The CMO Does Not Create a World-Class Brand — the Product and the People Do. That Has Repercussions for Recruiting.

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Electric is the fourth B2B SaaS startup for which I’ve led marketing. Of the previous three, I saw double-digit growth at one of them and triple-digit growth at two of them.

When I get hired, CEOs typically look to me to drive growth. There are generally two pillars of B2B marketing that accomplish this goal. The first is making thoughtful investments like a hedge fund manager, and the second is creating a brand ethos (both design and message) that speaks to humans.

The art of balancing the two pillars thrills me, but there are two fundamental reasons a company accelerates growth — and it has very little to do with marketing. Instead, it has everything to do with:

  1. A five-star culture: The executive level needs more than just IQ — it also needs genuine emotional intelligence (EQ).
  2. A beloved product: The product must be indispensable and delightful.

EQ and IQ matter

Treating your employees and your colleagues like human beings matters. It matters a lot. I’ve never led by scaring people into hitting their goals, and I’ve never micromanaged their desk time. They are adults. I set the goals, support them when they need help, make sure they’re resourced properly, and get out of their way.

There’s certainly a balance — you don’t want to seem apathetic, after all. But I hire people to get the job done. If I stand in their way, then I should hold myself accountable for why I feel as though I need to do that.

However, this kind of leadership and culture starts at the very top, with the CEO. They need to be committed to treating their executive team with respect and radical candor. I’ve seen what a lack of executive EQ can do. I once witnessed a CEO experience 100 percent executive turnover in under a year because they did not treat their colleagues well.

When you care personally about your team, they will run through the wall for you. That’s why a five-star culture is critical. It’s not an aesthetically pleasing, Instagrammable office or free lunch that retains talent. It’s the culture.

Which leads me to the other element that a real five-star culture helps with: recruitment.

For more expert recruiting insights, check out the latest issue of Recruiter.com Magazine:

Issues like high employee turnover and retention problems have long plagued the tech world. In 2019 alone, we all watched as many promising unicorn companies fell short of market expectations. In part, these failures reveal what happens when a company grows too quickly without a solid cultural foundation.

If leadership truly values its people as more than cogs in a machine, the recruiting process becomes a breeze. No amount of free snacks or foosball tables could ever achieve the same effect. Once you have that cultural foundation, employee retention and engagement will follow. That’s how world-class brands are born.

It’s possible to grow without this kind of cultural foundation, but I can’t think of one company that has a toxic culture and a brand everyone loves. It may exist in the short-term, but it will not last. If you can find an example of one, please send it my way.

Do People Actually Need and Like Your Product?

I can’t remember who first shared this perspective with me, but I’ve been told you can approach marketing and selling by first understanding whether your product is a painkiller or a vitamin. (According to my research, this idea seems to have originated with an Entrepreneur article by George Deeb.) Painkillers solve actual problems, while vitamins are merely nice things to have.

This concept has stayed with me for a long time, and I’ve found in my career that this is a critical question to ask yourself when joining a company, especially as the CMO: Is the product a painkiller or a vitamin?

A vitamin becomes a very expensive sales and marketing problem, because it impacts your go-to-market (GTM) strategy. For example, can you capture active demand, or do you have to actively tell people why your product is something they need? I prefer the former, albeit this probably means you’re playing in a highly competitive space.

I was lucky finding Electric. It’s a painkiller with low competition because the problem we’re solving is a hard one and requires complex AI algorithms, which not everyone dares to try.

If you’re not sure whether you’re getting into a painkiller or a vitamin, ask yourself: What is the annual retention rate and Net Promoter Score (NPS)?

If the retention rate or NPS is low, this will be a very expensive sales and marketing problem over time. Furthermore, businesses grow through referrals is key to the flywheel. The flywheel is the part that helps a CMO create a world-class brand. If people need the product and their experience has been delightful, they will naturally share this fact with others. It’s called “word of mouth.” Nothing new here, but to be clear, it’s the product that perpetuates that word of mouth over time, not the CMO. I make investments to help amplify it, but the ground swell must come from the product.

For the record, Ryan Denehy, the CEO of Electric, did not have “build a world-class brand” in the job description for the CMO position. Actually, he didn’t have a job description at all. He had both foundational elements (great culture and beloved product), and I asked to work for him.

That should tell you something about how these elements interact with your recruiting process in general. Your consumer and employer brands aren’t as distinct as you might think.

Andrea Kayal is the CMO of Electric.

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