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Published October 4th 2017

Interview: Lauren Perkins on Building Success in the Startup Marketing World

In the latest edition of our interview series with thought leaders in the marketing space, we spoke to Lauren Perkins; serial entrepreneur, thought leader, and CMO. 

Her latest venture, FlyFit, combines her love of fitness, adventure, and performance to create the first wellness and fitness studio that provides instructor-led and interactive workouts to international airports.

It is also the first startup to fully adopt her signature “Think like a Brand. Act like a Startup.™” operating model, which places customers at the center of the business strategy.

She has spent a decade refining the model with growth-stage companies as an interim CMO for startups, scale-ups, and corporate innovators through her marketing and growth advisement firm, Perks Consulting.

Could you share an overview of your role and job responsibilities?

As a CMO, every staff member that we hire is a representative of the brand. Acquiring talent should be a shared responsibility, but it is something that I’m spearheading to support the brand promise delivery and customer experience.

A trend I’m noticing is that more and more CMOs are taking accountability for the customer experience (CX), even the frontline staff to make sure the brand is well represented.

I feel that the CMO hat is just getting really big these days. Other responsibilities include working through the unit economics of our pricing structure, developing our offering and validation around it, and customer discovery to ensure we know what customers want.

On top of this, there’s all of the regular marketing accountabilities in terms of developing and managing the brand: content, social, community, demand gen.

And then of course you’ve got sort of your digital side of the fence. For FlyFit that is an extension of our in person experience, so the mobile app, the website, and how those integrate with CRM and POS.

What is your favorite thing about leading the marketing efforts for a start-up?

The most fun part about leading marketing for a startup is that you get to move as fast as the market and sometimes faster, defining and setting new trends.

So the agility factor is very exciting for me. It’s amazing to be able to say, ‘we’re going to launch a crowd-funding campaign and we’re going to get it live within a month’. And then be able to move that fast and to have the accountability and influence to say ‘we should do this, let’s mobilize and get it done.’

It’s the one thing that I did not enjoy about working for larger companies. Even with some of the corporate innovation projects I’ve done in the last five years – the signoffs, need for consensus, and too much process often slowed down the ability to get new ideas to market.

When I was at Nike, I was fortunate to work in a local market on the ground. I had a lot of autonomy because corporate and regional management had to empower outcomes, so within certain areas I could move really fast and other things took longer to implement. And Nike, I think, is one of the corporations that is more agile than many.

In the corporate world, what I see as a challenge is them saying they want to change, but the actual pace, ability, and willingness to is so different than what’s necessary to achieve agility.

Corporate cultures will need to encourage teams to get started, build momentum, and be willing to learn from “failures” if they want to adopt the agile startup ways of work. So it’s nice  not having to worry about those cultural constraints when running a startup.

What would you say is the biggest challenge you’re facing?

I’d say the biggest challenge is having enough time. It’s a total bandwidth thing.

When you’re building new markets and moving fast, you’re able to build so much forward momentum. And right now we’re very fortunate that things are coming faster than our roadmap set out, which puts human capital at the top of the demands.

In many ways, this comes with the challenge of really putting constraints on and defining guardrails around what doesn’t matter, or doesn’t matter yet. Our internal conversation often centers around what absolutely has to get done and what is nice to get done

How am I overcoming it?

By prioritizing the most important business and marketing activities and putting a lot of weight on the three key things that if we don’t get done each week, will have the biggest positive or negative impact to our success and growth

Knowing what you do want makes it easier to say no or deprioritize initiatives or opportunities that are coming our way.

I wrote a piece for Inc. many years back about “How to prioritize when everything is a priority” and it really captures the thinking around trade offs and prioritization: what has the biggest upside if we succeed and what is the biggest liability if we don’t address.

We start there when prioritizing our pipeline of weekly work and are constantly readjusting in our daily stand ups or weekly prioritization meetings.

It’s also about giving up some of the reins to people who can move on their own, knowing that it may not always be perfect or how I would have done it, but it’s necessary to keep our cadence and output up.

What advice would you give to anyone building or growing a marketing team?

The first thing you need to figure out is the work style for yourself and that of your team. Secondly, understanding the dynamics of how people prefer to work.

Somebody who needs a ton of structure would fail in an environment like the one that I’m building, because nobody on the team has the time or the patience to slow down and say, ‘Let me spend three weeks teaching you how to do what we need to do.’

But that doesn’t mean that people aren’t learning. In fact, most of the team would say the learnings are compounded because of our pace, they just need to be able to learn by doing and through collaboration or co-creation opposed to a more linear learn/do approach.

With the pace of change in marketing and technology today, I find this to be the better work style, but it doesn’t work for everyone.

Beyond work style, I look for mindset, interests, goals and experiences not specific tactical skills. We can teach people marketing tactics, they can learn it online or by testing with the support of myself and the team.

There are skills that are easy to learn, but I prioritize work style, mindset and then the ability to learn and adapt over skills because these traits are very hard to re-wire.

And that’s not to say I don’t vet for someone’s goals to see if there’s a compelling fit or the skills or experiences that can accelerate someone’s ability to onboard and contribute to our growth, it’s just much further down the criteria list.

Once you know the kind of people that work in your culture and with the existing team you can move on to build a recruitment wishlist. You need to ask yourself: what are the one or two skills sets or experiences that are missing from the existing team that would solve the most amount of hurdles or take the biggest advantage of the momentum we already have?

Team-building is extremely important and unfortunately big and small companies alike really get it wrong a lot of the time. That happens because we’re used to the old school way of doing HR, where candidates need to have a job requisite and they need to tick as many boxes as possible in it to even get into the interview.

If you get a rock star with the right work style, compatible communication, relevant experience, and who really believes in the company, that is a key thing that any team needs, marketing or otherwise.

Which are the key skills a successful CMO needs to have today?

You also need to be able to uncover and understand insights and trends within your market and customer segments and how to apply them to the business. I think it’s also an imperative that CMO’s know how to leverage agile methodologies to be able to test new products, channels, and initiatives.

I think that team-building is one of the most important things for a leader, because if you’re really great at finding and developing talent, then you can easily keep growing and evolving not just the team, but the work you’re producing.

And that’s really the kind of responsiveness that’s necessary to compete today. For FlyFit, I feel very fortunate that I’ve built and managed large teams on both the fitness and marketing side, and know what we’re looking for.

In a lot of ways, my trajectory has been really helpful to where marketing is today, even though it was intended.

Going from journalism into more corporate and then experiential marketing, before taking on marketing leadership roles in the startup world has been super valuable as a CMO, because I’ve seen all the sides: media, corporate, and startup.

Lastly, having the breadth and depth of experience from consulting and teaching in the last ten years as a CMO advisor I’ve worked on multiple business models, industries, team sizes and with startups had to tie both the strategic with the tactical, leverage my journalism roots to drive positioning strategy and messaging to telling compelling stories.

With the rise of social, has the role of the CMO changed over the last ten years? How do you see it evolve over the next ten?

It’s no surprise over the last ten years, we have become a lot more data-driven thanks to social and mobile. At the same time it’s also gotten a lot more qualitative around the insights and people side of things.

CMOs have earned their seat at the table! Both on the leadership team and in the boardroom, the role of the CMO has gotten much bigger and much more important with the necessity of a brand’s connection to customers and impact to the overall market.

The CMO role is vital in driving the trajectory of a company. It’s a lot more business-minded, and in some ways I almost feel like you need to be business person first, an innovator second, and a marketer third.

Marketers need to be conscious of how are we actually creating value, not only for our customers, stakeholders, and shareholders, but also how are we creating value for our employees?

That sort of strategic insight components is going to be something that the future CMO is going to be expected to oversee.

And if I had to say where we’re going, I think that the CMO is going to get more involved in driving and leading the business strategically, being involved more deeply in board management and innovation, and focused on both the customer and employee experiences.

What are the most important lessons you’ve learned over 15 years of leadership experience in marketing?

I think the most important lesson has been thinking about how to be strategic yet how to be agile at the same time.

Being able to get comfortable with some strategy time, but making time to reflect and to make sure that you’re thinking through it.

One of the most important lessons is making sure that you build in that time to do the retrospective, to make sure you pause at decision-making making points frequently and say “what’s working and what’s not?” and really criticize your own work and the work of your own team to say that if things aren’t working how can we rapidly change what isn’t, even though that change may not be comfortable?

Being open to other people’s perspectives and ideas is really important. Whenever I feel like I’ve got all of the information, then somebody will have something that challenges me and then I have to go back and ask if I have all of the wisdom and all of the knowledge? And then what do I need to do to upscale and educate myself to make sure that I’m being a good leader?

Not only by example, but also to make the hard decisions.

Which marketing area do you think will be growing most significantly over the next 5 years?

I think in the next two to five years, the way we create and interact with content is going to change, as well as how brands interact and behave in communities and how consumers engage with brands.

Augmented reality and artificial intelligence are going to make agile content creation a bit more difficult while it’s finding it’s footing, but I think we can expect experiences to be the customer demand now and only growing into the future.

We really have to think about how we’re creating very strategic, immersive experiences from a business standpoint and how we’re delivering on our value proposition, creating and delivering value to all stakeholders.

I think the future of marketing is going to be really interesting. I’m confident the rate of change from the last ten years in marketing can be expected to move forward.

And we can expect marketing to be one of the fasting evolving disciplines. We’re going to see more and more data being used, we’ll expect social listening to give us more insight on sentiment and loyalty, we’ll explore even more interesting ways of interacting with each other, with technology, with brands, products and services. It’s going to be very strategically creative.

Startups, more than any other type of company, seem to have the biggest contrast between growth goals and resources available. How do you maximize growth?

Maximizing growth is a huge challenge for all companies. When it comes to maximizing growth at a startup, you have to look for the activities that are creating the most ROI or traction with core customer groups.

At the same time, you’re going to have to prioritize things that may not create the same magnitude of ROI, but they are key to developing essential relationships.

Often community building and partnerships fit into this bucket, but the mid to long term outcome of doing so is essential to hockey stick growth.

Maximizing growth is very testing and optimization driven, but it’s also knowing there is a lot of qualitative things that you need to do to ensure that you still get the results.

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