you wonder what happens to trade shows after this crisis. My first question to you is, is this the right way of seeing marketing? Are young startups or companies in the early stages of growth misinterpreting what marketing is, and how it can really help them grow?

George Ravich:  Okay, great first question. I would say that young companies who look at Geico and other large companies that spend billions of dollars on advertising and marketing, they’re not looking in the right places to figure out what to do with marketing. Certainly marketing is needed for young companies, as well as all companies, but there are different kinds of marketing for different kinds of companies. The companies that I consult with, that I help, that I work with, what we start with is what I would call foundational marketing, marketing that really defines the company, what its goals and mission is, as well as the products that they’re selling, oftentimes one product.

George Ravich:  And I think where most small companies need to start is to make sure that that’s the very best that it could possibly be, that it’s, single-minded, it’s focused, it’s sharp, and that everything else that they do after that can be built on that. I often tell my clients that if the foundational marketing, if the company positioning, if the product positioning is not right, none of their marketing can be right, because again, that’s foundational. So I think that that’s where young companies should put their focus on, and after that they can build upon that, and hopefully one day they can become a Geico and spend billions.

Andrea Fabbri:  Yeah, you’re right. Where do you think that mentality comes from, that way of seeing marketing come from? Is that something that maybe the industry or professionals have sort of created in a way? What is that?

George Ravich:  I think that marketing has really changed over the last 10, 15 years. It used to be, and as you said earlier, I’m quite a veteran, and I’ve been a CMO of five companies. And I would say 10 years ago, the role of marketing was to make the company look good. And what I mean by that is have a good website, look good at a trade show, have good-looking collateral materials, et cetera., and that was really the role of marketing, the public relations. Today, that’s quite different.

George Ravich:  Today, marketing is very much in the revenue stream, and I think today’s investors in small companies, startups, they’re expecting that marketing is building not only a brand, but the long-term pipeline for the company. And I would say that in the investor presentations, road shows that I’ve been in, and board meetings that I’ve been in, the role of marketing now is to supercharge the sales engine, meaning that the salespeople are extremely efficient. They’re not wasting their time with cold calling and searching for business. They’re expecting marketing to deliver highly qualified or marketing qualified leads so that they are closing more business. If you look at the formulas that private equity and venture cap investors have, they almost expect that what was maybe a sales quota of a million or $2 million in the enterprise software business, that’s now 50% more than that. And that is the way you get to those hockey stick growth curves that the investors are expecting. And again, I think that the only way it can be done is by having effective marketing programs that are driving that demand and making the sales team efficient.

Andrea Fabbri:  Yeah, you’re absolutely right, and it’s so true what you said about marketing, how much marketing has changed. Oftentimes, it’s something that you and I have spoken in the past, what I noticed, regardless of the size of the company, is oftentimes this disconnect between sales and marketing. I think you called it for me the kiss of death, when marketing is not well connected with sales. And you mentioned that the role of marketing is supercharging sales. What do you think are some of the key activities or key steps that marketing has to take in order to making sure that they are constantly connected with sales? And how do they show their value?

George Ravich:  A lot of times marketing and sales don’t necessarily have the same objectives. They’re almost acting like two separate pillars of the business. Oftentimes I think a marketing department which is disconnected is mostly concerned about the brand and creating a great brand and not understanding how to use that as part of the selling messaging. I would say that, having dealt with so many different sales teams, it’s really important to be partners. I think that’s really now a program that has got a name. It’s called account-based marketing, where, although it’s specific, it means something very specific, where sales and marketing are working together on a small number of targeted accounts, the two need to work together as a team, no doubt about it, and need to understand that they’re similar goals.

George Ravich:  As I was mentioning before, today, in this day and age, the marketing function is so connected to sales. It’s so much more than just building a great brand and looking great. For example, let me just explain what I mean. I just finished an assignment with a company that was based in Nashville, and the situation there was that the company was going to be sold by its major investors, but the marketing function was really in total chaos, and they needed someone to come in and fix the marketing, build a plan, and then be part of the management team that went on the investor roadshow. And like you were saying earlier, the investors first looked at the head of engineering to see what the products were, and did they make sense, and did they work? And then they looked at the sales person to see, is there a sales pipeline? Does anyone buy this stuff?

George Ravich:  And then they looked at the marketing person to see what that long-term growth curve was because without it, that growth curve was not going to be the hockey stick shape that they were looking for. So marketing was part of that presentation, and it was integral into the sale of the company. My point is just that marketing really is part of the management, the revenue stream of the company, whereas before it was more about branding and creating an image for the company. Now I think most CMOs have goals that are very tied into the overall health of the business.

Andrea Fabbri:  Yeah, which of course has made the role of a CMO a lot more complicated because tied to that, now, that means being present at each stage of the sales cycle with the right content, with the right solution, with the right message, with the right tool or whatever that means. And so I’ve noticed over the years that the CMO has increasingly become quite critical to shaping and influencing technology decisions that previously were certainly the exclusive domain of a CIO, for example, or a chief technology officer.

Andrea Fabbri:  From that perspective, when you look at the entire sales cycle, which is something that you have to, in the past, for all the different companies you have been a CMO for, when you look at the entire sales cycle, is there an infrastructure, or are there, say, specific solutions that you think a young company, a company that’s been around five, six years that suddenly has a great opportunity, should consider to adopt in order to be present in the different places of the sales cycle and being a driver of growth and not just relying specifically on just products and the technologies and features, and then hopefully salespeople will do their job?

George Ravich:  For sure. There’s technology available that’s very affordable. I recommend that companies from the very beginning get started on that. Companies like MailChimp and Constant Contact, a lot of companies use them. Those used to be very simply email software, but now they’ve become really full-featured marketing automation systems. Maybe not to the level of the very expensive systems like HubSpot or Marketo, which are really designed for much larger companies, but they have enough there to get started. And as you grow, you can add features to those types of software, or you can grow into the bigger systems. But what’s important is to get started immediately or else you’re going to be behind the ball from the beginning, and that’s not a good thing to do and there just never seems to be a good time to catch up. So you really want to use some of the software that’s easy to install, easy to use, and can be part of the process of growing the business.

George Ravich:  And it’s hard to grow the business, especially at the rate what the investors are expecting without those kinds of software. As I mentioned earlier, the expectations are sort of built into the plan if you’re getting investor money. And in terms of the kinds of programs or the kinds of marketing programs that these kinds of software allow you to do, without this kind of infrastructure behind you, you really cannot manage really well-featured types of programs. What I always like to do with the companies I work with is create omni-channel type of marketing programs.

George Ravich:  Let me just take a moment and explain what I mean. I think the right way to approach marketing for a young company, actually, any company, is content-based marketing, which is really sort of the underpinning of digital marketing today. And we all know what that is. If you’re in the B2B space, for sure, you know that you write something, whether it’s a blog or whether it’s a report or whatever the case may be, and then you use that in marketing and using that to get leads because people want this kind of information. And just like everything else in the competitive marketplace, there’s an arms race to have better and better content. And now it’s at a point where there really is just overload. It’s so competitive that it’s very hard to get anybody’s attention.

George Ravich:  My way of addressing that is by doing research, industry research that’s relating to the product message that I want to deliver. Use that to write a report and use that in an omni-channel campaign. The reason why I say research is because if you’re doing lead generation, meaning you’re looking for people that don’t know who you are, then your opinion doesn’t really matter. Who cares what George has to say if they don’t know what George is representing, doesn’t know the person or the company? Point being that data and information, facts and figures, that’s what people are usually drawn to, whether it be in social marketing or other kinds of digital marketing.

George Ravich: So, to me, that kind of information is what you use in a lead generation campaign. And then what’s also nice about that is because you have really found some thought leadership and you have found some insight, hopefully that the industry is very interested in, and again, connects to what you’re trying to sell, you’re able to turn that into a PR campaign, a social campaign, a digital campaign, speaking opportunities. In every marketing channel that you use, you can repurpose the content that you’re creating to a full-featured marketing campaign. These things are, what I’m describing are very affordable. It doesn’t take very much money or time, for that matter, to do this.

George Ravich:  I did it for my own business just a few weeks ago. I fielded a survey about marketing budgets and marketing program performance during the COVID crisis, and I’ve got a lot of mileage out of that campaign, out of that research that I did, which I turned into a report and social marketing and like I was explaining it, explaining an omni-channel campaign.

George Ravich: This is how I think smaller companies should address it, and the only way to actually effectively do that and market that kind of content is with some automation. And whether it’s for social or if it’s for emails or for CRM-type of software, you do need those kinds of systems behind you to do an effective job.

Andrea Fabbri:  Yeah, there is no doubt in my mind that content has become the brand currency. In this day and age, it’s really what allows any business to stand out. You need to have a point of view to be able to be interesting and to cut through the noise.

Andrea Fabbri:  I have two follow-up questions to what you just stated, though. I’m sure you have been, particularly in your position as a consultant, advising young startups. I’ve noticed that there is always, in my experience, anyway, this blind belief in the power of the technology because maybe the technology has specific features that might be unique in the specific category or industry that that solution or technology solution is intended for. I was wondering, how do you convince a startup that it’s not about features? It’s not about the technology. It’s about the messaging. It’s about the brand. It’s about creating a different story. How do you improve the conversation from technology to brand? What has worked for you in the past?

George Ravich:  Yeah. This is the area where I spend the most time with young companies because normally a young company is started by an engineer or a sales person. Of course, other kinds of people with different kinds of backgrounds start companies. But I’m just saying I mostly deal with tech companies, and that’s usually who are starting these companies. And oftentimes, they really do not understand the whole branding messaging aspect of their business, and I have to explain to them how important the messaging is. Said earlier, I know if you don’t get that right, nothing else will be right. You need to take the features that you have in your product, that you’ve worked so hard to develop, and select them and sort of put them out on a table, and almost like a jigsaw puzzle, fit them together. And when you do that, you really only have the opportunity to have three or four big features that are really going to, that you’re going to market. And even beyond that, you really have an opportunity to market one big idea.

George Ravich:  And let me explain what I mean because I’ve done this so many times. It’s very important that you position the product around a major feature, and I feel it’s very important that you brand that feature. It’s not only me. It’s the big guys. Apple, when they sell an iPhone, they brand the feature of their new, of an important feature of their phone. For instance, the iPhone 11 had a branded camera feature, the Smart HDR. Sony has done that with televisions. Even Yeti has done that with their new cup that has a special lock so contents don’t fall out. But the point is that, by branding a feature, you’re really able to stand out and get people focused on what it is that makes you different. And I think that’s the biggest problem that small companies, young companies have with the messaging around them. They oftentimes can tell you every feature that they have, what every click of every mouse does, but they can’t necessarily describe succinctly why someone should buy this and why it will make their business better.

George Ravich: I think people who are undertaking this for the first time need to understand that everything that’s out there in the world, anything that you have come up with, someone already has. And what you need to do is explain to them why what you have is a breakthrough and it’s so much better than what they already own. To do that, I think having a branded key feature is the way that you focus people in on what it is that’s different. And that one branded feature can mean lots of different things. It could be an entire story. And the key is to focus in on that one feature in the marketing messaging, and then leave all the other features for the two-hour meeting in someone’s office when you get to explain every last feature that you’ve come up with. I think that it’s important that young companies do this branded feature concept, that they only really talk about three or four features overall, and understand that the long discussion of all the things that your product does really well gets saved for a long meeting.

Andrea Fabbri:  It’s so true, and sometimes it doesn’t have to be a feature. Sometimes it’s a different way of articulating something the company does because maybe it could be a new way of achieving certain things, depending on where the innovation is. But it’s so true. How many times I’ve been in conversations with particularly sort of early-stage companies that believe that they have to communicate everything that they’re great, that makes their solution great in one slide. How many times have you seen the slides that you need a magnifying glass to look at the small print? And we’re humans, we really are all about storytelling. That’s what stands out. That’s what we remember. So as you, I think correctly, say, just focus on one thing, build a story around, and that’s what it means also building a brand.

Andrea Fabbri:  All right, we are approaching the end of this very, very interesting conversation. If you look at the stage of things right now, and there are certainly signs of businesses that are beginning to look ahead, they’re going from reacting to the chaos to actually starting to plan ahead for the future. What are top two, three key suggestions that you would like to pass on to early stage companies in particular, as they look ahead so that they can have a shot at continuing to grow their business? They have been through three, four months of really hardship. Are there two or three tips or, if you will, that you would like to pass on?

George Ravich:  Sure. What’s happened to all of us in the last three months has delivered some big changes in the marketplace. Some of them will stick, and some of them will just be fleeting, and we’ll go back to normal. But no doubt about it, the trend toward digital marketing has been strong for a long time, and the last three months has given a kick in the pants to digital transformation. And so I think that one thing for sure, people are not going to as many trade shows and they’ve got that money and that should be funding additional digital marketing of one kind or another, because through it all, digital was able to deliver the message and deliver the results. So that’s certainly an area that I think should be focused on, just redoubled, whether it’s a new kind of webinar, because that’s very popular now. And again, there’s going to be lots of competition, like with the written word.

George Ravich:  Also what I mentioned earlier, the account-based marketing, especially for young companies at a time when it’s really, business is going to be tough. Working sales and marketing together on a focused number of accounts, a small number of accounts, where there really is a high level of customization of messaging to some key accounts, where you can land a couple of really big marquee accounts, is really important, I think. So those two areas, I think if companies focus on them, that’s a good strategy for the near term.

Andrea Fabbri:  All right, George. Thanks so much for your time today, and I look forward to catching up soon. Thank you.

George Ravich:  Yeah, thank you. Pleasure to be here with you.