Lessons on leadership and advocacy from an $800 million exiteer13 min read
There are many things Mark Organ has to fit into his day. One stands out. The CEO and founder of advocacy marketing company Influitive has made it his mission to make his daughter and son laugh three times before they get on the school bus. It’s one of many ways he brings real delight to them when they are likely most in need of it. It means that when they talk to their classmates about their father, they are more likely to sing his praises.
In that sense, his children are his advocates.
Mark makes it a goal in his life to delight the people who matter in such small yet special ways. Many would go on to become his advocates.
He does this regardless if it’s a customer, a hire, a partner, a referral or a friend. A self-made charmer, he approaches everyone honestly, truthfully, and authentically. He knows those qualities attract one person to another. He has had to learn all of these characteristics himself – how to network, how to speak publicly, how to offer connections, how to show curiosity to people when he meets them. As an individual who has created a category out of advocate marketing, Mark is “eating his ice cream”.
Read on to learn how Mark builds relationships with the people and turns them into happy employees, satisfied customers, and engaged advocates.
How did Advocacy Marketing become a category
Mark’s journey into advocacy marketing begins with an inspiration from his good friend David Skok, General Partner at Matrix Partners. David had told Mark an incredible story about how in a day he sold a year’s worth of software products. He achieved that by running a dinner for happy customers and prospects. The seating arrangement was engineered – he sat a happy customer next to a prospect next to a happy customer next to a prospect and so on. The happy customers did most of the “selling” that night. It was a first-hand exposure to the power of influence that an advocate could have.
It should come as no surprise then that when Mark first started toiling with the idea of building a category, David Skok, was the one who confirmed he should do it. At the time Mark was still in his previous company, Eloqua. He had stumbled upon a curious realisation: the outlier customers that had taken four days to sign up (rather than the typical four months), all had a lot of advocacy activity surrounding them.
He tried different approaches to elevate and scale this, but nothing seemed to have a long term sustainable effect.
Until that is, the Academy Awards for Marketing, known as The Markies, happened in 2007. It was an occasion to celebrate the category that Eloqua had created – quantitative, process oriented marketing automation. It was a posh evening where everyone wore tuxedos and awardees got trophies made by the same company that made the Oscars. Its purpose wasn’t advocacy but advocacy it generated. It was time to leave Eloqua and figure how to do this at scale. Eloqua would eventually be acquired by Oracle for $871 million.
By 2010, his second startup and category, Influitive, was born.
Finding the right people
“Your first 25 hires are critical. It takes ten years plus or minus 2 to build a B2B startup from scratch. So any C-level hire is a marriage.”
Mark’s first rule is to look for up-and-comers, the stars in the making. They may make more mistakes in the beginning, but they will make it up by being recognised for their potential.
What that means though is that he has to actively go looking for them. “I spend at least 25% of my time identifying and bringing on team members who are unproven legends in the making.” He spends another huge chunk of his time in helping them develop into the executives they have the potential to become. It’s one of the reasons Influitive was born and raised in Toronto, rather than San Francisco. There is more to chose from.
The looking starts with a lot of browsing on LinkedIn. It’s what Mark would often spend his Sundays doing.
But it also involves an openness to meeting curious individuals at every corner.
When Mark meets someone interesting, he immediately starts applying Jack Welch’s 4 e’s and 1 p framework. “I look to see if someone would excite me, energise me, whether they seem like someone who would be able to make tough decisions, whatever the conversation is.”
Ticking all those boxes is the first sign of potential.
The next step is an invitation for coffee. The purpose is to see the depth of knowledge they have. “Do they have a framework of how to understand and work within their function.” That manifests if they can explain that function in very simple terms. “It’s a clear sign they have done a lot of thinking, and may have nailed what’s the 20% that brings 80% of the value.
Sometimes the people he meets would not necessarily be potential hires or would not manifest as such for a long time. But every relationship is worth sustaining
“You check in with them, send them emails, but also post on places like Linkedin to passively remind them about yourself.”
Because eventually, the time comes.
It took 13 years with Emmanuelle Skala. He had first met “the award winning sales superstar” when she was a client of his at Eloqua. Mark knew instantly he wanted to work with her. No opportunity would manifest in the next 13 years but Mark fostered the relationship with her. Until in 2014 when he needed a VP of Sales.
Mark offered the job to her, but Emanuelle was reluctant. Category creating companies are a particular challenge for selling. Was there a market big enough?
Mark used the power of advocacy to prove there was.
He asked a few of Influitive’s advocates to connect with Emmanuelle and help her see just how excited people were about advocacy marketing. Four people wrote to her in the span of 12 hours. She chatted to each individually. In April 2014, Emmanuelle joined the company.
Mark has learned to be very systematic about sustaining relationships. Different types of people are organised in different “programs.”
He talks to board members on a weekly basis, and each gets a daily report about demos the company is doing, new people that have joined, deals that have come through and other insights.
A set of top 20 people gets an email every quarter. Another gets greeting cards for Christmas, Chinese New Year and other special holidays.
Employees are his most important advocates
The most important relationship to sustain is that with his employees. It was a clear shift that occurred in Mark’s head somewhere between Eloqua and Influitive. He wants to make sure they feel good and are the company’s biggest advocates. From the C-levels to the juniors. And that is as tough a program as any other.
Mark begins with a conscious effort to craft the company culture. As he has found, perks come low on what makes people happy.
“My goal is to keep politics – individual agenda that is at odds with the company’s best interest, mutual back-scratching, grandstanding, passive-aggressive behaviours – to a minimum, if not eliminate it.” Because if there is one thing that kills creativity and productivity and makes people dissatisfied with their job, it’s having to look behind their backs all the time.
Office politics are among the chief reasons why Mark has never stayed for long in any biggerorganisation. In that sense, he is an entrepreneur almost by necessity.
To negate office politics, Mark brings radical transparency. From what is happening in the company, through to how it’s performing financially, all the way to how much people are paid and how they are growing within the organisation.
All financial data is shared transparently like how much cash there is in the bank. “People make better decisions when they know everything.” And in Influitive people make decisions even when they are in junior positions. The best people are the kind that want to run things rather than be told what to do. Sharing that much information carries its risks as people may get nervous if there is only a few months worth of cash. “In the end, it’s another way of fleshing out the right people. I prefer to have people excited about challenges rather than opportunities.”
One of the chief things that tampers with trust is compensation, especially when it comes to paying those that come from more diverse backgrounds. Women getting paid less is an ongoing problem in the tech world.
Mark aims to bring as much transparency about that as possible. “We may not show salary numbers to the dollar because it is private information, but we have a tight range. Everyone falls within it irrespective of skin colour, gender or age.” Bringing that fairness means people will not go off looking for other jobs or wasting time on figuring out if they are being treated fairly.
To surface all other Influitive related information, Mark runs a 9-minute All-hands meeting every day. All 125 employees from all locations participate. They talk metrics from the day before, good news to share, put a spotlight on a department for 2 minutes and recognise peers. It’s just before lunch time in Toronto, it is highly standardised, and stays within the time limit. It has taken a lot of rehearsing to achieve that.
Transparency alone though isn’t enough to help avoid office politics. Dealing with personal issues directly and having conflict resolution mechanism are as essential. For that Mark has introduced the Issue Clearing Model, a seven step framework for calmly addressing issues. As a system it originates from marriage counselling, used when couples have such strong disagreements that they cannot communicate with each other. Jim Warner, an executive coach, took this to help business executives stay “clean and clear” with one another, not harbouring resentment or doubt. It’s a way to assure people feel comfortable being open and vulnerable as it is the time they most benefit from peer interaction.
With all precautions taken to avoid office politics problems, what then Mark focuses on is what engages people – their growth as individuals and professionals.
“Many founders omit the personal growth as motivation to stick around, especially in the early days, seeing the excitement people get from the growth stage of a company.” However, the reality is that this growth will eventually slow down and so will the adrenalin levels.
Everyone’s growth is carefully mapped, including expected promotions. Mark’s Chief of Staff has an exactly 18 month-long tenure after which they go on to other parts of the company. Together they carefully chose what CoS transitions into and how they go about it.
Transparency and personal growth are the bedrocks of employees turned advocates. However, that wouldn’t be complete without little moments of delight and joy.
A famous one Mark recalls is when a member of the finance team caught a tax reduction and saved the company a substantial sum of money. After the person was recognised at the town hall meeting, a surprise followed in the form of a 300-pound block of ice. Employees were asked to hack away the ice with ice picks. What they found inside the block were three sturdy boxes with golden chocolate coins and “Mark Bucks.” Everyone got hand-written, personalised notes from Mark. Inside were several $100 bills – the money that had been saved from the lucky accounting catch.
Having found and retained great advocates, both employees and customers, Influitive has thrived. Mark has succeeded to create yet one more category.
What can SaaS founders do to lead customers into becoming advocates? Here are four essentials:
A big idea and spelt out mission
“You have to make it very clear what your cause as a company is because then people will be able to relate to it much better and jump on to advocate.” People are awed by big bold ideas. Influitive’s is that instead of focusing on marketing, businesses should be focusing on making customers happy enough that they’d do the marketing for them. People advocate for ideas not for products.
Great User Experience
Big ideas also need grounded executions. For tech companies, the first thing they need to execute on is building a product with impeccable User Experience.
“Most people have mediocre experiences with software products. When you negate that with good design and good product management, they will be delighted.”
The product should be nothing short of a joy to use. That means hiring people who have empathy for users. They need to know about mapping user flows, understanding friction points, and conducting user research. “A great product UX is the most important feature-set, not an overlay.”
Moments of delight
Like anything else with advocacy there are the practical considerations, and then there are the pure joys and luxuries. A customer of Influitive was struggling to find time to put in the work to get their instance of the software off the ground. Rather than just continuing the cycle of trying to motivate through a chain of emails, their Advocacy Consultant decided a different approach. Knowing they would probably have to work long hours to make it happen, she sent a “late night survival kit” which included an assortment of power snacks and energy drinks.
A thriving community
With all the luxuries and practicalities in place, there needs to be a place for them to connect and interact. “Advocates are passionate individuals yearning to connect with peers to network, learn, collaborate and exchange ideas.” And for that they need communities. It’s where they get rewarded and recognized for participation. They seek career opportunities, enhanced reputation and greater knowledge.
“It’s where they understand the impact advocacy has done to them.”Communities are all about people: their passions, their emotional connections, and their interactions not only with each other but with the brands they love.
If you have done all the right work, advocates will spur in the most unlikely of places.
“We recently won Cisco as a client. It didn’t happen through the Silicon Valley HQ but rather through the office in London.” From a successful implementation there, it spurred to the rest of the company. Something similar had happened in Eloqua when they won American Express through the Sydney office. It’s a lesson why going to the less obvious offices can be much easier compared to Silicon Valley. “There aren’t as many gatekeepers to deal with.” But it’s also a powerful reminder that every relationship matters.
Extraordinary experiences and lasting connections have marked Mark’s life. None of it is by chance but rather has been carefully engineered. The advocates that he has fostered on the way have allowed him to build not one but two categories.
See Mark Organ at SaaStock where he will share not only what to do right when building a category king but also how not to f**k it all up. Get your ticket now.
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