CMO profile: Building the growth engine during a pandemic

Nitro global chief marketing officer shares how she's bringing a growth mindset and strategic marketing approach to the Australian digital document management business

It’s a process Maria Robinson has applied to every new role she’s held as a marketer since cutting her teeth in the dotcom era: The no-fly zone. And it’s one that’s particularly useful when you’re the first CMO appointed to a company like Nitro, looking to ride the rapid growth opportunity presented by COVID-19.

“I previously had distributed global teams, so I was often meeting people virtually and was required to build relationships that way,” Robinson tells CMO. “Coming into Nitro, I thought about what the key things are we need to build relationships and partnerships. Number one was overcommunicate and with more people than you normally would.

“I used a process I call the ‘No fly zone’, where I conduct interviews with cross-functional colleagues asking the same five questions. Usually I would do about 15 – at Nitro I’ve done 38. It’s important to build relationships and gain information and a 360-view of the business before making decisions.”  

There’s no doubt Nitro’s strategy shifted overnight as the COVID-19 pandemic swept the globe. The Australian-grown business is focused on the digitising document and workflow management space. It’s currently valued at US$330 million and boasts of 2.2 million users globally.

According to Nitro’s own research on the future of work, undertaken as the pandemic settled in, there was an abrupt 50 per cent decline in printing worldwide and 70 per cent in Australia, signifying the immediate need organisations faced to ensure they could handle 100 per cent digital activities and workflows.

“This has also long been an area of opportunity for businesses as workflows are not up to date. But there wasn’t a push to accelerate it,” Robinson agrees. “It became very obvious that COVID was this tipping point.”  

Robinson joined Nitro in July in amid the COVID-19 pandemic to drive and support the go-to-market strategy and fuel the company’s next phase of growth.

Credit: Nitro

Her background lends itself to the task. San Francisco-based Robinson commenced her professional career in startups, one of which was acquired by WebMD. That gave her an opportunity to build and scale marketing teams in rapid growth environments. From there, she moved on to accounting software vendor, Intuit, working in emerging business units including Intuit Quickbooks and helping the business transition to software-as-a-service models.

Robinson then led ecommerce marketing for the GoToWebinar and Meeting product suite, which had recently spun out of Citrix by LogMeIn and combined to form a $16bn tech business. Most recently, Robinson was the VP of growth marketing for cybersecurity vendor, Imperva, helping drive migration from perpetual licensing to a subscription model and applying the growth methodologies she’d picked up to drive growth.

Realising growth

“What I’m most excited about at Nitro is I have all the functions of marketing, and I can bring to bear all of these experiences to the business,” she says. “I have come to the company at a really interesting inflection point, 10 years into its formation and one year after going to IPO on the ASX. The business went public with $40 million in ARR, then COVID hit.”

COVID has presented an amazing opportunity for Nitro and a tailwind to accelerate the growth potential of the business. 

“Clearly what we have done in the past with paper has quickly moved to clicks. And what we’re seeing is an acceleration of digital transformation,” Robinson comments. “Some of the work the team had done before I came onboard was really documenting the shift that was happening in the way we were working. That provided the acceleration for our next growth phase.

“I’m a growth marketer at my core, so growing at a rapid pace is something that really excited about it.”

Connecting marketing to the growth levers in the business is something Robinson has plenty of experience in. Deep experience in digital channels is also very applicable to the Nitro approach.

We are all growth officers as marketers,” she continues. “But it’s become a fashionable term now, to talk about specific disciplines within marketing that can directly impact growth. I do think about it broadly though that every marketer is driving growth. A product marketer, for example, is thinking about growth strategy or making growth hypotheses on how to extend a business, and even if they don’t control the levers of digital or spend, their decisions are driving growth.

“Then you have those specific digital marketers with performance activities that clearly drive revenue or revenue directly from channels like a website. But I do prefer to think of all of us as growth marketers.”   

One priority that will help realise growth at Nitro is tying together acquisition channels, Robinson says. “Right now, there are ecommerce purchases happening with individual users, then there is a sales team focused on mid and large enterprises doing demand gen activities,” she explains. “Marketers who have been very successful in SaaS businesses tie those things together in a growth flywheel.”  

This is also where the sales and marketing relationship is pivotal. “Businesses successful across the entire customer lifecycle are thinking of marketing as part of the go-to-market mechanism,” Robinson argues.

“In the SaaS world, you can drive that relationship by virtue of the fact we’re very dependent on one another for those activities to happen and that flywheel. It’s even more the case in COVID, when everything is in a virtual world. Marketers have a large responsibility for the digital ecosystem driving sales.”   

Pivoting to virtual touch

In terms of marketing strategy, Robinson says it was clear the traditional B2B approach of high-touch and in-person events was no longer going to be applicable during COVID.

“What we needed to do we could no longer do in the physical world and we had to be very creative on how we leveraged a virtual environment to engage people in branded experiences,” she says. “It was no longer about events hosted by someone else, we had to create our own Nitro branded events and activities. That required a different level of thinking and creativity around how we view and do those experiences.

“We had to stand up new online branded experiences, both tied to acquisitions as well as connecting the installed base. The array of virtual things marketers needed to do tripled because of COVID. That required different way of working.”  

Read more: Can virtual events fill the physical conference gap?

A key element of this was velocity. “I love to move fast, and the speed of startups, but for all the activities we need to do as marketers needed to happen in weeks or days, not months,” Robinson continues. “So the speed and moving at the speed of Nitro has been the constant challenge for marketers because there is so much coming up, so quickly, and all these are new experiences we have to create.”  

What again has helped is Nitro’s research on the future of work, which further framed the company philosophy on how it was going to adapt.

“Many of those respondents plus our own employees felt they were even more productive because they have more flexibility,” Robinson says. “That helped our employees understand we’re not going to go racing back into the office or go back to normal anytime soon, so let’s adapt and find ways to be more flexible with one another to stay productive. I found a silver lining too as a mum of two – I’m able to better integrate work and life.

“We do have to encourage teams to take those mental breaks and take breaks during the day and time off. We often have content on body and mind to encourage better behaviour, because there is that Zoom fatigue for sure. But the team has adapted well because of their historical experience as a globally distributed team.”

An inherent mindset and commitment to be performance driven is another must, Robinson says. “And we were already using many technologies are our own products to work this way in our business,” she adds.  

“The most interesting research note is that most workers – 73 per - cent see working from home not only part of the pandemic, but part of the long-term. This is going to continue. The future of work is very different and will require digital workflows as it’s become mainstream.”  

This broadens the customer pool for Nitro and creates a trigger for growth. “As an IT leader, I could put it on the shelf before, but now my users across the enterprise are all in an environment where they need this to be productive in this new paradigm,” Robinson says.  

“There is a groundswell around esignatures, for example, and they can’t wait for the office of the CIO to give them this capability. They have to get documents immediately signed and pushed through the business. Slack and Atlassian created that groundswell at a user level and we’re ripe for that right now. We’re seeing that with acceleration of users lining up for services we offer to help deliver digital workflows.”  

At a personal level, meanwhile, Robinson is continuing to share her experience and knowledge with peers and mentees. During her time at Imperva, she founded the Imperva Women’s Network to foster greater diversity and inclusion in the security sector. 

“Cybersecurity is very male dominated, and we had women coming into the business wanting to form community. Most important, the network fostered that executive sponsorship that makes it possible for women to move throughout the business and elevate both their skills professionally but also get that seat at the executive table,” she says.    

“Mentoring is a key part of my career – people continue to come to me for ideas and prioritisation and I feel a huge responsibility to lift them up. I am in a point in my career where I feel I can share experiences and help other women approach a problem they’re facing in their career path.”  

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