MarTech Madness and the Secret Staying Power

Just this past week I learned of two MarTech companies I hadn’t encountered that are north of $2M in annual recurring revenue and growing fast. We’ve all seen the crazy Marketing Technology Landscape Supergraphic: Martech 5000 that visually highlights what a crowded space it is out there. A number of people have speculated that massive consolidation in MarTech is imminent — I don’t agree. Yes, Terminus has acquired BrightFunnel, Sigstr, and Ramble Chat, but that’s the exception.

So, what’s the secret staying power resulting in so many MarTech startups?

Simple: good software with a clear return on investment makes for a sustainable business even with modest scale.

If you’re a marketer making money using the product, why switch? Combine that with the amazing components of SaaS — recurring revenue, cash flow predictability, strong gross margins — and you have a ton of niche companies. Add in some modest scale, like $1 million of annual gross margin, and you have the recurring cash to pay a team indefinitely. Good recurring cash flow, happy customers that renew, and decent employee salaries makes for a business that will never go away. 

More acquisitions will happen in the future due to investor fatigue and fund-life dynamics rather than companies gobbling up other companies to achieve more scale. If a venture investment in a MarTech company isn’t performing, it’s often better for the VC to hold onto the investment, assuming they have time, rather than push for a sale that results in recognizing a loss. Put another way, there are a ton of zombie MarTech companies out there that are sustainable businesses, but will sell for less than their last valuation, creating a scenario where it’s better to do nothing and hope something will improve.

MarTech fragmentation, and proliferation, is here to stay. The secret staying power is a combination of software that helps marketers make money and the beauty of SaaS.

5 Controllable Factors in the Pardot Story

One of my favorite questions to ask is “why are you an entrepreneur?” I like to understand the motivation and drive for the person. Also, I’m interested in entrepreneurs that want to control their own destiny (an answer that resonates with me!). Of course, you can’t control much of anything in the world other than the most important things — your attitude, your actions, and your behaviors.

Entrepreneurs that I meet with like to tell me they want to build the “Pardot of X” where X is some industry or type of product. I’ve come to primarily understand this to mean they want to build a SaaS company that doesn’t involve raising money and does involve selling it for a meaningful amount of money. While that’s a worthwhile goal, I like to share the controllable factors in the Pardot story.

Here are the five most important controllable factors from the Pardot experience:

  1. Employees-First –
    Our focus on culture was maniacal. Employees came before customers and all other constituents. Everything we did internally was focused on our core values of positive, self-starting, and supportive. The ultimate reason we succeeded was because of our people.
  2. In the Path of Revenue –
    Our product unequivocally helped our customers make more money. We showed return on investment. We showed value. Our product helped turn marketing from a fuzzy role to a metrics-driven role.
  3. Must-Have Product –
    Our product was the core of the majority of the B2B marketing functions. If you ripped it out, many of the marketing channels stopped working (email, lead forms, etc.). It was not a nice-to-have.
  4. Complementary Co-Founders –
    Adam and I are very different yet complemented each other incredibly well. We knew our strengths and weaknesses and built an awesome organization.
  5. Focused Solution –
    Our product delivered the most value with the best experience possible at the $1,000/month price point. We were focused on providing the most bang-for-your-buck in the SMB market, and we executed well. This was especially important as our market was so noisy.

Notice that timing is nowhere in these factors, even though it‘s easily one of the most important considerations. We didn’t know if we had good timing. We didn’t know when to start. We did know that by entering the arena, we gave ourselves a chance. And we got it right.

Control what you can control. Everything else is noise.

The Canada Rule in Startups

Yesterday I finished reading That Will Never Work: The Birth of Netflix and the Amazing Life of an Idea by Marc Randolph, the founder of Netflix. Told through the format of a live narrative, Marc does a great job capturing the ups and downs of the first five years of the Netflix journey. One of the recurring themes throughout the book is the importance of the Canada Rule.

The Canada Rule was originally introduced by Marc when they debated at Netflix whether or not to expand to Canada. Netflix was small, but growing fast domestically. Canada, at roughly 10% of the size of the United States, was obvious for geographic expansion, but would add significant complexity. The Canada Rule, simply, is to focus on the core business and not get distracted by expansion ideas. Do one thing, and do it well.

The old adage still rings true: many more startups died of indigestion than starvation. 

The next time someone brings up a great expansion idea, but takes away from continuing to improve and optimize the core business, invoke the Canada Rule. Focus, focus, focus.

Strategies in Our Control and Scenarios Outside Our Control

While many startups have already done brutal layoffs and expense cutting, there’s still the same amount of uncertainty, if not more, in the world. Sequoia Capital has an excellent post up titled The Matrix for COVID-19 with a visual way to think through potential strategies in the control of the entrepreneur vs macro scenarios outside the control of the entrepreneur.

Entrepreneurs generally have a strong locus of control and extreme uncertainty exacerbates the desire to control things. The best course of action? Develop multiple plans to address potential scenarios. In the example matrix above, it references three scenarios with lockdowns ranging from three months to 12 months along with three plans range from no change in operating expenses to cutting operating expenses by 25%. For many startups, cutting expenses by 25% won’t be enough, and a more aggressive plan is necessary.

Entrepreneurs should develop multiple plans under different scenarios and do their best to control what they can control.

Start 2020 With a Simple Strategic Plan

With the end of the year upon us, it’s a great time to put together a 2020 Simplified One Page Strategic Plan. I’ve written about it many times before and I’ll write about it many more times. After being an entrepreneur for 20+ years, I truly believe it’s one of the best exercises an entrepreneur can do on a regular basis.

Put these topics in a shared Google Doc and ensure they are no more than one side of one page. Be clear and concise; keep it simple.

Simple Strategic Plan

  • Purpose – Why does your company exist?
  • Core Values – What values (or virtues) are most important for your actions?
  • Market – What customer base do you serve?
  • Brand Promise – What can customers expect working with you?
  • 3 Annual Goals – What are three SMART goals for this year?
  • 3 Quarterly Goals – What are three SMART goals for this quarter?
  • 3 Quarterly Projects – What are the three highest priority projects that must be accomplished this quarter?

Share this plan with employees, partners, advisors, investors, and anyone else that wants to help you succeed. Finally, make it a living document that’s reviewed on a weekly basis to align everyone on your team. While simple, it’s incredibly powerful.

 

The Email Inflection Point in the Product/Market Fit Journey

When we launched the initial marketing automation product for Pardot, the feature set was quite simple. We had a minimal analytics that would track the individual lead’s movement around the site, a basic form capture to collect contact information, rudimentary CRM integration to sync data, and that was about it. Over time we added core modules like landing pages, automation rules, complex CRM integrations, and dynamic customer journeys. Only, the initial plans didn’t call for email marketing.

In fact, we actively didn’t want to do email marketing. Who wants to be an email service provider (tools like Sendgrid didn’t exist then)? Who wants to deal with deliverability? Who wants to fight spammers? The initial strategy was to have integrations to Mailchimp and Constant Contact such that modules like the forms manager could trigger an autoresponder and an automation rule could trigger a 1-to-1 email.

Quickly, we realized something was wrong.

Our approach delivered a poor, incomplete experience to our customers. Email was too important to be siloed from the marketing automation system. Email was too powerful as a marketing channel to not be a first-class module.

After endless internal debates about email, we finally decided to become an email service provider. Now, we enabled email to be a core feature throughout the platform. Now, marketers didn’t have to switch between as many different systems to run their marketing programs.

Email was a major inflection point in our product/market fit journey. Prior, customers liked the software but our product/market fit was modest. After adding email marketing, and a few rounds of refinement, our product/market fit was excellent and customers raved about the solution.

Major strategy changes often seem daunting. By focusing on the customer, and going down a much more difficult path technically, we delivered a superior experience. And, in the end, that was one of the most important product decisions we ever made.

Time and Effort are the Greatest Barriers to Entry for New Markets

Back when we were pitching Pardot to VCs in an unsuccessful attempt to raise money, one of the more common questions was, “What are the barriers to entry?” Then, a more specific variation of this question would arise, “What’s stopping Google from assigning 100 engineers to this market and crushing you?” Both are legitimate questions and we’d counter with things like having a mini-brand, 100+ paying customers, strong product/market fit, and so on. One famous investor, who writes the excellent Above the Crowd blog, told us he wasn’t interested because there weren’t enough defensible network effects or marketplace elements to be interesting. Fair enough.

In hindsight, the answer to the barriers-to-entry-question is much simpler: until there’s a meaningful market, no big company is going to care. By the time the market is large enough to matter, the winners will have been established, and the massive tech companies will merely acquire one of the leaders. When a major tech company does enter a large existing market as a laggard, most often they abandon it a few years later (see Google Hire’s recent shut down notice). Why? The market it already saturated with viable solutions and competitive dynamics are too strong. For major tech companies it’s always better to buy than build for a new product offering.

So, with small-but-fast-growing markets as the ideal target for most startups, barriers to entry are almost non-existent. After talking to thousands of people about entrepreneurship, and seeing so few people start companies, I take a different view.

Time and effort are the greatest barriers to entry for new markets.

Creating a new company is hard. Expect 5 – 10 years of difficult work to build something viable.

Most entrepreneurs don’t have the time.

Most entrepreneurs aren’t willing to put in the effort.

With new markets, there’s no guarantee it will grow into a large, meaningful market. Some do, most don’t. Quite often, people think a market will catch on and grow fast, only to have it fizzle out. That’s a big risk, and people are generally averse to risk.

The next time someone asks about barriers to entry for a new market, remember that it’s rarely an issue. It’s not that an entrepreneur couldn’t enter the market, it’s that there are so few entrepreneurs out there, and even fewer are going to commit the time and effort.

Why the Lack of a Strategic Plan?

When meeting with entrepreneurs I like to ask to see their strategic plan. Many times, I require seeing a simple strategic plan as a prerequisite before meeting so as to have a more informed conversation. Only, the vast majority of the time, no strategic plan exists, simple or otherwise. Then, when a strategic plan is present, and we go through several of the items, it becomes clear that it’s out of date and/or not remotely achievable. What gives?

I hearken back to the early days of my first startups and realize I never had a strategic plan. My strategic plan was Herb Kelleher’s famous quote:

We have a strategic plan. It’s called doing things.

While that worked well for me with a tiny team and few moving parts, as team and complexity grew, I needed a way to align everyone around a common, high-level focus. Enter the strategic plan.

Now, I believe, even with limited people and resources, a strategic plan is worthwhile. As a tool to communicate with employees, advisors, mentors, and investors, it’s invaluable.

One of the reasons so few entrepreneurs spend time on a strategic plan is the belief that it’s time consuming and difficult. From my experience, the simpler, more concise, the better. Here’s a simple guide for a basic strategic plan:

  • What do you do? Why?
  • Who do you serve? Why?
  • What are the measurable goals? Current values? Target values?
  • What are the priorities? Who owns them?

https://twitter.com/davidcummings/status/1134546561730584576

More complicated strategic plans are less likely to be updated and maintained, rendering them nearly useless. Finding a balance that has enough value but isn’t cumbersome is key.

Entrepreneurs should build, regularly update, and share their strategic plans. Keep it simple. Keep it accurate. Keep it worthwhile. Strategic plans are a valuable tool every entrepreneur should employ.

When the Opportunity is Bigger Than Expected

Three years into Pardot we were humming along and had just cracked the $1M annual recurring revenue milestone. Customers were loving the product and saying things like, “I don’t how I did my job before using Pardot” — a great sign we had a must-have product, not a nice-to-have. After listening to customers talk about the value they received, internally we started debating raising the price to match the value.

Then, of course, worries emerged:

  • Would prospects pay the higher price?
  • Would sales cycles lengthen?
  • Would sales velocity slow down?

And, naturally, the sales reps didn’t like the idea because they feared they’d make less money.

After getting internal feedback and input we made the call and doubled prices. What happened next was unexpected: sales and revenue grew even faster than planned.

At that point, it dawned on me the opportunity was bigger than expected.

Marketing automation was a billion dollar market in the making.

We were at the right place, at the right time, with the right team.

But, honestly, at the start of Pardot we thought it was a decent idea but didn’t know if it was good or great.

We didn’t know if the timing was right.

We didn’t know if the Great Recession would slow us down.

Three years into the business we knew we were on to something big — even bigger than expected.

Competing Definitions of Product/Market Fit

One of my favorite questions to ask seed/early stage entrepreneurs is “do you have product/market fit?” Then, naturally, it’s followed up by “how do you know and what are the metrics?” Of course, the answers, and rationale, are all over the place. While there are a variety of ways to define product/market fit, here are the three most common:

  1. By Unaffiliated Customers
    A simple, easily quantifiable definition is product/market fit is achieved when you have 10 unaffiliated customers that are passionate about the product. Unaffiliated, in this definition, is key in that the customers need to have bought the product based on its merit, not based on being a friend of the founder or an old colleague. Passionate customers are another important component in that there has to be a positive indicator beyond just paying money that there is a real need, one with authentic demand, being solved.
  2. By Positive Momentum
    A looser definition of product/market fit is when instead of feeling like everything is an up hill slog in the startup, things get easier and there’s palpable momentum. Examples include customers signing with significantly shorter sales cycles, PR opportunities popping up, and potential employees actively reaching out to join.
  3. By Distribution Scalability
    A later stage definition of product/market fit is when the cost of customer acquisition is favorable relative to the lifetime value of the customer. Here, the idea is that the solution is valuable and customers are being acquired in way that makes the startup indefinitely scalable.

While there are a number of competing definitions, it’s clear that product/market fit represents good things happening in the startup and the foundation for a successful company.