Building a World-Class Marketing Organization from the Ground-Up
AJ Lee, Director of Marketing, NEXT Trucking
Over the past few years, the term “FreightTech” has become a buzzword to describe those who operate at the intersection of technology and freight/logistics -an increasingly crowded field that counts autonomous trucking, clean trucks, trucker safety, and app-powered marketplaces like NEXT among its players. Such ‘legacy industries’ may be less overtly sexy (some consider them “hard” and “boring” -e.g., construction, agriculture, consumer credit) than their D2C/B2C counterparts, but some -like freight, are nevertheless critical components of powering those same industries and spaces.
As VCs and other investors turn their attention to the next frontier for funding and innovation ($6.6B has poured into freight technology alone since 2014), finding success in transforming the “old” into what’s “new” requires rethinking the standard ‘tech-company’ playbook -especially for marketing. The usual approach for B2B technology marketing is relatively straightforward, if hackneyed: build a product with market-fit, get it in front of the right users at the right time, and then segment, automate, and personalize your way to scale (and 10-figure valuations). But as technology companies enter and disrupt new sectors, the now ‘traditional’ marketing tactics and strategies used to acquire, engage, retain, and grow may not hold the same relevance for a company that is trying to break into a new space, with a new business model, and radically different customer segments where last-generation technology is already the incumbent.
If it’s in your company’s DNA to be transformative, then shaking up the status quo also means writing your own marketing playbook(s). At NEXT, it’s not only a legacy industry that presents new challenges for our team, but also our strategic focus and business model that add layers of complexity. Our core product is a multi-sided platform that connects highly disparate segments like truck drivers with large retailers and manufacturers. Furthermore, we focus on one of the most misunderstood and least transparent parts of the supply chain (the first mile). As such, we face a chicken-or-the-egg dilemma to scale a marketplace for liquidity, difficulties with building brand equity (e.g., channel conflict for messaging), and plenty of other curveballs like managing communications in a highly regulated, racially and ethnically diverse industry.
Fortunately, we’ve hired and scaled with a team that thrives on tackling big problems, and over the past year the NEXT marketing team has grown from a team of three to ten diverse problem-solvers to take on the challenge. Here’s some of what we’ve learned along the way…
Survey The Landscape, Choose Wisely
Being an effective marketer requires constantly scouring an always-changing landscape of strategies and best practices. Perhaps more than any other function, marketers live in a world where new tactics, tools, and approaches crop up (or fall out of vogue) overnight; these present an ever-evolving buffet of opportunities, but also a bewildering array of choices. As a result, this requires performing regular tactics inventories -the identification of all marketing channels and approaches that exist (including those you may have never used, previously met little success with, and/or are too nascent to understand fully).
One of the many privileges of building a marketing team from the ground up for a startup is the opportunity to define internal functions and build the team -during earlier stages, there’s often greater appetite for risk, nimble experimentation, and willingness to test channels and approaches to grow as quickly as possible at the cheapest cost. Tactics inventories can be invaluable as a team (regardless of size) considers how to best deploy limited resources. At NEXT, we took this a step further by layering on additional dimensions like execution cost/difficulty and expected impact across our core segments including truckers and shippers. This provided us with a multidimensional view across all of the tactics available to the team of what we could do, at what expected cost, and for maximum impact. Here’s the basic process:
What is the universe of tactics available to marketers today?
Which of these tactics apply to specific customer segments, personas?
For each tactic, what is the level of execution difficulty or resources required?
For each tactic, what is the expected impact to the business?
Prioritize low-cost, high-impact tactics where there is talent to manage (or an appetite to outsource, if necessary) -and prioritize hires where the greatest talent gaps exist
As the marketing team grew, we were able to leverage each new team member’s domain expertise to ‘turn on’ high-impact tactics with lower execution cost/difficulty. Repeating this exercise has allowed us to stay abreast of advancements in marketing technology while allowing the team to incrementally add channels, optimize existing efforts, and allocate spend wisely.
Unexpected Teams Achieve Unexpected Results
After achieving the first few wins (new website, new logomark, overhauled digital, hiring of our first PR agency), we were able to gradually scale the marketing team by prioritizing and filing roles to cover core functions that did not exist or bring in-house those that were then outsourced: product marketing, growth & analytics, creative/design, communications and content, and events. In structuring the small team by function and growing thoughtfully, we were able to ensure that we would hire for channel coverage and ownership but that we were also able to hire for cultural fit; marketers at startups always wear multiple caps, no matter how defined the function they ‘sit’ in, and it was as important to hire for cultural fit and willingness to grow and learn as for their domain expertise.
To break into a new space in unexpected ways, we also added uniqueness as a screening factor in addition to general intelligence, versatility, and being “nice” -I set out to build an unconventional team by design. These criteria naturally resulted in a high-performing team that got along well (and well enough to ‘disagree and commit’, one of our core values) -and more than that, a team that genuinely had and still has fun. The uniqueness factor can’t be discounted in how it has contributed to the team’s distinct culture and unconventional output. Here’s a bit more about our team: our content manager previously wrote a big-picture screenplay featuring Halle Berry after being a sports reporter; one of our product marketers is a published author; one of our visual designers previously worked in the high-end luxury segment, our head of comms has led $2bn in exits, and our events marketer formerly managed the grand openings of a chain of retail fashion stores around the globe. This has led to out-of-the-box approaches to demand generation, gorgeous visuals and boundary-pushing perspectives on building brand, unconventional guerilla marketing tactics, and wildly successful sales events. To break the mold, you need talent that doesn’t fit into one.
Technology and the Pufferfish Effect
A few months ago, Uber announced it was laying off a third of its 1,200 marketers. 400 positions is a lot to lose, but it also meant that a direct competitor to NEXT still had 800 marketers to collectively draw from; today, we need to win a battle where we’re outnumbered 80:1. Fortunately, a disciplined approach to channel selection and a team of A-players able to out-execute and out-manage allows us to punch above our weight class.
But in addition to talent, technology has also allowed us to level the playing field -as it has for many other startups. Few phenomena have advanced marketing beyond the days of Mad Men than the diffusion of digital advertising, cutting-edge tools, and automation; it’s democratized the opportunity to scale in a way that allows smaller companies (and marketing teams like at NEXT) to make a bigger footprint in our sector than we otherwise would be able to.
We’ve paired intuitive project management tools (after cycling through a dozen possible project management software) with an obsession over processes and operational excellence to maximize the impact of technology. For example, our events marketing strategy incorporates a comprehensive year-ahead calendar, a stakeholder/attendance/
In other instances, technology has allowed us to operate at scale despite our relatively small size. For our growth team, the (expensive) decision to implement an enterprise-grade automation platform tied to our CRM platform has allowed us to reach our entire base of customers across multiple channels with customized workflows based on behavioral and transactional triggers, making our relationship with our customers more fluid, relevant, and real. This has improved engagement throughout the journey while the growing mountain of data that we are capturing has been invaluable for our sales teams in prioritizing follow-up.
Other ways we’ve deployed technology include media monitoring and tracking technology for rapid response and outreach to amplify relevant press and benchmark share-of-voice along with the integration of real-time NPS responses into our internal company communications platform for full transparency.
Ultimately, we’ve come together as a small but mighty team to adopt discipline without sacrificing ingenuity, celebrating, promoting, and applying our unique backgrounds and skillsets, and actively courting and adopting technology to accelerate or add scalability to our efforts. Perhaps most importantly, we’ve built a culture where a creative, weird marketing team can be weird and creative without the distractions that often accompany technology or large, corporate settings. As NEXT and the marketing team continue to grow, the challenge will be to maintain the spirit of these roots. Fortunately, being what’s NEXT has always been about rising to the challenge.
About the Author: AJ Lee is Director of Marketing at NEXT Trucking, where he built and is responsible for the growth & analytics, PR/communications, events, product marketing, and creative/visual design functions. Prior to joining NEXT, he led marketing and built the strategy practice for merQbiz, a joint venture of Voith and BCG Digital Ventures; before that, he managed marketing for Amazon’s B2B division, overseeing growth strategies for 22 departments and over 1,500 vendors. He holds an MBA from the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth and an MPA from the Harvard Kennedy School.