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3 startup CMOs share what makes a disruptive marketing strategy

Ben Eatwell, Andrew Balint and Craig Davis dish details on what it’s like being a CMO for a disruptor firm

In the age of disruption, increasing numbers of marketing professionals are gaining roles at startup and industry disruptive organisations.

CMO tracked down three such CMOs who are living and breathing the life as marketing chiefs working at some of these non-traditional businesses.

We asked them what it’s like being a disruptor in the market, some of their top priorities and main challenges, and what makes for good marketing strategy. All three CMOs shared what they said are their ‘must-have’ marketing strategies and tips for success.

Striking a balance

For Weploy CMO, Ben Eatwell, being at a disruptor is both an “exciting and daunting” proposition. There are no precedents to what works and what doesn't, which means the CMO always has to test and learn, he said.

Eatwell comes from a traditional corporate background, having worked at LinkedIn. In January, he accepted the first-ever CMO role at Weploy.

“The trick is trying to balance the need to fail fast with the fact that as a disrupting influence on an industry, it takes time to build trust with your audience," he said. "I try and take a very logic-based approach to where to focus and invest. Often you don't have a huge amount of data so when you're approaching a complex problem or defining a far reaching strategy, breaking it down to the root elements and then asking the hard question of, ‘does this move us closer to our ultimate mission?’”

Weploy's Ben Eatwell
Weploy's Ben Eatwell

Brickx CMO, Andrew Balint, also finds the marketing chief's post at a disruptor firm “exhilarating” in that he is helping a new business start from scratch.

“Building a new business and brand from the ground up and in effect creating a new category is incredibly rewarding and definitely gets the adrenaline pumping,” Balint said.

“The Brickx platform is a revolutionary way for Australians to gain access to the residential property market by investing in 'Bricks' of a property. This means everyday people, regardless of geography or wealth, can invest in quality residential properties for as little as a few hundred dollars. By using unconventional approaches to a traditional market, we’re helping democratise access to property.

Sendle CMO, Craig Davis, meanwhile, said it’s flattering being described as an innovator and a disruptor, but it’s far from the main event. Sendle is a Sydney-based startup that's a growing challenger to Australia Post in parcel delivery for small business. A major milestone was signing a major deal with online marketplace eBay in 2017.

“We set out to solve major customer problems really well, and disruption occurred as a happy consequence of doing a good job,” Davis said. 

“Being a disruptor is really about finding ways to be better connected with the needs of your market and giving them what they value most. In our case, we identified 13 pain points that potential customers were experiencing with the dominant parcel delivery provider and we made it our business, quite literally, to solve them.”

Top priorities

On the priorities front, Eatwell said startup CMOs need to ensure the entire organisation is aligned on the vision, mission and values of the company.

“This gives you a common language, a shortcut, that helps you communicate why decisions are made, which in turn, speeds up the time from idea to action," he said. "Second is using the data you have to understand who are more likely to be disrupted. Who are the innovators and early adopters? In B2B, it's not just the companies themselves, but who within those companies is going to fight for you internally. They don't have to be very senior, just passionate about the change you can deliver and has a level of influence.”

Over at Brickx, Balint’s top priorities are on the people front: Staff and customers.

Brickx' Andrew BalintCredit: Andrew Balint
Brickx' Andrew Balint

“Owning your own house has long been the great Australian Dream and Brickx acts as a stepping stone to help Aussies achieve this - even if we go about it in an unconventional way. Considering the passion, emotion and effort invested in property ownership, Brickx has an incredible responsibility to ensure that users have the best experience," he said. 

“When it comes to our people, it’s about hiring superstars who combine great strategic abilities with the drive and desire to get their hands dirty. We move fast at Brickx so the need to find, reward and retain top talent is the best way to maintain that pace and growth. A strong, inspiring culture is key to this.”  

Since taking up the post in 2015, Davis' top priorities at Sendle have involved achieving and maintaining product/market fit.  

“We worked hard to get to product/market fit a couple of years ago. It’s the most important milestone for any startup and the ultimate growth hack. Achieving and maintaining product/market fit has been central to our growth story," he said. 

"No amount of clever marketing can compensate for a poor solution, but solve a problem for your customers really well, and they’ll do your bidding for you. Product/market fit results directly in word-of-mouth advocacy, which, for Sendle, has been the very best type of advertising. In 2017, word-of-mouth, aided and abetted by some smart channel 'hacks', accounted for 50 per cent of our business growth.”

Davis advised CMOs to keep a “growth mindset” and stay engaged with multiple feedback loops to ensure the products and services they're representing continue to meet the needs of the market. This is an ongoing priority, not a one-time challenge.

“We have seven major loops running, and part of the reason Sendle is growing 20 per cent month-on-month is because we’re listening very closely to the thousands of small businesses across the country that use Sendle to access simple, reliable and affordable parcel delivery," he said.

Up next: How these CMOs are writing the rulebook, plus must-do marketing steps

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Writing the rulebook

Eatwell said the fact there’s no 'best practice' guide is one of the toughest aspects of his role. In turn, this can affect the hiring process at the company.

“Lots of people say they want to work in a startup environment, but it's hard when there isn't a normal way of doing things. Some flourish, others find out fast they prefer to work in a more stable environment," he said. "This doesn't mean they are not amazing at what they do, but understanding who can thrive in uncertainty is important as a leader."

Eatwell said the other main challenge is capturing marketshare. Being first doesn't always translate into success.

“As soon as you show success, there'll be very smart people trying to figure out how to be better or faster. So moving as fast as you can whilst delivering incredible value for your customers is essential - it's all about having a growth mindset and building scale into everything you do,” Eatwell said.

Davis said it's very easy to get distracted and lose sight of what’s most important, which is to stay close to the customer.

"Responding to feedback in clever and creative ways is a never-ending challenge," he said. "If you are genuinely disruptive, as determined by the market, then you can expect to get more than your fair share of feedback.

“All this feedback - the good, the bad and the ugly - is a gift for the business if you acknowledge it, make good decisions, and respond to it quickly. Listen. Learn. Test. Repeat. These are ongoing priorities for us, and our marketing model is really just a framework that enables us to move through this cycle at a high cadence.”

‘Must-do’ marketing steps

Eatwell positioned marketing as all about impacting some sort of behavioural change. When traditional business models are upended, and there are new ways of doing things, companies need to be even more focused on changing people’s behaviour. The problem is the scope of change is so much greater when companies are trying to disrupt a market.

“For me, there are three main tenants to affecting change. The first is showing why you should change. This means speaking in a language your prospect understands and clearly explaining why it's so important to move from the status quo," he explained. 

“Second is how they can change - knowing that you should eat less sugar is one thing, but if it's too hard to work out how to eat less sugar, you end up back in old habits. And third is who else is changing - humans are social animals and like to follow norms, even when that norm is being defined by a minority. So having clear social proof of the benefits or reduced losses associated with your solution is essential to encouraging change."

For Balint, taking risks and learning from mistakes is key to having a “killer marketing strategy” for any disruptor.

“We encourage our people to come to the table with ideas that might challenge us across all elements of marketing. Often, new ideas we might consider too ‘out there’ when put forward end up being reshaped into something incredibly valuable and out of the ordinary. 

"That said, people should also have the attitude that they are spending each dollar as if it were their own. This ensures money isn’t used unwisely. Finally, all activity and communications in every channel must contribute to building brand affinity.”

For Davis, there are three things any disruptor CMO must do in order to find success. The first involves having a strong and coherent narrative - one that describes the purpose and vision of  the brand in ways that make the future irresistibly better for customers than the status quo.

Sendle's Craig Davis
Sendle's Craig Davis

“For example, ours is one that puts small business [Sendle customers] on a level playing field with the big end of town."

Davis said the CMO also needs a marketing model that helps build connections and community both upstream and down. This ensures the company and its stakeholders are all subscribed to the vision of a better future and are all invested in the company’s success.

“Finally, you need a way to measure the effectiveness of your marketing in a way that is sensitive to your particular business model. That way, you’re making a business case for investment, as opposed to a budget case for expenditure," he concluded. "We have very particular growth metrics that we focus on and use to guide our decision making.”

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