Everything is Marketing: Lessons From Day 1 At SaaStr Annual 2017

Klipfolio - SaaStr 2017

As I was waiting for the first session to begin at SaaStr Annual 2017, a guy asked me if I thought he could use the outlets near me to charge up. That guy turned out to be Ardi Iranmanesh, co-founder of Affinio, a brilliant marketing intelligence platform that uses an algorithm to find relational network connections.

As Ardi described to me, Affinio can pull data from a single Twitter handle to answer questions it would have been difficult to even think of, such as:

“What airline do our Twitter followers have a particular affinity for?”

The app is used by marketers everywhere, including those at major media companies such as the BBC.

Here’s a visual glimpse into how Affinio breaks the data it pulls into clusters:

Klipfolio - SaaStr 2017

As Ardi was showing me the ins and outs of his product, our conversation caught the interest of Andre Lavoie, CEO and co-founder of a goal-based talent management software company called ClearCompany.

As Andre and I introduced ourselves and our companies, he told me:

“Our platform sources over 180 million profiles, and instead of being built around a typical org chart, ours is built around a goal chart.”

ClearCompany is a gorgeous product, but beyond that it’s a glimpse into the future of how fast-growing SaaS companies will conduct performance reviews. In the app you are able to set goals, track progress on them, and comment on progress toward them.

Never again will there be surprises in a performance review. Never again will an employee be unsure of what goals they need to go after.

Klipfolio - SaaStr Devices

And so this is how it works at SaaStr Annual 2017: In the few minutes waiting for a session to begin you can bump into the founders and CEOs that are changing how the world thinks about data, marketing, and teams at work.

By the time Lauren Vaccarello, VP of Marketing at Box, took the stage, I’d already been blown away by my experience here. Somehow, Lauren took it to another level.

Klipfolio - SaaStr Lauren Vaccarello

In her talk, How To Market to Customers Small, Medium, Large and Extra-Large: All at the Same Time from the Same Budget, Vaccarello broke down the challenges of having a product or service that has a wide-ranging user base.

Rather than dish out the trite advice of how important it is to narrow your focus, Vaccarello took a different route: It’s entirely possible to maintain this wide-ranging user base, but only if you radically focus on segmenting who those users are and building segment-specific messaging for them.

This slide in particular stood out to me, and what she said about it stood out as well:

“Don’t simply get a group of your marketers to answer these questions. Go talk to actual customers and other departments on your team.”

Klipfolio - SaaStr Marketing Messaging

After Lauren’s talk, I made my way back to our booth (we are bronze sponsors of this event) and it was there that I ran into my old colleagues at Flow—a project management solution. After a quick catching up their CEO filled me in: “We’re now using Klipfolio. When we saw they hired you we tried a bunch of dashboards and it’s the one that stuck.”

That’s when it washed over me: Everything is marketing. In graduate school, a poetry professor told me that “everything is political.” In other words, every action we take has political undertones, whether we recognize them or not.

I couldn’t help but think this applied to marketing as well. Marketing isn’t everything, but everything can be marketing.

As this was my first time attending SaaStr, I also made sure to step back and observe the event as a fly on the wall. What I saw wasn’t what I expected: Authentic relationships blossomed. Conversations between strangers weren’t merely quick introductions followed by aggressive pitches; they were initiated out of genuine interest in each other’s product, and they were driven by a kind of mutual deep curiosity as each person thought up potential ways to work together.

Again, in this spirit, every connection made and conversation had was marketing—even if it didn’t feel like it. Even if the conversations weren’t fueled by a marketing mindset. Authenticity and curiosity ruled.

And this was all before lunch. After lunch, Jason M. Lemkin, the founder of SaaStr, gave his opening remarks.

Klipfolio - SaaStr Jason Lemkin

Lemkin spoke about the journey of SaaStr Annual, how three years ago they were simply hoping people would show up, and now… 10,000 attendees. Coupled with this, he made some heartfelt comments about President Trump’s travel ban, and how over 47 SaaS industry leaders couldn’t be at this conference because of it.

This wasn’t just a loss for those that couldn’t make it; it was a loss for all of us. We all benefit from the collective swirl of each other’s thoughts and experiences.

With that, Lemkin said all those who couldn’t make SaaStr Annual this year because of the ban would be VIP guests of the event in 2018. The entire crowd roared in approval.

This energy dovetailed rather beautifully into Lemkin introducing Michael Pryor, the CEO of Trello. The session was a 1-1 interview titled When a Product Everyone Loves is Worth $450 Million.

Klipfolio -SaaStr Michael Pyor Trello

While the brunt of the conversation was on Atlassian’s acquisition of Trello for $425 million in January, Pryor’s words on the “softer” side of business resonated with the audience.

In one response to Lemkin’s question about what it took to get Trello this far, Pryor said:

“I don’t want to underplay luck and privilege.” He went on to say how his privilege of being a white man having access to certain people and circles is important to mention.

In general, Pryor came off as an empathic, socially-aware SaaS leader confident enough to recognize the impact he’s made while humble enough to lend credence to the help he’s had along the way.

That interview moved into another 1-1 interview, this time with Lemkin and Chris O’Neill, CEO of Evernote. The session, titled The Second Ten Years (At One of the Web’s Most Iconic Companies), felt like it lost a bit of steam as most of the audience had now been there for over an hour—but both Lemkin and O’Neill delivered.

Klipfolio - Chris O'Neill Evernote

O’Neill’s work at Evernote has helped the company strip away the excess and reign in its focus. He went so far as to say he “wanted to build a culture of focus.”

This was profound, and was made more profound when he followed up by saying “The team you build is the company you build. Period.”

Though O’Neill hadn’t been around for most of those first ten years, it was clear that he has a grasp on where the company needs to go—and on what it will take to get it there.

The final session I attended was titled The CEOs Role in Marketing: How To Hustle, Build Momentum, Sell Your Company - and Yourself.

Klipfolio - SaaStr CEO Marketing

Left to right: Greg Schott, CEO of Mulesoft; Kathryn Minshew, Founder & CEO of The Muse; David Kellogg, CEO of Host Analytics; and moderator Stacey Epstein, CEO of Zinc.

Each panelist brought a different perspective to the mix, including Epstein of Zinc who served in the dual role of both asking the question and offering up her own perspective before handing it off to the panelists.

For Greg Schott, a standout moment was when he said it’s important for companies not to force the CEO to be a certain type of marketer. Many companies, he said, try to force their CEO into being that classic extrovert who can throw the company on her back and create buzz. Schott spoke to a few of the problems that can arise as a result.

For Kathryn Minshew, it was clear that content has been key to growing The Muse. When LinkedIn was announcing Influencers, for example, she made a push to get introduced to the right people—and eventually did. She now has almost 200,000 followers reading her work at LinkedIn as a result. In addition, she’s had fantastic success with guest writers, creating a site in The Muse that these writers feel proud enough to mention in their public profiles.

For Kellogg, blogging has been key to both his personal growth and the growth of Host Analytics. A key point he drove home was this:

“Everything marketers do should be geared towards making it easier for sales to do their job.” That’s a lesson many marketers fail to embrace, and Kellogg’s statement hung in the air like few others as the crowd full of marketers took it in—likely reflecting on whether or not they bring that mindset to their own work.

As Lemkin essentially grew SaaStr through writing on Quora and elsewhere, it’s perhaps fitting to end on Kellogg’s words about writing. These were especially poignant:

Stay tuned for our recap from Day 2. And if you’re a SaaStr Annual attendee—swing by Booth 2. We’d love to see you!