With John Kreisa, CMO, Couchbase

Mastering Data Solutions Marketing

With John Kreisa, CMO, Couchbase


  1. Product Marketing is central to building a Marketing function - and underserved in UK/EU
  2. The rule of 1’s and 3’s in scaling your revenue
  3. MarTech has evolved fast aided by the Pandemic
  4. In Product led companies are you Sell-to or Buy-from?
  5. Data creation rates are accelerating
  6. The rise of Marketing Ops

Setting the scene

It seems like every week another data first company raises another huge round of funding built on the world’s insatiable appetite for data. The market for data products and solutions is moving faster than ever, and competition for budgets is getting fiercer than ever. Understanding the evolution and moves in this market is gold, and in this episode we speak to John Kreisa, who’s been in the middle of the data revolution for his entire career, driving the strategy at many companies from a product first angle.

John has been a marketing leader at a string of data product companies, including Business Objects, Hortonworks, Docker and now, Couchbase. In this episode, John breaks down his thinking on why product marketing is so central to a marketing team at data software companies, and how that translates into effective sales motions. He also talks about the future of MarTtech in the explosive data world, and how the rule of 1’s and 3’s plays out in revenue growth. This is the episode to unravel how to build your marketing team around data products, and how to get the sales motion humming along. Essential listening for anyone working in marketing and data - there’s lots to get right - and lots to get wrong!

Product marketing is at the core of a marketing department

I started my career in software engineering, and then I moved into product management. I always enjoyed creating code, but I also enjoyed talking about the benefits that you could bring with that, either to a person or to a company. That moved me along the path from engineering into product management, and then into product marketing. It was something that just was natural for me; a natural kind of curiosity, but also a desire to help people understand why they should use it and why it would benefit them. That was really the start of a good, long journey that we can explore.

It's a great career overall for anybody exploring it and wanting to get into it, and it's allowed me to live all over the world. I’ve really moved up through some great companies, and I'd say I cut my teeth at Business Objects, in terms of product marketing. That company had a phenomenal product marketing discipline and department, and that really helped me understand all of the core blocking and tackling things that you need to know to be a great product marketer. It was a company, that I think, was leading in terms of that, and I still have many friends who are also similarly positioned as me now who were in product marketing that have risen to careers, such as leaders in marketing.

Now the interesting piece about it, is just the curiosity above and beyond product marketing; understanding it's at the core of what drives the company forward. It also helps with the demand generation, it helps with the key parts of making sure the functions and engines of the company work. If you have functioning product marketing, it's really at the centre of a functioning marketing department- in my mind it's something that you have to have! The thing that's helped me in my career, is that the same kind of curiosity that got me into marketing also got me into the other disciplines of marketing.

Product marketing is made up of various components

The essence of product marketing is describing a product, and the ability to tell the story about a product that best enumerates the benefits of that product. Product marketing is a very broad discipline, there's messaging and positioning, and competitive pricing and packaging- there's so many different pieces to product marketing! A good product marketer has their head around all of those pieces of it; it's the key core thing for a company, when a company is just starting out to hire to your point. So, you get a good product marketer who can understand what the product can and should do for the target audience, whether they're developers or financial advisors or an end user who's using it to make a trip. Whatever it happens to be, a product marketer helps tell that story about why it's important, and then can also tell you how it's different from other things that are out there. They can help you package it in a way that makes the best sense for somebody to consume it. There's all of those pieces of product marketing, which make it a very rich discipline. I would tend to agree, it's a little bit underserved and under-understood. Now in my experience, given that I started in that part of the discipline, it still seems like one that is challenged and underappreciated.

Do you think Product marketing is different?

What changes is some of the go-to-market. But, your core ability if you're speaking to a developer, to say, “this is how it's gonna help you build applications more quickly”, or if you're in DevOps, “this is how you're going to be able to both bring a product to production and manage that product in production”- the benefits of the software that's helping them do that are the same. The ability to tell that story and frame is still the same. I believe that core fundamental to us is something that is fundamental to good product marketing, and you have to have those skills in it.

I've done software marketing everything from the storage layer all the way up to the analytics layer, which is Business Objects, reporting, query analysis, and everything in between, but most of it's been in the middle of the infrastructure. At the time that I was at MarkLogic, there was this buzz about this new technology called Hadoop. I was assigned to the job of ‘go check this out and figure out is it important? Is it a threat? How do we position against it? What do we need to know?’. I was investigating it from the very early days, and learnt about the benefits. Then, the opportunity came along for me to join Cloudera and it was natural for me.

Open Source technologies go through interesting developments

Many open source technologies had very much a skunkworks-like adoption model at first. A developer would download it and start to play around with it quickly, realise that they had an immensely powerful platform in their hands, and start to do some pretty amazing things that they weren't able to do before with the traditional technology that they had. But, soon after that, real enterprise applications were being built on top of it, and that attracts more of a business user. We quickly had to pivot and start to address both of those audiences; from the marketing standpoint, it was no longer just focused on driving, how many downloads you could get and developer benefits. Business leaders got involved, reasonably early, with that technology.

The platform was complex. That was the job that Hortonworks and others did, which was to package all of those open source technologies into a coherent, usable platform. Some large organisations tried to download and assemble that stuff together, but it's the difference between buying the already prepared meal and trying to go ahead and make it yourself when you have to be a chef to do it- it's a pretty important difference! That was the big value that those companies were adding, and some of those components are still spun off and are still out there, and many of the others that were there were the core of that overall platform. It's a great and interesting story; spun out companies that have grown. There are interesting arcs that they've gone through.

Understanding the different disciplines within the marketing field

I always liked Business Objects, it was a very broad marketing organization with a lot of departments. I explored, or at least had interest in the others. I didn't necessarily practice any of them, but I paid a lot of attention to what the demand team was doing and all the different disciplines (PR, events, ect.), just out of curiosity I spent a lot of time with them. Then I moved to MarkLogic. At some point I moved over and did industry marketing which gave me a little bit of discipline, and had a component of demand generation. I was responsible for creating demand within certain industries, and that really gave me the ownership of that piece and allowed me to start to build on that. Then, I moved up to leadership and had to just build on some of the weaknesses that I had. I've always had certain areas where I need to continue to develop, but I'm still curious and learning and building on those pieces. But the other pieces, I've just done it by learning, by managing, by being in it. From a career standpoint, it’s not being afraid to take a chance. I'm comfortable moving into a discipline that I'm not completely deep in and learning whilst I'm doing it, so that has helped me jump, explore and grow in my career.

Typically in your career, you can move parallel to a larger company or you can move to a smaller company. For me, it was moving from a company that was larger to a smaller company at the time. I was building the team, both contractors and full time people to help the website and all the product marketing. I was doing all the things you have to do to build a department. That was really my break, and I thank that team for trusting me and giving me that opportunity because it's another career arc and defining moment that was much appreciated and well understood.

Going from $1m to $3m to $10 million to $30m to $100m - the rule of 1’s and 3’s

It's not a scientific rule of thumb, but in practice and observation, it tends to be true. What worked for you at 10m doesn't work for you at 30m. Similarly, 30m to 100m, what got you there won't get you from 100m to 300m- it's people, it's processes, its growth strategies. There's just different things that are required for each of those levels, disciplines that you can have. You can be pretty undisciplined as a $10 million company, but as a $100 million company you better have a lot of things buttoned up in terms of GTM like sales process, messaging and positioning. You have to know what the repeatable sales processes are if you are going to scale a team at that size, as opposed to having something where you're still hunting for what the repeatable business model is.

MarTech innovation is booming!

There's been so much innovation in the MarTech stack in the last couple of years. For example, account-based marketing. It's tuned messaging aligned deeply with a sales team, but there really is more to it. When we were doing it 5 years ago it was mostly a manual process; a sales team working with the marketing team to build programmes that would be customised all the way down to an individual company to try to sell to that company. Now, there are extensive programmes and software that you can use to facilitate all of that, so that the sales team can continuously deliver highly-customised messages directly out to individuals within organisations at a very precise level. It’s fun to be in marketing right now! There's a lot of things that have changed that we'll continue to explore, but the software is really driving some fun things.

The maturing curve for companies is faster than expected!

Just in that little journey- the A to B, B to C- there's different stacks and different maturity levels that you're going to want to get to. If you're at A, you really should be in the process of putting all the fundamental MarTech stack. You should make sure that your marketing automation systems, for example, are properly connected to your website, and also make sure that you've got some basic digital demand systems in place. Now, as you grow it's maturing. You don't need to get, for example, the ABM platform I mentioned, you probably aren't to that stage because you haven't really got that level of maturity in the sales team and in the processes. It's about expanding and laying that foundation, then continuing to build on to it with things like your web events platform.

Of course, COVID has changed things forever in terms of digital first strategy; making sure that you're connected through to the events that you might do, and that you have processes in place. You might start to have a field marketing team, and have a process for collecting the leads back for those cleaning the lead routing systems that go into place. There are all of these layers which, of course, bleed into and touch the sales team. You need to start to build in those additional layers of software, but also processes. There's some well defined processes on cleaning, collection and routing, and you start to build on that so that you can start to get to the scaling size. There's been this acceleration, even in the market, from how quickly companies mature; that maturing curve is faster from what I see, which is exciting and scary all at the same time! There's a benefit to being able to grow slowly into some of the processes and getting a lot of money, but it puts a lot of pressure on you to grow quickly.

Your model has to be extremely thought out

You have to match your princesses to your model. For example, one way to think about product-led growth is a buy from or sell-to model. Sell-to is the traditional enterprise sales team, contacting potential clients and telling them about the benefits, and it can be in person or over the phone. But, you're still reaching out to somebody, as opposed to the bottoms up, buy-from model where they're trialling and they're downloading. But, how does somebody go and trial the product on your website? What's the journey? The things you really have to think about in that buy-from model are:

  • What is the journey I want to walk my potential user through?
  • What do they get for that free experience?
  • What do they get for the very lowest levels of payment?
  • How do we increase that kind of adoption?

That’s both along the vector of a single product, but also then branching out from that product, but you're always going to sort of start in one direction and grow out. In terms of deciding which marketing method you use, it goes to what's the model that the company has in terms of go-to-market. Most companies now have some form of buy-from, they’re experiencing a user digitally, and they're going to go and try that without anybody holding their hand. You really have to think about what's that journey that you want somebody to go through. It has to be very well instrumented like, what is somebody consuming? What buttons are they pushing? What pieces of the product are they consuming? If it's a product that has a storage component, how much are they storing with us? I want to interact with it. You have to understand that and instrument it in order to drive the behaviour that you want and that you expect. That's what helps you have a fair exchange of value and get into that relationship where they become a paying customer, because they understand the value that you're offering- that’s the key there.

Data creation is an endless journey

I don't think there's an end point here in terms of data and the growth of data that I see because it comes from people and devices, and then you have to have the networks that will carry it. 5G is rolling out everywhere, so it's only capable of carrying and pushing more data and that's going to encourage more endpoint devices and more usage. Devices are getting smarter and we see it all the time. There's no end in sight in terms of the data creation that's happening, and it's driving changes in the technology. The very early kind of technologies for capturing and working with data were transactional based, and now it's more interaction based. There are smart applications and smart interaction capturing it and personalising the experience; it makes it better, there's no end to that trend, every industry will benefit from that. It's based on data, and it's just not going to stop, but it’s for the most part it’s for the better.

The maturity of the cloud based technologies, whether you're using one of the big cloud vendors or hosting it in a remote data centre, are there for capturing large amounts of data and analysing that data. You need tools like AI and ML to comb through the massive amounts of data and make some sense of it. There's still maturity to go, but I think we're down that path and we could go, search and find examples of cloud based applications that are capturing massive amounts of data and processing massive amounts of data. The path is pretty well trodden- that's the good news. I think they should focus on differentiating and adding value on their specific area of expertise.

Establishing the connection between marketing and sales

You have to be partnered very closely to sales as a marketer, but you also have to be aligned on what the strategy is, what the go-to-market model is and set expectations appropriately, as small marketing teams can only do so much. You have to outline the priorities, and you have to agree with your sales counterpart. If you don't have that good relationship, then the company can't function. You have to establish good relationships, alignment, targets, goals and work very closely together.

The pandemic has brought positive changes

There are positives that we will come out of this. If companies weren't digital first already, it's accelerated the trend, but I don't mean that just from a kind of digital transformation. There were companies that were principally in-person based models and sales. Enterprise sales is one where it's mostly a relationship person-to-person. It’s changed, but it's the same for marketing. Person events regionally that would get customers and prospects together had to find a new way to do it, and what I've seen across companies and my peers is that people made the transition fairly quickly. Also, they did a pretty good job of figuring out what they needed to do and what would still work. We will do in person events, but I can imagine blends of events where there is a digital component. Companies will give you a virtual experience of some kind and that transition that is probably for the better because you can reach more audiences.

When I was working at Docker, we had our event DockerCon and had people from around 190 different countries. It was huge! But, you'd never have gotten that at a physical event. It was online and people were coming from all over the place. It was great, and we were so excited to make it inclusive. That's all for the good in my mind.

What are you excited about in data solutions marketing?

Changes in the industry that have happened because of the pandemic are for the long term good and I think that's super positive. I don't think we'll go back the other way and we'll see more inclusive activities, which will open up more opportunities. There's innovation that's come from it too, for example the platforms that are available for engaging with people. The innovation is really strong there. It’s exciting as a marketer, because it's all about engaging people in authentic ways and making sure that we're telling that story and helping people understand how they can benefit from something. There's even more ways to do it now than there were and that's something that's exciting for me.

Reflections on starting a marketing career

There're lots of different entries actually. One of the disciplines that is so important for marketing now is in the data and operations and analysis side. For me, even managing a small marketing team, there's a data and analytics marketing operations person. The data and operations and marketing department now can't run efficiently without a fully built out, mature function that helps understand performance. There's so much integration that needs to be done with the sales team, that you have to have a marketing operations department that is really tying everything together and analysing all that data. A very interesting way into marketing, for me, would also be through marketing ops.

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