In this episode of ‘How I Work’, Josh talks SaaS marketing with Troy Thibodeau, CMO of Ascentis – a provider of Human Resources Software Solutions. You’ll learn Troy’s approach to competing against VERY large competitors in the HR Software sector, the power of Ascentis’s webinar strategy, how they pivoted during COVID and how they’re ensuring alignment between sales & marketing.
Learn more about Troy Thibodeau.
Josh Becerra: Hi, everybody. This is Josh Becerra from Augurian. This is Episode 14 of How I Work. I’m here with Troy Thibodeau, CMO at Ascentis, a provider of human resources software solutions. Thanks for being here, Troy.
Troy Thibodeau: Thanks, Josh, for having me. I’m excited to talk with you this morning.
Josh: It’ll be fun. You’ve been working for software companies and sales and marketing roles since the late ’90s before SaaS was even a thing. Tell us a little bit about those early experiences and then how you ended up at Ascentis.
Troy: First of all, I do have to say that I started in the software world when SaaS was just starting to be a thing. Actually, I didn’t have any of the past experiences of working in what was Legacy Software, so I know nothing but SaaS for the last 20 years. It’s been really interesting to be in a category where it went from being very nascent to now it’s actually the mainstream and it’s really the only way people are doing software these days. It’s been very helpful to see how a buyer community changes its preferences or changes what’s considered acceptable over time.
Josh: Sure. Tell us a little bit about where you were before Ascentis and then how you got there.
Troy: In that time that I mentioned that I’d been doing software as a service, I think Ascentis is now company four or five that I’ve been with. The first company I was with, we changed our names a number of times as we were trying to figure out our business model, but, ultimately, we were known as Wizmo. We delivered desktops to small businesses.
This was, again, in the super early days of SaaS. Unfortunately, this was early 2000s and between, what do you call it, the Y2K and everybody having spent on that and 911 and everybody kind of pulling back on spending money. People slowed down their tax spending, and they were really nervous about this idea of putting stuff up into the Cloud.
I left Wizmo and I went to Honeywell. Honeywell was actually trying to become more of a SaaS or a software business. It traditionally has been a very hardware-driven business. They brought me in and they brought a few other folks who had software experience. We were going to try to bring new software offerings to the market on behalf of Honeywell, and had some success doing that, but I also learned, while I was at Honeywell, that really big companies just don’t operate at the pace that gets my juices flowing.
I left Honeywell and I went to go work for my next SaaS business, a company called JoCo. We did a corporate travel and expense software. When I joined, we were small, but we were growing really fast. We sold to Fortune500 global 2,000 companies. We grew really fast over the next three, four years, so fast that our largest competitor, a company called Concur, which is now the 800-pound gorilla in corporate travel and expense software, they took notice. They ended up acquiring us. We were very similar in size. I went on to work for Concur for another year plus.
Again, great experience because the business, while I was there, was growing at 40%plus a year and had operations internationally. Then, ultimately, I left Concur. It was doing great, but I was on the road way too much of the time and I had three very little kids, so I decided to find something that would maybe keep me back in Minnesota at least a little bit more than on the road all the time. I joined a company called Convey. We were a founder-owned-led business. It had been around for 15, 20 years offering tax reporting software.
Couldn’t be in more sexy category, if you think about it. However, I have found, even with corporate travel and expense, tax reporting that those industries or those markets where not a lot of people think it’s very sexy end up being great industries, because it is really easy for you to then create a really great story, because not a lot of people want to be in those industries.
Josh: Yes, sure.
Troy: We had another great success story. When I got there, employee number 35, and over the course of the next 8 years, we grew to just shy of 1,000 people before I left, continued to grow the portfolio of tax and governance software products we were offering to the marketplace. That’s what led me to Ascentis. We had gotten to a place that company was, again, continuing to grow, but I’ve learned when companies get into thousands of employees, they move in a different pace and, again, my juices don’t get quite as excited, so I came and found Ascentis.
I had worked with the CEO who had just come on board at Ascentis before. I knew he and I shared similar beliefs on how do you create a great company and culture. I’ve been here four years. Like you said, at the beginning of the episode, we offer HR software from recruiting all the way to retirement for organizations all over the US. We are predominantly North American-focused. So far, the four years I’ve been here we more than doubled in size, and it’s been really fun.
Josh: Wow. What a cool story. You’ve been in some really interesting sectors. I really like how you’re paying much attention to what you enjoy most and those juices, like you said, that’s what’s driving some of the decisions that you’re making in your career. That’s very cool. The HR software solution sector, that’s pretty competitive, much like the travel that you were mentioning before. I’m sure there’s those 800-pound gorillas that you’ve got to deal with, but Ascentis seems like you got huge growth and the ceiling is a long way away. What do you attribute to the growth?
Troy: For starters, let me start by saying that when you’re in a company– We are a little less than 400 employees. When I got here, we were around 200ish folks. One of the things that I and our CEO had learned through past experiences, if you want to create a growth business, it starts with, create the right culture. By creating the right culture, it’s a culture that is incredibly collaborative, but also incredibly driven and incredibly ambitious in what it wants to achieve, has big goals.
We worked a lot when I first got here four years ago at how do we create the right culture, how do we get the right people into the organization that are going to be driven, ambitious, want to take this company, which had been around actually for two, three decades before I and the CEO had gotten here, and they had achieved some level of growth, but it was more like single-digit growth each year.
We said, “We want to turn this into a much faster growth engine business.” To do that, we had to start with culture and people, but once we did that– A lot of what we’ve been doing as a business is, we’ve said, “This is an incredibly competitive category,” actually the most competitive category I’ve ever been in. Hundreds and hundreds of companies sell different aspects of HR software, so we had to figure out, first, we have a full portfolio of products, which means, do we put a little bit against everything or do we actually figure out where, within that product suite, can we have the greatest success?
We did identify where we could have the greatest success. It really has catapulted the business to have a much more focused approach to go to market to the point where, even in the last year, we continued to evolve our brand and our go-to-market strategy. We are much more focused now than when I got here on what we call “workforce-driven organizations,” which is, organizations where the people that fill those organizations get the work done on their feet and with their hands.
We do not do as well and our solutions are not designed for organizations where everybody is sitting in front of a computer all day long getting their work done. That has helped our business a lot because, in a super-competitive space, getting a lot more focus at where we want to be the 800-pound gorilla has helped us catapult our own success.
Josh: I think it’s really smart, start with the people, your internal team, get the right people on the right seats and then really gain that focus. That’s really cool. One thing that we talked about is that Ascentis has a robust webinar strategy. When we were preparing for the conversation, you said you saw kind of a dip in your webinar participation during COVID. First, can you just talk about that webinar strategy, then what you attributed the dip to, and then how you responded to the dip and COVID in general?
Troy: If you bear with me just a second, I want to go back here for a second. I know that content is a very vogue thing these days, like having strong content strategy, but I believed, as a marketer, that content is a key to success for many, many years. For all the companies I’ve been with, I believe that providing good content, and a lot of times that’s virtual content via webinars, is a really strong way to build brand awareness and get some brand equity. When I came to Ascentis, I thought I had understood how to use webinars or how to get good value out of webinars, but I’ve been really schooled here at a census on this, because we have webinar programming that over the last few years, we get over 50,000 folks attending our webinars. Our average webinar attendance is somewhere between 800 and 1,000 attendees.
Josh: That’s amazing.
Troy: A lot of it has to do with, we get really good content, we use some of our own speakers from internally, but we also partner with a lot of external thought leaders. We’ve just really built a strong brand. In fact, I think if you go out to Google and type in “free HR webinars,” we’re one of the top one or two organic results. What I can tell you is, as a business, we leaned heavy on this webinar strategy. When the pandemic hit, we actually felt like we were better positioned than anybody, because, here we are, as a business, a lot of our brand creation is through digital, which doesn’t- a lot less in person, event type of stuff.
The last year has been very educational for us because everybody else figured out that they could no longer lean on events or in-person stuff, so I think everybody else started putting a lot more energy into webinars. Consequently, we did see a drop-off in our attendance to the different events that we were putting on. We’re still getting hundreds of folks showing up, but we really do track what’s our average attendance on a regular basis, and we saw that dip, especially in the back half of 2020.
Now, fortunately, we kept on tweaking, how can we look at our content? How can we look at engaging people in the events in stronger and better ways? We have seen a rebound here in ’21 with our webinars, in fact, we just had one, two weeks ago where we had 1,300, 1,400 folks on the webinar. We are seeing a rebound. I do think some of it is as some of the other folks have stopped, maybe their foot isn’t on the gas on webinars as much as we’ve kept ours on that gas. It’s been a pretty interesting year, to say the least.
Josh: I remember also when we were prepping, you mentioned those boxes I see over your [inaudible 00:12:24] Those are something new and novel that you’ve tried here recently with COVID. You want to tell the viewers a little bit about that? Because I thought that was really cool what you were doing.
Troy: Call me old school, but I grew up– My early formative years of marketing, direct response, and direct mail was a pretty big thing. Obviously, over the last number of years, direct mail, direct response has dipped incredibly, as people do email and virtual stuff. We said, “You know what? Let’s flip this on its head because everybody’s moved to completely virtual,” and what we did is, we started, what we’re calling is a routed drop campaign. What I mean by routed is, we operate really well in the Midwest and in the Great Lakes region, that’s kind of some of our strongest geographies.
We said, “Let’s pick some of the biggest metros that we are successful in, and let’s find a way to connect to them by understanding the roots of those communities.” We ended up creating unique boxes for each of these communities that have something from a client we have in the community. Some other tchotchkes, it’s a high-value box that is then sent to folks homes, because that’s what we had to figure out how to do during this pandemic or this last year, and the response has been fantastic. I think we’ve had 50%, 60%, 70% response rates, depending on geography, to those pieces, resulting in conversations, and in many, many cases resulting in opportunities for the business.
Josh: I just thought that was such a cool idea. I didn’t want it to not get in here. I love how it’s so embedded in the city, or that geography sort of really resonate with the person who’s getting it at their home, which is just- it’s amazing. That’s really cool. I got to ask you, and you’ve mentioned two of these words already, you’ve mentioned focus and content. On the whiteboard behind you, you have focused content, community momentum, and four quadrants. Is that a framework, or tell us a little bit about why you have that on that whiteboard?
Troy: It’s really four principles that I want our marketing team to use as lenses for everything we’re doing. How do we make sure that we’re creating focus in the different things in–? We do all kinds of integrated marketing, but how do we make sure that it’s as focused as possible? I already told you, I’m a believer that actually the best marketing, they think of themselves as almost like they’re movie producers or book publishers, et cetera. Content is the name of the game.
I keep on saying, “Guys, what are we doing to create more and more compelling content every day?” Community is the lens of our– The best way for us to scale efficiently from a marketing perspective is through word of mouth. What are we doing to create word of mouth with our client base, great word of mouth, in the communities that we’re in?
In today’s day and age, a good example of this that didn’t exist a few years ago is, there are all these review sites, technology review sites you can go out to, and they’re filled with reviews of the different companies that buyers in the early stages of their buy process go out, and they go read all these different reviews. It’s like looking at Amazon reviews, we’ve had a very assiduous strategy to figure out how do we curate reviews. We do client pulse surveys on a regular basis to find out who loves us and who do we have to work harder to get to turn into loving us. We take those folks who love us, and we turn them into how do we make them into reviewers on those review sites. It’s all about community, how do we create community and how do we really promote what we’re getting from that community. Then the last thing is, I have a guy, I can’t take credit for this, I have a guy who I worked with here. He always said, “Win the day, win the week, win the month.” When you have a winning belief system in place, it just empowers and it inspires. It gets people much more motivated to keep on pushing through and achieving greater things.
For me, it’s always like, guys, and especially with my leadership team, it’s how are we helping the team appreciate that we’re getting momentum, and we’re making the flywheel turn faster and faster in terms of what we’re trying to accomplish.
Josh: That’s very cool. I like that it’s ever-present as well, on your whiteboard behind you there. Let’s shift gears and talk a little bit about MarTech. I always like to ask guests about MarTech. Can you tell us a little bit about your tech stack or cool tools you think all marketers should have in their toolboxes, especially SaaS marketers?
Troy: Yes. I’m going to talk about it as sales and MarTech because the teams I work with actually manage both buckets of technology. On the marketing side, obviously, we use marketing automation. Our vendor today is HubSpot. We’re a salesforce shop, and have been the whole time I’ve been here. We use several data providers to get data on leads, or to allow us to get contacts, et cetera, whether it’s ZoomInfo, DiscoverOrg or D&B, just sales, LinkedIn navigator. We do have drift on our website, so we’ve got the chatbots like everybody else.
I don’t know that I was very curious to see if we have success with a chatbot. Every single month, I’m seeing more and more conversations and more and more opportunities being curated through the chatbots on our website. Those are the things that we do on purely marketing side of things, we’ve got some other ancillary tools, but what we have to make sure we’re doing is marrying those technology strategies with the tech strategies of the sales organization. Our sales teams, we use outreach as a way to do one-to-one sequencing or nurturing with accounts.
We have to be very thoughtful and conscious about what we’re doing through HubSpot in a more broadcast big way and what we’re doing through outreach in one-to-one way and the field that’s using that. We also use a technology called Gong, which is really- what do you call it? it’s become the rave these days. It’s an AI tool that you can use to record and then get insights on conversations you’re having with prospective buyers and clients.
Sales uses it for coaching and development of its folks because they listen to calls and they figure out. Marketing uses it to understand what are some of the keywords that are happening in these conversations that we need to weave into our content because we know that that’s the language that the buyer’s using. We know that those are things that are said a lot of times during conversations or end up triggering somebody moving to the next stage of the sales cycle. We’re seeing as much value on the marketing side as sales is on the development side with tools such as Gong. Does that give you a little bit of an impression?
Josh: Yes, for sure. Gong. G-O-N-G, is that right?
Troy: G-O-N-G, yes.
Josh: Cool. This is not sponsored by them, but it’s good to know that that’s available. I think that’s pretty cool from aligning sales and marketing. That is probably one of the biggest chores for a CMO, is to work with your peer in sales and get that alignment. I know you guys do a great job there. Are there any tips that you would want to give to other CMOs or other SAaS marketers around this idea of alignment between sales and marketing?
Troy: I don’t know if I have any tips, because I know there’s a lot of smart marketing leaders out there, but I know that, for me- first of all, I got my teeth in marketing at General Mills, and it was consumer marketing. I had a certain lens I thought about marketing when I left Mills, but since I left Mills, I’ve done nothing but B2B marketing. One of the things I’ve learned through that experience is that, in B2B marketing, your marketing is much internally to your sales team who becomes your ambassadors for what you’re trying to achieve as you do to the marketplace itself. There has to be a really strong collaboration and symbiosis between sales and marketing.
I know that, for me, I’ve been a student of five or six different sales methodologies and tried to understand those sales methodologies as well or better than even sales, so that marketing is very complementary and additive to the selling process through the right tools and messages and everything that take place based on those selling methodologies.
For me, I don’t understand how you can operate without sales and marketing almost being one and the same. I’m fortunate, I’ve been lucky enough to work with a bunch of other sales leaders that share that same belief because I have gone into places, and this happened to be it when I was at Honeywell where sales and marketing don’t see eye to eye, and it’s very oil and water. When that happens, you just can’t achieve the same things as when sales and marketing are doing everything hand in glove.
Josh: It’s really interesting, my last How I Work episode with Kara Kanis. She is the– I can’t remember VP of Demand Gen, I think, is her title, and she oversees all of the sales and all of marketing. That alignment and connection is super important. That’s probably what’s getting you the great results and the growth that you’re seeing. Last question. It sounded like you’ve seen a lot of different sales playbooks and you’re pretty well-read and paying attention to some of the newest stuff coming out. If you had to recommend a book, or a podcast, or a blogger, or some media source that you believe SaaS marketers should consume, besides, of course, these videos, what would that be?
Troy: Actually, there are probably a bunch, but let me just share one that I recently read in the last year. I just think it’s so critical, especially in software as a service, and that is a book called Customer Success. It’s authored by the CEO of Gainsight, which is a customer success tool, but the book talks all about how do you create success with your clients so that they want to buy more, they want to recommend you more, they want to stay with you longer, et cetera.
It’s got 10 principles in it that are really critical principles for understanding how to create great customer success, and it drives marketing strategy, it drives sales strategy. It actually drives whole organizational strategy, but that’s just been a fantastic book to, again, in a SAaS business figure out how you keep the recurring revenue model producing at the rate as you want to.
Josh: Outstanding. You obviously have it producing at the rate and growing in the ways that you want, and it’s obvious by what you’ve shared today. You really have that focus. I appreciate your time. That’s going to wrap it up for this episode of How I Work. Thanks so much for your time, Troy.
Troy: Thanks, Josh. I enjoyed the conversation.