What’s the secret behind HubSpot’s marketing success? In this Q&A, HubSpot CMO Mike Volpe reveals the keys to inbound marketing, discusses the company’s early challenges, and shares lessons other SaaS companies can take away from HubSpot’s rapid growth.
When it comes to inbound marketing, HubSpot is king. What started out as a vision from founders Brian Halligan and Dharmesh Shah to transform the marketing landscape has evolved into a full-blown movement with over 11,000 customers in 65 countries, 1 million followers on social media, and 1.5 million pageviews on its blog every month.
How did HubSpot grow so fast? We had a chance to ask HubSpot’s first marketer and CMO Mike Volpe some insightful questions into HubSpot’s marketing success. In this Q&A, Mike shares:
- The key ingredient to inbound success.
- The company’s early day victories and challenges.
- The metrics and strategies behind HubSpot’s marketing.
- How marketing helps SaaS companies scale.
“Inbound requires a fundamental realization that you need to earn attention instead of renting it, and that’s a hard philosophical shift when your organization is hardwired to keep running the same playbook for years.” – Mike Volpe, CMO at HubSpot
How to Market Like HubSpot: Q&A with Mike Volpe
What’s your background?
I was the first marketer at HubSpot and still love being our CMO. Prior to HubSpot, I ran demand generation and marketing communications at SolidWorks, worked at a couple startups, went to Bowdoin and MIT Sloan, and was even an investment banker for a couple years.
Why did you pick HubSpot?
I had felt the pain that HubSpot wanted to solve. In my last job my team had been doing traditional marketing, and we moved to inbound marketing by launching multiple blogs and podcasts, publishing videos and doing SEO. It worked quite well, but it was really, really hard to do, and we ended up with a variety of disconnected point tools that did not work well together.
When I looked around at different marketing platforms, none of them were complete, and none of them were built for inbound. So when I met Brian and Dharmesh I knew if we could build a product that worked well, lots of people would want to buy it. My gut just told me that it would be huge.
What do you think makes a good CMO?
Marketing is no longer arts and crafts. Executives and investors expect the marketing department to deliver measurable results and build a business, not just a brand. The traditional CMO path was from the creative or agency side of the world and I think that is on the decline. Today’s CMO needs to be a hybrid of analytical and creative. You have to be an expert at the numbers and demand generation, as well as branding and creative problem solving, and of course a good leader and manager like all executives.
What kind of blogs and sites do you read?
I read ReCode, TechCrunch, Mashable, WSJ’s CMO Today, and of course the HubSpot blogs. But a lot of what I read is through Twitter. I try to follow a limited number of people who have a good signal-to-noise ratio. I end up seeing a lot of interesting business and marketing articles, often from HubSpot partners.
If someone were to want to do marketing like HubSpot what would be the key ingredient?
The key ingredient is the shift in philosophy. Inbound requires a fundamental realization that you need to earn attention instead of renting it, and that’s a hard philosophical shift when your organization is hardwired to keep running the same playbook for years. The best inbound organizations change their mindset first, then set up about using technology and content to enable more efficient and effective inbound marketing efforts.
Is HubSpot really all inbound?
Pretty much. Over 75% of the leads we generate and over 90% of the new customers we sign up come from unpaid, organic, inbound sources. We do experiment with some paid advertising like search, social, display and some sponsorships, but the customer acquisition cost on that is always higher than our inbound efforts so we are constantly trying to hire more bloggers and content creators to invest more in inbound as fast as we can.
What are the top three ways marketing has contributed to the success of HubSpot?
I’m most proud of the fact that our marketing efforts have originated the vast majority of our over 11,000 customers in over 65 countries. After that I am proud that we have built an online presence and brand larger than SaaS companies 25x our size. Our blog gets over 1.5M views each month and we have over 1 million followers on social media, those are assets that are quite hard to replicate and provide an ongoing competitive advantage as we grow.
What were some early day victories? Early day challenges?
What’s funny about this question is that marketers now see us with a massive social and blog following and assume I can’t feel their pain in getting started from nothing. But when I joined HubSpot we got one lead a day and no one had heard of us. Before my first day on the job I had already written a blog post for HubSpot and after I started Brian, Dharmesh and I would create and promote new content every day. Every success felt monumental and every failure felt tragic.
What were some notable milestones?
I distinctly remember our 1,000th customer party and thinking we had really made it. We hosted a company party and invited a bunch of partners, customers and friends to join us. I felt like we had arrived then. Our first INBOUND conference (then called HUGS after our user groups) was also a huge milestone. The fact that people would travel to learn more about inbound marketing was a huge turning point. In fact, the biggest milestone every year for me is seeing how much the community has grown and meeting so many people at the INBOUND conference, which should be around 8,000 people this year.
Is there anything you would have changed in marketing along the way?
Honestly, there are tons of things we would have done differently or better given what we know now, but hindsight is always 20/20. If I had to reflect on where we made mistakes, I think they were almost always when we defaulted to conventional wisdom or thought too small or incrementally, and did not challenge ourselves to think about how to make something 10 times bigger, and not just 10% better.
What lessons would you share about how SaaS can best scale with the help of marketing?
I think the most important lesson is that as a CMO or VP or marketing leader you need to pick a couple things to focus on as you grow, because you can’t do everything. For me, I try to be hands off but I spend a lot of time in hiring because if you have the right people on the team everything else works better.
What’s the biggest distraction for marketers?
Trying to do everything and focusing on activities not outcomes. Marketers tend to be scatter-brained because they are asked by everyone in the company to do something, and it is easy to get stuck managing a lot of things to do instead of pushing toward the outcomes you want to achieve. You have to actively remind yourself that your job is to drive revenue and maximize ROI, so even if all the sales reps ask you to do the tradeshow, you need to tell them “no” if there is a better place to spend your time and money.
As far as what distracts my team most frequently, it’s a competition between Buzzfeed, Twitter, and either cat or baby photos, or conversations in our chat room debating if baby photos or cat photos are better.
How do you decide which stage of the funnel to prioritize?
Depends on your business and your business model. When we first started out, we invested most of our time in top of the funnel lead generation and awareness, but as we have grown and now have a lot of inbound lead generation happening naturally, the middle and bottom of the funnel marketing efforts have become even more important over time.
How do you prioritize marketing channels and programs when you’re a rapidly growing, resource constrained startup?
The most important thing is to build a scalable and repeatable model that gives you leverage over time, meaning that the more you do of it, the better it works and the lower cost it becomes. Advertising is the opposite of this, the more of it you do the more expensive it becomes per new customer. To build this scalable mode almost always means building and testing various inbound channels — content marketing, free tools, freemium products, and viral loops.
Should early-stage startups concern themselves with growth or retention, or both?
Growth. To survive, you need to grow, so put your foot on the gas to get people energized about your idea early and often. Retention comes later.
How does marketing work with sales at HubSpot?
We affectionately call our work together “smarketing” around here, and that’s because we have a working SLA (service level agreement) between marketing and sales that holds us both accountable to specific, measurable goals on a monthly cadence. It’s data-driven, collaborative, and focused on metrics versus emotions, which is where most companies fall short in trying to align marketing and sales.
What is the key to a successful relationship between the two departments?
Data, communication and shared goals. There will always be tension between marketing and sales due to the very nature of the business, but having technology and systems that makes the customer experience optimal and the back end handoff between marketing and sales completely seamless is imperative. Use a clear scoreboard, regularly scheduled check-ins and communication updates, and reinforce that everyone in marketing and sales should focus on the revenue goal.
What is (or should be) the most important metric to a marketer?
LTV: CAC ratio if I had to choose just one, but you can read my thoughts on the top six metrics in this article.
When you show up to the monthly board or executive committee meeting, what kind of metrics do you present?
We actually get this question so much we created content to answer it — a full overview with thoughts from numerous board members is here. At a high level, what executives want to know is what you’re doing to drive the business, what it costs, what’s working, what isn’t, and the business results associated with it. Far too many drone on about process (here’s what we did, here’s why we did it) and executives don’t care. They want impact, not tactical details.
What metrics does HubSpot obsess about?
We obsess about LTV:CAC organization-wide. In marketing, we obsessed about leads, marketing qualified leads, close rates, blog subscribers and traffic, and a whole host of other geeked-out metrics.
Who on your team owns which metrics?
We have four core teams at HubSpot: product marketing, funnel marketing, brand and buzz, and content — each of them has really different goals that all feed into team and company goals. As you might imagine, the metrics range from visits to leads to conversion rates to new customer acquisition to persona-based revenue depending on the teams, but all of them roll into a team-wide goal to keep us all aligned directionally.
What are you most excited about at INBOUND this year?
I’m really excited to see our customers and partners there, but as far as speakers go, I’m looking forward to Martha Stewart — she’s a powerhouse of business and content — and to seeing Janelle Monae in concert.