M4 Communications, Inc. is a strategic marketing and customer experience consulting firm that specializes in helping technology, nonprofit and education organizations grow through a combination of marketing and customer experience initiatives.
Develop marketing, customer experience, customer advocacy, product and content strategies to build and grow brands in the high-tech, education and nonprofit sectors.
The TalentSpark team are always looking to learn from the very best in the start-up world. We want to uncover every secret and understand what it takes to be a success in this space. So we thought we’d chat to someone who has been there and got the T-shirt all the way from America’s Silicon Valley.
Sue Duris has a fantastic reputation for delivering commercial, customer related solutions for small businesses in America and we were keen to find out how different the experience was in America and what we could learn from it over here in Scotland.
So here’s our chat with Sue, with lots of great insight.
Can you give us a quick overview of your professional background and some of the exciting companies you have worked with?
I started my career in financial analysis, forecasting and planning after receiving my BA in Economics from the University of Colorado. I worked for enterprise level companies in the financial services, legal, manufacturing, and telecommunications sectors. While I was at WorldCom (third largest telecom carrier in the U.S.), I ran wholesale billing. The VP of Sales and Marketing noticed how well my team was meeting customers’ billing and service needs, so he offered me a senior leadership role in product management. After that, I took a combined business development/sales management role with Adelphia Communications (sixth largest cable company in the U.S.). It was then when I started to take an interest in Silicon Valley startups.
In 1999, I joined my first tech startup where I ran product marketing and corporate marketing. In 2001, I co-founded M4 Communications, a marketing and customer experience consulting firm that trains tech companies how to become customer-centric and helps them create strong marketing and customer success/experience infrastructures. I served as VP of Marketing for Nuvel, a SaaS startup in the WAN space, where I drove all marketing and customer success activities. I also worked as a management consultant for Resources Global Professionals, a spinoff of Deloitte Consulting, helping public companies re-design their processes to meet Sarbanes Oxley requirements. Because I’m a lifelong learner, I earned my MBA from the University of California-Irvine in 2016, with specialisation in Marketing and Strategy.
Currently, I spend most of my time consulting with SaaS startups. In addition, I serve as an Entrepreneur in Residence advising startups. And, I write and speak on marketing and customer experience topics as I enjoy sharing my knowledge with others.
You have worked with a number of interesting startups and specialise in marketing for them. What were the biggest challenges you faced in maximising their marketing?
Not focusing on the right things early on.
I see startups very focused on either getting funding or getting PR. In my opinion, that is the wrong approach. In fact, they are secondary to establishing product-market fit and creating a good customer experience. Both investors and the media will be interested in you once you are proven and provide perceived value. So, some steps need to occur before hand.
The first area of focus for startups should be on product-market fit. It’s important to define what the customer need is and how you meet that need. Startups will be measured on how quickly they generate revenue and grow their customer base. So if the product you have is not perceived by customers to be of value, you won’t succeed. Thus, you have to have a value proposition in place that resonates with the buyer and differentiates you from your competition. Delivering value is #1.
Then, startups should determine appropriate target markets. It’s important that startups select the right customers – shoot for high value that maximises customer lifetime value (CLV). Marketers should also attempt to minimise customer acquisition cost (CAC) by investing in marketing automation and sound nurturing tactics, which ensure higher conversion rates quickly. Interviewing and listening to buyers is important because those insights are necessary to create appropriate customer personas and customer journey maps, as well as the content to move customers along the different stages of the journey. Marketers who ensure that their content is compelling and resonates with buyers and customers increase the chance that they will get noticed as people are more likely to share the content.
Focusing on enhancing the customer’s experience at the different touch points along the customer journey should be the second area of focus for startups. Important to this is that startups must start out being customer-centric, which means putting the customer at the centre of your business, so everything you do before and after a sale is creating a positive customer experience that will drive retention, loyalty and growth.
Focusing solely on acquisition.
It surprises me that startups believe acquisition is the end game. Many marketers believe that all paths to growth begin and end with customer acquisition. That’s a short-sided and wrong approach. Equal focus should be placed on acquisition and retention activities. In fact, more focus should be placed on retention as it has been proven time and time again growth occurs in the post-purchase phases of the customer lifecycle – namely, retention, loyalty, and advocacy. The top two metrics that a startup should focus on are recurring revenue and churn. The top three reasons customers churn are due to poor on-boarding, weak relationship building and poor customer service. To minimise churn, startups should implement a solid customer success program that includes activities to move customers through the four phases of the customer lifecycle – on-boarding, nurture, renewal and account expansion.
Not taking competitive intelligence seriously.
I’ve seen startups gloss over competitive intelligence without investing the time to glean insights from competitors. First, determine who you are competing head-on with. Be realistic about it. If you’re an early-stage SaaS startup, you’re probably not competing directly with Oracle or Salesforce. Then, look at what online data you can identify to use in your competitive analysis. Don’t overlook your customers as a resource to obtain competitive information.
Startups should also run win/loss analysis. In its most basic form, win loss helps organisations discover why business was won or lost. Meg Whitman, CEO of Hewlett Packard Enterprise (HPE), credits win loss as a key factor in HPE’s turnaround.
If you could give a startup your top three tips to get the most from their marketing what would it be?
- Become customer-centric so you focus on appropriately targeting customers and giving them a personalised customer experience.
- Get to know your customer – understand their pains, motivations, needs and wants – and listen and engage with them so you know how to meet their needs. This work will provide you with the insights you need to create solid customer personas so you can create accurate customer journey maps.
- Help your customers be successful by educating them through the use of content and other tools. This will help move them along the customer journey towards loyalty and advocacy.
Silicon Valley is famous the world over for exciting tech startups, how strong do you think the market is today for new business and can you tell us about a few?
There are always startups popping up. There is always room for new businesses that can prove a viable business model.
One startup that is hot is SoFi, which is disrupting the student loan refinancing space. I’m also following Google’s autonomous car unit, Waygo. The area I’m focused on the most is artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning. Since I work in customer experience, AI will be invaluable to that space in predicting sales and service behaviours and in augmenting engagement, to name a few applications. So I’ve been interested in companies like Nvidia, Salesforce, Google, and others who are investing significantly in AI by creating in-house incubators.
A big focus for a number of our startups here in Scotland is to break into the American Market. Fanduel in particular have enjoyed great success in the States, so do you have any advice for our startups in being able to break the American market?
One thing that Scottish startups have going for them is there is a lot of support from the Scottish government. In the US, startups don’t have support from the US government so they are left to fend for themselves. Thus, it is important for startups to be able to show there is an unmet need their solution provides and there is a lot of money to be made in the market the startup is in; the startup’s value proposition enables them to clearly differentiate from others; there is a solid management team in place to know what they are doing and can take the company to where it needs to go to be successful; there is a strong and realistic financial model in place with appropriate metrics to prove viability and sustainability that includes recurring revenue (MRR, ARR, etc.), customer lifetime value (CLV), customer acquisition cost (CAC), churn rate, cash flow, CLV to CAC ratio, months to recover CAC, retention metrics such as net promoter score, customer satisfaction, customer effort as well as any other key metrics ; and a realistic road map of how the company is going to get from where they are to profitability.
A second thing startups should do is to do their homework – really understand the marketplace and the audience that you want to target. That includes not only conducting research, but also attending conferences and developing relationships with people. Startups need to be seen.
A lot of our market are looking for investment. Nuvel were angel-funded, do you have any advice for startups in securing investment?
VC’s and angel investors are taking a much more disciplined approach and having a more critical eye on the types of investments they are taking on. Thus, companies should focus on proving their business model and developing a compelling story so they are prepared when they do get in front of a potential investor. Also, startups should be targeting the right investors – determine those investors whose portfolio they can add value to. And, startups should be developing relationships with investors beforehand. Relationship development is ongoing and should be started as soon as possible.