INTERVIEW
June 30, 2020

How I Went From Feeling Like an Impostor to Winning a $4M Deal

Prashant Mohan
Prashant Mohan
CMO
,
Sharesight

Bonjour bonjour! Who are you, and what brought you to marketing?

I like to describe my role in the world as a husband, dad, marketer, leader, manager, and learner at the same time. All these roles merge into one another in a fluid flow most of the time. I head up the marketing team at Sharesight, a SaaS business that exists to make investing enjoyable and profitable for the self-directed investor.

I graduated from a prestigious Indian Engineering University (BITS, Pilani) with dual degrees in Maths and Electrical Engineering. I started working in a tech company as a software engineer – so it was as far removed from the creative geniuses of marketing as it’s physically possible. But, at the back of my mind, I always knew that the intersection of the right brain and left brain activities is where my sweet spot was.

Being a jack of all trades, otherwise called a generalist, helped me purposefully steer my career towards marketing. It still took me 12 years to arrive properly into a job with the title ‘marketing’ in it, even though in my head and in other activities, I got myself involved in marketing.

A critical role that helped me find my way into marketing was my role as a strategy and sales operations manager at Google for Australia and New Zealand. Once you have Google on your resume, people are willing to listen to your pitch for a marketing role. Even more than an MBA from INSEAD (one of the leading business schools of the world), which came as a surprise to me.

The real me ultimately is a “we”. I have 2 teams that I’m really an embodiment of. My family “me” is the most critical part of my life. My wife, Pooja, is my friend, philosopher, and guide – my biggest encouragement as well as my most candid critic. She makes sure I stay on track and true to myself.

My kids keep me grounded and connected to reality. My work “me” is always a great team of talented people who come together to produce great work.

What’s the biggest marketing challenge you’ve ever faced? How did you overcome it?

The first marketing role I came into was that of a Group B2B Marketing Manager role in a business that had operated from a pure sales perspective, until then. This was the second-ever marketing person they had hired for the B2B role; and they had gone through one person in this role, who didn’t last more than 3 months.

So, I was faced with two big challenges here. One was to establish that marketing had a role to play in a long B to big B service and product offering. The second major challenge was to figure out what the role of marketing was.

man in maze-like building

I was trying to figure out my way to my first marketing role.

The added complication was that I had never done a marketing role prior – so I didn’t have any credibility to fall back on. My prior roles until then had been in engineering, product release management, finance consulting, and sales operations. I had nothing but a resolve that I somehow needed to make this break into marketing to work.

My first 6 months in this role was like a big game of snakes and ladders. I would make progress for a week, only to be bitten by a snake to fall right back to where I started from. The impostor syndrome that I faced made me feel that I was literally throwing dice at every problem.

The impostor syndrome that I faced made me feel that I was literally throwing dice at every problem.

The steps I began to take were a simple diagnostic to identify how best to add value to the sales cycle.

  • First step: I followed my sales colleagues around to see what the common objections to their pitches were. From a client point of view, also identifying the types of personas of decision-makers helped me gauge what types of programs of work and content I would need to get created.
  • The second step: was to look for some quantitative evidence to back up my hypothesis. I used a market research agency to validate a lot of the hypotheses through a survey. But even getting a budget to run research was hard.

Now, remember, I was doing all this with an extreme amount of doubt! So, I needed the backing of my wife and friends to literally live through this, and not just give up. So the background step was to look after myself and my self-esteem. After some intense persuasion, my boss, who was the Chief Commercial Officer of the organization, approved the market research program.

When the qualitative (through my own customer interviews) and quantitative data (survey) suggested that decision-makers were usually in a large committee, it was never the decision of one person. Along with my sales team, we devised a strategy that we needed to find an “advocate” inside these large organizations.

The next step was to identify how to arm the advocate with tools for him/her to sell our service inside their large organization. We needed to create whitepapers, calculators and even videos that would showcase our capabilities and how the organization could benefit from it. Then came the step of getting budget approvals. At every step, it felt like having my teeth pulled out. In the meantime, to win the sales team’s confidence, I put in whatever effort to make their message and pitch decks as succinct and on-brand (whatever that meant).

Then came the step of getting budget approvals.  At every step, it felt like having my teeth pulled out.

The real breakthrough came in the form of a $4 million deal with a large public service organization – we won the pitch. The pitch deck and the storyline had my name on it. Thus, suddenly I was part of a winning team, and so my ideas and suggestions became more believable.

The moral of the story is that few challenges are pure marketing challenges – they tend to be more organizational in nature. One of the biggest roles we play as marketers is that of a change agent. We are in the business of causing change at multiple levels – in the markets, within the organization, and at higher levels at the C-suite and board levels. And being that agent of change is hard.

What’s the one marketing tactic that has worked for you over and over (aka your ‘secret’ weapon)?

The biggest secret sauce is a fundamental understanding that marketing is an art and a science – that’s why we are all in this profession.

The art part of it is about understanding people – mainly about customers. I always make it a point to “meet” with real customers, either face-to-face or over a video call. This helps me understand the real people for whom our work should make sense, provide insights, be educational, and ultimately should sound like them.

In some scenarios, I take a step back to map the entire set of stakeholders – customers who pay us, people who influence their decisions, and salespeople.

As I have grown older, I also make it a point to spend time with investors and the board. I like to understand the different personas that represent various segments of customers. Tying the qualitative to the quantitative parts gives an idea of who and which type of customers are absolutely important to the “now”. The “target state” of customers is a long but a planned process.

The science part of marketing is making sure I understand the drivers of revenue. Making revenue is the real purpose of business. When you start mapping the building blocks and variables of revenue, I am able to design experiments with the component variables.

For example, understanding how every action of a user relates to a business outcome is critical to a marketer’s success. Ie., how the funnel works in each organization and the metrics that matter. The funnel is still a good way to look at customer acquisitions even though I have read about less linear models of operation.

The magic of marketing is in combining the art and science of it all.

The art part of it is about understanding people – mainly about customers. I always make it a point to “meet” with real customers,

What’s the best example of marketing you’ve ever come across?

While I was working at Google, Google released these videos on Chrome. The campaign was called “Dear Sophie“. It was a campaign in the style of a father writing emails to his newborn daughter Sophie, and all of these keystrokes were recorded in a video with very emotive music and language.

This was in 2010 when Chrome was still not the dominant browser in the market, and I believe this campaign had a major part to do in telling the story. The inspiration it gave me was that Google was trying to sell a browser. ie., make people install Chrome. They never went into any comparison of the features and benefits of Chrome vs other browsers.

The story was clearly in the emotional sphere of the customers. This left a deep impression in me to use the emotional language in long-form content to tell a story. Subsequently, I used the same template to tell the benefits of a car leasing product that I was marketing.

Based on this as an inspiration, I got an idea for a video that could tell the stories of a lot of our customers through this video:

The other example is something anyone who grew up in India would be able to identify with: Amul, is a classic brand – basically butter and milk products brand – they owned every current news event with a fantastic cartoon piece. With a tagline of “Taste of India”, the line is memorable.

They primarily used mass marketing on TV and Radio, so there’s no way one could have missed their marketing. The cartoons they would come up with always was reflective of what the masses of the country had their pulse on. This way, the advertising is extremely relatable to the audience for whom the products were created.

Source: amul.com

The point about both of these examples is that creativity makes marketing memorable. I have been a fan of creative marketers, and I love having them on my team.

What’s your number one advice for folks who want to become marketers?

I feel like I am extra qualified to answer this question. I started out as a software engineer writing code for GSM switches, back in the day. Right from the beginning, I made it a point to read and seek as much marketing knowledge as I possibly could absorb. Maintaining a swipe file is definitely a great idea (I didn’t do this myself – I relied on memory, which is not as effective).

One way I got myself to experience marketing was by volunteering in not for profits, in the local community fundraisers and literally by practicing marketing and selling through a number of channels.

One of the most needed skills in marketing is the idea of resilience. Anything you can do to build resilience is a great experience. I came across this great concept called the “Rejection gym” – ie. develop a thick skin. Many ideas and concepts you put forward are going to be rejected. Including, the very idea of asking for a role in marketing. A “No” does not mean a no forever. It just means, not now.

There are plenty of online courses to do in marketing. The fundamentals will be useful throughout your life and career. I highly recommend reading books such as “Influence” by Robert Cialdini.

The other growing area is to become good at data and some simple coding.

The other strategy I suggest is to take up a role in a small business where you get to experience the many facets of marketing. I never worked at an agency or in consulting firms, but those are other popular experiences to gather as you find your way into marketing.

What do you think marketers should learn today that will help them in the next 10, 20, or even 50 years?

The golden 3Rs of education – Reading, Writing, and Arithmetic – are the classic needs of a modern-day marketer. Reading and absorbing marketing through the centuries is a good place to start. I believe that spreading religions and philosophies was one of the oldest forms of marketing.

For example, Yoga, as a product existed in India and the Himalayas for 3000 years, but a marketer in the form of a yogi (Swami Vivekananda, via a public speech) had to spread the word.

Yogi Swami Vivekananda

One of the most interesting books from the recent times is “Sapiens” by Yuval Noah Hariri – he has managed to succinctly document major influences of change through time.

On the writing front, we marketers need to get comfortable playing with concepts, analogies to explain products and services, to help our customers make the connections, make it easy for them to understand what we’re trying to educate and inspire them about. Blogs and emails are fundamental units of content nowadays, and will likely be even over decades. Writing and editing also helps us marketers distill ideas and requirements into actionable items for developers and creatives alike.

Arithmetic or doing the maths around campaigns and having a set of baseline metrics as well as goals toward which the business is tracking. When I say arithmetic, I’d like to encompass metrics from across the funnel – measuring the absolute, and more importantly, a trend can go a long way to explain to yourself, how your marketing is performing. Numbers and ratios also help you identify patterns.

In addition to these 3 skill sets, I would add public speaking and overcoming the fear of strangers completely ignoring you as other critical aspects to learn.

Developing a good understanding of customer experience is going to be critical going forward. Customers have so many choices in whatever they choose to do.

What are the top three resources that helped you the most in your career?

#1 – Everyone Hates Marketers podcast has been transformational for my own thinking. Getting so many perspectives from all the experts is an incredible gift, and I really appreciate that.

#2 – Avinash Kaushik’s Occam’s razor blog – gives a reality check on all the metrics we use in the marketing team. I have taken much inspiration from this blog on how to measure the value of marketing, and more importantly how to represent and visualize it.

#3 – The other podcast I love listening to is “Hidden Brain” on NPR hosted by Shankar Vedantam. It’s a fascinating insight into how the human mind works and how we come to believe what we believe.

In terms of books – I highly recommend reading Robert Cialdini’s “Influence” and Dan Ariely’s “Predictably Irrational”. “Sapiens” is another book I highly recommend that everyone should read. I also enjoy reading fiction and love to observe the various storytelling techniques that each author employs.

What are your plans for the future, and how can we help?

For Sharesight, I am keen to be part of a winning global Saas business. We are building a tool that makes investing enjoyable and profitable for every individual investor in the world – I like to call it a “Fitbit for investing”. This is a very important mission and it’s going to change how people engage with their own investments in order to become financially healthy. Traditionally, this has been available only to large institutions and we are trying to bring this to the every self-directed investor.

For the marketing profession itself, my vision is to make it include customer experience as an absolutely critical part of every marketer’s role. If you took a finance department pretty much in any organization, it’s standardized – everyone knows what exactly a finance department does. Marketing departments, on the other hand, vary between organizations, primarily driven by what the CEO or the founder of the organization believed. I believe that as marketers, we need to own the customer journey. Remember, we are the guys and girls on the side of the customer, the investor, the community, and employees – we are agents of change to each of these stakeholders.

Where can folks connect with you, and learn more from you?

My LinkedIn is probably the best place. I’m on Twitter. I tweet in bursts at @prashantmrao

I do have Instagram – but stopped checking it as part of my digital detox. I haven’t figured a way to connect my target audience of people who are into investing to Instagram.

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