Recently when speaking with a couple of entrepreneurs, I realized the way we went from founder-led marketing to team-led marketing over the last 4 years, might be useful for others to know.
As a bootstrapped business for the longest time, everything has been a journey, an evolution. My memories of our early days are steeped in nostalgia. The three of us running around (umm, metaphorically) doing this and that and the other. From big discussions on ambition, growth and pitching to clients, to sending our clients the invoices we ourselves made and making our earliest creatives on ppt, like most other founders, we did it all.
At that time, it felt that we were going with the flow, seizing opportunities that presented themselves, responding to stimuli, putting in place actions and systems that seemed intuitive and sensible for that stage of business rather than following a playbook of any sort; but now when I look back, a lot of it seems to have fallen in place and looks something like an ‘approach’. Easier to join the dots looking back, as someone smart once said.
Early 2017: Lead acquisition through Sales reach-outs
Our business set off very quickly in the second half of 2016, when we started getting work straight off the bat. This was even before we had incorporated. We did a couple of assignments, which needed flexible talent, and learnt a lot. Thereon, slowly but steadily, work kept coming our way without us having to go out and get it. And it took all our time to fulfil those, as each one needed a lot of thinking, design, talent sourcing, and yes, even post-mortem analyses. By the time 2017 rolled around, we had had a steep learning curve, we knew the mistakes we had made, which models worked and which didn’t.
It felt like we were ready for bigger things. I remember us deciding one fine evening that we needed to get more leads, that we needed to actually go out and seek them.
And thus was born the first pre-CRM document that we called the ‘BD tracker’ till well into 2019.
For that stage, we hired a lead generation professional, with me largely doing the reach-outs to the unknown folks, while all three of us reached out to our own circles and networks. There was no broad-based marketing at this point.
2017: Slow but steady steps into Marketing thinking for B2B
2017 gave us a variety of demand, and we started understanding better what our clients valued the most. And how to talk about it.
Which brings me to marketing. We had started doing some amount of B2C marketing and hired a graphic designer for working with us on the creatives. However our creative output was not much, and we hired her for 20 hours a month. One of the big benefits of working in this space is that we have an amazing ready pool of talent for ourselves, and we understand and accept flexible models completely. It has been of immense help in many ways, one of which has been ramping up cost-effectively.
As an aside, this graphic designer now has been with us for 3.5 years, with her hours having gone up as our marketing plans grew, branched out and flowered. She was someone I spoke with even earlier as part of a project that didn’t work out, and I knew from that first phone call that not only was she an amazing person but that she was going to make for a fantastic team member. Serendipity. Or maybe that no effort goes completely unrewarded.
Early 2018: After a bit of gestation, the birth of B2B Marketing
So like I said, 2017 gave us lots of customer insights, and we were ready to roll out some Client marketing.
I was pregnant by that time, with my delivery date in early March the next year. So I set a goal for myself to create a B2B marketing plan and start implementation before I went on maternity leave. It took some thinking and a bit of reading up, as B2B was new to me, having worked in fmcg marketing in my pre-FlexiBees life.
I have really come to enjoy B2B, it’s a nice mix of brand-building and giving your audience strong rationale for purchase. So the plan had a lot of long form creation, blogs, customer showcases, emails, the likes. We decided we needed a freelance writer to help us write some of the content. The arrangement here with the writer was to be very loose, to tap her as needed, versus a steady stream of work every day, week or month. That was because we were at the very beginning of our plan, not in a position to lock-in to a certain quantum per month. We wanted to implement and learn.
We pared our hiring down to two writers, we did assignments with both, but before I could select one, I went into labor a bit ahead of plan and as sudden as that, there was another baby in the picture. Apart from my startup that is.
While I was away on maternity leave, the work was picked up by my co-founders to the extent that they could make time for it. I returned after 2 months, and took it up as a priority again.
2018-2019: The MVP years: new messages, themes, formats; with our second hire, a Digital Marketing Manager
Our marketing efforts grew over the next one year, largely a mix of long form content, and more ‘consumable’ and shareable content culled from it. One of our biggest sources of leads were groups we were part of, mostly entrepreneur groups, and so we started creating content that was easily shareable in those.
We also tried different messaging routes. One of my favorite positioning constructs is to determine whether a product or service will help build the category or improve the category i.e. market development vs superiority. We tried a bit of both where in the former we spoke of what flexible hiring is and how it can help businesses grow, and in the latter we positioned ourselves as game-changers within the recruitment space. While it can always be a mix (given you can use different ways to define a category), for us category building was the primary objective.
We experimented with properties, using short creatives (difficult to get FMCG out of the system), pop-culture based themes, brief showcases of the talent and roles we had recently placed, client testimonials, long-form client showcases. Each of these properties came from a customer insight or purchase behavior. For example, recently placed roles helped businesses see in a much more real manner how flexible talent could be relevant for all kinds of roles.
As far as the team is concerned, our designer continued to come through with excellent visualisations for both B2C and B2B. Further, we hired a Digital Marketing Manager during this period to handle all the B2B (and B2C) digital posting volume, and to build in a bit of channel consciousness. While we hired for mostly a Digital role i.e. managing channels for us, with an understanding of how different channels work differently from both content and distribution perspectives, we found she was also good at conceptualizing social media campaigns for the B2C audience. As we started doing more of those, with Women’s day, Mother’s day, etc, this skill came in very handy.
However, a lot of the thinking around both content and distribution were done by the two of us founders, Rashmi and me, without hiring content or senior digital folks, and that was because we ourselves had those backgrounds. Rashmi was a pro at Digital and ecommerce having worked in Digital and new media at P&G, and I had Branding & Communication experience from Unilever. While B2B was new to us, none of the other aspects were, and in fact the novelty of B2B even made it more interesting.
Having said this, even for those founding teams, especially bootstrapped ones, that don’t have in-house marketing experience, I wouldn’t recommend hiring externally in the early stages of experimenting with marketing messaging and communication. A lot of the messaging flows from the core offering, how consumers or clients receive it, feedback on it, in combination with how you as founders want to position the business, and all of this comes best to the founders. It comes from the lived experience of founders as they fail, revise, succeed, grow.
Some of our early ‘consumable’ content
Short B2B creative a la FMCG
2019: Arrival of the Content Calendar and the hiring of a B2B Content Manager
Early to mid 2019 is when we started making our first calendars. Now what a content calendar does is make you lay out your content flow in a more structured manner. So if you are doing a blog on how to do Sales remotely this month, it automatically throws up the question of what you should do differently next month. As we started calendaring, more properties emerged, a certain rhythm came into being. For example, we started doing one function each month, which means May could be all about Sales, where we did a couple of blogs, apart from short creatives around the core function insight, Sales talent profiles, and Sales client testimonials; June could be all about Marketing, and so on. This anyway was what we were doing then, we moved on from this too in time.
What a calendar also does is show you how you could do more and better and differently. After a few months of it, I could feel that I wasn’t able to do justice to all that we could be. For example, we could do a lot more material on the flexi/gig industry, we could do even more formats like videos, webinars, we could do a lot more in our email marketing, and even very simply, more long-form content.
So we hired a B2B Content Marketer in October of 2019. She came with content strategy and writing experience both, especially in B2B. Her coming in freed up some of my bandwidth. While I continued to do the broad level thinking, she was able to flesh it out in terms of topics and formats, and even do all of the writing, short-form and long-form.
2020: Full-fledged Content work-stream, with Paid Digital, and the hiring of a B2B Digital Marketing Manager
Mid next year, our Content Manager got another opportunity, and we also realised we needed someone who could give slightly more time to the tune of 5-6 hours everyday. So we hired a new B2B Content Manager, who like her predecessor had content creation and writing experience. She crucially had the clarity of thought that is important for marketing thinking. She continues to work with us, and has taken the work forward wonderfully.
The organic content work-steam today is multi-format, multi-channel, multi-themed. For example, we have a certain proportion of content that brings our audience insights about the flexi/gig industry, some that help them see the benefits that we, FlexiBees, bring to the table, and some that are interesting how-tos or knowledge shares relevant for them as small and growing businesses. Our mainstay of showcasing our clients and talent pool remains, and we have all sorts of add-ons, which keep evolving even as we speak. We have a growing email program, a pretty complex one given the kinds of sub-segmentation that we do within our audience and with customized content for each.
As we got a bit of funding last year, we decided to use paid marketing for leads acquisition for the first time, and invested in a dedicated B2B Digital Marketer. She is experienced and proficient in conceptualizing and running paid marketing across different channels, doing budget planning and analytics, running our email marketing program, and has a deep understanding of the B2B channels we operate on which is very useful even for our organic content.
Between the two i.e. the B2B Content Manager, and the B2B Digital Marketer, they liaise, conceptualise and execute most of our content, paid and organic. The two of us founders who head the two verticals, Marketing and Digital, drive broad strategy, supervise and brainstorm with them. We also all come together in weekly drumbeat meetings to review the performance of our campaigns. It is a good set-up, and keeps getting more evolved as we speak. The hallmark of a good team is that it creates more work for itself, and that is happening here.
So, here we are, nearly 4 years down the line from where we started our leads acquisition journey with one lead generation professional. It amazes me that it has taken us this long to get here; it is a testament to the complexity of what marketing has become with the number of platforms and formats that are available today, and even more importantly, the crucial need to break clutter with an audience that is consuming millions of pieces of content daily. While the complexity has gone up, what is definitely true is that for small and growing businesses such as ours, the routes to acquiring customers today are far more scalable, cost-effective and trackable.
And though it may have taken some time, we are happy to have arrived at a place where we can rely on our teams for most of the operational thinking and execution. Delegation to the next level is one of the core challenges of a founding journey, from the aspect of being able to find the right people and also gauge which parts of the work one wants to outsource. It’s also rewarding to see the people you have hired grow in their roles, take more responsibility and drive the work into new directions you yourself would not have thought of or had the bandwidth for. And as is always the case with us, all of the people we have hired are from our pool, women who want to work flexibly as a career choice or due to care responsibilities. They work in a mix of part-time and full-time, depending on the role, and a 100% remotely. The bedrock that unites all of them and us though, is the commitment and ownership with which they perform their roles. So yes, we are at a pretty good place.
That’s it guys. Hope this was good reading, and helpful. All the best to all of you for your marketing journeys. May we continue to hire wonderful people at the right time and create interesting, engaging and insightful content that helps us fortify our brands and get more business!