In this week’s episode of Starving for Insight, I’m sitting down with April Dunford, CEO of Ambient Strategy and best-selling author of Obviously Awesome: How To Nail Product Positioning, So Customers Get It, Buy It, Love It. April is a globally recognized expert in positioning and market strategy and has brought 16 products to market across her 25-year career at both successful high-growth startups and Fortune 500 companies.
The full transcript is available below, and be sure to leave a comment letting us know what new insight you learned from this week’s episode.
Listen to this episode and subscribe to Starving for Insight on Apple Podcasts.
3 Key Positioning Takeaways
- First, you need to understand who your customers are. Only then can you come up with creative ways to get in front of them.
- Not every problem has or needs an advanced digital solution.
- Product intuition comes from a bone-deep understanding of your target audience.
Ashley: Welcome to this episode of Starving for Insight. I am super excited to have April Dunford joining us today. This is going to be the epitome of the episode where I try to shut up as much as possible and let her talk. She’s hilarious. She’s launched over 16 different products to market to date, worked for a bunch of startups and big companies as well. And she’s extraordinary. She’s currently CEO of Ambient Strategy, but she’s best known by her name, April Dunford and I’m sure you’ve heard of her. So April, do you want to tell us a little bit more about yourself and what you’re working on these days?
April: Hey Ashley, thanks so much for having me on the show. My background is mainly as a repeat VP of marketing at a set of different startups, but more recently I’ve been working as a consultant. My focus really is on positioning and more sort of the strategic side of market strategy. How you define a market, how you go after it, how you intend to win it. That’s me.
Ashley: April is being very humble. She’s quite accomplished. And as a standard for this show, I’d give everyone a set of FAQS and I include, as an example of the type of things I want to talk about, April’s answer on GrowthHackers AMA about a certain story we’re going to get into right now. You’ve set the bar so high! So I had to have April on the show so you could hear the story from herself.
April: You get better stories when you’ve been doing stuff for a long time and so there’s more chance for interesting stories to accumulate.
Ashley: As a female in tech, you’re often asked what your age is, whether you are or not old, it doesn’t matter. So we’re not going to talk about age and you are not old, but I do want to hear this story because again, you’ve worked on 16 different products and brought them to market. That’s crazy.
April: The GrowthHackers story is a fun one, because I often use it as an example of why deep customer understanding really matters. So the example is I got hired to be the vice president of marketing for a company and the company is quite big about $80 million revenue and the target market was a mid-size manufacturing companies. So essentially these manufacturing companies did things like auto parts or food manufacturing or cardboard, I mean, they were really diverse set. And so I took over the team. We had a very mature digital marketing set of things already going on.
April: We were power market users. We had a very big opted-in email list. That is as far as we can tell in terms of North America, we had at least two contact points in every midsize manufacturer in the entire continent. So we were doing really amazing email marketing. We had a bunch of content running, we had a blog, we were doing webinars, we did trade shows. We were running a well oiled machine. We’re always trying to get better, so we’re looking at the results and we identified a segment that never responded to anything that we did and they were largely auto parts manufacturers.
April: There was a cluster of them in Michigan, which is where a lot of auto parts manufacturing are, and they never did anything. We tried outbound calling campaigns that we couldn’t get through to them on the phone. They never opened our email, they never talked to us at a trade show. They never consumed any of our content. It was this great mystery. Who are these people and why is it that they don’t care about anything we have to say? I was going to a trade show in Michigan and I thought, you know what, I’m actually going to get my car and I got to drive over and I’m gonna knock on the door and I’m going to see if I could talk to any of these people.
April: So I get in my car and I drive out and it and I go around and I managed to talk to five or six of these guys and it turns out they’re all awesome and not only that, they’re all the same person. So we’re generally selling to the owner of the manufacturing plant because they’re small and so you pull up, there’s a little manufacturing plant in the middle of nowhere. There’s a car parked out front and it’s a Cadillac and that’s the owner’s car and it’s right beside the door and you go in and you say, hey, I really want to talk to Mike. There’s a little old lady at reception and her job is to make sure you don’t talk to Mike, but then you sweet talk her a little bit.
April: I just want to ask him some questions. So then he comes out, he’s great. Next thing you know, you’re getting the tour of the plan. Everything is awesome. So I have these conversations with these guys and I say, look, we sell software to guys like you and I’m trying to figure out, why don’t you respond to any of my stuff. Do you ever go to a trade show? No. Do you ever read email? No. Actually, he says I don’t even have a computer in my office.
April: I have Marlene out front. She reads the email and if it looks like a sales pitch, I tell her to delete it. Okay, I can see how email is not going to work for you. Then I said, well, what about a newsletter? He’s looking at me squinty-eyed, like, no, I don’t do any of these digital things. Then I ask what about paper things? You get a magazine? And he says no to everything. So I ask how do you ever find out about what’s going on new? He says, well, I’ve got a couple of buddies that work in the industry. We talk about stuff sometimes, but I’m kind of not into new stuff and these guys are all older too.
April: They’re about 70 years old for the most part. So I do a bunch of these meetings and after four or five of them, I know if I sent a sales rep to go and do what I’m doing right now, we could sell these guy something but I can’t afford that. My lifetime value of the product is not high enough to have me have sales reps on the road. There wasn’t enough of them to justify having a rep to do just that. So I thought, you know what? I give up. I can’t sell these folks stuff. I’m literally going to have to wait till they die and their sons’ takeover.
April: Then we’re going to be able to sell to these dudes. So anyway, I have one more meeting. At this point, I’m kind of relaxed and I’m just enjoying the conversation because I’ve decided I can’t sell them anything. So I’m in with the last guy and these guys are great. We’re sitting in the guy’s office and while we’re talking and we’re trying to wrap stuff up there’s this noise in the corner. We both stop and I say, what’s that noise? And he says, I have no idea. And we start looking around the room and finally he walks over to the corner and he’s got a stack of papers and he picks up the stack of papers and underneath there’s a fax machine and he’s getting a fax.
April: Wow. And we stopped the conversation. He pulls a piece of paper out of his fax machine. He holds it up and he reads it and he’s got this big smile on his face. This is the greatest thing that’s happened to them all day to get this fax. He reads the fax and I think holy cow, do you get a lot of faxes? And he says, Oh man, I haven’t gotten one of these in years. This is great. I get in the car, go back and I get on the plane and fly home.
April: I got this team, I bought five or six people in my team and, and literally everybody’s 24 and I tell them alright kids. I went away to Michigan and I came back with this great idea, we’re going to run a campaign and I had this gal who’s my admin and she’s amazing. She looked at me and she’s got this big smile on her face. She says that’s awesome. What’s the fax? So we’re going to go get this fax machine. I go to my CEO and I ask if he wants a fax machine. And he’s looking at me sideways like why are you asking me that question? No reason. Just trying some stuff out. Do we find this big machine? We can’t figure it out, is it plugging into the wall? We’re a bunch of idiots. What is this dinosaur thing?
April: Anyways, we’re all laughing our heads off and we decided we’re going to do this campaign and so we run this campaign and the campaign is basically we’re going to fax these guys and we’re going to make fun of the fact that we’re faxing them. So we faxed these guys and we have this campaign, is your ERP software older than this fax machine? Maybe you want to talk to us and we’re going to affect them something and then we’re going to get their attention and then we’re going to follow it up with a call and we’re going to hope that that’s enough to bust through.
April: So we run this thing and everybody’s like, man, this is nuts. We’re going to get zero with this campaign. Nothing is gonna happen with the campaign. But hilariously, we run this thing and it totally worked. My inside salespeople are killing themselves with the office, telling me I don’t know what you did to butter that guy, but that guy is totally wanting to talk to me. We were tracking the thing and these lead reports and I were too scared to tell my CEO that we were running a fax campaign because I thought it was going to be bad for my digital cred.
April: So I just called it the F program, the campaign that dare not speak its name. Anyways, that sucker drove millions of dollars of revenue. It was crazy. We went and we had all those guys and then we went back and we looked at a bunch of other segments where we had people that fit that profile and we were like, you know what? We’re going to try this on a whole bunch of people that don’t respond to our stuff and we ran that thing for two, three quarters and it was by far my most successful new customer acquisition campaign for those two, three quarters.
April: It was just crazy. The point of this story though, is that people will come and ask me and they’ll say, look, April, should I do Facebook ads or should I invest in SEO? And my answer is always, I don’t know because I don’t know your customers and I don’t know what they do. So the first step always has to be to figure those people out and then if you figured them out, you’ll figure out how to reach them. I will never ever, I’m pretty sure run a fax campaign again. But what it illustrates is that I never would have come up with that tactic if I hadn’t been able to drive around and lock eyes with these people, get inside their heads and say, okay, if I’m a 70-year-old who doesn’t do email, email won’t work.
April: How do I actually get their attention and convince them that there’s a thing they need to learn about? Obviously, the point is not that fax campaigns are awesome. Running a fax campaign with everybody that would be ridiculous. I am pretty much positive that I am never going to run another fax campaign. The point of this story is that when people come to me and they say, April, should I run Facebook ads? Should I invest in SEO? Should I do a blog? My answer to that is I don’t know because I don’t know your customers.
April: And if you don’t know your customers enough to answer that question, then you don’t know either. And you need to fix that. The important thing is to understand who are your folks. You need to understand them deeply so you can crawl inside their skin and answer the question: what is the best way to reach these folks?
April: What is the best way to get in front of them and convince them… hey, here’s something that you need to pay attention to, or here’s something that you need to look at. We get so hung up on tactics and channels, right? Chasing the shiny and new. But sometimes there’s really creative ways of getting in front of people that you know wouldn’t work for us, but it works for them because of the way they are and their history and what they want to do.
April: The first step is you really got to understand who your customers are. Once you understand that, then you can understand how to do some creative things to get in front of them.
Ashley: I’m curious when you give people that advice because I know April gets a thousand requests for coffee every week and she’s super gracious. That’s a lot of coffees with people, but then they ask what you refer to as “google solvable problems”…
April: Yeah, don’t be saying that because I don’t want any more people calling me saying, Hey, I just want to have a coffee. Honestly, it’s a problem. I don’t know. I need to do better time management on that stuff.
Ashley: That is true, but you are incredibly gracious. But from an outsider perspective, you might tell her to cut down on her coffees and it sounds like she’s doing that. How do people receive that advice when you tell them, go talk to your customers. What’s the reaction?
April: One thing that I think is really interesting is that we’re digital people, right? So we like to think that everything has advanced digital solution to it. And so when I say to people you really need to deeply understand your customers, their instant reaction to that is, oh, we’ll just survey them. I’ll do a survey and sometimes surveys are okay. I’m not knocking surveys. But if I had surveyed the manufacturers that I used in that fax example, I would have gotten nothing. I would literally would have gotten nothing because I’m not smart enough to say, “Hey, if I sent you a fax, do you happen to have a fax machine in your office?” Like I never would have figured that out.
April: And if what I’m looking for is deeper insight, I really like having some regular conversations with customers. You’re not always gonna be able to get on a plane and see them face-to-face and sit in their offices, and if you can, that’s amazing. But even a phone conversation where you just get people talking is so much more interesting and useful and relevant than the things you can get out of a survey.
April: Particularly because the survey is only as good as the questions you’re asking and you’re not smart enough to ask the right questions or you don’t know what you don’t know and even if you have long-form answer things, some people just won’t fill those out and they won’t tell you anything that you don’t know already, so when I tell people that you need to be talking to a bunch of customers, they think what they’re going to do is just run a survey.
April: They’ll make up some questions, they’ll build a list, they’ll hit everyone with the survey and they’ll be done in five minutes and it just doesn’t work like that. It’s a never-ending journey and it’s a never-ending sort of ongoing conversation. You should be having a handful of conversations with customers every week and it never ends and you’ll get smarter. There’s some really easy questions you can answer that way, do you prefer this versus this, fine, run a survey, you don’t need to call them to do that, but if you’re really trying to get inside the head of somebody, you’re not going to do that with five multiple choice questions.
April: So when do you think it’s important to get inside someone’s head? We were talking offline earlier about product intuition, and what does that mean? You know, in my mind, product intuition is really something that you develop after you really get a bone-deep understanding of your target segment. So you’ve had enough conversations that you understand this is what makes them tick, this is what they do and what they don’t do. This is what they hate. Like these sorts of things drive them crazy and you know, it’s so much deeper than just doing a persona exercise where we just write all this stuff down. It’s, it’s about having enough conversations that you can say, listen, my people, here’s what they’re like, and it’s kind of a thing that you don’t get right away.
April: It takes time and you develop it, but then once you have it, because you’ve done 20, 30 conversations with customers, it starts feeling like this intuition it feeling like, you know, you’re talking about a new feature and you’re like, Oh man, my people aren’t gonna like that. Right? Or, Oh man, my people are going to love that, but you’ve got to make it work in this way so it doesn’t annoy them and we can’t forget about these four other things they do because it has nothing to do with our product, but it will intersect with us if we do this new thing and all of that ends up feeling like gut feel, but it seemed formed gut feel. It’s gut feel that is more likely to be correct and incorrect because it’s based on this, you know, this underlying set of knowledge that you’ve built up over time about your customers.
Ashley: You think you can get that same understanding from quantitative data?
April: Well, absolutely. I mean, that’s part of it, it’s part of it, but, and I certainly wouldn’t say, oh, forget about quantitative data as long as you’re having some conversations once in a while. No, because you know, the other thing is that people lie about things like, you know, you know, revenue metrics for example, or something that everybody lies about. Uh, we lie about it, our customers live, but everybody lies about pricing and things like that. Like if you ask a customer what they pay for something or they’ll tell you waitlist than what they actually paid. So, you know, quantitative data is important in a lot of different ways, right? To see how your customers are behaving versus how they say they behave because sometimes there’s a disconnect there. But you know, all the things need to come together to form a picture. But my biggest advice, particularly to startups that want to do, they want to do everything quantitative and they’re all about the numbers and I think they’re missing out on this whole other piece of the picture by just looking at the numbers and just running surveys and just, you know, treating this like a spreadsheet exercise. There’s people on the other end of this thing and those people are hard to figure out by just looking at the spreadsheet.
Ashley: And what about bigger companies you’ve worked at your fair share of those companies as well. How have you been able to do this type of work in those companies?
April: Yeah, big companies are funny. Like, you know, I find what’s interesting is at big companies there’s often a pushback against talking to customers because sales has a lot of power and sales, you know, some of them have had bad experiences with marketing people tagging along on a sales call and then saying something stupid that the sales person perceives is going to mess up their deal. And so sometimes you actually have to fight to talk to customers and that’s disappointing. Your sales team is often a great source of insight if you have a good rapport with your sales team and you can figure out how to ask them the right questions, but I was thinking about it. I was thinking about a story recently where
April: I worked for a startup. We got acquired by a big, big company in the valley. This was years and years ago. The company was called at the time, they’re that big CRM company before Salesforce was anything. Salesforce was around then, but they weren’t very big and they certainly weren’t selling to enterprise customers. So Siebel was the giant in the market for enterprise. CRM at the time were 9,000 employees, 2 billion revenue. And so I ran marketing for like post-acquisition. I was the head of marketing for a division of that which was focused on financial services and that was about $800, million revenue at a 2 billion. So I was like the big division, but there were five divisions and so I get this job. I inherit this new team. I inherited a whole bunch of campaigns and shit that are already running and, and we have to have this, like every couple of weeks we have a meeting with our boss, all the heads of marketing for all the divisions.
April: So we go in and we have this meeting every week and, and uh, so I have to pull together this big report, how are all my campaigns doing versus my target. So the first, uh, you know, I’m there for two weeks, I pulled a report and then the report is not good. Like how are the campaigns doing? They’re doing shit actually. I’m making my target on anything. And so um, you know, um, new girls. So that’s okay. I’m not responsible for any of this mess. Yeah. Right. So, you know, so anyways, so we go in and the boss is there and he’s like, so you know, we got to go around the table and present how the things doing. So two or three people go before me and they got, they got shit results too. They’re like, everything’s bad. And, and my boss Bruce, he says, well get it.
April: Like why are they so bad? And the first guy goes and he says, oh, it’s bad because the economy’s bad and it’s true. This was like 2000 and economy was pretty soft. Big Enterprises in particular. We’re slowing down on purchasing software. And so everybody said, no, it’s bad because the economy is bad. It’s not us, it’s economy. And so do people went into that and anyways I had to do mine. So I showed all my stuff and it was crap to these as well. Why? And I said, well, I don’t know, I’ve only been here two weeks. I have no clue why. But you know, maybe it’s this economy thing, I don’t know, I’m going to try to figure it out. So go back and I’m digging through all the numbers and it’s really bad. Like it’s, we’re running campaigns that two quarters earlier we’re doing great and you know, fast forward two quarters and nothing’s meeting its target and it’s just bad news, bad news, bad news.
April: And so when I get in these situations, um, I tend to look for the bright spots. So you’re trying to look for, okay, I know there’s a bunch of stuff that doesn’t work and um, I might need to kill some of that stuff, but I wonder what is actually working. So I’m digging through the numbers, looking for the good news and there isn’t very much. And finally I get to this bit when I’m looking at the performance of my inside sales team and the way all my campaigns work is I’m driving these leads and the lead get passed to inside sales and what inside sales does is they try to get the lead on the phone, qualify them a little bit and then set up a meeting for the sales rep to go in and do a face to face meeting. So I’ve got six inside sales reps, I think maybe eight.
April: I can’t remember how many there were. And anyways, they all kind of performance wise, they’re all sorta hitting about the same numbers except for one. I got one guy and he’s killing it. So he’s booking double the number of appointments of everybody else and, and he’s crushing it and I’m like, well, isn’t that weird? I got to go down and see, meet this guy and find out what’s going on. So I go down there to meet the dude and, and I show up at like nine in the morning and the whole team’s there except that guy. And I’m like, oh, okay, well I’m going to sit in. And so I introduced myself to people. I’m like, Hey, I’m new here. I’m just going to sit in and listen in on calls. I’m like, yeah, sure. So we’re listening to the calls and the calls are bad.
April: So the way all my campaigns worked is we were selling to a senior people in it, so CIO, head of IT, etc. So we’re. So the way it works is we’ve generated this lead by creating some content or running some events or whatever. And then the inside sales rep tries to get that person on the phone. So in all the conversations I had, they went like this inside sales rep calls in it person gets on the phone and they’re like. And they’re like, hey, you know, we’re Siebel. We sell this customer relationship management software and it’s really good for tracking your pipeline and your leads and get it more predictable and revenue, blah, blah blah. And IT managers like, look, just don’t even talk to me. I just got my budget slashed by half, like don’t even watch TV. The economy is shit. I have no budget. Go Away, stop talking to me, end of the conversation.
April: So I’m like, oof, this is bad. I wonder what my other guy does. Right? So, so dude comes rolling in. My good guy, he comes rolling in and he’s like, hey. And he looks like he’s hung over. He’s a little disheveled and his California, I got to feel and maybes high so east. So he comes in and he sits down, he puts his feet on the desk. He was like, you’ll be like, oh my God, this is my superstar guy. And I’m like, Hey, I’m April calls. And he’s like, yeah, no problem. So we get it on the phone and he, this guy’s hilarious. Comes in and he says, hey, how’s things going? Probably Shit. Right. He says, look, your budget’s been cut. Guy goes, yeah, but it’s a bunch of big cut man. I can’t buy anything. Can’t buy anything from guys. Like you shouldn’t even be talking you. It’s just. Yeah, I know.
April: But your budget went to someone else, right? Probably the head of sales. Head of sales probably got your budget. Yeah, those guys. Yeah. They get, they get all the money, they get all the money. So yeah. Who’s your head of sales by the way? And then he gets the name of the head of sales and he’s like, you might transfer me over. I’m going to talk to that guy like I, you know, I feel sorry for you dude. But it brings me over to the head of sales. I got to tell them what great work you’re doing over here and um, maybe get some of that budget back for you. All right. So then he gets transferred over to the sales. Then he gets the head of sales. Yeah.
April: And he’s like a new guy, like a totally different guy, gets the head of sales on and he’s like, he’s like, hey, the economy’s bad, right? A bit. You’re under a lot of pressure to meet your sales number. Head of sales was like, oh yeah, you have no idea. You know, what you need, you need better visibility in your pipeline. And he starts pitching them CRM right? And pipeline funnel analysis and how are you gonna be able to insight and your funnel and whatever. You know what you guys need. You guys need CRM. I can’t believe you’re not running CRM. This is back in the days when people didn’t have CRM, but I can’t believe you don’t have any CRM, but whatever. Whatever. I send my guy in there and he’ll show you how this works. And by the way, we’re working with four companies that look just like you and the minute they start using our stuff, their revenue goes up 30 percent, why don’t you, you don’t want to talk to my guy.
April: And I was like, okay, that sounds good. Okay, good. The appointment. Now let that sink in for a minute. I got 800 million in revenue. I have a giant team of people. I have a huge marketing machine aimed at CIO. And what I just learned is that maybe I’m selling to the wrong person. Do I have an email list of VPs of Marketing or VPs of Sales? No. Do I have content that’s appropriate for a VP Sales? No. Any Persona work? Anything for VP Sales? No. Do I have call scripts? Do I do, am I going to any shows where I get in front of the people? Nope. Nope, nope, nope. Nope. My entire marketing engine is oriented towards possibly the wrong person faster.
April: So now it’s the meeting and we were going around doing this meeting like we always do, Oh hey, you know, here’s the results. So I flop up my results and then I’m like, so it looks like everything’s still crap. And I’m like, yeah, well good news, bad news, bad news is everything’s crap. Good news is I got an idea why? So then I show them a whole bunch of data and it turns out that what the data shows it backs up what I heard from the dude in the call center is like basically the money is shifted over to the line of business from it and we’re going to have to figure out how to sell to the line of business and, and maybe the glory days of us selling it are, you know, coming to the beginning of the end here and the look of my bosses rather bruce. He’s looking at me like a big boat turn and I don’t think we had enough ocean to turn it to tell you the truth. Like so, you know, I immediately went back and started trying to run experiments on, well, we’re going to need to build a list. We’re going to need to run campaigns, we’re going to need to go do some shows. So I canceled a bunch of things and I started doing a bunch of other things, but I’m telling you I will. I got massive pushback from everyone in the organization because that was a bit of customer insight that I was kind of on the leading edge. We’re actually, my guy at inside sales was on the leading edge of it. I don’t think I successfully convinced anybody that that shift was going to happen fast and going to be devastating for the business. And so I ended up leaving, but I don’t even know how it got on this story.
April: But the point of this story is that you know, again, it’s this customer insight thing. Like, you know, sometimes there’s this easy answer which is the economy’s crap, it’s crap, but you know, I kinda had this itchy feeling like, you know, I had just come from a company where we were growing gangbusters and we didn’t have that problem at all, but you know, what we sold to it and the line of business together. And so that also gave me a clue. Like maybe that’s why things are different over here because they’re, you know, selling in a different way than we were. And so I think whenever you get that kind of scratchy feeling like maybe there’s something going on here that I don’t know, you got to dig for it. It’s also an example of, I, you know, again, this qualitative and quantitative and doing the work and bringing those things together is important.
April: I never would have known them. I get just looking at the numbers didn’t tell me what was going on. And so it wasn’t until I got to listen to a bunch of customer conversations where I was like, oh, this is actually what’s happening. And it’s big. The other thing is that, you know, there’s this, this idea that you need to, you need to constantly be on the lookout for how things are changing and be ready to challenge even your most closely held assumptions, like here’s who we sell to, markets change and things change and when they do, we often have to react to that much closer and much faster than what we’re really comfortable with. So that’s that.
Ashley: So how do you develop that intuition over time to know when it might be some external factor? When, when, when to start digging and window. Do you have any tips for anyone on that?
April: Well, I, you know, I think it’s, I think it’s a cop-out too, to fall back on external factors. I mean, not that external factors aren’t important, but you know, like in that case, I just felt like I can’t go tell Bruce every two weeks. Like everything’s crap and it’s out of my control. Sorry, don’t want to hear that story. It’s out of my control. Right. And so, you know, so there’s that. Um, but I think that, I think that you got to assume that there’s a whole bunch of things that are under your control. And so, you know, if one segment stops buying, there’s another segment that will, if you know, if your competitive landscape changes, that will advantage some companies and disadvantage others. And so how do you make sure it’s to your advantage if you have channels that worked really well and now they’re getting soft, do you got to go out and find some new channels?
April: And so I think you just always have to be digging and it’s kind of a, it’s kind of irrelevant. The stuff that you can’t control is kind of irrelevant. It’s, it’s sort of, it’s there and it’s just part of the makeup of the multiple levels of constraints that you have to work around is sometimes economy’s crap. Well you still got to sell stuff. We still got to sell stuff. So how are we going to sell in a crappy economy where there’s, you know, there’s lots of stuff you can do in a crappy economy to sell stuff and certain things sell better and a crappy economy than other things might cause you to shift your value proposition. But you know, you can’t just say, well economy’s crap. That’s it. Shift all the targets or you might do that too, but it shouldn’t be the first thing you do.
Ashley: Yeah. And again, it kind of seems like that’s the easy thing to think and say versus digging in and doing a bit of that.
April: Yeah, it’s a Capo Capo. I mean it sucks. Like trust me, I’ve been through two, three market downturns now and when it happens, it’s terrible, but it’s not. The end of the world is not the end of the world and in fact, it gives you an opportunity to really tighten up what you’re doing when things get slow.
Ashley: Yeah. That’s a good way to look at it. So you are very persuasive, but you couldn’t. You weren’t able to persuade everyone on doing this massive shift. I’m curious what your thoughts on that.
April: Well, you know, big, big companies are different, right? They like this is, this is one of the things that startups have a, one of the places where startups have a real advantage over big companies, like just the cycles on everything are so much longer at a big company. Like if I wanted to, you know, I had budgets that were approved at the beginning of the year where, you know, a plan had to be put together. If I wanted to mid, mid year do a major change in that budget. Like I’m going to take a couple million bucks at trade shows and put them into something else now. I had to go all the way up the chain of approvals to do that and you know, and it 2 billion revenue company. Like even just that going up the chain of approvals was like a two-month process, you know, so a startup can kinda have a flash of this insight and react really quickly.
April: Whereas a bigger company has so many interdependencies. You can’t flop around like a fish. I mean, you, you, again, it’s a, it’s a big boat and it takes a lot of ocean to turn it, so you have to kind of be patient and you have to work away at it. You got to come with your numbers, you have to be persistent and, and you got to hope that you get it done in time, but it’s very hard to shift something really big quickly at a big company. Now the flip side of that is if you’re a big company selling to big companies, I mean they don’t shift all that fast either, so you generally have enough runway that you can get it done because your customers can’t change that fast either. But in this particular case where it was budget getting slashed in one place and moving around another place, a lot of these companies, we’re in big trouble and we’re being forced to react really quickly and so and, and we, until our stock started taking a beating because we weren’t meeting our number, we were slow to react because people were a bit skeptical.
April: I mean, there were kind of like, well we’re, we still seem to be selling, okay, is this really an emergency? And so it, it took a few quarters before I think people sort of step back and said, Whoa, this is actually a crisis and we need to react to it and then, you know, and that’s the first step. Then you need to actually react. And again, if it’s big company with thousands of employees, it takes a long time to do it. So it’s not just a matter of being persuasive, it’s working the system to make it happen.
Ashley: They eventually switched around and target Head of Sales.
April: Yeah. You know, they changed a lot of things, but I’ll put it this way, when, when CBO acquired us, the stock was trading at around 200 bucks a share and uh, and when I left it was trading at 15 and they were eventually acquired by Oracle for about eight and a half or something. So did they fix that shit? No, it’s a lot of things. There were other things happening as well as was not the only happening at Siebel, but yeah, it was, that was, that was a company that was dealing with a lot of market shift all at once like competitive landscape was changing. They were big buyers were changing where how people wanted to do software was changing, everything was changing and I think it would’ve been difficult for that company to go back into growth mode under any circles
Ashley: that makes, that makes sense. And that’s why, you know, maybe some people heard Salesforce, um, and maybe not so much a CBO, but it is hard to deal with. It is hard to deal with change. You said something in that story that was really good and I wanted to bring it out. Think during the beginning when you first got there and when you’re first meeting he kind of said, you know what? I don’t know, but I’ll figure it out. I think that’s such a powerful statement for anyone, whether it’s to your boss or to your board. I’m just able to say that, you know, what I don’t know and I’ll figure it out. And that seems like a very April thing to say,
April: yeah, well, you know what this is what you get. This is what I did. The lessons of old age. Listen to your granny here. People are already starting out. When I was starting out I thought that I was supposed to know everything. So I was, you know, I was hesitant to tell people when I didn’t know stuff because, you know, particularly because I was not trained as a marketer. Like I kind of fell into marketing and I actually have a degree in systems design engineering. But so at the beginning, I thought, Woo, this is some like marketing jus to that marketers know and I don’t. And, but after a few years I got to the point where I was like, good, nobody knows anything. Nobody knows a thing or just I’m clueless as everyone else. And so I got more comfortable with saying, here’s what I know and here’s what I don’t know.
April: But, and, and the other thing that I got really strict on is I can’t know everything, but there are some things that I should know deeply and so I’m going to focus on the things that I have control over and the things that I can know and really have my arms around that. And then the stuff we don’t know if there’s stuff we don’t know because it’s unknowable, right? Like, the economy. But I am in charge of a deep understanding of my customers and how they behave and how they buy and what they worry about and all that stuff. So I’m going to be deeply in charge of that. I’m going to be deeply in charge of all the metrics around my marketing and sales funnel so that I have an early warning when things are going slow and I can see, oh look, you know, we look like maybe we’re not making our targets here.
April: Like that was one of the things that blew me away and that CBO story is that like I inherited this group and this bunch of stuff that was running and it had been bad for a couple of quarters and there had been as far as I could tell, no adjustments made. And so I thought, well what the heck are you just looking at these numbers every month and more investigation required. So I don’t know, like uh, you know, I never talked to the person that ran the thing before me. So who knows what was going on and maybe they had thrown it, you know, maybe they were on this path to try to convince people to do different things and we’re slow to get anybody to act too.
Ashley: Yeah. That can happen as well. So April comes into like almost a billion dollar revenue company. A massive marketing machine that’s executed…
April: 2 billion in revenue. Slice was $800 million. Can you believe that?
Ashley: $2B in revenue marketing machine that was executing well and you spent a couple of hours listening to sales conversations and figured out that that whole thing might be wrong now, and maybe it wasn’t wrong before, but it was wrong now.
April: Yeah, that’s what he was getting wrong. The thing right? Like you, like, you know, you don’t get to go in and say everything we’re doing is wrong. Like I mean obviously some things we’re still working, we’re still making revenue. We were still doing whatever, but there was a slice of it, right? Like what, what was, there was this big clue. It was the big “oh shit” clue. Like, oh dear here’s the thing where we were wrong. Like we had an assumption and we’re potentially wrong. And then you get into the what-if scenario, well, what if we’re really wrong? What if we wanted to actually capture that demand properly? How would we run things will be completely different? What would we do? Completely different things.
April: It’s scary. It’s like literally I remember going home and, and you know, that the gravity of what I heard I think didn’t hit me until like the next day and you know, I went home and I was thinking about it when I was falling asleep and I was like, wow, like that’s so funny what that guy did. His sold to the sales department. What if the sales department so like that. And what if, what if, what if and that are like, oh this is a disaster. The what if game. What if games a dangerous game. Yeah, super, super, like super terrifying insight. Sometimes you get those and you’re like, so how do you
Ashley: good at recognizing that? And it’s really hard, especially when you’re coming in new so you didn’t have any as much entrenched opinions and ego involved in the process, which is great. I’m free to come in, but do you have any tips with when it’s been yourself was entrenched opinions or just helping people like kind of breakthrough that barrier because that can be tough and I know a lot of people have trouble with that.
April: Yeah, you don’t like it, so you have to sort of trust what you’re hearing and then you got to trust your data. So like, you know, I could see a situation where you would go in and you would hear that guy on the phone and you’d say, look that’s, that’s not, that’s just an outlier. That doesn’t mean anything. That’s just a random piece of data. And, and you know, that doesn’t work like that all the time. So what I’m hearing here, I can ignore it because it’s noise, but what you have to do is have an open enough mind to say, oh, what if like, what if that’s actually happening and then go check it out. So you know, so just so I go and I, you know, in that case I go and I, and I pull all this stuff and say, well is that where that, like all the time appointments, he’s booking look like that and what percentage of our pipeline actually involves a VP sales as opposed as CIO?
April: And then you pull the data and then you got to be Kinda, kinda willing to say where the data doesn’t lie. Here I had this bit of insight and now I got this data that backs it up and I got to just let some stuff go. Now it’s easier for. I’m new guy in town, right? I show up, I’m, I’m brand new was my marketing plan and all this stuff. I didn’t, I wasn’t married to it. So it’s easier for me to show up and say, Oh gee, the cheese has moved. Sorry people. But um, it’s harder when you’ve been running stuff and then stuff goes soft. It’s harder to say, well, you know, it used to work, it doesn’t work now and we’re going to have to make some changes and change things up. So, you know, in terms of your own stuff, you have to keep your own sense of skepticism and not take yourself too seriously and be like, well, you know, we got some genius stuff working now, but nothing lasts forever.
April: And when it doesn’t work anymore and we got to get ready to move. If you’re trying to convince other people, it’s harder and you generally have to, you have to do it with numbers and evidence and sometimes the evidence involves qualitative stuff like, you know, me sitting in on the guy’s phone calls, you know, I could record those and have people listen to it and in fact I did at one point say like, Bruce, you got to listen to this. Like, you know, this is, this is not going down in an inside sales the way you think it is according to the conversations. Yeah, I did.
Ashley: Do you have any tips for keeping an open mind when it’s your own thing? Like a question or a gut check or just something that you do because everyone’s biased but around babies or thinks they’re married to.
April: Oh, everybody’s super bias about it. I don’t know. Like, I don’t know. I think that’s just something you have to be able to sit back and again, not take yourself too seriously. It’s like I think senior marketers, you automatically develop that because you, you know, when you do your first, like, I’ve done like seven, eight startups where I’ve been head of marketing and the first one I did was super successful and then we got acquired and then I ran marketing at the acquired company for a bunch of years. We did all this taught shit stuff and you know, I came out of that one thing and I know how to do this. This isn’t that hard. Like I know how to run the playbook here. And then I went and got my next job and different market, different product, different price point, different sales, different sales process and none of my genius stuff worked at the second one was like all that stuff where I thought I was so hot stuff.
April: And so it’s unfortunate because right now, you know, you go on the Internet and you, you read a lot of stuff that’s written and you know. And I think it’s good for people to write out this stuff. But a lot of the stuff that’s written, you know, sounds like me and my first job where it’s like, look, this is how you drive traffic. Look, this is how you get a million dollars worth of whatever. This is how you build a $5,000,000,000 business. Like they say it like there’s a right and wrong answer. And I’m like, yeah, I remember what I was like that.
April: But what you learn when you’re more senior is, you know, the answer, everything is. I don’t know. It depends. Maybe yes, maybe no, let’s try some stuff out. Like. And so you get better at that as you go along. And then, you know, as you go along, you also get better at, you know, not smoking your own marketing where you, you know, you can look at it and say, okay, like this stuff is working, but it’s not because I’m a super genius and whatever, whatever, it’s working because it works right now and a month from now it may not be working and we have to be prepared to kill that baby. If we gotta you know, but let’s whip it up now. But let’s not forget that all of this is temporary and soon will be you in something else. So we have to stay a little paranoid and keep our wits about us and not get too caught up in how awesome we are when things are going good. Yes. I think those are some pearls.
Ashley: Pearls of wisdom. I think the power of just saying, I don’t know. It depends if it’s huge. Circling back to the campaign that shall not be named. I just don’t know. We went into another topic and it was just so good. But I just wanted to sum this up. You drove around Michigan, you didn’t call and try to set up an interview time beforehand. You just showed up.
April: Well no, because he’s got. These guys wouldn’t take my call like when we already knew that. So you call and you get merger. He on the phone and she says, who are you? What do you, what do you want to do? Like why do you want to talk to him? Or her job is to take that guy from people like me. So that was why my inside salespeople could never, could never get these people on the phone. They had a gatekeeper. But if you showed up in person, Marjorie is beautiful, she’s awesome. She’s mean to people on the phone because she thinks you’re something rotten salesperson. But I show up and I’m cute and I’m like, I’m like, Hey, um, you know, so this is gonna sound weird, but I’m from Canada and we run this little startup. We’re not really a startup anymore, but okay, we run this startup and we’re trying to understand more about manufacturing and I know that Blah Blah is the owner here. And I was wondering like if he has 20 minutes today, I just happened to be driving by and I was wondering if you could spend like 20 minutes with me and just giving you some insight into how his business works. That’s not a sales call. Mercury is happy to let you in that right? And half the time you hang around long enough and the dude comes out, what’s going on out here? Right? You’re only, hey, you know, not trying to sell you anything.
April: I’m trying to figure out how to sell you stuff, but right now I’m not telling you. And it turns out all these people are lovely, like they’re all like lovely, but what they, you know, but when you can do is just cold call. They’re like, I like, I had zero luck cold calling into these folks, which also, you know, again, fed into this idea for the campaign was we’re going to do this funny icebreaker thing and that, and that’s going to give us a chance that the guy you know, and then we’re going to call ray when we send the fax, right when we know the guy is reading it and laughing, we’re going to call and say he’s actually reading a fax from us right now and he’s probably laughing. Could you put us through, you know, and that would be enough to, not every time, but most of the time get us at least start a conversation. That was our big problem with those.
April: You have a copy of that campaign, like a scan of that or picture that you should send that on food at the show notes.
April: Oh yeah, it was, it was stupid. I should, I should call my old Marketo rep and see if she’s got a. she’s got a copy of it kicking around somewhere. We spent, we had such a good time with that one. We were like laughing our heads off all the time. We’re like, this is literally the dumbest
Ashley: it worked. So like, you know, a lot of people have trouble, you know, even if they could email instead of interest with customers and things like that have trouble even figuring out who to talk to. You will ignore them. I sent you an email, you couldn’t send them an email, you showed up, you understood, you know, how to kind of play that role and you went and did it and you found a way. Untapped acquisition channel completely made millions of dollars off of that. So I think that’s a shame.
April: Yeah. And, and again, you know, work anywhere else. Not particularly scalable, like you know, I, you know, and, and we were all saying, look, we’re going to be sending faxes forever, right? We’re going to get away with this one
Ashley: and figuring out the next campaign that shall not be named. That would, that’s what he’s done it
April: to the team and this is really grim. Right. But I kept saying to the team, I was like, look, we just have to run this for like, we’ll run it for like a few quarters now, like a year or so. And then again, all these guys are old and they’ll retire. People that read emails and everything will be fine.
Ashley: It’s like people in New York, because the rental market so crazy. People are literally waiting for people to die to get apartments. That’s what it reminds me of. Read that.
April: Oh yeah. I lived in, I lived in New York. I can tell you stories. Yeah. It’s terrible.
Ashley: Wrap this up because I know we both have to go and you’re on the longer side, but I love talking to you and I know how much value everyone would get from this. Do you do when you went to the campaign? Not been named to shut up and knocked on doors. He finally got in to see Joe blow owner. Okay. Any kind of questions that you asked? You mentioned, you know, you basically just asked how do you find out anything new, any other questions that you really use again and again?
April: Yeah. So that was kind of my, that was kind of my big one. Like my big one was, you know, so I often started by like, so the girls don’t want to give you a tour of the plant and the plants are super interesting. So we go on a tour of the plant, so we’d be Chitty chatty while we’re on the plant floor. Right. And so what you get on the plant floor, you could see what Erp they were running and any other software they’re running. It was easy to see it on the plant floor. So you’d be pointing at a screen saying, Hey, is that whatever and when, when did you guys that? Oh, and the answer was always we bought it in y two k because we’re worried about y two k certainly always the answer and yeah. And, and I’m like, wow, like did you ever, like you ever think about updating?
April: Like that stuff’s getting pretty old now, you know? And, and they were like, oh, you know, it was such a pain to implement and you know, I really couldn’t imagine us upgrading and a lot of them would actually say, look, you know what? I’m getting old. The new guy is going to do that, the new guy’s going to take that on, like in five years when I’m retired, you know, someone else is going to take this over and that’s going to be their problem. It’s too late for this old dog to learn any new tricks. You’ve got a lot of that. So it was more just kind of like getting them talking, but getting them talking around, you know, hey you, you put this stuff in, how did that happen? Right. And then, and then he would say, well, hey, you know, like the new stuff is, is not nearly as hard to implement as that stuff would’ve been in [inaudible] 99 when you implemented it.
April: Like have you ever seen any new stuff? No. Right. Well do you ever like go to a trade show or anything? Like how do you stay on top of this stuff? No. Right. And then you’d get into that conversation but it has to be kind of natural with the flow of the conversation because, you know, they got to get something out of it too. It was fun for me. If you go around and do a tour of these plants are all really interesting and they’re all a little bit different but they’re all kinda the same as well. And so by the time you get on the third one, you feel kind of smart that you’re like, hey, your plastic injection molding machine looks different than the dude up the road. And then they get laughing. But um, but yeah, I think it’s not the actual questions.
April: It’s more like the flow. You’re just trying to get into their heads around, you know, talking about a purchase they did make and how did that happen and so if they were to make another purchase, how on earth was that going to happen? And then, you know, once you get them talking you could get really specific like you never go to a trade show to trade show. Do you ever go to like, you know, you belong to any industry association or anything. Those guys ever get together and talk about stuff and you know, you’re just having that conversation or like you’re in the guy’s office and it’s easy enough to look around and say, Oh hey, you subscribed to the whatever, you know, lots of them have the local newspaper, you know, like, Hey, you read them the local newspaper described anything else. You get any, like manufacturing magazines or anything and you’d list a few and just get them talking and open them up first. I think that’s key. Yeah. You gotta yeah. You can’t just walk in and say, hi, I’m April and we’re just going to give you this survey only with me and your face. Do you mean manufacturing magazines? Go to trade shows? People would just love that. Yeah, exactly like this. The why. Nobody feels out of surveys boring and stupid and didn’t care about the details and you know when people see that
April: Give you a tour and everybody wants to give you a tour and the tour is fun. So like let’s go on the tour because then now we’re on the tour and we’re having, we’re both having some fun and then I can bug you with all my questions.
Ashley: I think that’s great and you can replicate that. Not quite the same way but just even when you’re talking to people doing customer interviews, just asking like, what do you guys have to these days? What are you working on? Tell me about you. Those can be somewhat of a facility.
April: Yeah. Yeah. Like you don’t like again, it’s not, it’s not like purely Chit Chat, you know, how’s your life? But people like talking about their frustrations because they have this sneaky hope that software companies can fix them. And so you get folks on the phone and again you’re doing this, hey, could you help me out? Sort of thing. Like I just kinda want to know like how do you do this or when you do this, is that fun or not fun, you know, and you know, if, if you got like in this process that you do, what would you say is the most frustrating thing? Like people like customers are, are really deep experts on pain and problems. Right? So getting them started around pain and problems is usually a good place to start.
Ashley: No, I think I hundred percent agree. So just to wrap this up, you’ve been so full of mining for diamonds here today of insight. Is there one question that you’ve never been asked but you think people should ask you? I’m really curious what your answer to this.
April: I wish. I wish I had a really good answer for that. I don’t know. I wish people. I wish people asked me more about again, this customer insights stuff. I wish people asked me more about, you know, how to do customer discovery. I wish people asked me more about that. They don’t. They just kind of say, Oh yeah, we’re just gonna do a survey and it’ll be fine, but I think there is an art. There is a real art and skill to a good customer discovery meeting, like being able to go in and have a conversation with a prospect without selling is actually really hard and when I started doing it I was really bad at it and I think I’m quite good now. I think I’m the master of not selling when it’s not time to sell and just going in and getting people yakking.
April: I think I’m pretty good at it now, but it was a developed skill. I was not born with that. I had to learn how to not sell and you can’t really learn how to do it without just repetition and doing it over and over again and trying to hold yourself to. I’m just trying to understand these people better. I am not trying to close a deal here because of the minute I try to close a deal. They’re going to shut down. I’m going to learn nothing, and so there’s, there’s discipline around there, there’s, you know, there are things you can do to sort of make a conversation, go the way it should go, but yeah, I wish I, I wish I got more questions around that and people almost never asked me that. Instead, they come in and they say, Hey, April, you’re in marketing. Should I do Facebook ads?
Ashley: Google solvable problems.
April: Oh God. I hope nobody ever asked me that again. Really? Hey, how should I market my start out? I don’t know.
Ashley: Are we done? Is this coffee meeting done now? If you can answer those questions, coffee meeting, you would literally be a billionaire. Like, yeah. Uh, no I haven’t. As you can tell, April is so easy to talk to you. So April I have trouble believing that you are not always good at this, but I will take you at your word. So April, April is fantastic and just getting people to talk and open up. So she had to learn that skill and it feels so innate to her. Like anyone can learn. It just takes time.
April: Yeah. Yeah. I’m an engineer. If I couldn’t do it, you can do it.
Ashley: If April can get it, you can too. Well, that might be a little high about high of a bar for everyone. It’s a pretty high bar, but it’s a developed skill and you were so good at it and I would never have guessed that so it can be learned, so I guess we can all learn to do it. Thank you so much for being on here today and chit-chatting with me. I think the audience will super appreciate this episode. I love it.
April: Thanks so much for having me.