What I Learned in Going From a Ph.D. in Marine Geochemistry to Becoming Head of Growth at Autopilot
As a young kid, you make up thousands of adventures in your head.
Rarely did I have to do so. My dad worked for an international oil company, so we always traveled. When you travel and switch schools repeatedly, you’re able to reinvent yourself every couple of years.
As a result of those personal adventures, I became more self-aware. I discovered two things: my curiosity for understanding computers, and a passion for staying active.
This led me to start dabbling in information technology throughout my school years. I began by learning BASIC, Apple II OS, x86/Windows, then moved on to HTML and JS. I loved the left brain/right brain trick of spending time on both IT coding and sports. It was here, early in high school, that I developed my strong belief in balancing work, staying healthy, and learning.
These principles, along with an ambitious attitude, eventually helped foster my first entrepreneurial venture: my own IT consulting company, based in Hong Kong, where I was attending high school.
The fire continued to spark as I took on new ventures. I was named editor of my high school newspaper, and I immediately invested in hardware and software for the paper, trained our team to bring all design and production in-house, fired our design/print company, quadrupled the number of issues we published, and in 1997 launched Asia, possibly the first online student newspaper.
With so many responsibilities on my plate (and more job experience than most college graduates), I was far from your average high schooler.
Although I felt a strong pull toward the tech industry, my passion for understanding people and traveling the world led me to Stanford, and the study of biology. During the time I was at Stanford, the internet had only just begun to bloom. But not for long, it turns out. This was pre-social media, during the first bubble, and I found myself witnessing the ending of the tech boom and its looming 2001 collapse.
It was a scary time for entire the technology world. And it made my choice easier. As I fell deeper in love with the many biology and other school resources at my fingertips at Stanford, I decided to continue forward and pursue my Ph.D. in Marine Geochemistry at The University of Queensland.
University provided me a unique opportunity to work on my dissertation, as I was tasked to collaborate with world leaders in the field and prolific public figures from Stanford, The University of Queensland, and Australian National University in studying the effect of runoff on barrier reefs. We locked down $1.3 million in grant funding, which meant countless hours of research and exploring.
Everything came together when I was awarded the highest Ph.D. distinction for my dissertation, “The Nitrogen Isotopic Composition of Coral Skeletons: A Tracer of Provenance in Coastal Oceans.”
A TRUER CALLING
The recognition was nice, until I realized the best careers were not in my field, but in technology. I had an extensive background in analyzing data, but I also had a fun personality. The trick was finding a job that would balance the two. Not long after getting my Ph.D., I was able to strike this balance by joining CSVDude, my friend’s early SaaS company, as a business co-founder and executive vice president.
CSVDude hosted source code management solutions, including version control, agile project management, and bug and issue tracking systems in the cloud. With hard work and a strong belief in our value proposition, we raised over $1 million in financing, including a $100K business competition win.
We were batting fast, and the market was open to playing ball. It’s funny, because at the time, service as a software (SaaS) was a relatively new idea, and we were at the forefront trying to understand it all.
One of my primary responsibilities included building our online/inside sales program from the ground up. I was jumping head first into learning how to scale a sales and marketing infrastructure. There were some hiccups along the journey, but with persistence and an attitude to constantly learn, we grew our revenue by over 700% and our average customer value by 65%.
It wasn’t magic. It was using the right software and having a team who understood it. We had to implement a fully automated tech stack that included Salesforce, Marketo, and Zuora, all bound by a deep integration with our product events data and codified workflow processes.
In a journey where I had jumped in head first, I’d managed not only to survive, but to grow.
In 2010, CollabNet, the leader in enterprise cloud development and Agile ALM, acquired CSVDude for cash and stock worth over 6X ARR. Still seeing potential, I stayed with the company to become the vice president and general manager of CollabNet Cloud Services.
Within the next several years, I helped launched CloudForge, CollabNet’s development Platform as a Service (dPaaS), reduced churn below 2%, and established OEM and Channel GTM deals with five strategic partners.
Before I left, we’d grown the company to a multi-million revenue (ARR) business model with thousands of customers. I had a big win under my belt and was itching for the next adventure. Coincidentally, I had received a well-timed call from a long-term mentor, who was at that point the COO at Zendesk (which all my customers were buzzing about). He was looking to add high-level talent to his team.
When I made the jump to this up-and-coming startup, Zendesk, a software company that empowers organizations to improve customer engagement and relationships, I had the know-how and confidence to move the team in the right direction.
As Zendesk’s head of online sales, I was directly responsible for growing Zendesk’s core (high velocity) SaaS business, spearheading cross-company initiatives designed to improve conversion and the customer experience through the full lifecycle.
Taking bits and pieces of my experience in SaaS while also adding new skills, I built a high-velocity sales program for Zendesk by implementing tools such as Hubspot, Pardot, and Eloqua, and Marketo. The idea was to create better analytical models around our acquisition efforts by using a fully-automated sales and marketing workflow, backed by dashboards offering transparency and visibility.
It worked, but something was missing.
Not necessarily something from the company, but from the industry as a whole. After creating and honing many sales funnels, I realized businesses of all shapes and sizes were struggling with personalized onboarding, Salesforce, and other bolted-on automation platforms. People were looking for event-based architectures that aggregated data from the best applications and triggered real-time messaging.
THE BEGINNINGS OF A SCALEABLE SOLUTION
While at Zendesk, I’d began obsessing over how to ensure a better flow for onboarding and nurturing customers. This led me to a conversation with the founder of Autopilot, Michael Sharkey.
Before Autopilot, Michael had joined his brother Chris, who had founded Stayz, an Australian rental booking site, and successfully scaled the company. Stayz was then acquired by HomeAway for $198 million in 2013. Following the acquisition, Michael co-founded Sharkey Media, a digital agency meant to help companies realize revenue through online marketing programs.
After talking to Michael Sharkey and learning from his experience, I felt aligned with his mission to build what I considered the Zendesk of automation, Autopilot. The idea was to personalize messaging based on high-level event tracking with a visual workflow, while making it easy and affordable enough that marketers would never have to talk to a salesperson.
Seeing the problems first-hand, I knew this was the future of marketing — no more Salesforce or Marketo.
I was surprised to find out that only five percent of businesses use marketing automation. With increasing market competition, this five percent is likely to double and even triple over the next four years. Seeing an opportunity aligned with my passion and interests, I took the leap and joined Autopilot as their chief marketing officer tasked with repositioning, re-launching, and monetizing the new SaaS company.
Understanding we were not in a race, but rather moving slow to move fast, we invested heavily in SEO, content, nurturing growth, and our brand. The goal was to drive our cost per lead (CPL) close to zero. This meant creating a machine that would produce content, ignite it, and then distribute it efficiently.
FAST PACED GROWTH & SUCCESS
It began with creating high-level eBooks and blog posts. With these pieces of content, we’d invest our energy in creating a remarketing audience to whom we could advertise our free trial. By eating our own dog food, we invested in a no-touch customer sign-up process to build an automated onboarding system that did most of the work with built-in mechanisms, like NPS surveys and in-app feedback requests to spot user obstacles and iron out friction.
Our strategies and tactics were well-executed, so we began to experience fast-paced growth. It wasn’t all rainbows and sunshine, though, as not everything went as predicted.
We’d tried a $5/month plan, and while it helped us acquire customers quickly, the barrier for adoption was so low that we quickly had users of Salesforce and other complex apps switch to Autopilot, but they lacked the margins needed to hire and deliver the support these customers needed. Realizing this wasn’t sustainable, we sunsetted the $5/month plan.
I could end it there, but in marketing, there are many bumps and bruises to achieve success. One of the bumps included sending postcards to a targeted list of marketing VPs. The response was only a slight tick on the customer acquisition monitor. At least, it made for a good story and learning lesson.
It’s hard to conduct rapid-fire testing if you don’t have the right culture to invalidate ideas quickly. Everyone must be a producer, especially in an industry that’s catching on rapidly and dispenses a thousand ideas for each one that’s well executed. More importantly, the people must align with our core values: simple, empowering, people-centric, and remarkable.
If our team sticks to our principles and stays focused, this ripples down to our customers, who in turn become power users and get more involved. The closer they feel to the community, the more word-of-mouth referrals, guest posts, and feedback we receive. And again, it begins with a killer culture.
As Chris Sharkey likes to say, “make easy things easy, and hard things achievable.”
Since I’ve started at Autopilot, I’ve led our go-to-market initiatives and customer operations in marketing and sales across our online and direct channels. In turn, I’ve grown customer acquisition from zero to thousands of new companies per month, and helped build insanely productive growth teams.
I could look back and say it was easy, but many people helped me along the way. And there were many late nights, days of overthinking, and startup-life obstacles. I had to keep a tight control over my habits and routines to push forward; as a result, I’ve gotten the reputation of someone who never shuts off. In part, it’s because I ensure to take time away from my laptop to hike, surf, and do other physical activities. And at the end of each week on Sunday night, I write my weekly to-do list. I call it the No B.S. Must-Get-Done List.
To perform at high-level, you must stay focused. It’s not luck, it’s habits and routine. One of the big things I learned from Zendesk was keeping light on meetings and knowing the intended outcome before scheduling. Simple strategies like these can give your entire company a long-lasting productivity boost.
It’s amazing to see the work the tech industry in its entirety has accomplished over the last ten years with changes in culture and personalization. I’ve had the pleasure to see many of my friends grow and become leaders in their respective industries and leave great legacies. It’s inspiring to watch their journey and to wake up each day feeling like it’s day one of my career, because if there’s one thing certain about technology, it’s changing.
As I raise Autopilot’s flag into uncharted territory, I know many are looking to follow in my path. For those who have taken the first steps or are just thinking of starting out in growth marketing, I advise you to reach out to thought leaders, be honest with your skill set, and learn technical skills such as reading API documentation, extracting actionable insights from data, and becoming skilled at event-based automation.
And if you want to really stand out, then look at your skills in a T-shaped way: know the fundamentals of most traction channels and be exceptional at one.
No one said the journey was easy, but the growth marketers who lead their startup’s success will always tell you it was worth it.
And trust me, it is.
Guy Marion is the head of growth at Autopilot. He’s also a revenue-focused leader interested in the shift towards all things cloud & SaaS, the consumerization of enterprise software, and disruptive mobile technologies.