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Identity management platform Okta acquired unicorn status last year. CMO Ryan Carlson explains how effective B2B marketing helped them get there.

Since launching in 2009 Okta has earned significant traction, gaining the trust (and custom) of News Corp, 20th Century Fox, Western Union, National Geographic, and Box to name a few. These and other successes would have in part helped complete a $75m round of financing in September last year.

Ryan Carlson has been responsible for B2B marketing at Okta since 2011, moving into the CMO hot seat in January of this year, where he notably oversaw the company’s first major rebranding. Just don’t call it that in front of him…

In the latest interview in our B2B marketing series, Carlson explains to Hot Topics why he spent a week as an Okta sales rep, the true value of having Andreessen Horowitz in your corner, and why he’s not a fan of that ‘r’ word.

HT: In this series we’ve focused on the relationship between B2B marketing and sales, and how modern CMOs ensure there’s minimal friction there. Could you let us in on your approach?

It’s almost a cliché that the sales and B2B marketing teams have this back and forth of, “I found these leads, and you didn’t convert them,” vs “The leads you found me weren’t that great.” [To mitigate this] we try very hard at Okta to make sure that the link between our sales and B2B marketing teams is as strong as it can be.

To try to bridge the gap, I decided very early on to spend a week as a sales development representative [SDR]. In other words an inside salesperson, the people who follow up on the leads. The SDRs do all the cold calling, it’s typically a very entry level sales position, and they are essentially the tip of the spear. I wanted to see things from their perspective, and more specifically, see how the leads were coming through.

It was so hard. It was a very difficult job. I had helped create the company story and the product pitch for the SDRs for when they get on the phone and cold call people, so I figured I should have no problem doing that role. But sitting in an open office environment next to all my peers – who are typically in their early 20’s, maybe in their first job – with a headset on, calling customers and trying to give them the pitch was very daunting, but super insightful. It helped me a lot, not just from that standpoint, but also in seeing how our systems work; the data that we give them, the tools that they have to use.

I would document every single day in shared Google Docs, and my colleagues could then go in, read them, and add comments and questions. We made a ton of improvements based on that alone.

HT: That sounds scary. How many calls a day were you doing?

The metric was 70 calls a day. You won’t get 70 people to answer, but you have to call that volume because not many people answer their phone any more. It is very difficult, and my goal for each call was just to not get hung up on. But, it was also extremely gratifying.

One of our target customers was Doctors Without Borders [Médecins Sans Frontières] in Canada. I called them, managed to get the right person on the phone, and in something like four weeks they became a paying customer. Seeing it all the way through, starting from the person I called myself, was amazingly gratifying.

I do think everybody on my team should go and be an inside salesperson for at least a day. A week is probably too long, but seeing it for a day is interesting.

HT: Your background is in Product Marketing, would you say that’s a common trend amongst B2B CMOs today?

I don’t know if it’s necessarily common. I think there’s three different types of CMOs. There is a product-centric CMO, who comes up through the product side and is so adept at telling the product and company story. Then there is the CMO who has the big picture vision, to create huge awareness and buzz. [Thirdly] I think there’s the operational, metrics driven, data-focused CMO.

Frankly, I think the ‘big picture vision’ CMO is the more common within technology. But you are seeing more people emerge who came up through the product marketing side, such as Jennifer [Johnson] at Tanium. But I couldn’t tell you which is most common.

HT: In our conversation with Jennifer Johnson at Tanium we discussed the concept of the ‘Unicorn CMO’; essentially an individual who can handle all three of the disciplines you listed. Is that realistic, or is it necessary to prioritize depending on where that company is in its life cycle?

If those are the three key skill sets you would look at [for hiring a CMO], I think what matters most is identifying which one is most important for that specific company. In fact, I think it depends entirely on what the company needs. For example, some companies may have the operational side figured out, and as such they need someone to paint a bigger vision. That should be their priority [over looking for a unicorn].

HT: You recently went through a significant company rebrand, what was the thought process behind that?

I personally hate the term ‘rebrand’, for two reasons. Firstly, the name suggest that you have to redo something because it wasn’t working. But you can’t just prescribe your brand. You can’t make the world change the way they think about you, I think that’s impossible. You can certainly curate your brand though.

We opened up our rebranding process to the whole company, largely because we feel like everybody working at Okta informs the way the world thinks about us. It’s not just a B2B marketing job, and it’s not just a sales job. For example our engineers; how they work with those vendors in part shapes how the world thinks about us. I feel like a brand is something you can curate largely through your culture, and how you treat your customers. But you can’t just go and prescribe it.

HT: How do you begin that process?

It started because we needed a new logo. Our existing one was six years old, and we wanted to update our color scheme and some other visual components. They were relatively minor things, but then we said, “If we’re going to do that, how should we think about other elements of the business?” Then it expanded into, ”How do we talk about our company?”

We realized that as we had grown to over 800 people, if you asked 20 people around the company, “Tell me about Okta,” you would likely get 20 great but very different answers. We spent something like five or six months, generating 700 pages of interview transcripts with employees, with customers, with partners, trying to understand that story. We then had to distill that down into something that everybody could speak to in the same way. It was really very helpful for us.

Now we have these phrases that you see our founders use, that then make their way into the press. We also see engineering managers who are interviewing candidates using these same phrases to describe what we do, that really capture what we’re about. I think it has laid the foundation for this bigger story we are starting to tell now as well.

HT: How are you able to judge the impact of that process? Does it start from how employees talk about the company, or is it much bigger than that?

We judge it a number of ways.

We had our customer conference last November, and all of this [aforementioned] brand activity took place right before it. When Todd [McKinnon], our co-founder and CEO, got up during his main keynote, he went through in detail how we now think about Okta, what our vision is, and all of the ways that we decided to talk about the company. A good metric for us was how well that resonated with those who attended.

We looked at all the people in the audience who covered it – whether they were an equity analyst or a journalist – and at how much of it transferred through into their coverage. It worked really well.

There was one report in particular where the author talked about the vision of the company, and you could just tell they understood everything we were saying. That’s been the challenge for us historically, because some of our messaging can get pretty technically detailed, and some of the use cases are somewhat nuanced. So if they can fully grasp what we are saying though that vision, that’s one useful measure of it.

Also, we have our brand bible. We created a 300 page book that describes the origins of the company, why the founders started it, how we talk about us, how we visually represent us, and how we think about customer success. We give one to every new employee. On their first day of work I tell them about the branding story, the process we went through. We think of it as a field manual for how to talk about our company, and we measure the success of it in how often we hear it back from new employees.

In other words; if you’ve been here for a while, this stuff is kind of easy. But if you haven’t and you can still do it, then that’s a successful metric for us.

HT: Given the increasing number of vendors trying to talk to the same Fortune 1000 CIOs and CMOs, how do you rise above the noise to actually influence and engage with those executives?

That’s a good question. One of the things about being a CMO is that you get bombarded with inbound requests from other people trying to sell you tools and technology. I am in a position to judge our own efforts on how to reach prospects, but also to compare that to what people are doing towards us. There is a ton of noise and very little signal.

One of the things that we try to do is use our customer stories as much as we can. We go in and tell the story of 20th Century Fox, or Flex, or Adobe, rather than just, “this is what our product does and what it can do.” I think that our product is unusual in that, when you deploy Okta, every employee in the company uses it. It’s like email; you wouldn’t give email to one department and not the other. You don’t deploy Okta to just one group within the company.

Because of that, we always get up to the CIO. The audience we are trying to reach is very much CIO or Chief Security Officer, and the highest-ranking IT person is always involved in evaluating, choosing and managing Okta. What we do for them actually gives them a ‘win’. Most of time, IT has to roll things out that users complain about. We are letting IT roll out something that users love.

Those two things combined give us hundreds of CIOs that will advocate on our behalf. If you go to okta.com/customers, you will see a lot of testimonial videos, but we are now trying to uplevel them by talking about how we help transform their companies, talking about their journeys. That’s one way to set ourselves apart. It’s not just a pitch about what the product is, we are telling story-based narratives of customers that people can relate to; and I think that pulls them in more.

HT: How much has Andreessen Horowitz’s Corporate Development helped with that process?

Ben Horowitz wrote a check to Okta before a16z even had their first offices. We were their first investment, which isn’t commonly known. In fact, they have invested in every single round that we’ve had. They’ve been great from that standpoint, and the Corp. Dev. activities at Andreessen Horowitz are equally indispensable.

Very recently I met with one of the largest brewing companies in the world at one of Andreessen Horowitz’s EVC programs. It was the EVP of supply chain, the chief procurement officer, and his entire team. There were some IT teams there, but really, it was about supply chain, with probably 15 or 16 people in the room.

To talk to an entire supply chain team would be a very difficult, unusual meeting for us to get. We spent 30 minutes talking about exactly what we’ve done for other customers, like Flextronics who are now known as Flex, in integrating their supply chain. That’s a very recent example of how they can be really helpful. They have a structured program to go and get portfolio companies like us in front executives of some of the biggest companies in the world.

HT: Finally, when we interviewed former P&G CMO Jim Stengel he opined that 50% of all CMOs in his opinion are unfit for the job, mainly because of their lack of understanding of data; how to interpret it and then apply it. How much have you had to become a data scientist in your role as CMO?

I have an electrical engineering degree, and so I do gravitate toward the math, science, and the data elements. I would say my team feels I push them hard on the data side. Data is super valuable at the top of the funnel; the B2B marketing portion of acquiring prospects and getting them all the way through to being customers. It’s so messy at the top of that funnel that the data helps, but it’s not a silver bullet. I do think you have to be data driven, so I think I would agree with Jim’s point if you don’t understand data.

For example, quite often the team will say what the average sales cycle is, and what the deal size is. I will always ask them, “What was the standard deviation around that?” If you have an average, but a side dispersion around it, that doesn’t help you predict, because there is so much variability in that average. You need to know both of those things in order to understand how to forecast, how to predict, and how to choose to spend your money in the future.

Understanding statistics and math a little bit more can help you be better at your job.