CMO Secrets with Lindsey Christensen

Welcome back to year two of our popular blog series, CMO Secrets. Twice per month, we feature an exceptional Marketing leader from around the industry. Some names will be easily recognized, and others may be new to you, but every single one will have been hand picked for their experience and knowledge in the world of Startups, Technology, and Marketing. The questions are ours, but the answers are theirs – every word, shared without edit, from their fingers to your eyes.

Today we welcome Lindsey Christensen, who is the CMO at thoughtbot, a product design and development consultancy with studios across the US and UK. Prior to thoughtbot, Lindsey led marketing at high-growth startups like GrabCAD, the largest digital manufacturing community in the world (exit 2014), and held a variety of marketing roles at engineering software giant, PTC. She’s also been named a Top Woman in Boston Tech by people you should definitely trust.

Hi Lindsey! Tell us about thoughtbot, the role marketing plays there, and what drew you to the opportunity there.

Thoughtbot is a product design and development consultancy with studios in Boston, NYC, Durham, Austin, San Francisco and London. For over 15 years, thoughtbot has produced top quality web and mobile apps for over 1,000 clients – from the individual founder with an idea all the way to Fortune 500 enterprises looking to improve an existing product or launch a new one.

Even though thoughtbot has been around for a while, the company had never had a formal marketing strategy or team prior to my joining. It was really exciting for me to be able to jump into an org that already had a beloved brand and impressive knowledge-sharing culture, but apply my experience ramping up marketing strategy, teams, systems and so on. I hadn’t expected to leave the world of product companies for a consultancy, but actually now I get to engage with so many more products and product teams from day to day because of our impressive client base and communities.

The Marketing team at thoughtbot is primarily focused on attracting and nurturing potential clients that our team of design and development experts will be excited to work with. It has a unique twist to the typical lead generation goal which is: can we find prospects who have identified meaningful problems they want to solve with quality software – and then connect them with local Managing Directors. And you notice I say Managing Directors and not “sales.” We also don’t have a traditional sales team which is another fun challenge.

Congratulations on your recent promotion to CMO! Have you received any helpful advice from friends, peers, mentors, etc. as you’ve taken on your new role?

“It’s lonely at the top” was a phrase that stood out to me at a CMO dinner I attended a few years ago as I was moving into more executive roles. It’s true across functions – as you move to the top role, you lose your internal mentor who understands every aspect of your job and who can provide clear guidance on any tough decision you may face. As you move to CMO, or any head of marketing role, all of a sudden the buck stops with you and it can feel daunting. Imposter syndrome can definitely creep in. What I learned was the importance of having external mentors and a strong peer network that you can go to for gut checks. You eventually realize your CMOs of the past never had all the answers anyway! Marketing, and more broadly leadership, doesn’t work like that. At the end of the day, you take the information you have to set the best possible direction, then help people execute.

If you had to place a bet right now, where do you think thoughtbot will see the most marketing impact in 2019?

This year we’re focusing on hosting more intimate, invite-only events for clients and prospects. Repeat business and referrals account for a big piece of our revenue pie so it’s critical that we provide ongoing value to these folks and maintain strong relationships. It also doesn’t hurt that our team happens to really enjoy hanging out with them! We only take on clients who are strongly aligned with us on culture and values, so when we find a match, it usually ends up being a long and fulfilling relationship between the organizations for many years. It’s satisfying that marketing is able to support these relationships and the ongoing knowledge-sharing that takes place. Plus seeing clients come back for new project engagements as they reach new stages in their company growth is rewarding.

To you, what pieces of a comprehensive marketing team deserve to be over-invested in?

Where we need to “over-invest” in marketing is the people – individually, as a cohesive team, and as part of the greater whole of the company. The most important thing a marketing leader can contribute to a company is hiring great people and empowering them to shine and grow.

What kinds of things can or should a marketer do to have their work/contributions really stand out?

Marketers should be comfortable over-explaining what they’re working on, why they’re working on it, and how it will positively impact the company. This can take different forms – townhall-style updates, an internal newsletter, even just the occasional slack round-up. It’s safe to assume we have to say something 5 times for someone outside of marketing to take hold of it. Explain the “what” – core marketing concepts in simple, easy-to-understand terms, the “how” – what’s your take on this concept going to look like in action, the “who” – reminder of the target for the activity and the “why” – not only what kind of results you hope to see, but trying to go a step further and explain how those results will impact individuals in other parts of the organization.

What themes are you seeing in terms of how the B2B tech buyer has changed in the last few years? And what changes do marketing teams need to make to keep up?

It’s getting harder to reach the B2B tech buyer as marketers around the world have adopted the same tactics. When I was your age, B2B tech buyers used to read their email and click on generic banner ads! Can you imagine? What a world! Marketers today are challenged to reach their buyer across digital channels and in person in a personal way. B2B tech marketing is finally taking more cues from great consumer companies and building dynamic, personal brands that feel more like a trusted friend than a cold, stoic vendor. I’m especially excited to see more focus on value and mission-driven companies.

What’s the best career advice you ever received and who did it come from?

A powerful exercise I once did was to list the 5 things that ONLY I can do as a leader. Everything else should be delegated, hired, outsourced, or eliminated. I learned that at Intelligent.ly, RIP. If you’re not familiar, Intelligent.ly was a really powerful leadership training course founded by Sarah Hodges and Dave Balter for emerging tech startup leaders in Boston and it significantly contributed to how I lead and what I expect from other leaders. I will continue to poke Sarah to resurrect it… Are you reading this Sarah?

What advice of your own would you like to pass on to up-and-coming marketers?

Talk to more customers. It’s the answer to any problem you’re trying to work through.

What MarTech interview question are you completely sick of and glad we didn’t ask here?

“How do you see AI impacting marketing in the next year?”

Want to spread the marketing love? If there are any specific teams or companies you think are doing particularly noteworthy things, feel free to give some shout-outs.

I’m really inspired by women-led, mission-driven, consumer brands. Companies like Lola, Wildfang, The Wing, and Glossier are building thriving communities and genuinely give a shit about creating companies that can affect change through bold political action.

Time to Rant or Rave: What’s a marketing topic that’s getting you fired up right now?

Beware of trends and their origin. I see many marketers fall into the trap of chasing hot marketing fads that are usually very convincingly and self-servingly delivered from a martech startup. If you are going to fall in love with the marketing trend du jour, you better be sure it’s going to help you better connect and engage with your target audience. At the end of the day, that’s all that really matters.

What does the idea of open marketing mean to you?

Open Marketing to me means – ungated and unfiltered access. One of the things I love the most about thoughtbot is the team’s dedication to mentorship and knowledge-sharing. The entire team has been churning out blog posts and podcasts and meetups and workshops and videos and books… on and on long before I came along. The thoughtbot purpose is that there’s always a better way to work, and we need to find it and share it with as many people as possible. What the team has considered “doing the right thing,” also happens to be incredibly powerful marketing. It’s created a phenomenal content library, SEO strength, thought leadership, branding, but most importantly, a dedicated audience that places trust in us. By cutting out the BS and being transparent about who we are and what we learn, we’ve earned community loyalty. And if that isn’t the toughest thing for a marketer, then I don’t know what is. So cheers to open marketing!

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