Startup Acquisitions and Effective Testing: ‘How I Work’ EP21 with George Hadjiyanis (Launch Avenue)


George Hadjiyanis founded Launch Avenue to lead small to mid-sized B2B organizations throughout early and growth stages. George is a SaaS and cloud marketing executive with over 20 years of experience in business development, marketing, and product management for B2B software and services companies.

How I Work, Episode 21 with George Hadjiyanis (Launch Avenue)

George joins Josh Becerra in episode 21 of How I Work to share how networking plays such a big role in being with SaaS companies from the beginning to acquisition  – and deciphering who to test, when to test, and what to test. Plus:

  • Hiring thought-leaders to permeate the market early on
  • His MarTech of Choice: FreshDesk, Zoho, Hubspot, Salesforce
  • Knowing when to test Qualitative versus Quantitative

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Transcription: How I Work, Episode 21 (George Hadjiyanis, Launch Avenue)

Josh Becerra: Hi, everybody. This is Josh Becerra from Augurian. I’m here with George Hadjiyanis. Thanks for being here, George.

George Hadjiyanis: Hello, thanks for having me.

Josh: It’s awesome. George has been working in SaaS and software for a long time in the marketing field. We connected through your relationship with Authentic Brand. You’ve been doing some consulting as a CMO on their part, so you’ve got your consulting practice. I’m really curious to dig into this experience you’ve had with software as a service. Why don’t you give us a little bit of background on yourself, some of the companies you’ve been a part of, some of those experiences, and then I’ve got some questions for you.

George: Okay, sounds good. Well, thanks for having me, as well. I’ve been in software as service for 25 years or maybe more, dated myself. I really started from the product marketing world and then moving into leadership and marketing and sales organizations for early-stage companies that are coming into new markets that need to cross the chasm to use a more term.

Organizations like Wam!Net, which, back in the day, was a digital provider of communications to be able to share large files in a secure way amongst industries. Agility was a hosting company. I was VP of marketing for them until they got acquired and then moving into a number of other organizations until I went on my own, about, I don’t know, 15 years ago when I started consulting.

Then one of my clients hired me full time to help start a new organization, they were spinning out, called Stratus, which is our cloud management provider. After they got acquired, then it brings me up to today.

Josh: Let’s talk a little bit about in Stratus, because when we were having that conversation prepping for this, it was really interesting that you got in pretty early on that. Then you rode it pretty much all the way through to acquisition, if I’m not mistaken. That’s every SaaS marketer’s dream, I guess, is you create some sort of software, it really starts to gain traction, and then you get a big acquisition down the road.

In order to do that, obviously, you got to gain that traction, you got to get those customers. Can you talk a little bit about, as in your role in marketing and sales, what it was that got you there?

George: Well, first of all, great team. I was consulting to a group that was doing software development. It was called Valtira, and they spun out this product called Stratus, which is a cloud management platform that they built for themselves. it was built out of necessity for them to manage multiple clients in multiple clouds.

Josh: Scratch the itch, right?

George: Yes, exactly. 

Josh: You got to scratch your own itch.

George: A really smart CTO there. His name is George Reese, and he built this for R&D, and then people started asking us, “Hey, can you help us as well?” We spun that out as a separate company. I joined full time, from inception, through Series A, financing, and then acquisition by Dell, and then into Dell for a couple of years, which we can talk about.

Josh: Sure.

George: For that, it was really a brand new market. It was really playing a thought leader strategy about, there is a problem where you are using multiple clouds, and you don’t know how much you’re spending, you don’t know if they’re secure, you don’t know how to automate them, you need one layer in front of all those different cloud providers, so it was thought leadership through speaking at conferences.

Twitter was just becoming a thing back then, and George Reese was really good at getting on Twitter, and we enabled him to shake things up in the market. It’ll cause a little controversy, and then writing white papers and doing webinars. A little bit of luck along the way, we had NASA CEO read about us and called us, and we helped do their shuttle launch on Amazon streaming. That’s-

Josh: What’s inbound lead from NASA feel like? I can only imagine like, “Hey, we got a form fill. I don’t know if this is for real.”

George: That’s exactly what happened. I was like, I went into the CEO. I’m like, “We got somebody from NASA saying they’re using Amazon to stream the last shuttle launch, and they want to do it in a secure scalable way.” We all just looked at each other like, “This might be our moment.” We got to a [unintelligible 00:04:24]. I remember during a demo, we were having an issue, and I was literally sweating, but it went well. We use them as a client reference, and that helped us get to the next point before our financing.

We also hired a couple of thought leaders in the space that were writers and speakers that really then permeated the market, so that was a smart move, getting the right board members and researching organizations that were using multiple clouds by looking at cloud providers’ websites to see who is using clouds that may not even know they have the problem and then getting in front of the CTO.

Josh: Did that turn into an account-based marketing an approach then? Like, you did that research, and you’re like, “Here’s our handful of clients that are prospects that we really want to focus on”?

George: In parallel, account-based marketing wasn’t really a thing back then, even though it was. It’s just putting a name on that.

Josh: We didn’t have a name for it.

George: Exactly. We did that, but in parallel with more wider marketing-

Josh: Awareness

George: -co-marketing with cloud providers, as well like Amazon, Rackspace at the time, VMware for private clouds. We research who’s using cloud, who’s using Amazon first, and then hopefully, they’re using other cloud providers, or even just multiple Amazon accounts because that was a problem that they were having. We definitely started prioritizing, and we hired a team and gave them target customers. We got some international clients like Korea Telecom that got us into other telecoms. It was an exciting ride.

Josh: That sounds amazing. I imagine that shifting from this startup culture to now you’re acquired by Dell, and sounds like you stayed on for a while. What kind of culture shifts, or what did you see? Did anything change, or did they really provide a ton of autonomy, or what were some of the differences? Maybe there were tremendous benefits That influx of resources had to help, of course.

George: It was definitely many roads traveled during those three years. Initially, it was really trying to understand where we could potentially partner with the different organizations. There was a services team, an integration team, a software team, a cloud team, government team, so I had to work with those different organizations and understand how we could bundle our solution or co-sell.

There was a lot of opportunity that was hardware-focused. We had to prioritize, is this hardware sale also a cloud opportunity or not, so we had to do some of that as well. There were a lot of chefs in the kitchen to try to figure that out but great organization. They brought us into organizations that we wouldn’t have been able to get into, just because they already had them as a client or their name.

Then there was also the marketing. They changed the name to Dell Cloud Manager. At first, we didn’t really think that that was the right way to go because of the brand that we had built, but it made sense for Dell because of their brand as well. We had to navigate the name change, and there was some culture changes, obviously, a multi-billion dollar company course, 50-person company. They let us run autonomous for a while, and then it slowly got integrated into the rest of the organization. Then I got another opportunity and left.

Josh: Cool. I think like I said earlier, that path is an amazing path, that’s the path that a lot of people who are in SaaS and marketing want to see for themselves. It’s cool that you’ve traveled that, and you’ve been able to share a little bit of that with us today. Now, fast forward, you’re in a place where you’re doing a lot more consulting, and I think some of that is with smaller SaaS companies, again.

I’m curious to get your point of view on because you’re relating to a number of different companies at different sizes and stages, are there any common pitfalls or challenges that you’re seeing that you would think that this audience of marketers would be interested in understanding about SaaS marketing today in what you’re seeing?

George: I think one thing is that everybody’s in love with their own product to a point of fault. They want to talk about their product and pitch their features and solution versus doing a more value-based from a customer perspective. I think that’s one thing that I have seen across my customers, and it depends on who the leader is. If the leader of the organization is more coming from the sales world, engineering, or marketing, that’ll be an issue, more or less.

Josh: Who is it more for? Probably the technical people.

George: Yes, if it’s an engineer leading it, their heart is in that product that they built, and they want to talk about it as a product. A lot of times, I’ve had to flip the narrative within the company, which permeates through the sales team and the marketing, the website, and tools and stuff.

Josh: Can we dig into that? I think, as marketers, when we are showing up in organizations, this idea of trying to flip the narrative, that’s not– like you just was like, “I just helped them flip the narrative.” That is not an easy conversation to have, and it’s not an easy outcome to achieve. Is there anything in there that you could speak to about how is it that you approach more technical founder and talk to them about the importance of that narrative?

George: It’s a good question. First, start with pulling it out from the people internally. Why did you build this solution? How does it benefit your clients? What are their alternatives? Right now, they’re doing this, and they’re going to do this, and what’s the fit associated with using your solution? Then hopefully, they have a few clients that are open to talk and open up about the value that they’re bringing.

You talk to some of the clients that are representative of the targets that they want to go after and their available market, pull the nuggets out of them, and then start to layer that on top of the strategy, that go to market strategy. Hopefully, as you start to do that, they start to see that it’s starting to resonate more with clients. Maybe they’re getting more inbound activity or more customer reactions to their presentations or whatever, and they start to adopt that.

Josh: The other thing that I think we talked a little bit about is this idea of if you go to someone technical, and you say, “Hey, we were going to take a scientific-based approach to this.” There’s actually, “We want to test these things.” We talked a little bit about message testing and trying to really understand what resonates with the market. I know that you are a big believer in this idea of testing.

Can you talk a little bit about what your approach is like and how you know like, “Okay, we’ve arrived at the message. We know that this is resonating”? I think sometimes marketers will be like, “Yes, we’re all about testing.” Then they’ll test and test and test, but then it’s like, how do we know when we’ve arrived? How do you actually know that you don’t need to sharpen the pencil much more and start may be focusing on that key message at that point?

George: It’s a path, and you might always be sharpening that pencil, but what I do is a lot of testing through tools like Freshdesk, or I don’t know if you’ve heard of that one, but in terms of trying different messages to different target markets. Look at the target market you’re going after, if you have a paper or a webinar or some type of offer or something, then create different and kind of do A/B testing around the subject line and the way that you message things and see what the different reaction is.

That’s one step, as well as one-to-one conversations with potential targets. A lot of clients of mine introduced me to different targets that they have been talking to, so I can get visual cues of what people are reacting to when we talk about different things and change the message between different ones. Then also, social media, testing things out on social media with different message types or offers or pricing or whatever the different changes are that you’re looking at doing.

Josh: With that Freshdesk or whatever, you’re starting to actually ingest data in a way that’s more predictive and showing you like, “Hey, this is actually getting more click-throughs or more engagement,” so that’s when you’re really feeling like, “Okay, we’re honing in on this. We’re arriving”?

George: Yes. Depending on the size of the company, if it’s a little bit bigger, looking at the close ratios and some of those things as you go through the quarter or year, if you start to see some movement of the newer pipeline growing and things like that, then you’ll know that you’re making progress. It’s a continual project to continue to improve your messaging and your go-to-market strategies. You always have to keep your foot on that pedal.

Josh: I think it’s interesting that you bring up the qualitative side of things. I think,on in this day and age, we’ve really leaned in on MarTech. I’m going to ask you some of the tools that you use because I think it’s cool and important. I like MarTech, but I do feel like sometimes, we lean so heavily on tools and data sources.

To hear you say, you actually try to go out and have conversations with either prospects or existing customers and get their input, that is an input for your message testing, I think is interesting. I think we sometimes lose sight of how valuable that qualitative input can be.

George: Sitting in your desk, looking at numbers is good, but I think getting out and actually talking to people also gives you another layer to add on top of it to validate. I agree with you.

Josh: For sure. All right, let’s talk about MarTech. You mentioned Freshdesk as a tool that you think is cool and that you’ve used to do some of this. Outside of just message testing generally, what kind of MarTech tools are you playing with that you think are cool or like, “These are my go-to tools”? Do you have any ideas on that?

George: Yes, there’s, well, various CRM systems for different needs. I think out of my clients, they all have different CRM systems. Zoho has been a good one, as well as HubSpot, obviously, which is great for early-stage companies. They’ve really broadened their suite of tools to be marketing automation, not just email marketing and a CRM, and, but I would suggest that for a larger organization.

And there is a whole suite of account based marketing tools that I am just starting to get into which is Sixth Sense and Demand Base, I don’t know if you’ve heard of those two. But they seem really interesting and I’m really early just in doing demos with the sales people and working at testing those out. But I think account based marketing tools are something that I’d like to bring more into my client base.

Josh: Yeah, very cool. So something that I like to ask everybody at the end of these interviews is are there any books or authors that are influencing your thinking? Or that you are really leaning into?

George: There is an older one, I think it’s 2004, called “Great Demo.” And that one I bought 10 years ago to improve the demo for a client, and I’m working on a client right now where the demo process isn’t good so they get on and show all of the features and say, “what do you think.” So I thought about that book and pulled it back out. It has some really great nuggets like feeling and demoing the pain points to the client. And how we solve those, versus going through very feature. And also starting with the end of the demo saying, “here are the great results you’ll get” and then backing up and showing how the pain points are solved along the way. It’s worth reading that one single chapter of the book.

The other one is, “The Hard Thing About Hard Things” by Horowitz. And that one is a few years old as well but it’s a good one talking about working with an organization or market that is challenging and how these are the types of hard things you have to do, here is why they’re hard, and here is what you should do. One of the chapters is about leading when you don’t know where you’re going. And that’s where I’m at right now. It really hit me.

Josh: Sure. 

George: Sometimes you’re stuck and everybody is looking at you for guidance and you’re like, you know what I’m going to go with my gut and this is where I think we should go and this book talks about that. And then for podcasts, I love Guy Raz’ ‘How I Build This’ which is similar to what you’re doing here. I think I have listened to all of them but there were a couple that really stuck with me. One of them was the, “Stacy’s Chips” one. I don’t know if you’ve heard that one.

Josh: I haven’t heard that one no. 

George: It’s where she started selling sandwiches and pita bread and fried the pita bread and gave it for free and she started noticing people were coming for the chips and not the sandwiches and realized, “hey I’m onto something.” And then the other one was around MailChimp and they’re path to getting acquired for millions of dollars. So that podcast is great, everytime there is a new one I listen to it.

Josh: Yeah that’s cool. I really like the “Great Demo” book you are talking about. I haven’t read it but I do think one of the critical actions that every SaaS company wants someone to take, is either starting a free trial or requesting a demo. And I do feel like there is a lot to be learned and honed in the actual demo process. If you can improve that close rate of those demos you can crush that sales quote because you don’t necessarily have to fill the top of the funnel, it’s more so just expanding it as people go through it. 

And then, “The Hard Thing About Hard Things,” I’m going to have to read that one. Because I feel like as a leader, I actually love leaning into the challenges that are presented and while they are hard, they’re exciting in a way. Because it’s like man, if we could solve for this it would be awesome. So I do think that if you can acknowledge that things are hard but that it’s okay that they’re hard, and if you can get energy from these hard things I think that’s great. 

George: Yeah I agree with you there.

Josh: Cool, well awesome. I really appreciate your time. I appreciate the conversation.

George: Thank you.

Josh: Thanks for dropping some great knowledge bombs on us today.

George: No problem, hopefully everybody got at least one little nugget. That would be great.

Josh: For sure. Thanks George. We’re going to say goodbye for now.

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