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Sixteen Candles

My First Time (Being Invited to an RFP)

Fond Memories

We all remember our first time….

The excitement!

The performance anxiety!

The sense of accomplishment!

Truth be told, the years have taken their toll on the clarity of the memory. There was a time that I thought I had memorized every beautiful line. But now there is a haziness; the memories are a bit fuzzy around the edges. And so it goes with RFPs. As a vendor, there’s nothing quite so exciting as the first time.

Hello? Can You See Us Over Here?

We had spent years building a product and perhaps nine months selling it. It was hard work. We were early to market, but the companies that joined the online video fray after we did were better capitalized, more beloved by the press, and “on the radar” in a way that we didn’t seem to be. It wasn’t for lack of trying. Our team would rub elbows at events, but we seemed to be perpetually relegated to the audience while the management of our competitors dazzled those around us with their thought leadership from the stage at the front of the room. There is something silently disheartening about not even being an afterthought, but not being any thought at all.

She's All That

Back at the office (which happened to be my bedroom for the first couple of years) I sent emails, made phone calls, and contemplated black magic—anything to be noticed. We were the awkward girl in the high school movie and all we needed was someone to tell us to take our glasses off. And then it happened. It was a major newspaper, our very own captain of the football team, and it was asking us to the dance. “Yes! Yes! A thousand times yes!” we wanted to say, but we knew we’d have to play it cool. “Thank you for inviting us to participate in your RFP for an online video platform,” we wrote. “We’ll review the requirements and respond if they align well with our capabilities.” Just like in the movies, we were playing hard to get.

The invitation to participate in an RFP was—to us—an indication that we had arrived, that our then-tiny startup was on the map. An unsolicited invitation to compete for business felt like validation for our business. And so we took to the RFP with gusto, contemplating each word, hammering home what we could deliver right away and faithfully promising to implement any of the desired features that hadn’t yet made their way into our product. We shared the RFP with a board member who advised us not to get too caught up in the process, but who otherwise admired our well-honed answers.

The Belle of the Ball

He wasn’t the only one who thought that we did a good job responding. We were invited to the next round by the buyer. Who would have thought that the quarterback had dance moves like that? While the DJ spun some Fatboy Slim, he whirled us around the dance floor. Everyone was looking at us.

“Who is she?”

“I never noticed her before.”

“She’s so cool!”

It was so amazing; we were floating!

Unfortunately, the story doesn’t end with our making a long-distance relationship work at our respective colleges. You see, we didn’t get the deal. But in the end, we got something that we didn’t get out of any subsequent RFP: transparency. We learned that their evaluators had determined our feature set was the most robust and our pricing was the most competitive. However, we were undone by our size. The buyer went with the company that had raised more money and had a higher profile. If that meant dialing back expectations in terms of how tightly they could integrate video into their user experience, so be it.

Aftermath

Over the years, we were involved with so many RFPs, they began to blur together. After you do this enough times, the only thing you really remember is waking up in the morning and hating yourself just a little bit. You promise yourself that you’ll never do it again, but the siren call of the RFP is too hard to resist.

Imagine being able to go through the RFP process without feeling like you need to take a shower. That’s what we’re building at https://vendorful.com. Sign up and feel good about yourself again!

Marketing Automation. Because Copying and Pasting Sucks!

First Marketing, Then Automation

Several articles ago, I wrote about my coming to terms with the importance of marketing. I didn’t really even understand  what marketing was during my first startup, but this time around, things would be different. However, although I realized how critically important marketing would be for any venture, I had a very difficult time sorting through all of the technology that has been developed in recent years to make marketing both easier and more effective.

My confusion actually dates back a few years….  My previous company added a leader in the marketing automation space to our client roster. I knew the company and it seemed like every one of their customers was an A-list brand so I was particularly excited when we closed the deal. A few weeks later, I visited their site as I had received word that they had launched their online video library, which we were powering. Everything looked really slick and polished. I was so caught up in the aesthetics that it was particularly jarring to receive an email from someone on the company’s web development team. The email clearly indicated which videos I had been watching and even showed dates and times for when I had previously visited the site. Was I creeped out? No. (Should I have been? Perhaps….) I thought this was amazing.

I reached out to a contact at the company and arranged for a demo. It was my first exposure to marketing automation software. While I wasn’t a marketer by any stretch, I was an avowed “automater.” Case in point: when I was tasked with sending out “save the date” emails a few months before my wedding, I wrote a script that parsed a guest CSV file, customized the greeting, dropped in a message body, and sent the email. So it was surprising to me that after the demo, the only thing I really understood about what I had seen was the marketing part of it.

From Confusion to Clarity to Confusion Again

The product was really confusing, but beyond that, I lacked the context to appreciate – or even fully understand – its value. Fortunately, the market for marketing automation systems has become much more robust. There are tools for businesses of all stripes and all sizes. The competition has impacted buyers in several positive ways.

  1. The tools have gotten much easier to use as the addressable market now includes people who don’t manage large teams and even larger budgets.
  2. The messaging around the value proposition has become increasingly clear as the marketing automation category has matured.
  3. There are options at any number of price points that should work for companies ranging from bootstrapped startups to huge multinationals.

As with most things in life, there are trade-offs. And the big one here is the paradox of choice. Marketing automation has evolved from a narrow niche into a multi-billion dollar category. SiriusDecisions reported in their 2014 “B-to-B Marketing Automation Study” that there was an eleven-fold increase in the usage of marketing automation in B2B companies over the preceding three-year period. In the years, hence, marketing automation has continued to grow in concert with the broader marketing technology, aka “martec” market. If you’re looking for a visual representation of the paradox of choice in building your martec stack, you’re in luck. Scott Brinker (@chiefmartec) has compiled the eye chart of eye charts. So whip out your magnifying glass and give this a look:

marketing technology landscape

You can look at a larger-sized version here .

But let’s not get lost in the myriad tools available for marketers…or even the myriad companies competing in marketing automation. Instead, let’s take a quick look at what marketing automation is and understand some of the key features and benefits of the technology.

Eureka!

At its core, marketing automation gives marketers back their time while simultaneously improving the conversation an organization has with its prospects and customers.

Remember the story about my “save the date” emails? Well, I was basically marketing my wedding. Now imagine that my guest list was a couple of orders of magnitude larger and that different guests found different parts of the wedding particularly appealing. Some want to go because it’s open bar. Others want to support the couple. Still others will go anywhere that there is dancing and live music. Now imagine that I wanted to personalize these emails to some degree such that I can speak to the specific interests of the potential guest. And rather than sending a single email, I was going to send a stream of emails that build the excitement. At this point, I would have to spend a bunch of time writing scripts, hacking together new CSVs, etc.

Marketing automation makes all of this simple. But it also does much, much more. Marketing automation enables you to have a focused conversation with your prospect or customer in a turnkey way. It’s not just a mechanism for sending bulk emails. Rather, it allows the user to apply logic based on data that is collected about the recipients of that marketing message. If, for example, someone who you thought was an open bar aficionado was actually more interested in dancing, a marketing automation tool can automatically start sending messages that better align with this person’s interests.

A Robust Set of Tools

The scope of a marketing automation solution merits something well beyond a 1,000-word article. In addition to email magic, marketing automation tools will typically support landing page creation, lead gathering, lead scoring, and conditional behaviors, i.e., if my prospect does this, the marketing automation software should do that. Some providers even integrate support for social media and content syndication.

What’s right for you? That, I can’t answer. However, the data suggests that you and your organization would benefit from a marketing automation solution. In 2015, VB Insight reported that 80% of adopters saw an increase in leads and 77% increased conversions. More leads and greater conversion? I imagine your interest is piqued. But where can you learn more?

Fortunately, there’s a ton of good information about marketing automation available online. At Vendorful, we thought it would be helpful to sift through that information and distill it down for you. You’re just a couple of clicks away. Please feel free to check out our Mini-Guide to Marketing Automation and/or our Marketing Automation Cheat Sheet. Let us know what you think!

BoringBack — Why a Boring Business Has Sex Appeal

Seduced By Sexy

The idea for my first business, Twistage, came to me while I was reading an article about iTunes. The music industry was struggling with piracy and being dragged – kicking and screaming – onto the Internet. I was acutely aware of what was happening to the music business. It wasn’t just from reading articles either. My then girlfriend (and now wife) was the music editor at People magazine and between appearances talking about Britney and Christina on shows like Access Hollywood and Entertainment Tonight, she would regale me with stories about declining album sales and frustrated label execs. I was closer than most to seeing how the sausage was made, but despite watching all of the butchering, there was something so…sexy about the music world.

As cool as music was, video seemed even cooler. So when I reached the conclusion that online video would, in the coming years, dramatically alter the landscape for traditional broadcasters, I pondered the kind of business I would build so that I could ride this impending wave. Then I set out to do it. Despite how appealing the business looked from my vantage point, it was tough to get traction. It took two-and-a-half years to raise dollar one from investors. And then there were the pivots. We went from b2b content distribution to a p2p content portal and finally landed back in the b2b world with a platform for online video publishers. Whichever iteration of the product we were developing, however, always oozed sex appeal in my mind. We might have been a bunch of nerds building technology, but we were doing it in the media space.

It didn’t take long to cast aside whatever illusions I had about the inherent coolness of our offering. Sure, we powered the video on pop culture staples like PerezHilton and Fast Company, but it only takes one or two 5am “This is an emergency — none of our videos are working!” phone calls to realize what we truly were: a chassis. We are absolutely integral part of the video ecosystems of our customers. But they were the sleek lines and the high-horsepower engines. Us? We provided a platform that brought everything together so that they could drive.

Embracing My Boring Ways

Bored GirlIn spite of my ultimately coming to grips with the kind of business we were, I would never have predicted that I would legally incorporate my next business with the name “Boring But Great, Inc.” And if you’re wondering, that is the actual legal name of my current startup. (We’re doing business as Vendorful because Boring But Great is a mouthful!) Sure, it’s a funny name, but it also speaks — very, very honestly — to what we’re building. Our mission is to create products that improve the buyer-vendor dynamic, ultimately improving ROI. Still think there is a thin veneer of sexy? The first product we developed focuses on RFP facilitation. How about now? Indeed, any time we give someone a demo and hear comments like, “That’s really cool,” I feel compelled to offer a correction: there is nothing “cool” about RFPs. 🙂

Lest you think that working on a “boring business” means that you don’t get to do all of the sexy entrepreneurial stuff, don’t worry – you do! You absolutely get to avail yourself of the subtle pleasures of running payroll, reviewing contracts, filing taxes, and cold calling – each of which will dazzle the people flanking you at the next dinner party you attend. And let’s not forget iterating on your PowerPoint deck, freaking out about your next round of funding, and the ever-so-sexy reorganization of your Kanban board. (If you’re one of the many first-time entrepreneurs who have reached out to me, you know that it’s a goal of mine to help reset expectations about what it means to start a business. While startups might be portrayed in a glamorous light in the media, the day-to-day reality of running a new business is far less sexy.)

Two Kinds of Businesses

Here’s the deal. Starting a business is hard work irrespective of the idea. If you take pleasure in masochism, then you might well be cut out for life as an entrepreneur. Should you choose to go down this path, I would encourage you to prioritize “broadly useful” over “really cool.” This is not to suggest that these two concepts are mutually exclusive. Indeed, YouTube has built an amazing business by being both broadly useful and really cool. There are literally billions of possible video creators and billions of possible video viewers. YouTube’s offering absolutely meets the criteria of providing value to a large audience.

On the other hand, consider Salesforce. It’s an amazing company with – by all accounts – an amazing culture. People who attend their Dreamforce convention rave about it. Everything about that business exudes awesome with the exception of the core underpinning of the business: they provide tools that help salespeople sell. Yes, I admit that at this point in Salesforce’s evolution, that assessment is a bit reductive, but if you distill their offerings, that’s basically where you end up.

The TL;DR Take

Ultimately, whether your business has surface-level coolness isn’t important. Work your ass off and find a way to provide value to a large market and execute. If you can do that, your customers and investors will think your business is sexy as hell.