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Kieran Flanagan (Growth @ Hubspot) on SaaS, Scaleups, and Startups
   

Kieran Flanagan (Growth @ Hubspot) on SaaS, Scaleups, and Startups

If there’s a company that knows the playbook for growth, it very well might be HubSpot.

In 13 years, they’ve scaled to one of the biggest names in marketing & sales and joined the ranks of successful tech IPOs.

Kieran Flanagan, VP of Marketing and Growth, is charged with three of the most important parts of HubSpot’s flywheel: acquisition for the Sales product, the Freemium funnel, and the global web strategy. In his career, he’s worked for some of the biggest names in SaaS including Salesforce and Marketo. Plus, he’s helped many startups implement the strategies that power larger businesses. In this episode, we’ll talk through how startups differ from scaleups, the inbound growth engine that has powered HubSpot’s success, why the funnel is dead, and the reasons more companies should invest in Customer Success.

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In This Episode You’ll Learn:

0:00 — Introduction
1:10 — useproof.com/personalize
3:35 — Kieran’s career path to Hubspot’s VP of Marketing
4:23 — Why the mission matter for SaaS
5:33 — Scaleups are great when you want a new challenge every few years
7:37 — What do the big companies do differently than small companies?
8:03 — Check out our interview with Wade from Zapier on Season 1 Episode 6
9:12 — 100% sales are made from something we acquire — Inbound
9:47 — Have the advantage of being able to think 18 months down the line
10:32 — No outbound — our reps calling into our database
11:46 — How we experiment at Hubspot
13:00 — Hubspot’s target persona — Marketing Mary & beyond
14:05 — Startup discount at Hubspot
15:08 — Going narrow at first is imperative for startups
16:00 — The funnel is dead
16:40 — Most companies are successful on 1 or 2 channels
18:16 — Underinvested in Customer Success teams
19:20 — The Salty Six to know Kieran better

Full Transcript:

DR: One of my favorite companies to study and watch and dissect is HubSpot. Which, you know, all of you listening or watching probably have heard of. And so, I was kind of researching who’s doing their marketing, who’s doing their growth, and I came across Kieran Flanagan who is with us here today. He is the VP of Marketing at HubSpot and has just been doing some really, really unique things and has a really unique perspective on growth. So, I wanted to invite him on and dig in on how to scale SaaS, how to scale and build a marketing team and all the things that he is learning. So Kieran, welcome to Scale of Die.

KF: Yeah, thanks for having me on. I’m excited.

DR: Yeah, dude this should be good. So I was doing some digging, some creeping on you and just kind of looking at you and your past work. You’ve been doing marketing looks like about 10 years now heavily in SaaS.

You’ve worked at Salesforce, you’ve worked at Marketo, you’ve worked at HubSpot for the last six years, and have been the VP of Marketing for two and a half years. You’ve been at the best companies in the world doing this, which I think is a perspective most people don’t have, but I’m just curious.

How did you get started at HubSpot, and then how did that lead you into becoming the VP of Marketing there?

KF: Yes, so I have a different type of path into marketing. I started my career as a software engineer so I did development and coding. I’m from a coding background. I figured out I wasn’t very good at coding. So I had to try something different. And so I started running search teams Salesforce.

I did their online marketing in Europe, did the same for Marketo and then HubSpot was always on my radar just because I was pretty passionate about their message.

I think that’s a big lesson for SaaS Companies. If you have a mission, you attract people who want to work with you, you attract customers who want to use your product.

I joined them to basically be the first marketer outside of the Cambridge office way back when to grow out the international business and did that for about two and a half years. We went from 12 of us in a little Dublin office and now I think there is probably anywhere between 700 to 1,000 people internationally. And two and a half years into that role, I got asked by the exec team to kind of do a very similar type thing for our freemium business. So back then, we were very new into that space. We were just trying to figure out how we could layer on freemium to that business. So, I did that for two years. I grew the freemium business to have it go to market. That’s kind of been my journey in HubSpot. It’s been a lot of fun.

DR: That’s awesome. And then what did it look like to shift from that into the role that you carry now, VP of marketing?

KF: It’s interesting. So, at HubSpot one of the great things for working for a scaleup is it suits people like me who generally want to do new things every two years. And so I did international, led the international team and then did marketing going through freemium.

Hubspot Freemium

It’s hard to describe this but HubSpot then kind of took the freemium business. So we were like our own company within HubSpot, trying to figure out this freemium thing. And it worked really really well and at some point, HubSpot basically acquired our freemium company and just layered in freemium into the entire global market. So then we split the funnel. Instead of me just owning all of the freemium acquisition, the monetization of those freemium users today, I just took the whole top part of the funnel. So, all the leads we generate globally, all the users we generate globally, they’re all my different teams who do that for HubSpot.

DR: Gotcha. Very cool. Is your team, are they distributed, are they all in Dublin with you? How does that look?

KF: No, very few of them are in Dublin. There’s a team of about 40 there. There’s about three or four of us in Dublin. The rest are mostly based in The States. Either in our office or fully remote so across my team we’ve definitely embraced remote work, flexible work and it’s worked really well to build, hire, retain talent.

DR: Very cool. And, you also do some consulting and advising with other startups as well, right?

KF: I have done it. I don’t know how much or how enjoyable I find it. Or how valuable people have found me because I’ve done it sometimes and it’s worked really well when there’s been a clear relationship and goal. I’ve done it sometimes where it’s been really loose and I haven’t had the time to define the value I can add so I’ve done it.

I enjoy doing it. I try to stay close to smaller company startups because it just gives you a better perspective on how marketing is shifting, trying to stay really gritty, trying to do things without very much budget and I think that’s where a lot of the creativity comes from.

DR: Yeah, yeah totally. So I guess, I was just curious. You’ve worked with these great companies and then you’ve also worked and are watching, you know, smaller startups.

What are the big companies, what are the HubSpots, the Marketos, the Salesforce, what are they doing differently? What do they get that a lot of the little guys, the companies that aren’t as successful, that they’re not doing or they’re not getting, or that they’re missing?

KF: Yeah, I think a big thing for me is focus. That’s what I’ve come to the realization is. It’s interesting, I talked to Wade, the CEO and co-founder of Zapier, and he mentioned this about Zapier as well, and that is they were comfortable not being world class at all things.

They were comfortable at picking one or two things that they needed to be world class in to get their next stage of growth. So they weren’t worrying and losing sleep about all of these other things that they just weren’t great at. They were okay pushing down the road knowing that they were going to get better at them over time. But the things they knew they had to excel in right there and then, they double downed on, they made sure they had the right talent they made sure they had the right focus, the right prioritization and I think that’s what differentiates companies who are successful.

Obviously, the product matters a lot, the founder matter a lot, the exec team, all those things matter a lot. But having focus and knowing what is the most important thing to rally your teams and company around is the thing that’s going to make you more successful than those who are trying to figure out everything at once.

DR: So what is that? Like, for your team at HubSpot then in your mind?

KF: HubSpot is kind of unique in the B2B space in that 100% of our sales is made from something that we acquire, the marketing team acquires, it’s all inbound demand. It’s either the leads we generate or the users we generate within our freemium model.

And so, if you’re a public company like HubSpot and you’re expected to grow as rapidly as we grow it means our focus is pretty clear. Next year, we have to continue growing that demand. But the other thing we try to do is think, you know we have the luxury of doing this.

I think scale-ups have this luxury, startups do not have this luxury, in that we can think 18 months, 24 months down the line. We can start trying to make sure that we’re making investments today to ensure that the channels that we are growing from today, to make sure that the channels we are growing arent’ going to plateau at some point within the next year or two that we have new sources of growth, right?

So we are constantly trying to have that balance of here of how I’m gonna grow for the next 12 months, but also the investments we need to make now to make sure in 24 months time we have new growth channels. And that’s kind of what the mission is for my team is to be successful in 2019 but to layer on new channels that are gonna see us grow, or accelerate our growth 2021.

DR: Hmm, interesting.

So, you guys do no outbound at HubSpot? No, cold outbound? It’s all inbound which obviously is your thing?

KF: Yeah, it’s the demand we generate so we have reps. What we call outbound is actually reps calling into the database. So the database of either users or the database of leads. We also try to get smart in terms of reps not needing to do that.

We try to look for signals of intent either within our lead funnel or freemium funnels, so our signal of intent in the freemium funnel may be used in certain features. Maybe hitting a certain trigger — so a feature has x percent of time free you can use that feature for. Having a trigger that then rotates you to a salesperson because we know there’s certain buying time. So we definitely try to not only make sure that the reps don’t need to spend their time prospecting, but also they can spend their time working with customers or potential customers that have real high buying time of showing signals that mean they’re interested in your product.

DR: How do you guys do experimentation, think about experimentation and have a process for people to experiment?

KF: So it’s a pretty experiment heavy culture in HubSpot. We’ve used many different frameworks so we’ve been through PIE, and I think everything is basically similar to PIE. We’ll have the individual build out a doc that looks at the potential upside of any experiments, has a clear hypothesis, has clear data to show that they’ve researched this hypothesis to make sure that they formed it in a correct way and then the ease. Which again, ease is again to make sure that you actually have the things that you need to be successful.

And so, I think the thing we try to make sure is that people run experiments because they make sense and not experiments for experiment’s sake right? I think your time is valuable so I generally think documentation of experiments generally forces the person to make sure that they have a very clear plan. They’ve marked off all the things you want to see in a well-articulated experiment. That’s kind of how we’ve approached it.

DR: Love that. Love that. Something that I respect about you guys and see that you guys iterate on over the years is your target persona.

I’m just curious, right now who is HubSpot’s target customer and how does that impact and define what you guys do as a marketing team?

KF: So we have a pretty famous case that’s taught around this where we kind of double down on what we call Marketing Mary, which is a company of 11-250 employees. But really HubSpot has grown a lot since then and our tools have become quite sophisticated so there’s still very applicable to Marketing Mary. That’s still one of our core groups of people who use our tools.

Marketing Mary

HubSpot’s Marketing Mary persona

But since then we’ve launched sales tools, customer success tools, so the people who are best, companies who are best suited to our products are really companies who want to grow. They want the power of the enterprise tools but at a cost that they can afford.

I think that’s what we want to ensure, that’s kind of one of our missions is to give SMBs that kind of power to grow their business from a very early stage.

So if you’re a startup you can still use HubSpot’s tools. We have a startup program that’s very successful, very popular, getting a huge discount. 

DR: I think that’s something that as a startup, it’s easy to look at HubSpot and go really broad. You feel like you’re cutting off so much of the market if you just go for the Marketing Mary or whatever. But I’ve seen you guys, even as you guys are a big company now and maybe, recently it’s expanded into more markets, but I feel like even a couple of years ago it was like, “Hey, we’re just going after this one person here, we’re just going to go laser focus to go deep there,” instead of wide. It just makes everything so much easier when you do that.

KF: So this comes back to our very first point right, focus for startups, you’re better off having a small group of people who are ultimately very successful and happy with your product instead of trying to go too broad because you’re creating awareness for your brand

All kind of good things for your brand if you can narrow into a group of people that you should start with first and that’s definitely what HubSpot did. We had two personas back in the day when we had marketing tools called Owner Ollie and Marketing Mary. And Owner Ollie was only 11 people and Marketing Mary was 11-250 people and at some point, HubSpot made the decision to really just double down to Marketing Mary to make sure that that customer was successful with our tools.

owner ollie

HubSpot’s Owner Ollie persona

Not that we left Owner Ollie behind, we still had great tools for Owner Ollie, we still made sure that they were successful on our products but we double down on the features that Marketing Mary was asking for. And I think that’s a big part of why HubSpot is the success it is today.

DR: Yeah, that’s one thing we saw inbound and seems like you guys have been talking a lot more about is, you know, the funnel is dead.

The growth flywheel is the new way to think about this. Can you share thoughts on how you’ve seen that?

KF: I’m a firm believer of that, right, that you should, you know the funnel is such an archaic weird way to look at your business. Where you have this wide thing at the top and a few people at the bottom.

And I think what the flywheel does is create a loop, right, it turns your business into a loop and that loop is that marketing acquired customers and the thing, the way they acquire customers is making sure that they have, we’ve talked about a really good understanding of the persona. They understand the channels that map to their persona. So, for the most part, companies are successful because they’ve managed to excel at one or two channels so this again comes back to focus.

So if you think, you can actually do this exercise and go through any successful company you can probably pick the channel that they’re successful on. And then, your marketing creates demand. You have a great sales team who sell demands, or not even sell demand, but take that person through a consulted sales process so, everyone who goes through your sales process is actually ecstatic with every touch point they’ve had. We get emails that come through to us through an alias of people basically talking about how much they loved our sales process because we try to structure it in a way that helps.

We try to make sure that you’re, as a customer, as happy as you can be. So that you can get help through all the different mediums you want to get help from, whether that’s phone mediums, live chat, whatever that is. And to get that help ’cause it helps out the customer. And so you’re really creating a loop, you’re creating a loop where you’re acquiring new people, some those people are going to go through your sales process and some of those people are going to become customers, they’re going to be really happy customers and they’re going to go and talk and refer you to other people. Because word of mouth today is more important than anything else.

My recommendations are what people put most of their value in when choosing a product and so that’s what we mean by the flywheel versus funnel. Your customers or your revenue doesn’t stop when somebody becomes a customer. Your customers are part of your growth engine and they should be thought of that way. I think most companies are probably underinvested in their customer’s success.

DR: I like that idea though that even the people who leave the funnel and don’t buy, if they had a great experience in the sales process, value is added, you’re going to get value back, it doesn’t have to pop out of the bottom of the funnel for it to be a win. You could have a win all the way at the first touch point.

KF: I think the thing to think about if you’re a tech company today is product is commoditized. It’s very difficult to create something new. It’s easier to create something today because it’s just easier to build because of the different advancements, it’s easier to build software and so the thing you can win on is customer experience.

The experience you create when you’re marketing to your potential customers, the experience you create when you’re selling to those customers, the experience you create when they’re actual customers and interacting with your brand. I think that sets you apart. If your brand stays. The experience of all the different people who are touching your brand at different points within that sale cycle.

The Salty Six

DR: Alright man, so wrapping up we’ve got just six questions, what I call the salty six. These are just six rapid-fire questions for us to get to know you better. I don’t know why it’s called salty but it is and they’re coming at you. So you ready for the salty six?

KF: Let’s do it. I’m excited for the salty six.

DR: Alright.

Number one, what do you do for fun?

KF: I box. I’m going to go boxing tonight.

DR: Oh really? Very cool. Do you compete or is it just for fun?

KF: I would say it’s for fun although still kind of like I spar and everything so it’s violent fun but I do not compete and I have no plans to compete but I spar and everything like that.

DR: Very cool, love it.

What’s the best conference you’ve ever gone to?

KF: So, I have to, of course, mention Inbound because I’m actually not joking it’s the best event that I’ve been to. Outside of that, I’m really proud of what the guys are doing at SaaStock because it’s a Dublin based event and I love the fact that I can hang out with amazing SaaS people in Dublin so it’s one of the few times that I don’t have to get on a plane. The event itself is great. I went to it this year, spoke at this year, so it’s a really good event.

DR: Yeah, I heard a lot of good things about this year which is cool so it seems like that’s picking up.

What podcasts do you listen to if any?

KF: I listen to a lot of MMA podcasts actually so but outside of that I love the Reply All podcasts. I think that’s a really good podcast. Listen to, I listen to a little bit of Tim Ferriss when I’m confident enough that he’s not going to make me feel absolutely terrible about my life and that I’m not being productive enough so I actually don’t listen to it as much anymore because I always feel that way after I listen to it. I’m a big audible listener I listen to books so I dip in and out of podcasts.

DR: Cool.

What book are you reading right now? What’s on your nightstand?

KF: Yes, book called Platform Revolution. It’s pretty big. It’s a popular book in HubSpot at the moment, a lot of us are reading it. It’s a really good book, higher platforms are reading it, even the world.

 

DR: Love it. That’s been on my next up list for a little bit now and I wanna read that.

KF: It’s worth it.

DR: Michael Jordan or Lebron?

KF: You’re asking an Irish person about basketball!

DR: Give me your best guess.

KF: Conor McGregor

DR: Alright, we’ll accept that.

And then if you could invite one person to have dinner with you at a dinner party dead or alive right now who would you ask and why?

KF: Wow, Will Farrell.

DR: Really, why so?

KF: He’s just, I find him hilarious, I love laughing I think it’s the key to life and Will Farrell makes me laugh more than anyone else in the world. I would love to sit there and drink old fashioned to Will Farrell.

DR: That’s awesome, I love it. Well very good, man, there you have it, Kieran thanks so much for being on. If people want to find you, see what you’re up to where can they look you up?

KF: Yeah, you can get me at Twitter for some reason my Twitter handle is still @searchbrat, it was back in the day I had that as my consultancy or the best thing to do is connect me with LinkedIn. Go find me through LinkedIn, that’s where I go to try to connect with most people.

DR: Yup, and Kieran has a great podcast I’ve started listening to where he’s breaking down strategies like we’re talking about here. What’s the name of that? TLDR?

KF: Yeah, go to the GrowthTLDR podcast. Go check it out.

DR: Very cool man. Thanks so much for being on. Guys, thanks for watching or those on the podcast listening to Scale or Die, we’ll see you in the next episode.

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This interview has been edited and condensed.