By Denise Persson, CMO at Snowflake
How can your company scale and break through the competition to get to US$100 million (R1.5 billion) in revenue? This has been the biggest challenge at every startup I’ve marketed for and taken public over the past 25 years, including Snowflake.
It’s no small feat. Back when Snowflake was founded in 2012, an extremely small percentage of companies made it. According to a 2013 study by the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation, only about 0.02 to 0.05 percent of companies founded in the United States reached US$100 million in revenues in a reasonable timeframe.
There’s also no magic formula, and what’s most important is how well you execute. But there are a few strategies or pillars that I believe marketing teams should follow as they scale. These pillars were the cornerstones of our marketing success at Snowflake during our journey to US$100 million.
Create strong positioning
Positioning is actually more than a pillar of marketing—it’s the entire foundation. And just as with a house, if the foundation isn’t strong, the walls will crack. With strong positioning, you can avoid cracks in your marketing, and your program investments will be more effective.
Author Al Reis describes positioning as the battle for your prospects’ minds. Winning the battle is about how well you differentiate yourself in their minds. The first thing you need to do is define the category you wish to own.
In 2016 at Snowflake, the category we were determined to own was “The Data Warehouse Built for the Cloud.” Our positioning has evolved since then, and today, Snowflake delivers the Data Cloud. But for our journey to $100 million, that was our positioning.
We ran extensive focus groups with real prospects to make sure that our positioning worked with people who didn’t know Snowflake. Most often, companies do a few interviews with current prospects or customers, but that isn’t really enough. The category that you’re creating needs to be relevant to companies you will sell to at the next stage of growth.
You also get a lot of data and insight back from prospects, and this data-driven process makes it easier to get buy-in internally, which is vital to create consistency in your positioning. Your employees, partners, and customers all need to describe you the same way.
So for more than three years, our Data Warehouse Built for the Cloud positioning was everywhere, and if anyone described us differently, we asked them to change it. You can’t win the battle for your prospects’ minds if you are changing who you are every six months. The more consistent you are, the more impactful your marketing will be.
Be the most customer-centric
When you look at what the most admired brands in the world have in common, you’ll see that they all own their categories, they’re extremely consistent with their brand experience, and they have incredible customer loyalty.
Within Snowflake’s marketing team, our number-one priority from the beginning has been to put the customer first. That means that we think from the outside-in, all the time. What do customers need from us?
We did a few things to make sure we always kept our focus on customers. Our marketing team ran almost daily meetings with our sales engineers who were out in the field with our customers. That helped us learn which questions and concerns we needed to address.
To scale our content development in those early days, we got almost every employee involved with writing content and creating videos that were laser-focused on what our customers wanted to learn. This helped us create trust and credibility, which startups often lack.
Whenever possible, we put actual customers at the forefront of our marketing programs. We have thousands of brand ambassadors among our customers today, and they are our most effective marketing.
To get customers involved in our marketing efforts, we worked on building direct relationships with them and made sure there was value for them to participate. We also started customer advisory board meetings, where we gave our customers fake dollar bills and asked them to invest them in different parts of our roadmap. This helped us prioritise the things that mattered most to them.
Finally, I recommend companies start an annual customer engagement survey as early as possible. This also helps you establish your Net Promoter Score (NPS) score. Every year, we measure every single component of our customers’ experience with Snowflake, and the survey provides us with invaluable insights.
Build for scale
Many startups get to US$20 million and experience a slowdown in growth. This often happens because they rely on manual work, and because they don’t build their marketing technology stack and processes to scale.
In 2017, the big topic at every all-hands meeting at Snowflake was around automating more work so we could get rid of the “hamsters.” The hamsters were all of the resources doing work that should be automated. In the beginning, they were very important in doing things such as setting up accounts for our customers. But it wasn’t really until we had a fully automated provisioning system that our free-trial sign-ups took off.
We also built our marketing technology stack to scale with our growth from the beginning. If you don’t, you’ll have to slow down and start replacing parts, hindering your momentum.
In addition, we scaled every component of our demand process. For example, we introduced live product demos to cut down on one-to-one meetings. We instituted a weekly Office Hours session where prospects can talk live to a reference customer and get all their questions answered. This eliminates the one-to-one reference call request and helps us respect our customers’ time.
For startups looking to scale to US$100 million quickly, get rid of the hamsters as soon as you can, make sure your technology can grow with you, and find ways to improve every component of your buyers’ journey that is time-consuming.
To break through in today’s competitive market and compete with large, well-known brands, you have to get noticed. The challenge is that building brand awareness takes time and money—which most startups don’t have.
So, what are your options? I think that being bold is the best chance you have of getting noticed. Being bold is clearly not without risk. But at Snowflake, we had a big vision, and we created a bold brand that fit well with our values and culture.
In the early years, a lot of people in Silicon Valley recognised us for our billboards on Highway 101—and they turned out to be critical for hiring. As a small startup, you are fighting for talent and you have to stand out. At every new-hire onboarding session, at least half of the people said they first learned about Snowflake from our billboards.
Our messages on the billboards were often reflections of current events, but we always made sure to come back to the data to reinforce our positioning. Most people really enjoyed them. Some didn’t. But they were bold, they were different, and they got us the attention that we needed in the beginning.
Align with sales
The last pillar is the most important one: Sales and marketing teams need to work as one team. This is essential for both marketing efficiency and revenue growth. If your marketing programs don’t align with your sales strategy and goals, much of your effort will go to waste.
A big reason for our fast growth at Snowflake is the strong alignment across our entire company from the beginning. Our alignment point is around the sales pipeline. My job is to make sure that every day, our marketing team is 100% partnered with our sales team and that we execute at the same pace all the time.
In the early days at Snowflake, I spent every Monday morning with our eight sales development representatives to plan our marketing programs alongside their efforts. Today, we have more than a thousand people in our marketing and sales organisations, and we still have the same alignment.
Some people believe that it’s good to have healthy tension between sales and marketing, but I think that can quickly lead to misunderstandings and create negative tension. To succeed as a marketer, you need a deep understanding and respect for the craft of sales.
A Structure for Fast Growth
If I look back at Snowflake in the early years, these five pillars had a tremendous impact on our speed and our growth. I think they’re relevant to most startups. Make sure that you invest in your positioning early on, and be consistent. Put customers at the forefront of all your marketing and find a way to get constant feedback. Build your marketing stack and processes for scale. Be as bold as you dare to be. And most importantly, align not just marketing and sales teams but your entire organisation behind one mission, so that everyone is sharing the same objectives. Executing on these pillars will create a strong marketing foundation for your startup to get to US$100 million – and beyond.
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