Q&A: Sam Mallikarjunan of HubSpot Talks Breaking Stereotypes, Building Prospects' Trust & Cheeseheads

Author: Tammy Borden


This post was originally published on the Weidert Group Marketing & Sales Blog.

HubSpot is arguably the global leader in inbound marketing. Their all-in-one software platform helps companies create a web presence, convert online traffic into leads that can be tracked and nurtured, execute email campaigns and analyze business metrics. Starting with only three clients in 2006, it now serves more than 23,000 customers in 90 countries worldwide.

Helping the company get to where it is today is Sam Mallikarjunan, Principal Marketing Strategist at HubSpot and a Harvard professor. He’ll be among the keynote presenters at Experience Inbound 2017 in Wisconsin, held June 13–14. His storied history at HubSpot has provided him with insights into the future of business and how inbound marketing will play a role in meeting the challenges of the competitive landscape and accelerated pace of change.

Here’s an in-depth interview with invaluable perspectives about marketing, sales, customer behavior and more. Even if you’re unable to attend the event, you’ll glean from the incredible wisdom shared in this post.

You’ve held 5 different positions at HubSpot during the past 6 years. What was challenging and rewarding about your experience, and what have been the highlights?

The challenging and rewarding aspects of working at HubSpot are both the same: We do hard work in an uncertain industry. It’s not that managers know “the right answers” and just don’t tell us; we’re working in a constantly evolving industry and we need to stay ahead and help tens of thousands of customers and millions of readers stay ahead as well.

There is no “coasting.” There is no letting our momentum carry us forward. Arguably this is true for all businesses. Greater global interconnectivity and incredible advances in machine learning are making the global marketplace ever more crowded and the successful strategies ever more evolving.

I’ve had the great fortune of having each job be more interesting and fulfilling than the one before. I’m currently traveling the country living in a van with my family while I speak to audiences about the future of business growth, and teach at wonderful institutions like Harvard DCE and USF’s School of Business. I managed the marketing team that led our initial expansion into Latin America—that was also a wonderful challenge. And, of course, HubSpot Labs where we explored the blurring lines between marketing and product development with free tools and sites that add value to our community.

Inbound.org was/is one of your side projects for HubSpot, which has exploded in growth since you joined the team in 2014. Could you tell us a bit about what Inbound.org is and what you did to enhance it?

HubSpot Labs has the unique mandate to figure out how someone else could beat HubSpot and what we should do about it.

If you’re doing anything worth doing, disruptors are coming for your market share. You cannot wait and respond, you must be the disruption that you fear. The taxi and hotel industries had plenty of money to acquire Uber and Airbnb when they were first born, but by the time they realized they should have, the new entrants were far too large.

You can no longer just acquire or mimic your industry’s Uber—you have to be your industry’s Uber.

Inbound.org grew from a recognition that the global marketing community lacked a digital home. The HubSpot content team, while excellent, is still insufficient to serve every type of marketer in real time. Only a community can do that. Inbound.org was designed to be that community. Now almost a quarter-million marketers and entrepreneurs connect, learn and grow on inbound.org.

You worked in sales before switching to growth marketing. Having worked on both ends, why do you think there is often a division and lack of communication between sales and marketing?

The difference is primarily cultural. They both exist on the same side of the business unit (customer acquisition) and live in the same funnel. Yet they often detest (or at least lack respect) for each other.

HubSpot found that sales reps who rate good at “closing” or “objection handling” actually have a negative correlation to long-term quota attainment. They may show an initial flash of brilliance, but they soon realize that to be effective requires more listening and education than talking and closing.

Sales reps are concerned with the smallest imaginable picture: Two people learning to trust each other.

Modern marketing organizations, on the other hand, are filled with either “hard quants” (people who build models and math, and optimize specific pieces), or the softer brand specialists who look at the “big picture” (the market).

This disconnect can be overcome, but like any relationship it will require an intensive and deliberate effort by both participants. Sales and marketing need marriage counseling.

In the 2016 HubSpot Global Jobs Poll, results showed that marketers and salespersons were only found to be 3% trustworthy compared to other professions. How can marketing and sales break this stereotype to build trust among prospects and clients?

It’s only 3% if you look at the global poll. The North American poll had sales and marketing professionals at 1% and 0% respectively (rounded). This puts sales and marketing professionals behind politicians and lobbyists in 2016.

Think about that. Think about the year in politics we just had. We are less trusted than those people…

The good news is that breaking the stereotype is not difficult. It’s what defines inbound. Give value before you ask for it. Give before you take.

That’s what creates trust.

What are some key qualities you consistently find in great marketers?

I want people who challenge assumptions. When I’m interviewing a candidate, I don’t actually care if they can solve the scenarios I posit (in fact, some of them may have several “right” answers). What I care about is if they recognize, identify, and challenge the assumptions I build into the scenario.

I don’t know the right answer. I don’t expect you to know the right answer. What I do expect is that you have a mindset of critical and methodical thinking that moves us forward.

I also screen heavily for customer obsession. The best marketers are those who best understand their customers and create unique value for them.

How and why did you get involved in teaching classes outside of your work for universities as well as businesses?

Our greatest challenge to growth isn’t actually some other company building a cheaper software or one with more features, it’s the fact that most sales and marketing organizations still stick stubbornly to the strategies of the past. My goal, and HubSpot’s goal, is to get more people doing good, modern sales and marketing. I have the utmost confidence that our engineers can build the best product, but the annals of corporate history are littered with the corpses of corporations that had great products but a market that wasn’t ready.

I started off just lecturing at classes whose professors wanted “in-industry” perspectives for their students. The smartest educators are realizing that they’re not going to be able to equip their students with everything they need to know to go out into such a rapidly changing world. Even I do not know everything now that I will need to know in four years.

Because of this, some of the smartest business educators, such as Harvard and the University of South Florida, are blurring the lines between “in-industry” professionals and educators. This enables the most current information to be passed to students directly from the front lines.

Who would benefit most from your talk at Experience Inbound 2017?

Anyone who cares about the growth of their business. I don’t say that to be pedantic; there are many people in many different types of companies who aren’t particularly focused on growth itself.

But sustainable, healthy revenue growth is a team sport where sales, marketing, executive leadership, customer success, finance and all other business functions play a role.

Particularly, we need to get sales re-engaged. Executives are attending innumerable innovation summits and marketers are attending events like this one, but sales leaders and sales reps are still trying to copy+paste what worked at their last company.

What is a leading trend in inbound marketing that marketers should pay attention to in 2017?

The leading trend remains customer-centric economics. If you’re good at keeping customers, you can spend more to get customers. You can have bigger marketing budgets, happier sales reps willing to listen and you can take risks.

Anything that includes the word “economics” sounds boring and dull, but this is certainly not. Building our customer acquisition models and businesses around this obsession is not only what creates enormous competitive leverage, it’s what helps us move up that consumer trust scale and feel proud of the work we do.

This is a great time in the history of business. Not only is the enormous upheaval in incumbent positions creating more opportunities than we ever dreamed possible, but winning in this environment is reliant on doing work we’re proud of.

Brewer's baseball stadium or Packer’s Lambeau Field football stadium?

The Green Bay Packers are the only community owned team in the NFL, and I own one share. So I have to go with my Packers. Don’t go to my Instagram profile unless you want to see pictures of me wearing a giant foam cheese head.

It may be 2017 where reason and math are the keys to creating competitive leverage, but we’re all entitled to be irrational on occasion. :-)

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Topics: Inbound Marketing, HubSpot, Experience Inbound, Sales