Building a B2B Marketing Behemoth
Low-code development platforms like Airtable are interested in turning software users into software creators, something growingly more important in a world of rapid digital transformation. That’s just one of the reasons why Archana Agrawal was excited to join Airtable as CMO in March 2020—she saw the innate benefit of, in her words, “taking the power that was previously left in the hands of software developers and bringing it to the rest of the world.”
With a background in computer science and a rich marketing career, Archana was perfectly primed to help Airtable amplify its product to the world via data-driven marketing. In this episode, learn how Archana helped to build out a marketing function to match the scale of the company, growing the team from 4 to 45, partnering with sales and product teams, and working to improve time-to-value for customers. Check it out!
What You’ll Learn in This Episode
- How Airtable grew its marketing team from 4 to 45
- How Airtable built up its tech stack and established key metrics
- How Airtable drinks its own champagne to inform strategy
Renegade Thinkers Unite, Episode 255 on YouTube
- RTU Episode 133: Why B2B CMOs Should Mine Asteroids
- McKinsey’s Digital Transformation and Adoption Study
- [0:26] How a Computer Science Background Can Inform a Rich Marketing Career
- [7:49] Establishing Airtable’s Marketing Priorities
- [13:47] How (and Why) Airtable Scaled Up its Marketing Department
- [23:31] On Building Airtable’s MarTech Stack
- [30:43] On Branding and Agility Amidst Massive Digital Transformation
- [35:06] Airtable’s Metrics That Matter: Engagement, Activation, and Operational Excellence
- [42:38] Airtable’s Big Wins and Future Plans
- [45:58] Dos and Don’ts for Transitioning from a Product-Led to Marketing-Led Company
Transcript Highlights: Drew Neisser in conversation with Archana Agrawal
[0:26] How a Computer Science Background Can Inform a Rich Marketing Career“More importantly, it has also allowed me to really recognize the diversity of talent and skills that it takes today to make a holistic marketing team.” —Archana Agrawal @airtable Click To Tweet
Drew Neisser: Hello, Renegade Thinkers! Allow me to tell you a quick story that might make you laugh and will definitely date me. Back in college, I lived in two different worlds of computing.
The first was a class I took on basic programming—it was literally called Computing 101—that I almost failed. This was back in the days of punch cards. These were individual, Manila colored, maybe 3×7 cards that literally were punched on the ones and zeros and other numbers, and they would instruct this massive mainframe computer to do what it was supposed to do.
So, you’d create your cards, then you’d take them to the lab, and then you’d leave them there to find out if in fact that you were even accurate, and then they could actually run your program.
I’m working on these cards for almost three months for the final exam. I’m on my way to the lab and, of course, being the clumsy fool that I am, I tripped and they went flying. I had to spend the next five hours trying to find them all, put them back together, and then of course, get them to the computer. I never actually quite got them right, which is why I got a C-minus in the class.
About three months later, we launched a cable TV network on our campus at Duke. And one of the coolest things was we got an Apple II, which was primitive by today’s standards, but it enabled us to do audio effects and add supers to our videos. I had these two worlds, where it’s like, “Wait, here’s computing I can use, and here’s computing that I absolutely can’t.”
Anyway, decades later, the world of programming is going through another round of democratization. Low-code platforms like Appian are helping businesses bang out apps that connect their various operations faster than ever before. And there’s even no code providers like Airtable, which enable virtually any project manager to create highly functional applications.
Speaking of Airtable, I’m excited to welcome Archana Agrawal, the CMO of Airtable. Archana is a veteran Silicon Valley marketer having spent seven years at Atlassian—we had a marketer from Atlassian on the show—and six years at The Ladders. She sits on the boards of Zendesk and MongoDB, and among other accomplishments, got her bachelor’s degree in Computer Science at the University of Illinois. So with that, welcome Archana. How are you?
Archana Agrawal: Thank you, Drew. I will correct one thing. It was actually my master’s degree in Computer Science from University of Illinois.
Drew Neisser: I saw master’s and I had that originally, so thank you for correcting that. Let’s just start there. I’m fairly certain you weren’t using punch cards at that point…
Archana Agrawal: Yeah, I wasn’t. But what a perfect intro to this episode and thank you for having me here. It’s a pleasure to get to connect and to speak with your audience.
Drew Neisser: One thing I always like is—given the fact that we’re in this virtual world, where are you?
Archana Agrawal: Los Altos Hills, in the Bay Area.
Drew Neisser: Okay, so you are indeed a Silicon Valley individual which is awesome. One of the things is, since you did get a Master’s in Computer Science, which would have teed you up in many ways to be this programmer at some big companies, I’m wondering if your parents were a little disappointed that you ended up in marketing?
Archana Agrawal: No, no, they weren’t actually. I’ve been fortunate to have extremely supportive parents for almost everything in my career to the way they’ve approached it. But yes, always encouraging, mostly excited of course when I went into computer science and thrilled about the graduate degree. But definitely supportive all along the way. You’ll want me to go and check with them.
Drew Neisser: Yeah alright, well I just had to ask because I know that a lot of parents have high expectations. So the next question I have is, how has having a Master’s in Computer Science helped you in your marketing career? I’m curious if it has.
Archana Agrawal: Absolutely, I think for many different reasons, but I’ll start with it as simply as—honestly, the way we run marketing these days, there’s such a different role data takes in the way we approach how we go-to-market, how we connect with our customers, how we build customer journeys.
I think having that background of computer science, and honestly, very many years running analytics teams has helped poise me in terms of being able to approach marketing in a very hypothesis driven way when we look at our initiatives, in a very experimental way when we think about positioning, messaging, campaigns, things like that.
But more importantly, it has also allowed me to really recognize the diversity of talent and skills that it takes today to make a holistic marketing team. And I think that that’s also been an extremely important point of how we’ve been able to build marketing.
Drew Neisser: Yeah, and I would imagine that there would also be a benefit—I mean the fact that you were at Atlassian and here you are at Airtable, I’m imagining you’re interacting with computer scientists and engineers, and they may say, “Oh they’re a marketer, they’re fluffy.” But no, you could get in there and write code with them if you needed to. So, I wonder if that’s also been an advantage for you?
Archana Agrawal: Certainly. If I go back to Atlassian, then absolutely. Certainly, as the audience there encompassed a lot of developers, it was easier to be able to relate to the product itself. I mean that’s a big part of marketing, to actually feel one with the product you’re taking to market and being able to speak to that audience. And that came very naturally.
And I think where Airtable is concerned, being a low-code application development platform, and actually helping people understand that you can use this platform, code is really optional, without any code.
I’m also talking to marketers like myself, any knowledge workers, which is really the fun part of the job—to be able to take the power that was previously left in the hands of software developers and bring it to the rest of the world in terms of making more people software creators, rather than software users, just understanding the paradigm around development has certainly been very relevant for that.
Drew Neisser: It’s so interesting and as I think about it in the way computers used to be used—it was distributed, and it was in a room, and it was closed off and… I mean, it wasn’t distributed, it was concentrated and now it’s distributed. We keep moving farther and farther away from that command-and-control model that existed way back when.
[7:49] Establishing Airtable’s Marketing Priorities“There were about four marketers lodged in different parts of the company and one really had to define what the landscape would look like for us going forward.” —Archana Agrawal @airtable Click To Tweet
Drew Neisser: Let’s fast forward to your arrival at Airtable in March of 2020. Set the scene. What attracted you to the opportunity in the first place?
Archana Agrawal: I mean, some part of what we talked about. Because when I think about my career, it’s actually, in some ways, come full circle. I started as a developer. I’ve talked about the inspiration that was really their ability to innovate and create and build and that was very inspiring.
As I tried to learn more about how businesses operated as well, I stayed very close to that origin, which is I took a lot of roles in the analytics space. In fact, that was my entry point into marketing—knowing how data driven the approach to marketing has become.
I spent over seven years at Atlassian building and scaling their marketing capabilities to what is an incredible, high velocity, low friction distribution model that they have. And now, when I started at Airtable, it was like a mosaic built from all the pieces of the path that I took and being able to take that power and creativity to a much larger audience in terms of helping more people with the low-code application platform, which is certainly inspirational.
And I’ve always followed products that I love. I mean my reason to go to Atlassian was because I was a huge Jira and Confluence champion even back then, and I wanted to participate in the growth of that product. Airtable had a very similar calling when I was able to see firsthand the power of the platform. I had actually seen that outside of Airtable. It was just incredible, and the applicability of it was very inspiring to come and take part in this movement, if you will.
Drew Neisser: It is interesting that as I hear you, it does, all the steps make sense from developer to working your way through it. It definitely gels and, in many ways, gives you a competitive advantage as a marketer because you are so analytics and data driven and understand the math and science of marketing.
I’m curious, I’m going to step back before we get into that detail. When you arrived at Airtable did you have a mandate from your CEO?
Archana Agrawal: Really one of partnership, because the marketing team was in its infancy. There were about four marketers lodged in different parts of the company and one really had to define what the landscape would look like for us going forward. And so, it was one of partnership and helping build out the go-to-market model and how we would think about positioning our product. I got in here with permission to build a team as well, to help bring on folks that would help participate in our vision and take it to the next step.
Drew Neisser: So, to fast forward, you had four people distributed. How big is your team now?
Archana Agrawal: I think we’re about 45 now. Yes, it’s been a busy year.
Drew Neisser: From 4 to 45. Alright, well let’s focus just on that alone and talk a little bit about the structure and how you created the priorities. There was nothing there, so what were the things that you were building, and can you share a high-level org chart?
Archana Agrawal: Yeah. I really had to go back to the foundations. I owe a lot to our founders and everyone in the company at that point in time. Everyone was sort of pitching in as a marketer, as their second job trying to get the word out, but we needed to build in the systems and the processes to be able to build the foundations for scale.
All the usual functions you would expect. Product marketing being a key one, to partner both with our product teams—we have very product led growth model—as well as to partner with our sales teams in order to set the right material that’s needed there. Also, to build out the marketing operations teams. We needed owners for all of our different channels, content, and creative teams.
It’s all the usual foundations you would want to be able to get started in taking the message out. We’re very fortunate to have an education team embedded in the marketing team, one that helps us actually help our own customers get started with their journey with Airtable and effectively productionize the blueprint of success we’ve seen with our customers and help every person starting to have that. And a communications team that helps get the word out there. It’s really everyone rolling up their sleeves in foundation building mode at this point.
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One CMO described Huddles as “timely conversations with smart peers in a trusted environment,” while another called it “a cross between an expert workshop and a therapy session.” If you’re a B2B CMO that can share and care with the best of them, visit CMOHuddles.com or send me an email to see if you qualify for a guest pass.
[13:47] How (and Why) Airtable Scaled Up its Marketing Department“We were growing into scale that the company already had.” —Archana Agrawal @airtable Click To Tweet
Drew Neisser: We’ve been talking about building a team. I’m picturing in my mind this org chart that just goes from 4 to 45, which is massive growth, and I know a number of CMOs who are going into this situation that you’re facing, and they’re sort of struggling a little bit to adopt those—was there a progression is part one of this that you looked at it as first, second, third? And then, how do you get executive team buy-in for that kind of growth?
Archana Agrawal: In terms of progression, there was enough, honestly, candidly, there was so much foundational work to be done that it wasn’t a sequential ordering service so to speak. Each one of these areas needed a lot of attention. But perhaps the choices that were to be made and one that I looked forward to doing is bringing in leaders, almost first, to help build and craft their own teams and their own narrative, their own functions.
And so that was at least one principle that I had, to be able to get, effectively, partners in marketing—my own leadership team that would help me craft how the team would grow and how we would allocate our investments. That was certainly one part.
The other, in terms of the executive team and buy in, I can only say that was perhaps the easiest part of this journey. Mostly because, you can imagine, Airtable has been almost looking forward to this partnership and help cross functionally, for the message to the market. This was a much awaited team and much welcomed, so that was the easiest part of that journey.
Drew Neisser: That’s amazing. I want to go back and put a punctuation point on one thing you said. I know—and I’ve seen this happen—it’s so interesting and how smart it is that you went and hired leaders that can then go and run departments if you will. So often what I see happen is, say, “Oh, well, we need a demand gen capability so I’m going to hire a junior person who knows how to use Marketo or Eloqua,” and they’re like a technician. They’re not a leader. They decide we need content, so I’m going to hire a junior writer.
And they go that way and then what they find as CMOs is they end up doing all this executional stuff and they don’t have time for planning and strategy. So, kudos to you. Now, it’s more expensive to do it the way you did. In the short term, it’s much more expensive. In the long term, it’s the only way it’ll work.
Archana Agrawal: Yes. Probably another thing that helped is we were growing into scale that the company already had. I think that’s an important component at Airtable. I mean, I wish I could stake some part of that claim, but it has certainly had a lot of growth, seen a lot of product love, a lot of word of mouth, bringing in champions that have been great partners and wanting to share the story.
To some extent, we were growing into that scale. It was evident off the bat that we actually needed leaders for these functions to be able to add that. I have, yes, been incredibly lucky in being able to get those folks on board to be able to help craft the shape of the organization.
Drew Neisser: Right and this is interesting. I’m thinking about this, so you could look at the size of the organization, the revenue of the organization, the goals of it, and you can say, “Alright, we can rationalize—based on our size and our growth and our ARR, we can rationalize having a 45-person department easily, plus all the technology that goes with this, given our growth trajectory.”
Which is really helpful. I think the case that I was describing is probably where they’re not underrepresented in marketing because they just don’t have the revenue to support a larger team, which makes it a little trickier. But I’m curious—if the company was growing that well without marketing, what was driving growth?
Archana Agrawal: Very strong word of mouth motion. I’m not saying that that’s enough to maximize the growth that could be had, but it’s certainly something that we would always hope to have as part of our motion and always hope adds fuel to whatever marketing we end up doing.
The idea of actually having people come try out your product, see the value, be able to not only add much more value to what they’re doing, but then enough for them to actually go and champion the product and talk about it to others, is a very large word of mouth flywheel, if you will, that helps propel the business forward.
Drew Neisser: That’s that moment where you get the unaware-of-marketing individual say, “Well, just build a product that’s so good that it will sell itself, and if we have a freemium ability, it’ll even be easier. So why do we need marketing, because we have freemium?” Why did they decide that they needed marketing?
Archana Agrawal: A couple of different reasons, but I’ll also address the idea. Yes, it’s not only a product that’s so good; it’s truly a product that’s remarkable, that someone wanted to remark on it. And so, I chose that word in terms of actually saying that it’s something that adds so much value that a user will feel compelled to share the benefits that they’ve been able to get through the product with their circles.
But it’s also a very horizontal product. I’ve seen so many different use cases for marketers who use Airtable, to product teams, to IT teams, SMBs, large enterprises that use the product.
Being able to help them understand what’s the best way, partnering with them through the entirety of their journey—it’s not just about acquiring a customer, it’s actually about helping them get time-to-value in the quickest possible way. Being able to be their voice back into the product teams, to be able to say, “Hey, we’ve had so much success, this is the blueprint that we’d like to actually productionize,” so that in the future, the next marginal user can actually achieve success that much faster… Those are all the reasons to go and think about “How do we actually be able to do this in a more programmatic way?”
Drew Neisser: Right, and all of those things that you said, I’m nodding vigorously, the podcast folks can’t see that. The notion that you have—“remarkable,” first of all, is a great word. There’s something refreshing and novel about this idea. And I think in some ways it’s like the maker movement in that people are excited, “I did this!” “I accomplished this!” This is going back to me in college going, “I put this super on the video. We couldn’t have done that last year!”
So there’s this, again, moment where you create something which has a business function or a personal function for using these tools, which is incredibly powerful and I can see why.
I want to make sure that folks understand. A term that’s used a lot is a “product-led organization” or “product-led marketing.” Can you clarify? I mean it sounds like that’s what this company was and maybe to some extent it still is, or lesser extent. What does that really mean versus say, a marketing-led organization?
Archana Agrawal: I think the way we buy software, the way we expect to interact digitally today has changed so much. When I think about “What’s product-led?”, it’s really about unleashing all the capability of the product for someone to truly use an experience up front in the most simplistic way possible so that they can reach value very, very quickly.
It’s very hard when you take this model. As an example, it’s not relevant for all products. Think about a product where you have to standardize across an entire company, maybe a compliance reason or maybe something else, that actually requires widespread adoption to achieve the goal versus something where a small team can take a product, try it out for the use case, and prove value before expanding its use.
And at that moment, if you actually unleash all the product capabilities and help them—whether it’s done through marketing or whether it’s through product itself, discover how to best utilize it for their use case—it helps them adopt it much, much faster. I think that that’s one of the key motions behind the product-led growth, where you turn around and you try the product and you engage with it yourself without having to go through much of the friction or the hoops to really get to understand how you could utilize it at your workplace.
[23:31] On Building Airtable’s MarTech Stack“When you asked me about my marketing tech stack, I didn't mention it explicitly, but it should go without saying that Airtable is a big part of that.” —Archana Agrawal @airtable Click To Tweet
Drew Neisser: You build up this marketing team and everything. I’m imagining you also had to build up a tech structure underneath all of this that didn’t exist as well.
Archana Agrawal: Yes, that is correct.
Drew Neisser: Can you describe a little bit what your stack is like?
Archana Agrawal: It’s still under progress, but most of the things that you would naturally assume with respect to being able to host a website, with being able to publish content at routine frequencies across many of the distribution properties—marketing automation systems, building out a segmentation system to have a shared voice across multiple channels, so that when you’re trying to engage with someone on a web property it’s with the same messaging that you would in product, as an example. Or in email.
Being able to identify, doing data enrichment to be able to identify the users so that you can help them bring the use case a little bit further, or relevant customer stories, or relevant templates that they can use upfront.
It’s more of the usual foundational work that you would expect to go on to build those subsystems. And, of course, the analytics platforms behind that and self-serve analytics so that people can actually understand the impact of the work that they’re doing.
Drew Neisser: Thank you for that. As you’re talking, I’m really starting to think about—and this is something that you and I talked about in the prep call—when you have a product that can be used in so many different ways and is being used in so many different ways, one of the challenges is that they might pick it up to use it in one way and then say, “Okay, I got it. I’m not going to use it for anything else.” And so, in some ways, your part of the marketing role—and you talked a little bit about this—is inspiring them to say, “Hey, you did this, but you could do this, too. Or did you realize that?”
I’m curious—help us understand how you helped map this customer adoption education journey? And maybe this is where AI or technology can help you, but “If they start with this, then maybe they’ll go here. And if they start with this, they could go there.”
If people aren’t familiar with Airtable, they won’t realize how many different things that you can create with it. But let’s just assume that they now know that you can do a lot of things with Airtable. Talk a little bit about how you helped that, because we talked about customers and helping customers, but again, you have so many stories that you could tell. How do you decide which ones to tell?
Archana Agrawal: That’s a great question. The way I think about it is like talking about adjacent teams, or adjacent use cases. I’ll use marketing, because we have both the luxury of being such an incredibly, I call us both a multi-function team and a cross functional team just because we have so many partners in trying to get the jobs done.
Imagine someone who tries to use Airtable in order to streamline their content operations. Think about publishing thousands of pieces of content and the approval cycles for that, and knowing where your work is at any given point in time, and what content is performing and what is not.
There are so many teams simply exposed to that operation itself. Your communication team might be exposed to that, your performance marketing and advertising teams will be exposed to that. And being able to champion those use cases within the customer base you already have will allow for easier adoption or cross promotion of the product into those expansion use cases.
When you asked me about my marketing tech stack, I didn’t mention it explicitly, but it should go without saying that Airtable is a big part of that. I run my launches on Airtable. But then you can easily imagine my product team runs their roadmap on Airtable. With the two connections there, the two workflows that are connected, I can go in at any point in time and know what the status is for any upcoming launch.
Dates move. Dates move all the time. Plans change, and my plans can change almost immediately alongside with it. Because now we’re not only talking about one team using Airtable, but multiple teams using Airtable, so that connected effect of it. A product plan changes, that rolls forward into my marketing plans, that rolls into my communication plans, and the entire overhead of actually figuring out when, how, and what are the dependencies. All of that is taken care of under the hood, but importantly all teams are coming along with changes in scenery.
That’s exactly the same way I would think about it where our customers are concerned- What are the adjacent use cases that someone would need that they could connect to, that they could even perhaps even invite others into the product to see how it is used, or even expose their workflow, their work materials, so that other teams are kept informed.
Drew Neisser: Fascinating. Would you describe yourself as your best-case user? Are you one of your best case histories? Do you use the product better than others?
Archana Agrawal: I’d like to think that we’re expert users of our product, but I have to tell you that some part of working in this motion of product-led growth is we are so inspired by what we see our customers build that I know that there’s this constant cycle of learning and saying, “Oh, that’s a great idea! That’s a great one, and how do we actually improve it?” And I think that’s why there’s so much power in community in products like this.
Drew Neisser: I’m wondering maybe if you’re a CMO, you’ve thought about doing some market research but didn’t have the manpower or expertise on your team to make sure that your research was methodologically valid, insight rich, and newsworthy. Research that can be a tentpole for an entire quarter’s worth of marketing activities; research that your SDR’s can use to help move a lead into a genuine opportunity.
It’s a lot to ask for market research, which is why more and more B2B marketers are coming to Renegade for help in this area. Renegade will help you craft the questionnaire, field the research, analyze the results, and even write it up and design the report if your in-house team is too busy. So, if you’re a B2B CMO even thinking about market research, do yourself a favor, visit renegade.com and set up a time for us to chat.
[30:43] On Branding and Agility Amidst Massive Digital Transformation“Let people create their own data, their logic, their views, and be able to build a complete application.” —Archana Agrawal @airtable Click To Tweet
Drew Neisser: We’ve been talking about all these wonderful case histories and I’m wondering, one thing we have not talked about at all is the overall brand story. I’m just thinking, there’s 1 thousand-and-one, make that 1 million-and-one uses of Airtable—have you nailed brand at this point and do you have a simple description of the brand?
Archana Agrawal: I don’t know whether I will ever nail brand because I’ve always thought about that as evolving with the company and especially when there’s such high growth. It seems very easy for me in my head to be able to say, “Hey, Airtable truly in a no code—or maybe you want to call it a code optional fashion—helps you to build workflow applications.
But when I think about going back, as a developer, if you let me phrase that, I would say that Airtable gives software a new interface. It’s not the structured programming language I grew up learning. It’s not punch cards. It’s a completely different and new interface, and that’s what gives the accessibility to everyone, building the tools they need.
When I think about, “Hey, what are the core components of that?” I say, “Hey, it’s got to be powerful building blocks.” Things someone can take off the shelf, bring them together, build their own workflow. You want automation? Yes, you can simply craft one. Business logic. You want to have your own data structure? You want to build something around expenses? Sure. You want to build something around marketing content? Sure. You want to build something around inventory? Not a problem.
You have your own flexible data model, and you have these really powerful building blocks that are customizable and flexible. Let people create their own data, their logic, their views, and be able to build a complete application. And once you make that user friendly and visual and maybe almost familiar to them as they enter the product and start using it, that helps people understand the applicability and the horizontal nature of the product.
Drew Neisser: I’m visualizing Legos. As a big Lego fan, I can just see it, it’s sort of programming with Legos.
But I’m curious—so this is a new way of solving problems at the office, and we talked about workflow as a problem… How much time do you spend educating and selling the category versus Airtable as a specific solution?
Archana Agrawal: It is a new way of working. There’s no doubt about that. I think one thing that makes it maybe a little bit easier Drew, is that we all have seen such a tremendous amount of change over the last year. I think we’ve all witnessed it. I read a McKinsey study, I think that said the percentage of digital interactions that companies had maybe in December 2019 was about 36%, and it had become by the mid of 2020 almost 58%, close to 60%. That’s a huge amount of change that folks have witnessed, and so I think businesses deeply understand the need for agility.
I think it’s alSo easier to understand that point solutions tend to be quite rigid. So if you really think about, “Hey, how am I going to create something that can adapt to the way I work?” versus having to change to the way the tool wants me to work, it becomes a little bit easier to be able to then think about, “Alright, I need something that’s flexible and can move with me and can change with me” because nothing is stagnant at this point in time. Everything is absolutely changing.
I do think that there’s a lot of effort that needs to go around the education of this new way of working, but I think it’s also more now than ever more easily understood and urgently felt. The need for it is urgently felt.
[35:06] Airtable’s Metrics That Matter: Engagement, Activation, and Operational Excellence“One of the key metrics I’ve always looked at and the team has always followed is that of engagement and activity.” —Archana Agrawal @airtable Click To Tweet
Drew Neisser: We’re here now, I guess 18 months into your reign as CMO at Airtable. You’ve grown the team from 4 to 45. Let’s talk about metrics, what metrics matter to you, and how you’re doing.
Archana Agrawal: One of the key metrics I’ve always looked at and the team has always followed is that of engagement and activity. Activity in the product. It’s not enough to have someone simply sign up for the product. It’s not enough for someone to simply have a small team. It’s like, how do you engage people and how do you know that everyone that comes through the door is able to use the product?
Even some of the more top funnel activities that we do that end up resulting in people engaging with the product, we go into “How is active usage?” “What is engagement like on the platform?” and “How can we actually improve that over time?”
That’s one of the main goals that we look through. There’s a lot obviously around, at least in our situation right now, a lot of goals around simply foundation building, to be able to set up the programmatic nature of doing things.
I think about that as operational excellence. How do we know that we can move as fast as we need to be thinking about marketing in a very modular way so that we’re able to meet our customers no matter where they are in their journey and no matter which industry or which vertical they’re coming from?
Those are the two things that I think about, how strong our own foundation is and are we able to tie that to active usage within the product? And especially across some of our key functions that we know we have extremely strong solutions for.
Drew Neisser: I want to go back to this notion of active usage and improving that. This is something that is really interesting in the marketing world, so often in the old marketing world, it would be: “Hey I’m going to bring this lead to the table. I’m going to hand it over to sales, this is certainly for enterprise. Off you go, sales close it, and if you don’t close it, it’s your fault.”
What’s so interesting in your world and a lot of software companies is that it’s like downloading an app on your phone. If you don’t open that app, whatever you spent to get that person to download the app, it was useless because they never opened the app. The number of people who don’t open apps is huge. And then they have to use that app on your phone three, four, five times before it becomes an app they’re going to use regularly.
I’m thinking about—almost any business that you’re in, if you think more broadly for a moment and say, “Are they taking advantage of what it is that we offer to the fullest extent?” Are we thinking about our customer adoption, not just in terms of “We got them, they’re using it, next”? But if we think about the customer, particularly in your world where there are so many different ways that you could use this product, this software, this platform, whatever you want to call it, that you really do have to spend time as a marketer.
Now I would imagine, and here’s a question for you, and maybe where science could really help you is, you’re going to start to see patterns where certain types of users, whether it’s a persona-based or certain kind of company, have a tendency to use the product more, to engage with the product more. This could be role based, it could be personality based, and therefore you would then start to know that the next buyer or tryer if you will, of your product, “Oh, they look like that. We can optimize an engagement program for that person.” Is that a pipe dream, or does that make sense?
Archana Agrawal: That completely makes sense because, in all of our jobs, most of what we do, you’re going to have few roles that tend to be more dedicated to what I call operational excellence. That might be one way to look at it.
You have roles that are dedicated to efficiently driving a lot of throughputs through their systems, and those would be easily ones that will engage very quickly with Airtable. You’ll have roles where you have very defined processes around approvals or being able to understand SLEs and so forth. Those again would be roles that would very easily be able to morph the software to what they need.
But there’s also things that you’d actually understand where people could benefit from further usage of the software and may not be doing that. As an example—I’m just going to make up this random example, but if you actually know people are using your social media integrations and you know that they’re posting content from Airtable to social media, but they aren’t using automations around approval and so forth, you could actually help them use the platform more really to make them more efficient.
There are a lot of signals that you can get and we’re very fortunate in the SaaS world. Honestly, I know that way back when it was extremely difficult to actually understand how you help your users or what’s the kind of content that you can give to help them have a better use of the product. But now you can do that so much more easily and it seems easier now to be able to package a lot of that learning to help, as I said, almost the next marginal user coming in to get there much quicker.
Drew Neisser: It’s funny—we had a bonus huddle yesterday where we were talking about engaging with boards and strategies for doing that and one of the things that we talked about a lot is that the marketer needs to talk in business terms not marketing speak to the board.
And I’m thinking about this, whether your venture funded—I don’t know what Airtable’s structure is—but you are reporting to the board, they want to hear business terms. Is “engagement” a term or “operational excellence” a term that would resonate with them, or are there other metrics when you’re talking to them that you point to and say, “Marketing is working to do this right now for the business”?
Archana Agrawal: Definitely. Yes, “engagement” would definitely resonate for most SaaS products with the board. The idea simply being that you’re getting more and more people to experience the power of your platform.
There are very traditional SaaS metrics, there’s no doubt about that. The number of people that actually purchase your product, your expansion rates, your NDRs, your MRRs, all of those are metrics that we will follow, and we will deeply report on and measure our own success on.
But engagement and activation, somebody looking at a marketing message and being inspired to come and try the product and actually then using it to its full capabilities has a huge impact on the business, and I think that that’s one that we would definitely always report on.
[42:38] Airtable’s Big Wins and Future Plans“We are just really honestly at the start of this journey, both from a marketing perspective, but also with the evolution of the product.” —Archana Agrawal @airtable Click To Tweet
Drew Neisser: When you look at where you were when you started in March of 2020, what’s the biggest improvement line? What’s happened as a result of marketing that you go “I’m so happy this happened”?
Archana Agrawal: I think one of the key differences now is—I’ll actually maybe call out two here. One is I was definitely at advantage by the idea that we had a lot of launches along the way, both around the strengthening of our platform—which means much more heftier things around integrations and automations and people actually being able to mold the software for their use case—and engagement on all of those features was to improve stickiness is a huge, big plus.
But more importantly, in my mind it actually helps people build depth in the application that they’re building because they can put so much of their day-to-day operations on autopilot in Airtable, and that is huge for me. So that’s at least one.
The other one is a number of function specific features, whether we have automation recipes for marketers or integrations that work better for marketers, being able to tell that story and seeing people reach value much quicker that way is another large one. And hence, you look at engagement across functions in that regard. “Is a function that I’m trying to communicate with able to use the product more deeply?” would be a question you’d ask and judge all your tactics and activities by.
Drew Neisser: Very cool, okay. I just have two more questions for you. One is, what haven’t you been able to accomplish that’s on the roadmap?
Archana Agrawal: Oh gosh, lots. I’ve just been here 16 months. [Laughter] There’s so much to do. We are just really honestly at the start of this journey, both from a marketing perspective, but also with the evolution of the product. Certainly the way people work, and the way people want to work has changed.
We get a lot of feedback that we’re able to incorporate into the product. I have so much more to do to tell our own customer stories, their successes, and across multiple different verticals and functions build a much stronger community that we can both help, but also, have people help each other in this journey. There’s a lot to do.
Drew Neisser: What would you tell yourself—you’re 16 months into it, but what would you tell yourself if you could go back using some magical Harry Potter tool for day one? And what would you do differently, if anything?
Archana Agrawal: Oh, I haven’t told you the story yet, but my day one was the first day California announced shelter in place. I haven’t quite yet met most of my team, which I am really, really itching to do.
That would be a really magical one, the ability to sit down and actually break bread with my team and share, in-person, some of these remote experiences that we’ve been doing as we’ve been growing together.
Drew Neisser: Yes, it would be nice.
[45:58] Dos and Don’ts for Transitioning from a Product-Led to Marketing-Led Company“Truly, deeply trying to look at the data and understanding how people are using the product and helping craft those blueprints for the next customer coming in is a big do.” —Archana Agrawal @airtable Click To Tweet
Drew Neisser: From a transformational standpoint, moving from a company that is product-led to a little bit more marketing-led, for CMOs listening, give us two dos and a don’t.
Archana Agrawal: Transitioning from a product-led company to a marketing-led company? And two dos and a don’t, is it?
Drew Neisser: Yes.
Archana Agrawal: I do think that whether it’s product-led or marketing-led, I think bringing to the fore your customer’s stories, like truly deeply trying to look at the data and understanding how people are using the product and helping craft those blueprints for the next customer coming in, is a big do. And I think that’s whether your product-led or marketing-led, I think that’s what your customers are truly looking for. That’s one thing.
The other is—marketing is changing so tremendously fast, no matter what your go-to-market model is at this point in time, we all feel it. A new product launch, a new competitor, a new channel, a new medium. It’s just all over the place.
I think focusing on operational excellence given the kind of stacks that we run today and the cross functional nature of our own organization is certainly another very large do.
And for the don’t, this is probably also on the obvious side, but there are lots of metrics. There’s so much noise, there’s a lot of vanity metrics as well, so try to find exactly what you’re trying to drive at the end of it. And the rest of it? Just let it go for now. There’s so much to focus on, so understand what is the funnel that you’re truly trying to build and drive activities along those.
Drew Neisser: I love it. I get to do a couple of dos and as you talk about the metrics in your final point of don’t, chapter one of my upcoming book called Renegade Marketing is called “Clear Away The Clutter.” It’s this notion that you can’t do everything at every second, so you better have a few priorities, and that includes what metrics matter and having that understanding is so essential. Archana, thank you so much for being on the show. It’s really been a delight to talk to you.
Archana Agrawal: Thank you, Drew, it’s been such a pleasure. Thank you for having me on the show.
Drew Neisser: And to the listeners, here’s another do. Do me a favor and go to your favorite podcast channel and give us a five-star review. That would be awesome. Two, subscribe. And three, tell a friend about it, because we always welcome smart marketers into the Renegade Thinkers community.
Renegade Thinkers Unite is written and directed by Drew Neisser. Audio production is by Sam Beck. Show notes are written by Melissa Caffrey. The music is by the amazing Burns Twins and the intro voiceover is Linda Cornelius. To find the transcripts of all episodes visit as suggest future guests or learn more about the savviest B2B marketing boutique in New York City visit renegade.com. I’m your host Drew Neisser, and until next time, keep those Renegade Thinking Caps on and strong.