CMO to CEO: How this marketer is juggling the demands of running a startup
- 02 April, 2020 12:18
Marketers should be proud of the varied skills and experiences they bring to the executive table, former marketer and now CEO of BarBooks Australia, Morag Latta, believes.
“I feel positive my previous experiences set me up for this role,” Latta tells CMO of her appointment to the top job in May last year. “Marketers should be proud – we do a broad job and it’s not always understood.”
BarBooks is a legal fintech established in 2015 focused on barristers and barrister clerks. The company is the brainchild of four founders, each offering a mix of legal and barrister experience and insight and technology entrepreneurship.
The fintech claims to have delivered exponential growth year-on-year, and expanded into the Bar Clerks market with a new B2B clerk product in 2018. Earlier this year, BarBooks acquired TA Law’s iChambers business, a key step in becoming Australia’s market leader in practice management software for barristers. It now has its sights set on international expansion into the UK and US.
Latta joined as CEO in May 2019. Prior to this, she held marketing, commercial and customer management roles at large legal publishing and technology corporates such as Thompson Reuters and LexisNexis.
“I was looking to stay at a CMO level, because it’s a role I love and has that comfort factor. Then I saw this and thought there was going to be a time when I made the decision to transition,” Latta says. “It’s a startup, which is varied, but also I saw it as an opportunity to put my stamp on something.
“In taking this role, I’ve shifted from a more traditional corporate to something that is tech focused, which offers great growth potential. I could see the pathway was pretty attractive. The business was open to acquisitions in Australia - we’ve just closed one in fact - and there was the opportunity to take the company internationally, which I’m very excited about.”
BarBooks was very much born out of barristers seeing an opportunity in the market to disrupt, and thanks to connections with several tech entrepreneurs, it built a product offering quickly. Initially, growth came via personal connections.
“Barristers are interesting and a wonderful group of customers, but they can quite conservative and they’re very discerning,” Latta comments. “Having barristers talk to barristers was a great way to start off and build use of the product.
“Today, we have a strong advocacy rate of upwards of 80 per cent, and customers are telling us in surveys they actively promote the product to colleagues. We also have close to 99 per cent retention rates.”
Stepping up to CEO
The first thing for Latta when taking up the CEO mantle was to look at the product, understand that and build up tech knowledge.
“I’ve worked with tech products before, but in such a small team, you have to quickly build a degree of domain knowledge to be legitimate at the table. I’m still building that,” she says.
“The other thing was looking at the financials, what customers are saying, what we understand about customer interactions, and learning why we have great positive responses and engagement, and what’s driving their responses. Because that’s also the risk if it starts to drop. I really wanted to understand the customer base. I understand the market, but had some work to do on the competitive landscape as our products are quite different.”
Latta quickly put together a strategic plan for next 12 months acquisition and growth strategy. It’s this she’s now working to enact, and she highlighted investment into dev capacity in Poland as an example of how BarBooks is gearing up for UK expansion and plans to realise its international ambitions.
The marketing-to-chief skills gap
For Latta, the biggest change wasn’t shifting from CMO to CEO, it was moving from a large corporate to a small startup.
“There are obviously different budgets, constraints, and you’re working with a completely different landscape and infrastructure,” she says. “On the flip side, there’s such agility, and you can make a decision and just move. The other thing is the whole day isn’t taken up with meetings. It sounds funny but it’s been a really big change – it gives me time to do work and think.”
Being a small, tight-knit team, Latta says everyone has to be jack of many trades. “We all have to muck in, and it’s been good for learning the business but also being part of the team,” she says.
It’s this diverse skill base Latta says marketers commonly command, and what provides a strong grounding for rising to CEO.
“Having been a senior marketer, it reminded me in positive way of how broad and varied running a marketing group is, and how many different skills we need to excel in a CMO role,” she continues. “For example, communications is a big one, internal and external; it’s important for all senior leaders, but it’s something marketers are so focused on. The ability to connect to customers strongly, talk to them about what they want, and ensure you have a meaningful connection, is vital.”
It’s these learnings that also resulted in Latta introduce engagement channels tracking at BarBooks last year.
The other thing marketers possess is data-driven decision making. “As marketers, we have had to make that pivot in the past five years to justify our value and what marketing brings to the business,” Latta says.
“Tracking customer communications, needs and behaviour, looking at how we use tech and ensuring all I present back to the board is grounded in data, has been a key focus for me. And it’s not just the financial data, which is what they [the BarBooks board] were looking at before. Seeing that whole picture is a marketing skill.”
Then there’s use of technology for internal and external use, as well as gleaning insights that can drive business forward and realise growth.
“For instance, our social media activity is very basic, but bringing that back to the board, showing how people are engaging and what it means, and ensuring tech and data usage is front and centre is very important,” Latta says. “I think it’s because I’ve been beaten up so many times as a marketer, and always had to justify my existence.
“As a CEO, you need to stay up to date on the market and competitive knowledge, feeding that into your strategy as well as your teams. Developers are very clever but very insular. Giving them that broader context about why what they’re doing is important is something I have brought in here.”
Helping support this communication approach is BarBooks’ agile development style. “We try to have standups and if something happens, we just jump in a room together,” Latta says.
“It’s important they know I support the move in direction and am part of that discussion, even if I don’t know the technical details.”
Up next: How marketers can build leadership street cred, plus advice on the skills that help them get there
Building leadership cred
At a personal level, Latta says she’s aware of her own limitations and accepting those has been quite a learning curve as she earns her CEO stripes.
“I can talk about the tech to customers comfortably, but I won’t understand the coding structure and tech stack as much as my time and I have to be comfortable with that,” she says.
Nevertheless, she admits it can feel quite isolating at the top, especially in a small business. “I can reach out to the board members for a sense check, but they don’t necessarily have the experience either,” Latta says.
“I reach out occasionally to previous bosses who are still mentors. But part of being CEO is also recognising the buck stops with you. If you have to make the call, just make sure you have the reasoning. So if there is ever a question, you feel confident you made the best decision at the time.”
It’s the variation in CMO roles Latta believes will ultimately help more marketers rise to CEO. In addition, she points to a career-long interest in sales figures and numbers as good preparation.
“I had commercial as well as marketing role at Thomson Reuters, so the financials were always important and that translates to being successful in this role,” she says. “And I’ve always taken an interest in the numbers regardless of what numbers they are in the business. My advice is to take strong interest in all the numbers, not just marketing numbers.”
With so many marketers gaining tech prowess in recent years, Latta also sees CMOs as well-equipped with broader tech knowledge they can expand outside the marketing realm.
“The broader knowledge and skillset you build, the better placed you are to move to these different roles,” Latta concludes.
“You’ll never know everything. There are always areas you are strong in, versus those you’re not so interested in, and that’s OK. That’s being a normal human being. But if you don’t have that knowledge, find someone in the business you can trust to run things effectively.”
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