On a recent episode of CMO Convo, we were joined by Dan Frohnen, CMO of Upkeep, to discuss one of the big issues facing many CMOs - developing growth strategies. Dan explains why growth marketing is so important in early-stage companies, common pitfalls to look out for, strategies important to startups, getting buy-in from stakeholders, and more.

Prefer to listen? Check out Daniel's appearance on the CMO Convo podcast 👇

Dan's background and current CMO role

Hi Dan, before we get down to growth strategies, could you introduce yourself to our audience, tell us a bit about your background and your current role as a CMO?

Sure, so the name's Dan Frohnen, currently, I'm CMO over at Upkeep, they are a computerized maintenance management software, also asset management software. We really do a lot of business in manufacturing, some healthcare, some agriculture, as well as oil and gas.

My background is kind of unique for SaaS, a lot of people are born and raised at tech companies and work their way up, I actually started in the music industry, thought I was gonna get into artist management or be an A&R guy.

What happened is I actually went into music publishing for 10 years and developed a passion for technology, and then found my way into tech, and have been doing that ever since.

Super excited to be in tech, I think it's an amazing time for all of us with so much data and smaller amounts of time that people are actually taking in their buying cycle now. The sky's the limit for all of us.

With that quite unique background, coming from the music industry into tech, has that given you a certain philosophy in how you approach marketing in the tech world? Is it something unique compared to other CMOs?

Maybe it's a little unique. My philosophy has always been really oriented on two things. One is the connection with your audience. How can you get emotionally connected? It's not just about knowing who they are and developing some messaging, and scoring a demo and closing won something.

It's actually truly connecting with them, and having that deeper level relationship where you become the trusted adviser and the brand of choice.

Then I think the second one is really around executing on marketing programs, like in publishing, they have a saying that you publish or you die. You always have to have new content and that was just instilled into me, everything is production and how fast you move.

It's really those two things, deep connections and moving extremely quickly, that have been my core philosophies in marketing.

It's interesting to talk about the "publish or die". because that's how marketing is working currently with the big switch to content-driven marketing.

You've been CMO for quite a few startups in the tech world, which makes you a great person to speak to when it comes to growth.

The importance of growth marketing strategies

Why is growth marketing so important at early-stage companies? It seems like an obvious answer that they need to grow but why is it important to have a specific growth marketing strategy? Rather than just throwing stuff at the wall and seeing what sticks?

It's a great question. I think fundamentally, the reason that it's important, and you said the keywords strategy and strategic is because you can just walk into a business with a preconceived notion and say, "Oh, well, paid digital worked for me at my last company. So let's go hard on this".

But that could be the wrong channel. You could spend hundreds of 1000s of dollars proving that it's the wrong channel.

So depending on the stage of the company, especially a startup, you should actually be approaching it as, how can I help this business find product-market fit, product-solution fit, and create successful customers? The early expectation, unless you've already proven that should not be to do that at scale, should be a series of experiments to get to what you believe that ideal customer is or what that ideal solution fit is.

And then once you have that success there with some validated customers that you feel are the right fit and there's enough of them then you can start to work backward like okay, how did we get these in the first place?

Then start doing the research, where do these people hang out? Are they actively looking at certain keywords that you could go drive from a digital standpoint? Are they hanging out in communities, could we build a community of our own to start attracting them?

Then you start to build the growth engine based on that. But the big thing is, you've got to start methodically, and you've got to start slow.

Could we talk about what that start looks like? You talked about identifying the main buyer personas, is that step one when it comes to growth marketing strategies? Is that what all CMOs should be doing when they step into a role that requires growth marketing?

I am a firm believer that if you don't know your ICP, and have some sort of premise, whether that's from an industry standpoint, whether that's from a persona standpoint, then you really don't have any foundation.

So I definitely think that is the place to start. And whether you're walking into an early-stage startup, a growth stage, or a mature startup, you should always run that exercise to make sure and validate. I think it's critical.

And it doesn't mean that it has to be this long exercise that's going to take six months, if there are things there that are working, run the data, make sure that there's an acceptable win rate, make sure that there's acceptable net retention.

If that's the case, by persona or industry, then validate it and make it part of your strategy. If it's not, then start to ask questions of why that is? Is it them? Is it the company? Is it the product? Is it the customer success methodology, the support? And make sure that you're approaching the problem in the right way.

So even the stuff that's working, you advise testing, at least at a basic level? You're not going to accept anything as gospel, if they say they've got buyer personas already, would you advise going in and taking a look at them, developing your own buyer personas?

At least going in and understanding them and validating them. I think any CMO that comes in needs to do that validation exercise because ultimately you own the results of the marketing function. As I think all of us know, in marketing, a lot of your current results are from past projects.

If part of the growth of the company is predicated on stuff that happened before your tenure, validate it and make sure that it's actually something that you want to scale with, and that it's actually something you agree with. It's critical, in my opinion.

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Duties beyond growth

You see a lot of CMOs, particularly in the startup world, pitching themselves as growth hackers, as growth CMOs. Does this mean that they are only focused on growth? Are they the only strategies they're working on? Or are there other strategies that are important to startup-stage companies?

It's interesting because typically, in the past, what you've seen is this delineation between a demand Gen focused CMO or a product marketing focused CMO. When I think about growth, I think it's actually taking both disciplines and putting them together, quite frankly.

So you are thinking about messaging, positioning, your ICP, your segmentation, and you're also thinking about demand Gen tactics that fall into that growth category. I think it's important for a CMO to know how to do all of it, I have this concept of what I call an acceptable minimum within your career.

You can have your superpowers, but as you take on more and more responsibility, you have to have an acceptable minimum in every discipline that you oversee, otherwise, you can't oversee it, you won't be able to guide it, you won't be able to have the authority when you hire people to run that with you.

It's really important to be focused on an acceptable minimum for the entire marketing mix.

Is it a bit like a "jack of all trades, master of some" kind of thing when it comes to being a CMO?


The CMO's role in driving growth

So what is the role of a CMO in driving growth? What do they have to do to drive growth? Why are CMOs important to that role? Basically: why can't startups grow without a CMO?

It's a good question and some try. I've been in multiple companies and seen multiple companies that either put marketing on the back burner or the CEO handles it directly and scales it with contractors. Or they put it under a sales leader and call it a revenue org.

I think ultimately, the power in marketing is that you have the dedicated person that's actually thinking about the customers’ voice and how to translate that into your brand's voice and make it so that your brand is basically speaking to exactly what your customer is either looking for or has already seen success in within your product.

That's a specialty that takes a lot of time to perfect and it's not something that you can fake as a company.

What I've seen is some of the best companies in SaaS and just in the world, in general, have mastered that and have that as one of their core tenants. It helps them break out from the pack. It's what makes them market leaders.

It's interesting you mentioned getting into the mindset of the customer as an important role. Is part of being a growth CMO also communicating that voice of the customer back to the rest of the company in terms of development?

Do you feel like a good CMO has a relationship with product development or a relationship with the CTO in terms of how the company develops its products? Is that a good function for a CMO or should they be purely focused on external matters?

Yeah, no, I think that a CMOs core responsibility is obviously driving brand and demand and revenue for a company and that's external as well as internal alignment with the teams. But then from an internal alignment standpoint, the CMO is really one of the central figures in your go-to-market.

So that relationship with the exec team, the CRO, the CEO, the CFO driving what that business strategy is, and how you're going to hit those revenue goals. Then a seat at the table with your Chief Product Officer, talking about what the market conditions are, what we're hearing from the customers directly, what analysts may be saying, what we're picking up from win/loss.

Whatever it is, and making sure that there's a great relationship there so that you can hand that data over to them, and they can trust it and use it as part of their guidance for building the best product and experience possible.

Engaging with internal stakeholders

It sounds like it relies on some good relationships with internal stakeholders in that respect. A conversation that comes up a lot when it comes to CMOs is the difficulty of getting buy-in on certain strategies.

In your experience, what is the best method to get the right buy-in from internal stakeholders for growth strategies, for any kind of strategies in fact? That might not necessarily have obvious benefits to say, the head of product or the head of sales?

Yeah, I always tie it back to pipeline and revenue. And show that this will contribute to pipeline and ultimately revenue in these ways. And then secondarily, I'll actually pull data from our past experiences, like SEO, for example, you may see that SEO has done well for the business. But maybe there was a change in leadership, and no one was paying attention and it's either flatlined, or it's starting to decline.

You can easily pull that data, you can show it to your exec team and say, "Hey, we're trying to double our revenue next year but our SEO footprint was really great and then it started to tank. So we're gonna have to invest X amount of dollars to keep up with that growth". So I think having a data-driven conversation is pretty critical.

I think anything where maybe it's new, and you want to put some chips on the table and make a big splash as an experiment I think it's can you find other companies that have done that in the past and tie it back to their successes, like a use case?

Or can you come up with a really good experiment plan that shows why you believe this is something that you want to do and here's what you think the intended outcomes are and this is how I'm going to report it back to you?

I think if you can come in with that level of accountability, not saying, "Hey, I'm not spending money for the sake of it, I'm actually investing to eventually find another way to invest and grow" is the way to go.

Growth data and metrics

You mentioned being data-driven as being a very important thing, which, clearly, all marketing's data-driven when you get right down to it. But what's the important data when it comes to growth? And maybe once we've identified the key data points, some actionable ideas that can help shift the needle when it comes to those data points?

I think it depends obviously on what segment of the market, whether you're SMB, mid-market, enterprise, but by and large, I think some of the metrics that matter the most are the ones that tend to get glossed over. I like to put metrics into different buckets for which teams need to care about it.

If I start at the tactical level with the marketing team, with marketing ops, with SDRs, and BDRs, it's really the conversion rate within the funnel. And understanding just because I'm driving this much inbound interest or outbound interest does not mean a thing unless I'm getting acceptable conversion rates from that lead over to a sales opportunity.

And understanding that by channel, you can easily get lost in a metric that just looks at all the data at an aggregate level, but where you can really start to refine and then take your dollars and actually double down - dollars or people time, quite frankly - on the right channels and get those conversion rates going really high.

I then think that there's the middle layer of metrics, which is really for sales, marketing, customer success to be looking at as a leadership team, which is those win rates within different segments. It's pipeline attainment to goal, making sure that you're filling the funnel, and then ultimately, your customer satisfaction and your gross and net retention.

Then at the C level, it's a combination of two things. I don't like to get into boiler room metrics at the C level, it's not a good use of time. I think it's more around CAC. So what is it costing us to acquire customers?

And then some of the metrics that we look at, at a revenue leadership level, which is, what are our win rates? Are we hitting those revenue goals? And then what's our net and gross retention? I think if you're holistically looking at it, in those ways, you're in a good place.

Is it important to make other people aware of those metrics that you're looking at? Who needs to know these different metrics and different data points that you're paying attention to?

It's definitely important to make it known, I think part of what I truly believe in at any company is a set of aligned goals across the company, whether that's an OKR, an MBO, whatever it is.

And actually having those metrics show through in those OKRs, and then when they trickle down into your team, making sure that if one person on the team needs to be caring a few levels deeper than what we want the company to care about make sure that shows up as well. And that's in a reporting framework and then that's in some sort of methodology and how you're running a scorecard against your marketing efforts.

Growth plays, not playbooks

So is it possible to have a growth playbook? You hear about this phrase from time to time, and we talked a bit about the different metrics you need to pay attention to, is it possible to have a playbook that works to shift the needle on every single data point?

Or is it just a case-by-case basis? Are we kidding ourselves that we can say "this is a guaranteed growth strategy"?

It's interesting. I don't believe in playbooks, I believe in plays. I think every company has a unique playbook based on their brand, who works in their business and the markets that they serve. I think that you can and should strive to compile a playbook.

But to walk in with a ready-made playbook that just says, "Hey, I'm gonna run this playbook, it's worked at five different companies" I don't think it's the right strategy. I think too many things are shifting pretty regularly. I think COVID pretty much blew up most playbooks, quite frankly.

But I do think an ultimate goal is to look at what traditionally is in a playbook and validate what channels work here? What investment level is needed? Markets we're serving? Where am I actually going to put my growth dollars to make this happen?

Thinking about this from an earlier stage when you're first coming in some of the things that are actually forgotten in this growth playbook because everyone wants to get right to the tactics.

A lot of times people are thinking of the tactics being marketing tactics. But there's a product conversation to be having like if you're a product-led company, make sure you're getting yourself a seat at that table to make sure that you're understanding that product experience and how that's iterating.

Then something that I think a lot of companies gloss over is how operationally sound is your marketing ops, rev ops, and customer journey? Because those will have a massive impact on your growth implications and sometimes you gloss right over it.

How do you start the conversation to make those changes and look at those kinds of ops? Who do you speak to? Whose role is it to make changes in that to help improve, say, your revenue ops or something like that?

Yeah, I think it kind of comes back down to what kind of CMO are you? Are you super product marketing-focused? Are you demand gen-focused? Do you oversee SDR/BDR? Do you not, but have a seat at that table for fueling them?

So I think ultimately, a CMO needs to care about the marketing stack and to make sure that what is going into the database is being treated appropriately.

Because at the end of the day, kind of go back to what the CMO is responsible for in the business, and it's the voice of the customer, it's that customer journey, they truly are welcoming a prospect in for the very first time through that experience, and then shepherding them into the sales process and then customer marketing lifecycle.

So the operations piece actually matters quite a bit and shouldn't be neglected. Because as we're moving to more and more automated plays and frictionless cycles, you want to make sure that there's not some friction that you're not aware of that could be taking some of that customer experience.

Do you need to be aware of every single component of a marketing stack?

It's not every single component, it's really just making sure that the core is in place, and then leave it to the professionals to run their business on the RevOps and marketing ops side. But at least, in my opinion, a good CMO that does need to focus on growth is going to, again, go in and validate that, make sure that if there's anything that needs to be there, that's not there, that they have that support from the CMO to go and get it.

Because I think one of the things that every CMO needs is data and lots of it to make informed decisions. That's what a tech stack does is it actually flows the data correctly, gives you the insights you need to run the business as effectively as possible.

Being a data-driven CMO with Corina Stirbu
Ahead of her appearance at our CMO Summit on May 11th discussing what it takes to be a data-driven CMO, we spoke to Corina Stirbu, CMO of Wolfpack Digital, on what data means to a CMO and how she tackles some of the current challenges in the world of data.

Brands with great growth strategies

Maybe it's a little hypocritical to ask this now as we talked about how there's no such thing as a growth playbook but it's always worth looking at examples of what other people are doing to get inspiration.

Who are some CMOS, or some brands that have got really good growth strategies recently? Who should we be paying attention to when it comes to growth strategies?

There are two that I've been following. The first is ClickUp, they're based down in San Diego, they're in that space, where typically you see Asana and other companies like that, and they kind of came out of nowhere.

I think they were really refining their product and doing their thing and then all of a sudden decided "Our product's ready to go big, far, and wide and they raised a massive amount of money to do that. Their approach has just been incredible. I see them everywhere.

Their website really tells a cool story of what you can achieve there, but why them over anything else. And they really lean in with "Just come in and try the product and then when you're ready to upgrade we'll upgrade you". So it's very, very frictionless and they've taken it to the next level.

I've been driving over the Bay Bridge and seen out-of-home advertising from them, and they're really going aggressive in a very frictionless way. In a very very quick way too, which is incredible. I think the brand that we probably hear a lot about is Gong and I think what I love about that brand is two things.

One is their dedication to the category of revenue intelligence. The fact that their Gong event is not about Gong, it's about revenue intelligence, and I just actually heard Udi talking about the fact that they deliberately designed the conference experience around that very thing, so it's not about them.

Then I think the most impressive thing with their brand is that they've let it be a slow burn, they haven't changed up the brand very much, they've iterated on it but the imagery, the dog that they have, and their connection to their audience and how they speak is very authentic and it's been there for a while.

It makes you, from my standpoint, feel like, "Oh, I know Gong and they're a very stable part of my life", and they're not changing or going anywhere. Which I think in a category like that, where it's pretty competitive, and they're clearly dominating they've done a good job of just being there. It's been a great strategy for them.

They've built an incredibly strong brand Gong, you know straight away when you're looking at a Gong ad or when you're on any part of their site, you know exactly what the voice is. Is that important when it comes to growth: to have that strong foundational brand? Or can you build a brand alongside growth marketing? Can you do both at the same time or is it one then the other?

I think you can build it while you're growing but I do think that a CMO needs to pay very careful attention to make sure they are working to stabilize the brand and make it consistent and authentic, in every single channel.

It doesn't mean that you sacrifice growth for that to make it happen. It just means that as the brand is evolving, and as you're figuring it out, that you're applying it everywhere, versus forgetting about it and making it look sloppy and disparate in different places.

And I think the most important thing is to make sure that... there's a big part of our brand that we tend to neglect, and that's actually every customer-facing person in your company.

They are the brand ambassador for the company, they talk to more people in a day than any of us ever would and it's just critical for them to really personify the brand, to be able to speak to it, be able to live up to it.

Aligning growth with branding

When it comes to growth and brand at the same time, what are the stages? Does a brand have to evolve with growth? Do you ever make any big changes to the brand when you hit certain growth stages? Or is it just a consistent slow burn with both of them?

I see it as a slow burn, I think it's kind of interesting because say you're in a series A company... it seems like a lot of series A companies have a similarity where, I'll take their website homepage, for example, they're almost validating, like, "Hey, here's our product and here's exactly how it works".

Then when you get to Series B, it's like, okay, people have learned about our category and our product so we're gonna actually start talking about the value of it instead. And then maybe C and D, you know what they know the value, it's all about applying a consumer brand to this B2B brand because we want people to know and love us.

I think if CMOs can figure out the right balance of that early on, and actually focus on the brand piece, focus on how much education you need for your audience to really understand what you do, and counterbalance that, and then start to scale it that way versus thinking that you have to be in this preconceived cycle of this is what you do at this time, I think is a winning strategy.

I think when you look at where we are, from just a technology proliferation standpoint, companies are growing wildly now. Unicorn used to be a big deal, and now it's like, "Oh, you're just worth a billion dollars? Let me know when you're worth three or four billion'.

And people are buying software at a faster clip, I mean, digital transformation is no longer "okay, we'll get around to that". It's been forced and everyone's focused on it. So I think it gives companies the opportunity to kind of skip some steps or make them a lot smaller and focus on getting it right from the get-go.

It also means you've got to think about how your brand and your educational material fits in with other solutions that you integrate as well. You've got to be aware of a much broader marketplace than you might have had to do even just 10 years ago before the big digital transformation shift happened.

Back then, people might have only heard of one project management system, whereas now they're aware of four or five different ones at once, even in less tech-savvy companies.

Is that something that needs to be considered when it comes to your growth marketing: your competitors and the educational level of your audience as well? You've got to be aware of so many different things beyond just your own business.

100%. I think fundamentally it's almost like a prerequisite before you even start your growth strategy is, what are you in the market? Are you higher priced? Better feature functionality? More robust roadmap and bigger vision?

Or are you the low-cost alternative to some bigger market players that maybe are slowing down in their product development, and might be a 1.0 of what you're going to 2.0 and beyond?

Those are kind of key things that you need to understand in how you position against your competitors to ultimately drive what is your call to action in your growth marketing?

And then I think a good point that you bring up is how are you educating the market appropriately based on what your role is in the market to get them to act the way that you want them to act?

Of course, you want to be proactive with your marketing, you don't want to be reactive, how do you find that balance? Being proactive with your growth marketing strategies, rather than just reacting to what your competitors are doing?

It's a good question. I think it goes back to, what is your role in the market? If you're a late entrant, and you see what all the issues are with the competitive landscape, then your growth strategy might be predicated on pointing that out and going after your competitor's customers, and saying, like, "Hey, did you know that we have 15/20/30x customers of competitor A, and they've all experienced the same thing? Are you experiencing that?"

Or if you're leading the market, and you're leaving everyone behind, then you could be setting the narrative in the market, you could be saying "This is what XYZ platform does and this is what the future of this category looks like", and then start setting the thought leadership there.

Those are two very different strategies, but they're also viable. And quite frankly, I think you can do both. If you are a late entrant or seeing a competitive play that you can run, you can be doing that while also setting the tone for what the market is and how companies are solutioning for it.

Of course, you've got to be aware of your own growth, if you're a late entrant who suddenly becomes the market leader it doesn't make sense for you to market as the scrappy upstart anymore. If you're falling behind, and you're still trying to position yourself as the number one piece of SaaS in that category, then you're going to look foolish, aren't you? You've got to adapt.

Yeah, it kind of goes back to Gong, they're not really saying we're the number one this or this - they are in in a bunch of categories, but it's more around what is the movement that they are helping to drive? And that's the revenue intelligence movement.

I think the more you can connect to your audiences in terms of, who is the enemy, our collective enemy, and maybe it's status quo, maybe it's pen and paper, maybe it's your systems aren't connected properly. Whatever it is, rally them around that movement to help solve that problem together.

Do you mean your customers? You're identifying the shared enemy with your customers?


Interesting. There's that Sun Tzu quote when it comes to enemies, "know your enemy, know yourself". So if you know what problem you're trying to solve, you know your identity is a company, you know what your growth strategy should be based around that.


Growth golden rule

One last thing, do you have a golden rule when it comes to developing growth marketing strategies? Do you have a number one single thing that you keep in mind when you're developing any kind of growth marketing?

Absolutely. Start small to get big and don't just come in with a preconceived notion and throw everything at it.

You may have preconceived notions, but look at the unique identity of your company, what may already be working, validate it, and progress it that way versus just going all in.

Got questions on how to approach growth as a CMO? Got advice of your own to share? Head to the CMO Alliance Community!