First, have marketing put money where its mouth is
Marketing is still a fluffy word in the halls of Silicon Valley start-ups. The prevailing wisdom: If you build an amazing product, people will come. For many software companies like Gusto, which launched in 2012 as a payroll alternative for small businesses, that’s exactly how it got off the ground. It wasn’t until 2016 that it launched an ad campaign or 2017 that it hired its first CMO, Tolithia Kornweibel.
Before evangelizing about the importance of brand, Kornweibel knew she needed to demonstrate the lead-generating power of marketing. “If you want marketing to have a strategic seat at the table, amp up the growth first and prove that you can do it before going on that internal educational mission,” she says. “Get the leads first and then be patient and strong,” says Kornweibel—whose company now enjoys a $3.8 billion valuation, having recently raised an anything-but-fluffy $200 million in venture capital. See our extensive conversation to learn the details behind Gusto’s growth.
How did Gusto get off the ground?
I think that this was a company that grew quickly early on because the product quality and experience blew the competitors away. To this day, we continue to get a ton of our growth from word of mouth. And we have an incredibly high NPS, and we're incredibly proud of that. We’re a very customer-centric company, and we love spending so much time serving and understanding our customers.
Is there anything particularly renegade about your marketing?
I think that the renegade thing may be there weren’t super high expectations for marketing as a strategic function within the company, and as a nexus for growth. Some of that is due to traditional enterprise points of view around sales-led growth strategies, and some of that is traditional product-led points of view around product quality-led growth strategies. I've just been on a mission internally to demonstrate, and then educate, how thinking about our customers in their natural habitat and creating the proper positioning and outreach to them is a strategic way to grow a business. It's not a go-to-market afterthought.
How are you balancing segmenting with keeping the larger brand united?
Such a great question. I have resisted verticalization for the two years I've been here for exactly the reason that you mentioned and, given that we're still in early stages in terms of brand awareness, I think there is a real big danger to becoming known for too many things. So far, I think we all collectively, as a leadership team, align around having a very horizontal approach which in terms of product development is pretty efficient, too. If you can find a sizable population where a horizontal strategy for both your product and your brand works, that's great. With us, if we can build strong brand awareness for our core value prop and build that customer love we focus on every day, then when we add in specialization, it won’t dilute our awareness. We’ve got to build before we specialize more.
What tools have helped you optimize your pipeline? What's your tech stack look like?
We have proprietary algorithms for the scoring, and I'm a big proponent of that. I think you can use lead scoring tools and partners, especially if they bring unique data into the mix. But I have never found scores to be as effective when purchased, versus when developed and tooled internally, especially if you have multiple channels happening. We have a data science team that helps us with that. On the tech set stack side, we have Marketo piped into Salesforce, and then we have a bunch of pretty typical tools. There’s a landing page optimization tool we're currently using called Spiralyze, and Kenshoo on the search side. We’ve probably got about a dozen tools in the stack.
Has any element of building your b-to-b funnel been surprising?
Yeah. And one of the things we're kind of taking a look at now is how customers contend with options. Gusto used to be a one-product value prop, with different add-on options for our customers. About a year and a half ago, we introduced three tiers to our product, three different bundles. I don't think we have it fully figured out yet, whether that should be a discussion we have with our customers including digitally at the top of the funnel, middle of the funnel or the bottom of the funnel. And so, I think we have work to do to figure that out. The reason why that was a surprise to me was just how tricky it is in b-to-b to pinpoint where the actual commit occurs, when the actual "yes" happens. We don't have an easy thing like a credit card entry, the way you do in b-to-c.
How are you holding these efforts together? Is there a larger, overarching vision?
Absolutely. We want to be the people stack for all small business in the US. And we’re a full-service offering. We really got our start and got to tens of thousands of customers by having best-in-class payroll. But today we are an integrated all-in-one. Branding and positioning are incredibly important to us because the awareness of us, overall unaided awareness, is quite low. But where we have any, we're known for payroll. It's a really big deal for us to figure out how to be more than payroll, and specifically to be very intentional about what that more means and who we're for.