The Sugar without the Silver Spoon: Lessons on How to Market at Scale from Salesforce
A Conversation with Kathie Johnson, CMO of Talkdesk and former SVP of Marketing at Salesforce
Kathie Johnson is the CMO of Talkdesk, a breakout enterprise cloud contact center that’s raised $260M+ and is valued north of $3B+. Prior to Talkdesk, Kathie was SVP of Marketing at Salesforce. Kathie joined FirstMark’s Guilds to share her key learnings from running marketing at a large enterprise and how she’s translated those to a hyper-growth startup environment.
There’s an enormous chasm between how enterprise-focused companies can execute B2B marketing at an early stage and at scale. While the vast majority of the fundamental strategies and tactics are identical, startups are faced with one significant constraint: limited resources. As an early-stage company, therefore, executing a successful marketing strategy has as much to do with selecting the correct subset of potential marketing activities, as it does with executing those priorities.
As an early-stage company, executing a successful marketing strategy has as much to do with selecting the correct subset of potential marketing activities, as it does with executing those priorities.
When Kathie Johnson joined Talkdesk as CMO, the company had 400 employees and was valued at $1B. To put that in perspective, Kathie was joining Talkdesk from Salesforce, a behemoth company valued at the time at $145B with over 40,000 employees. As SVP of Marketing at Salesforce, Kathie had the resources to execute a marketing strategy against seven industries and 18 different sub-verticals. But as she settled into Talkdesk and sought to recreate the successful marketing engine she had built at Salesforce, it became clear that her first task was to relentlessly prioritize the correct set of marketing activities to drive growth.
Here’s the playbook that she followed, which involved putting in place the foundational and transformative elements of an effective B2B marketing strategy.
Setting the Foundations: Great Marketing at Any Stage
Whether you’re leading a team of 40 marketers or 1,400 marketers, there are a few foundational building blocks every company can and should implement. These building blocks will set your marketing organization up for success as it grows and scales:
One of the leadership frameworks Salesforce is known for, and evangelized by Marc Benioff, is V2MOM. A modified version, V2M2, was one of the first frameworks that Kathie put in place at Talkdesk. It allows companies to constantly align on an ongoing basis to keep up with and be able to adapt to the fast-paced demands of their customers and market.
V2M2 is a living, breathing document that leadership formally returns to each year, but is always being updated. V2M2 stands for values, vision, mission, and metrics.
The V2M2 is set on an annual basis, revisited quarterly, and reported against monthly and quarterly. Once adopted across the entire company, a framework like V2M2 aligns the entire team on what they’re trying to achieve and how they will measure success.
The internal operations of any organization, large or small, can suffer from a lack of rigor. One of the main symptoms of a lack of rigorous execution is when team members are unclear on whether they’re executing the right actions to achieve their goals.
For Kathie, who joined as the first external C-level executive, one of her immediate priorities was to enable Talkdesk to be more rigorous in its execution. This began with the V2M2 (creating targets) and continues through the development of dashboards (to report progress against those targets), and finally to implement the ability to forecast. Once a team has the ability to project what will happen several quarters from now, and then reflect on its ability to meet or exceed those targets, you’ll have begun to achieve the type of rigor of execution that’s evident in great companies.
Similar efforts in the same vein included the implementation of quarterly business reviews (QBRs) to candidly discuss teamwide performance, and service level agreements (SLAs) that marketing and sales would hold each other to for key workflows.
All of these quantitative-driven mechanisms gave the marketing team the rigor to know what goals and directions they should be working toward.
Kathie believes that a company should have values that inject soul and passion into the organization and compel people to work there. Part of her initial efforts was to make sure that Talkdesk’s values matched the energy she felt from all of her interactions with Talkdesk’s leadership team.
The first step was to evolve the values, in particular, from ones that may have been fitting for a small start-up into those that truly represented a company with 1,500 employees and what that company now stood for.
A second step was to make sure that employees had access to all of the resources and institutions they needed internally to develop professionally and to live out the company’s values. For Talkdesk, this included the implementation of two high-value internal initiatives: Employee Resource Groups, and mentoring programs.
Transformative Marketing Strategies: Building on the Foundation
With the foundational initiatives, Kathie then began to make the tough decisions about which marketing initiatives to prioritize in a world of constraints. The first step to curating those strategies is to evaluate which would be most instrumental to your business.
The simple framing question that leaders can use is, for your company and in your market, “what marketing initiatives will create the greatest differentiation for us in the market?” For Talkdesk, Kathie believed the answer was the following:
At Salesforce, Kathie was responsible for growing the company’s approach with a focus on seven industries and 18 sub-verticals. For Salesforce, arguably the most successful SaaS company in history, to invest in a vertical strategy should speak volumes about what it can create.
Many businesses don’t believe that they need a vertical strategy and wait too long to put one in place. The fact is that in most categories, it’s critical; different industries have different needs. You see this reflected in a lot of ways: different industries will require different and industry-specific software integrations. The strategic goals and desired outcomes will vary across industries. And even the language used by customers will vary (e.g., “client” vs “customer” vs “patient”).
To build out Talkdesk’s industry strategy, the team began with one key hire: a strategist, whose primary responsibility was first to define the industry strategy and approach. The output of this effort is a clear plan defining which industries and sub-industries the company should invest in.
Once that general strategy is in place, the next step is to start resourcing the team against one or more verticals. This means hiring (or assigning) sales and customer success team members to go deep on that specific industry by learning the language of the customer, developing industry-specific pricing, packaging, and messaging. Also of note: for every deal within their assigned vertical, the industry leader works hand-in-hand with the sales organization to support strategic deals.
As the number of specialized verticals expands, so too will the industry strategy team, with each vertical having its own assigned leader.
A second transformative marketing initiative that Kathie launched was to build a dedicated research team. As inputs, this team spends an enormous amount of time speaking with customers and prospects, and understanding what topics are most important to the market. As outputs, the research team produces thought leadership — trend and market reports, best practices playbooks, surveys, and beyond — that ultimately position a company as the leader in its category.
The research team also helps create institutions that provide invaluable input for the rest of the organization. For example, by creating executive roundtables with prospects and customers where leaders go deep on their needs, challenges, and opportunities, the research team helps provide guidance to the product roadmap.
An example of Talkdesk research is a deep dive report focused on financial services. This single piece of research was pushed across a variety of channels and formats (events, PR, social strategy, and beyond) and gave the company a significant lift in the vertical. The effort also helped set the stage for a vertical-specific product that was launched later.
When Kathie joined Talkdesk, most of the marketing investment was focused on digital. For her, the third transformative strategy was to embrace the potential of field marketing.
Field marketing was tasked with two primary goals: (1) Expand the top of the funnel and (2) increase the velocity of customers through the funnel. And at Talkdesk, that’s exactly what the team did. And similar to every other function she leads, Kathie set the team up for success by establishing clear coverage ratios and quantitative goals.
As examples of how field marketers achieved their goals, the team would do things like host “How to succeed with Talkdesk” sessions with the industry strategy team or marquee customers. Or, they would borrow some of the outputs of the research teams to enable sales leaders with the right content and insights for the right customer.
Focus on the Strategy that Works for You
This post recapped a number of the most important marketing initiatives that worked for Talkdesk and has enabled them to continue their rapid growth. And those same strategies may be the right ones for your business… or not.
But the overall takeaway for early-stage marketers is clear: first, in order to enable continued growth, make sure you have the right foundations in place for your team. Then, make a calculated decision on what strategies will make the biggest difference for your company and in your market. And, of course, look to exceptional teams and companies, large or small, to think through how to most effectively implement those strategies.
Are you a leader at a venture-backed tech startup? Apply here to join our Guilds. Members gain instant access to world-class private events, a full archive of playbooks, templates, and frameworks, inclusion in a private forum with 850+ CXOs across top tech companies, premium vendor discounts, and much more.
To be eligible for Guild Membership, you must be a C- or VP-level leader at a technology company that has raised significant venture capital and/or grown to tens of millions of revenue.