How can you drive fast growth with marketing?
In this interview, you’ll hear from Jim Fowler, founder of Owler on what he’s learned to grow fast. Owler – a free competitive intelligence platform – went from 0 to over 500,000 users. And they’re on pace to exceed a million users by the end this year.
I first met Fowler when he was the co-founder of the cloud-based contact management platform Jigsaw which he sold to Salesforce.com for $175 million (now Data.com).
Writers Note: The transcript has was edited for publication.
Brian: Jim, tell us about your organization
Jim: Sure, Brian. It’s a pleasure to be on the show. Owler is a competitive intelligence platform. It’s used by all business professionals, but our biggest participants are sales and marketing folks that really need to keep their finger on the pulse of their competitive grasps. That means, their competitors, their customers, their prospects, their partners, etc.
The general trend here is there’s just so much information out there. Our goal with Owler to become a must use tool that gives a lot of very crisp information in a way that people can absorb it. That’s the key thing is that we’re a tool that helps people outsmart their competition of the competitive intelligence platform.
Brian: Your brand name is derived from your last name, right?
Jim: One of my marketers came up to me as we were naming the company, and we were looking at a bunch of different names like Jigsaw. I love that name. I mean, its a simple word putting the pieces of the puzzle together. Yeah, it worked great. That was a high bar to get over. She came to me and went, “Fowler, I’ve got the perfect name for our company: Owler.” I laughed and said, “Yeah, ha ha. Funny.” Thought she was joking. She’s like, “No, I’m serious. First of all, it’s five letters. Number two is that owl, wisdom, and people will be able to spell it. Most people aren’t going to associate it with your last name, which is true.” You’re more astute than most, Brian.
I was embarrassed by it at first, but now I love it. Of course, we have a cool little owl. By the way, the Owl’s name is Jimf, so Jimf Owler. Any of your listeners who are users of Owler, and I imagine there are thousands, they’ll be familiar with our owl that we call Jimpf.
After you sold Jigsaw to Salesforce.com why didn’t you decide to ride off into the sunset?
What inspired you to start Owler?
Well, that is a great question. I can tell you there’re a few times along this path that I’ve wondered that same thing. Startups are not easy. I kind of equate a startup with a bag of problems. There’s just a bunch of issues to solve. You know, I was still a pretty young guy. Jigsaw was a great acquisition. It was a $175-million-dollar acquisition at that time. By far and away the largest Salesforce has ever done. Now, that’s pocket change for those guys. They’re doing massive stuff.
I think that you realize that you don’t really do it for the money, especially once you’ve had an exit. You realize that the creation, the ability to go out and make something out of nothing and create a company that employs a lot of people, but more importantly, build products that people love. I mean, that’s what gives me a charge. I’m really pleased.
At Owler, we’ve doubled our user base over the last ninety days to 500,000 active users. We’re going to blow past a million active users on those things by the end of the year. We’re starting to look at ten million, which is about one-tenth the size of LinkedIn. That becomes a globally important company. I think that’s what really drives founders is that you want to … It’s like being a chef. You want to cook food that people love, and when you found a company you want to create a product or products that people just love. It’s a big endorphin hit.
How did you acquire so many active users so quickly?
Yeah. There’re a couple of things that I’ve learned both at Jigsaw and Owler. The first answer for all your listeners out there is it’s never easy. That sounds great, but what you need to understand is back in ’13 and ’14 as we struggled a way to get a product that was really engaging, there were many days where … When you first asked why didn’t you ride out into the sunset, there were many days during that time where I just went, “Why am I doing this?”
If you’re feeling pain, that’s the normal situation. Jigsaw never grew this fast. Jigsaw was more of linear growth. This is really hockey sticking, which is super fun.
The on the ground advice I will give is the first order of business is to dial really in SEO. SEO is something that everyone hears and understands, search engine optimization, but that’s the free traffic that you get. Really getting your SEO strategy down is critical. At Jigsaw, we spent a lot of time and effort on paid SEM, search engine marketing, and different types of paid traffic. It’s not only expensive, it just isn’t as effective in our experience as SEO.
There’s always an eighty-twenty rule, by the way, for startups. I’m a big believer that you want to focus on the eighty and then once you become a more mature company focus on the twenty. This is a classic principle that eighty percent of your return is going to come with twenty percent of the effort. And then the last twenty percent of your return is going to require eighty percent of the effort. So make sure that you’re hammering that first eighty percent return with twenty percent of the effort and really focusing on that.
I find it’s with all of the traffic driving things that you do. That’s number one, but to me, that’s the one that you cannot disregard. You have to pay attention to SEO.
What are some of the other lessons have you learned along with way?
These are things that most of your listeners probably already heard, but I will reemphasize them because they’re trite and true. I’m a real believer that your product is your marketing. Obviously, if you’re an expensive enterprise product that’s a little bit different because it takes more time to get users, but I still argue that it’s the same. … Is that you can sit there and beat on all of these different ways to get traffic and users, but when you have a product that people love that is your best marketing because that’s when it starts getting viral.
For us, we found this at Jigsaw, and we’re finding it even more now is that SEO gets people exposed to your product. Then once they do it’s a viral impact, and now the viral side of Owler is what’s making it grow so fast. SEO doesn’t grow exponentially. It grows linearly, whereas viral grows exponentially. You can only get the hockey stick with some sort of viral component. Yes, you can spend a bunch of time with different software that helps get the word out and all that, but I’m kind of old-school in that way that you know it when you see it. When the virality is there, you know it, and when it’s not, it takes time, and you need to keep working on just making sure you have a product that is compelling. I recommend a parallel path on SEO and product optimization.
What do you see is the future of B2B sales marketing?
I would say that the biggest trend that I see … I used to talk about this at Jigsaw, and I’ll continue to talk about it now. Sales people are going to continue to have to become better marketers.
With Jigsaw, we provided a set of contact data so that you could communicate with people directly with phone numbers and business email addresses. I said at the time, what this means is that the people on the receiving end of these communications are going to get more and more and more communications. It’s kind of a funny thing. Sales and marketing, their job is to communicate with people that don’t really want to be communicated with, but they need to be because they need to buy stuff.
I think that we’re going to continue to see the buyers or the receivers of these communications get more and more of it, and it’s become more and harder to rise above the noise. What it means is sales people are going to have to become better marketers. They’re going to have to work hand in hand with marketers to get them.
Marketers, frankly are going to have to become gods, because their job is just getting harder and harder. I mean, people have no attention. We’re in the age of a hundred and forty character limit is all people will read, and this makes the job tough. I just think that with that in mind all of our communication is crisp, simple, scannable data.
For instance, our descriptions of companies are one sentence long. We only allow a hundred and forty character description of a company, because we know people won’t read more than that. I just think understanding these trends is critical regarding future success. It’s going to continue to accelerate, is my prediction.
What would you say to B2B marketers out there who want to help their sales team sell more effectively today?
I’m a big believer that marketing’s number one job is to take away sales people excuses for not making their number.
What you don’t want is you don’t want the finger pointing. You know what I mean? Marketing’s typical, “Hey, I’ve got this budget I spent on it, and sales are so lazy they’re not even following up the leads that I’m driving them,” and sales will sit there and say, “Marketing, you’re sending me crap leads.” As a CEO and knowing both sides of this and having come up through the ranks as a VP of sales and sales person before I founded Jigsaw, I’m just a big believer that it’s all about numbers.
Sales are the most measurable department in your organization after finance. What mind boggles me is how rarely people really measure sales all across the board. They’re getting better, by the way. Data is becoming more available everywhere, but to me, that’s marketing’s job is to take away their excuses. It’s basic funnel management that you need a certain number of leads cranking in. There’s always going to be a little bit of fight around the quality of those leads, but to me that’s just all it really is marketing providing the air cover, being able to bring those leads in in whatever is the most cost effective way. To me, it’s that simple to where you’re just going, “This is a sales issue. This is not a marketing issue.”
I always look at, by the way, is the further part of that … I think the way you want to manage sales is to expect nothing from marketing. Anything you get from marketing is a bonus, and then, of course, it’s the CEO’s job to go hammer marketing to make sure that they’re meeting sales.
I think that when you approach it with those two ways you have a very healthy look at how it’s supposed to work instead of making it adversarial.
Are there any success stories that you could share?
Yeah. Jigsaw we did this really, really well. There was a real healthy tension between marketing and sales, where marketing was really pushing and … I would say that the best way to do it just has a way to manage the leads. I mean, there’s so much software out there now for the marketing … All that marketing automation solutions that have come so, so far since we did it …
Regarding feeding sales, I don’t have any magic pills. There was a sales methodology and is today one that I still recommend that I think your listeners will find interesting. It’s what I call an email sandwich that was very effective as a specific example.
Yeah, tell us more about it.
Yeah. From a sales or marketing … It depends on which function it’s going to align and where in the pipes you are. When you’re out there trying to push new business, you’re trying to take a company from what I call a suspect. We believe that these folks should be buying our products to a prospect, which is we know that they have needed budgets. There’s a lot of communication that goes there.
I’m – again, you’ve heard me use the word old school a little bit … I’m a big believer in this concept of email sandwich. Email, phone call, email. Email, phone call, email. There’re folks out there that love to just email, and there’re folks out there that go, “Oh, email … No, you got to call them.” I’m a big believer in using both of those in a sandwich way.
This is where marketing and sales really need to work together because marketing is usually expert at AB testing messaging to get people to respond to something. Sales are the point of the spear. They’re the ones that are really learning what works and what doesn’t work and have really good communication between these. That’s what we did well at Jigsaw. We’re focusing on our user growth and engagement of billing the database. We’ll do it as well, but I found that this helps sales and marketing get in sync of sales doing kind of the test bed of what works and then marketing finding ways to automate that to marketing automation. To get that first email out and making sure to leave the voice mail so they can hear your voice.
That’s another key thing from a sales perspective is it humanizes the experience. It’s harder and harder to leave voice messages now. Phone systems have changed even since Jigsaw was sold, but there’s still ways to get your voice in front of people that humanizes it. Again, this is building on what I talked about earlier about sales people becoming better marketers.
Then, of course, following with email. I just found these email sandwiches are a simple concept to understand. You test the heck out of them regarding what works with different audiences, but I just find that that brings sales and marketing really closely together, and it’s a structure that everyone understands and can focus on.
Brian: It’s a great suggestion. I think at the age where I believe that we’ve overemphasized, or the pendulum has swung too far to inbound marketing. What you’re advocating is humanizing your brand by having human beings and a human touch connect with your customer. There’s a real person behind the company that the email is coming from, a real person.
Do you have any tips or advice you give to sales or marketing leaders who want to grow revenue rapidly?
I would say that my biggest tip is be absolutely aggressive about your time. The number one mistake that I think I’ve seen marketing and sales people do is they spend time on that nonproducing. The long side of the Pareto principle. They’re not sitting down from the very beginning going, “Okay, what is the twenty percent of our effort that produces eighty percent of the return?” It’s always different for every company regarding what are the things that are going to move it.
To me, I know it sounds formulaic, but I believe this is the problem. What I push as a CEO is what is the twenty percent that’s moving the needle of your effort and then put eighty percent of your time into those programs. Do less, not more. Figure out what works, and don’t go out there and try to put too many balls in the air. I think that’s the number one mistake that I see that can hamper you driving revenue.