PODCAST 138: From Marketer to CEO: The Power of Brand as a Growth Amplifier with Jake Sorofman

If you missed episode 137, check it out here: Team Selling: A Comeback Story for 2021 with Trish Bertuzzi

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Show Agenda and Timestamps

  1. Show Introduction [00:01]
  2. Who is Jake Sorofman and what is MetaCX?[2:00]
  3. A career marketer’s advantage in growing holistic revenue [17:54]
  4. The role of branding in marketing [19:27]
  5. Building and leveraging a differentiated brand as a growth amplifier [22:29]
  6. People and ideas that have influenced Jake’s journey 25:22]
  7. Sam’s Corner [29:46]

Show Introduction [00:04]

Sam Jacobs: On today’s show, Jake Sorofman joins us as our guest. Jake is a career marketer who served as the CMO at Pendo. He also worked at Gartner where he worked as head of research. After a career as a VP of Marketing and CMO, Jake now serves as president of MetaCX.

Jake is an interesting guy with a lot of really interesting ideas about brands and about scaling organizations. He talks about the journey of a marketer leading the entire revenue function on the path to CEO.

Now, before we get to the interview, we have sponsors and you need to hear about them. They’re important because they pay the bills.

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Now, listen in on my conversation with Jake Sorofman.

Who is Jake Sorofman and what is MetaCX?[2:00]

Sam Jacobs: Hey everybody. It’s Sam Jacobs. Welcome to The Sales Hacker Podcast. Today, we are incredibly excited to have Jake Sorofman on the show. Jake is the president of MetaCX, the pioneer in a new outcomes-based approach for managing the customer life cycle by transforming how suppliers and buyers collaborate and win together. Previously, Jake was CMO of Pendo and chief of research at Gartner, which of course, gives him a unique perspective on the technology landscape. So Jake, welcome to the show.

Jake Sorofman: Thank you, Sam. Great to be here.

Sam Jacobs: We’re excited to have you. So I gave the boiler plate on you, president of MetaCX, but it’s always good for us to start with a baseball card, where we contextualize your expertise. So in your words, what is MetaCX? What do you all do?

Jake Sorofman: MetaCX is really a way for suppliers in this case, B2B SaaS companies, digital enterprises, to better align with their buyers around a shared definition of value. And that starts with co-creating a set of desired outcomes that the customer is trying to achieve. Then using that as a way to build up trust and transparency in a sales cycle and coordinate a handoff. Because what we found is that one of the low points of any customer experiences, the moment after the contract is signed, all the good will and momentum that you create in the sales cycle is lost. As everyone suddenly forgets your name. It’s a bad look, it’s a bad way to end your relationship. And then the final piece is to measure value realization. So looking at the outcomes that were promised and proving that they’ve been achieved on behalf of the customer to drive renewal and to drive expansion.

Sam Jacobs: I apologize in advance if I frame this inaccurately, but it sounds like this is a platform built around the concept of mutual action plans. It’s a sales empowerment tool in some ways where you can say, here’s something better than a spreadsheet that figures out, what are the milestones and what are the outcomes? To your point, one of the things that we hear about all the time is that this contract signature is this moment of, ennui on part of the customer where instead of making the signature of the contract the end point, maybe sales teams and suppliers as B2B companies are need to focus on the outcome that they’re trying to produce as the end point with the contract is, but one milestone on that journey.

Jake Sorofman: You got it. You got it. That is a big part of what we do. I’d say that the distinction that I would make here is that after the deal is done and through the handoff, there needs to be continuity and managing that relationship through the renewal events and over time. And that continuity needs to be built around that shared definition of value that was created during the sales cycle and making that meaningful requires accessing lots of data. So the ability to pull in data real time from other systems, your system, your customer systems, and share that within one collaborative view, that both you and the customer can see to hold each other accountable around value realization.

That means mutual action plans. So there are responsibilities on both sides of the relationship, around implementation and adoption and usage and best practice, but there’s also probably a business metric that you’ve promised. And that needs to be understood in terms of leading indicators of that value realization, as well as the lagging indicators. Has it actually been achieved on the customer side? So it creates this very collaborative, ongoing dialogue with the customer around value and whether it’s been achieved.

Sam Jacobs: That’s really interesting. It would be hard to construct this tool, I would imagine if you didn’t have a point of view on how enterprise sales should be run in the first place. Do you embed some methodology into?

Jake Sorofman: It’s a really, really good point. Most companies have some methodology they’re using. We help operationalize and scale that methodology.

So one of the things that I’ve been in some of these value selling transformations at various companies, and what often happens is it helps with selling performance, but after the deal is done, there is very little continuity. Like ensuring that the promise you make is actually the promise you keep, both through delivery and through renewal and ensuring that methodology has a place to go with one system of record that accesses that steel thread across the entire life cycle. Many companies will do this by stitching together the tools they have. And frankly it becomes clunky and cumbersome. And importantly, it doesn’t include the customer.

That’s one of the key things about MetaCX is we’re creating a collaborative experience that we think actually helps differentiate you as a brand. Because it’s just a better look you’ve created this really consistent, buttoned up way of understanding and proving that you understand what your customer needs and then holding yourself accountable to that achievement over time.

Sam Jacobs: That makes a lot of sense to me. So how old is MetaCX? How long have y’all been around?

Jake Sorofman: It’s a good question. It’s actually a bit of a complicated question we’ve been around in earnest for just over three years, but the large part of that time was really spent in R&D modes. So the company was down in a whole building. What I think is a really compelling product for a good two and a half years. And we’ve been in market for about six months. I joined eight months ago.

Sam Jacobs: Oh, wow. Eight months ago. What else happened?

Jake Sorofman: Something else happened eight months ago.

Sam Jacobs: Scratching my head. Let’s close the loop on MetaCX, because I’d love to hear about your experiences. So three years old. How many employees?

Jake Sorofman: We’re at 41 employees, so not tiny, but certainly just getting started. We’ve raised about $25 million in Series A funding and we have 20-25 paying early customers. Some have been design partners and some we’re just getting started. And it’s a combination of B2B SaaS companies and digital enterprises that tend to be like IOT companies or the digital side of some traditional enterprise. That may have an SLA with their customer, they deliver it as a managed service and they need to prove value. That tends to be a really good fit for us. Don’t disclose revenue, but I think you could deduce it. We’re just getting started.

Sam Jacobs: My last question on this subject. We talked before we started recording that you’re outside Raleigh or in Raleigh. Is the company based in Raleigh or entirely remote?

Jake Sorofman: Our headquarters, our center of gravity is definitely Indy. The founder and CEO, Scott McCorkle, who was president of ExactTarget and through the acquisition by Salesforce, CEO of the Salesforce Marketing Cloud. And a lot of that early founding team came from ExactTarget lineage. So there’s a group of people in Indy. We also have people in maybe 10 states right now, including a contingent that we’ve been building here in North Carolina around my network. We were actually due to renew our leases. We had a small office in Indiana and a small office in San Francisco around the time of the pandemic and chose to go a 100% virtual for obvious reasons. And now we’re starting to think after this madness is over. Maybe we’ll have a couple of small offices and get into a hoteling rhythm, where we can keep it flexible. People come and go.

Sam Jacobs: I think a lot of people are coming to that realization. Well, let’s just dive a little bit into your background. So how did we get here? How did you arrive at MetaCX? Talk to us about the massive growth of Pendo and your prior time at Gartner, but give us a little bit of your career highlights in terms of your arrival at this moment, president of an early stage company about to enter hypergrowth.

Jake Sorofman: It’s a long and convoluted story, but I’ll try to fast forward through the boring parts.

Sam Jacobs: I don’t have anything else to do right now.

Jake Sorofman: Marketing was really what I was meant to do. It’s something that I think I have a natural aptitude for and I enjoy. I didn’t know what to call it in the early days, when I was in college or grad school and trying to figure out what I wanted to do with my life. But I was always a writer and always a communicator, and I was pretty good at seeing patterns and making connections, more of a synthesizer than an analyzer. And that brought me to marketing. So I started on the agency side and then I went in-house and did a couple startups. Two early ones who were very successful and that success really hooked me. It was like, I’m going to chase the dragon. I want to be part of that again.

I spent the subsequent 20 years doing exactly that. And moving into different levels of responsibility on the marketing side, running product marketing, running full marketing teams, CMO role, et cetera. Some successful exits, some dramatic flame outs, lots and lots of lessons learned. And then I burned out to be completely honest with you. I got just burned out. You put the same level of passion and energy into the ones that are successful and the ones that aren’t.

And that’s when I chose to take a bit of a break and I just consulted for a while and I got a call one day from Gartner and I had never really considered being an analyst, but I was living in the mountains at the time and moved to the mountains. And it was like that late 30s moment where I was just trying to figure out what I want to do for the next 20 years. And timing was perfect. And I realized that I was always pretending to be an analyst anyway. And that led to the longest tenure I’ve ever had. I was there for five years and it was a really, really positive experience.

Sam Jacobs: And then from there you went to Pendo, is that right?

Jake Sorofman: I came back to the dark side. I was drawn back to my roots. I had worked with two of the founders of Pendo at other companies. And in fact, I introduced them. That’s my claim to fame. And they got together and started Pendo, So I knew them from day zero. And at the time I was still really, really enjoying my role at Gartner, not interested in making a change, not super interested in the early stage stuff anymore. And then around Series B, I got the itch. I wanted to do it again. I came down off the mountain and I moved back-

Sam Jacobs: What mountain was this?

Jake Sorofman: It was Asheville, North Carolina.

Sam Jacobs: Were you bearded?

Jake Sorofman: Yeah, somewhat. I was definitely disheveled. Let’s put it that way.

Sam Jacobs: Fair enough. You earned it.

Jake Sorofman: Yeah, exactly. And went back to work and we grew that company very successfully. While I was there we grew from a hundred and change employees to 450, we raised another $150 million in venture capital. We got the unicorn valuation. It was extraordinary. I enjoyed every minute and super proud of the work, built the team from scratch and learned a lot. So leaving Pendo, come back and just fast forward to where I am today. I mentioned Scott McCorkle, co-founder CEO. I got to know him when he was at ExactTarget and Salesforce when I was a Gartner analyst and we kept in touch. So as I was transitioning out of Pendo, we started talking again. I knew I wanted to work with Scott, and I didn’t really understand what he was doing to be completely candid. But as we dug in, I had this visceral reaction like, Oh my God, that’s the problem that we need to go solve. And it’s been a good fit. Really enjoyed it.

Sam Jacobs: That’s awesome. President, that word has a lot of different…

Jake Sorofman: Meanings.

Sam Jacobs: Meanings. It tends to mean just the number two, a specific designation as in “you are the number two person at the company,” but in your case, it also means that you’re running all of revenue. Is that right?

Jake Sorofman: Yeah, that’s right. Yeah.

Sam Jacobs: One of the ideas we wanted to explore was this concept of typically or in many cases, the CRO, the Chief Revenue Officer, the person responsible for all of revenue. Typically, that career path starts on the sales side, but I think there’s a lot of movement. I’m a personal proponent that marketing is the more complex activity, and it blends art and science in a way that I think doesn’t quite happen on the sales side. What’s your perspective on the perception of marketing as a career path to the president role, maybe even to the CEO role?

Jake Sorofman: Maybe this is confirmation bias. I’m seeing it because I’ve experienced it, but I’m starting to see a lot of CMOs and marketing folks moving into broader roles like president and CEO. Jascha Kaykas-Wolff who was CMO at Mozilla is now president of Lytics. He’s a great guy, by the way. Matt Zilli, who was, I think, VP of marketing and then chief customer officer at Marketo is now CEO of Clarizen, also a great guy.

Yeah. I’m starting to see that pattern. Is the role uniquely suited to it? I don’t know. I think a lot of investors really like product led, product centric CEOs these days, they used to be the engineers and technical CEOs. Now it’s a product CEO who seemed to have the cachet and seems to be the pattern that they want to replicate.

So I guess time will tell whether that’s one of the keypads to the top roles of the company. But one thing I will say is that as a marketing leader, I’ve always held myself accountable to revenue. If you want to have any lasting tender, you’d better. But to the extent that marketing is held accountable to close loop impact on attributable ARR and pipeline, they get it. You’re at the table, you’re managing revenue anyway, you’re a significant contributor to the growth of the company. Well, I don’t consider myself a deal person per se, or even a sales leader in the most traditional sense.

I understand what it takes to grow a company. And I understand what it takes to build a pipeline and how to think about the revenue side of the business. So there’s plenty that I’m learning along the way, but it’s familiar enough where I feel like I know the questions to ask, and I know the places to prioritize and focus on and then I can feel my way through it. And hire really good people around me.

A career marketer’s advantage in growing holistic revenue [17:54]

Sam Jacobs: What are the advantages that a career marketer has relative to a career sales leader in terms of understanding how to structure and grow holistic revenue across the organization, not just from hiring more AEs perspective?

Jake Sorofman: Structured strategic thinking and storytelling. I’m a CMO, but I spent five years as a Gartner analyst. So everything is a framework. And I think I bring that. So I bring a pretty structured lens to how I think about things, which can make things maybe oversimplified or reductive at times. But I also think it makes the idea stick. Everything comes in threes. Everything fits in a two-by-two framework or along some sort of continuum. And that tends to make the messages stick just from a sales enablement and getting the team on board with an idea. And then marketing is, in my opinion, it can be a superpower. It can be a growth amplifier in terms of just punching above your weight and creating a buzz and excitement around what you’re doing. That’s something that I just know how to do. I know how to do it by reflex and experience and inclination because I’ve done it for a long time. So while my role is revenue, I’m marketing first. My head goes there first.

Sam Jacobs: It should. That’s your background.

The role of branding in marketing [19:27]

Sam Jacobs: So Jake, about 10 years ago, a book came out called Predictable Revenue. There’s just a lot of conversation about how we needed to make marketing measurable. Marketing was about demand generation, marketing was about building a pipeline. Brand was this ephemeral thing. If you can’t measure it, you can’t put any emphasis or importance on it. And I think that, there has been a counter resurgence or a resurgence on the importance of brand and the power of brand. And there’s that book Play Bigger, all about building and defining category, which is closely related to brand construction and development. What’s your perspective on all of that? What is the role of brand and marketing? Does every CMO have to previously have been a director of demand generation? Just curious about your thoughts.

Jake Sorofman: It’s a really, really great question. Well, the first thing I’d say is that you need to be able to build demand and pipeline in order to earn the right to be a CMO and continue to be a CMO. It keeps the lights on. But it is necessary, but insufficient. I think to your point, a lot of B2B companies have over-corrected on that premise and have neglected brands and they consider that the department of arts and crafts it’s seen as a pejorative, it is seen as wasteful, it seen as things you can’t measure. It’s seen as light and fluffy, not serious. And I think it’s anything but, but it needs to be layered on top of a revenue marketing engine. And if you take really smart branding and brand building and layered on top of really effective revenue marketing, you create a value multiplier.

It’s just incredible the impact it can have. And I think it’s particularly important because there’s just so much competition, both for attention and for budgets. And there’s so many different products that are available and ultimately, well, we’ve always made a distinction between B2B and B2C and with respect to the importance of the brand you’re selling to humans. Humans make emotional decisions and they want to be part of something bigger. At Pendo, brand was a huge part of how we differentiated and how we won and how we kept customers. They saw us as part of a movement and they wanted to be associated with that. They saw it as helping to enable their growth in their careers and felt like they were part of something bigger than them and their allegiance to Pendo.

And I think we saw this in many, many other companies. Marketo was very much this way. Remember Eloqua and Marketo, people that were digital marketers would wear those brands like a badge of pride, and they built their career around it. And the same thing started happening with Pendo. And we just recognized that, gee, this is our superpower. This is a huge part of what makes that company successful.

Building and leveraging a differentiated brand to amplify growth [22:29]

Sam Jacobs: Are there frameworks? How does one go about building a differentiated brand and leveraging brand as a growth amplifier?

Jake Sorofman: Yeah, there’s probably a special place in hell for someone who quotes himself, but I’m going to do that.

I made this statement at Gartner, and it stuck with me. When you start with what’s at stake for your audience, you earn the rights to their attention. And that’s a fairly simple idea. It’s just a very outside in empathetic view of who your customer is, what they’re trying to achieve personally, professionally in life and serving that. Being really smart about how you can deliver something of value, because when you deliver something of value, you earn the right to their attention. They want to give you value back.

At Pendo that meant a lot of thought leadership, a lot of category creation work. A lot of what I would describe as editorial marketing, we built a site called ProductCraft that became one of the top destinations on the web for product management, point of view and thought leadership. And we were running it like a magazine and we built conferences around that. It really created this groundswell of interest.

Sam Jacobs: This might be where the rubber hits the road in this discussion because going to the CEO of an early stage company and saying, I need X million dollars to build a magazine on the category. And the only way it will work is if Pendo or if the company is not front and center, if it’s not viewed as an infomercial, but actually does deliver value back to the audience. Will you give me that money? And they say, well, what’s my return on it? And you say-

Jake Sorofman: I’m not sure.

Sam Jacobs: Hard to say.

Jake Sorofman: Well, I think it goes back to your previous point about demand versus brand, which I think is obviously demand and brand. If you’re not doing that first job, you haven’t earned your right to the second job. So that’s part of it. It’s also working with people who get it, who really have an appetite for making those longer-term investments that are going to have an attributable impact on any near term horizon, or maybe it will never be measurable, but you know in your gut that it’s the right thing to do. That can’t be 80% of the budget, but there’s always a 5-7% of the budget that you can experiment with. It’s the way I think about it. And it falls within that category. And when you start seeing correlation to good things, whether it’s anecdotal or actually quantified you pour more gas in that fire and goodness happens.

People and ideas that have influenced Jake’s journey [25:22]

Sam Jacobs: Jake, we’re almost at the end of our time together. And this is the part where we like to pay it forward. These can be CMOs that you really admire that you think we should know about. Maybe they should even be guests on the show, maybe books that you’ve read that have really had a big impact on you, just broadly defined content and human beings that you think we should know about because they’ve influenced your journey. Who comes to mind?

Jake Sorofman: In the category of CMOs, you actually mentioned Play Bigger. I worked for Christopher Lochhead, who is one of the coauthors of Play Bigger, indirectly at Mercury Interactive. A lot of the things that I really care about and a lot of my beliefs in marketing, he may not know this, but were shaped by him. He’s just a brilliant category marketer and point of view marketer and has just a special talent for a certain way of thinking that I think really has an impact particularly for B2B companies. So I’ve definitely embraced a lot of what he has shared both through his writing and also through being on his team.

I mentioned Jascha Kaykas-Wolff. I just really admire him. I think he’s fantastic. Kristina Wallander at Human Interest is just a really, really smart strategic CMO. Ryan Bonnici at G2 Crowd, built an amazing brand. And he’s just a really nice guy. Brian Kardon at Envision. Udi at Gong, Gong is an amazing brand. And I’ve had a lot of mentors. I feel like I owe any success I’ve ever had in my career to people I will never forget. Jeffrey Beir, who was the CEO of eRoom, one of my early startups that was part of. Yvonne Genovese at Gartner. Lynne Capozzi, who’s now at Acquia. Tom Erickson, who was the CEO of Acquia. Scott, who I mentioned. Bill Lipson, Kent Peterson. I could just go on and on.

Sam Jacobs: Awesome. And any books? We mentioned Play Bigger, any other books that you think we should be reading? Any bands you think we should be listening to?

Jake Sorofman: Awesome. And any books? We mentioned Play Bigger, any other books that you think we should be reading? Any bands you think we should be listening to?

Sam Jacobs: Many people agree with you.

Jake Sorofman: They just don’t hold my attention, but I read a ton of nonfiction. So I encourage anybody to just find an author you love and stick with it. Eric Larson, I’ve read a ton of his stuff recently, Devil in the White City, The Splendid in the Vile, he’s just an incredible writer. And I found that my greatest insights come from places I’d never expect. So my shortcut or hack to creativity is finding things that have already been said or understood or done in one context and apply it to a new one. It’s just a neat trick.

And then I listened to a lot of podcasts, NPR Longform, interviews, writers, authors, reporters. I’m just really interested in the craft of writing.

And then music, I listen to a lot of Americana and Bluegrass. There’s a band called Mandolin Orange based down here in Chapel Hill that I think is exceptional, a little depressing, but just soulful and amazing. The Avett Brothers, a lot of stuff like that.

Sam Jacobs: You had me at depressing. I’m a new Yorker. I like to be depressed. Jake, it’s been great having you on the show. If folks want to reach out to you and get in touch, maybe they want to buy MetaCX. Maybe they want to work for you. Maybe they want to ask you some questions. Are you open to that? And what’s the best way for people to reach out?

Sam’s Corner [29:46]

Sam Jacobs: Hi folks. Sam’s Corner. Jake Sorofman seems like a cool guy. I enjoyed my conversation with him. What are some things to take away? First of all, I just think it’s interesting. I think marketing as a discipline is rising in importance. That’s what I think we can take away from this conversation. You don’t have to be a VP of sales in order to be a chief revenue officer, you can come from the marketing world. And in many ways, the marketing world is frankly, the more important mechanism. Now you can say that sales is a more important mechanism because sales turns demand into money.

But marketing is the act of telling the story of your company to the outside. And that’s pretty important. That’s pretty important. How people feel, how people think, how people relate, what you do to the category, sort of like the file that they put in their mind’s folder about where your company sits in their life, the words they use to describe your company. All of that is the brand. All of that is marketing. It’s not just demand generation and paid search ads. It’s really the feeling that people have about your company and the way that your customers use your product. And then how you extrapolate that into how people feel about the product by delivering messages to the right people at the right time.

That for me is marketing. I’ve always said that, invest in marketing before sales. I think Jake would probably agree his brain goes to marketing first. And I think it’s a really, really interesting path. And I think corresponding to that, we talked about the importance of brand and how a brand can be an amplifier. Right? And we talked about this book Play Bigger. We mentioned a lot of other great marketing leaders, but check out that book about Category Design, about why owning a category and really positioning your company and leveraging your company and taking money. Remember that Jake said they created this whole website, this whole online magazine that really was related to Pendo, but not about Pendo.

And imagine going to the CEO and asking for money to do that and the CEO saying, well, how does that generate leads? Marketing is about more than that. And the people that think that marketing should only be measured based on how much pipeline is created, I think are missing the point. I think marketing should be measured. Like sales should be measured based on how much closed revenue the company generated as a team, in my opinion. At any rate, really like that conversation.

Don’t miss episode #139

If you want to reach out to me, you can go to linkedin.com/in/saleshacker.

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And of course, we want to thank Outreach, the leading sales engagement platform. And for that and with that, we will talk to you next time.

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