Mark Roberge, chief revenue officer of the HubSpot Sales division, is the man responsible for making the first 1,000 sales calls ever at HubSpot while a part-time outside consultant. So successful was he that HubSpot hired him to create an entire data-driven sales process and team. The company has been on a tear ever since.
I caught up with Mark in July 2015 to learn the keys to HubSpot’s sales success and to better understand the critical role that data analysis plays throughout the company
Marcia Layton Turner: I know you have an engineering degree from Lehigh and an MBA from the Sloan School at MIT. Did you go from MIT to Accenture for your first job post-MBA?
Mark Roberge: Nope, Lehigh was undergrad in the mid '90s and then I went to Accenture after that.
I was basically a coder at Accenture and then I started managing some of the technology teams and it was during that experience that I discovered the entrepreneurial ecosystem. I was assigned to a semi-start-up that Accenture had taken on as a client and it was there that I realized, "Wow, this is where I want to be." So I jumped ship and have done start-ups ever since.
Marcia Layton Turner: How did you get to HubSpot?
Mark Roberge: Basically after a couple of years at Accenture, I went to work for a start-up in Manhattan. It was a mobile play that showed me how start-ups work and it wasn't ultimately successful but it was interesting. We raised a bunch of money, we went from around 12 people to 150 people, back down to 12 people during the bust, and then back up to 150 people. So I got some experience regarding how these start-ups work and it was that experience that helped me see what I wanted my career to consist of. I wanted to work with start-ups, which meant that I needed to first get some credibility.
I decided that if I could get into a decent MBA program, it would give me the credibility, in terms of some of the business fundamentals that I didn't get as an engineer undergrad, and a network. MIT was a great fit. It's a great school and it's got a good entrepreneurship curriculum and a student body that is, really, really into entrepreneurship.
While at MIT I started four companies. I took every entrepreneurship course that was offered, I was a semi-finalist in the business planning contest there, and I helped start-ups whenever I could.
One of the entrepreneurs I was helping out was Dharmesh Shah, the co-founder of HubSpot. Every Thursday back in 2005, I met with Dharmesh and, ultimately our CEO, Brian Halligan, when he teamed up with Dharmesh to run the company. My job was to talk to the market and see if I could sell a few customers every month to develop our initial customer base. Things went well. A year later, the company had about four full-time employees and was on the verge of raising a Series A. They asked if I would come on board full-time to build the sales team and I agreed.
Marcia Layton Turner: I totally understand why you'd go to HubSpot and why they would want you, given the sales success you were having, but it doesn't sound like you really came to them with sales experience. How did you go directly from consultant to head of sales?
Mark Roberge: Yes, that is true. However, before they offered me the role I had already been selling for them and probably brought in a few dozen customers during that year, working only one day a week. It was a test-before-you buy scenario for them so they probably had confidence I would do okay. For me, I knew I could do it.
But you're right that I did not have any formal sales experience, and I recognized that. So the first thing I did was learn how to sell. And I did that by having coffee with a lot of sales leaders.
I’m very fortunate that my dad is in sales and he's actually a really good sales coach. So I was able to lean on him quite a bit to learn some of the fundamentals and then, once I nailed that down, then I had to figure out how to be a sales leader. I read a ton of books, I read a ton of blogs, I had coffee with a lot of different sales leaders. I even spent time in the interviews I did with sales applicant, people from Oracle and EMC and Monster, asking them how their sales team worked, how the sales process worked. I took those as learning opportunities.
Marcia Layton Turner: What was that process, those first 1,000 calls that you made? Where did you get the names? How did that work?
Mark Roberge: There are probably two phases. The first phase was when I was working part-time time and just hanging out every Thursday at HubSpot. We had nothing. I don't even know that we had a website at the time, so I really only had my personal network to start with. Because I worked on a number of Internet startups at MIT, I was sort of recognized among my peers as a thought leader in the world of websites and online marketing. So I got a fair amount of inbound online demand just from my own personal reputation. Obviously, I helped everyone who reached out to me and, fortunately, a good percentage of those people were a very good fit for the HubSpot value prop. That's really what happened in the first phase - the first customers came from our own personal networks and referrals.
Then, once I joined full-time I realized we needed to move into a much more scalable phase. During the year leading up to my joining full-time, HubSpot had hired Mike Volpe to run marketing and Mike did a great job of generating a bunch of inbound demand. The company also had a number of great assets in place. Dharmesh had built a free app called websitegrader.com that attracted a lot of inbound demand. The company also started a blog well before officially launching our product and was quite successful at getting the blog posts promoted. So by the time I joined full-time, we were probably pulling in 500 to 1,000 leads a month.
At that point, I was really just calling on the leads that came in from the inbound efforts.
Marcia Layton Turner: You had 1,000 leads a month just from the blog?
Mark Roberge: The blog was a big driver of it but it was the blog and the website that were generating the inbound traffic together. And, remember, this was 2007, so few companies had corporate blogs and not everyone understood how Google worked. So, because we were blogging a lot, just from those efforts - four guys in a garage - we were able to rank number two in Google. Wikipedia was number one and HubSpot was number two for the term “internet marketing software.”
A lot of it came from search as well, but thanks to the success of the blog those leads just started to grow. We went from 1,000 a month, to 2,000 a month, to 5,000 a month. In the first two or three years, I probably hired 40 salespeople and we still couldn’t keep up with all the inbound leads. It wasn't until about year three or four that we had to expand to other channels beyond just inbound leads.
Marcia Layton Turner: Once you had the leads coming in and you had the demand, was hiring the main thing you focused on?
Mark Roberge: It was one of many things, but it was definitely the most important. The first two months were spent just calling leads, really trying to figure out what the buying journey was like, what the sales process was like, to be able to create a sales process that I could teach to other people.
Then our CEO decided that, "Now that we have that figured out, let's start hiring one sales person a month. Let's start scaling this thing up."
So then we had a new set of challenges. The first was, how am I going to find these people? What is the interview process like? How am I going to train them? What's my management cadence going to be like? I had to build all of these things.
Plus, we were still chasing a monthly number, so that was a really challenging time. And it was like a traditional start-up in that you're willing to put in 80 hours a week but, honestly, there's 200 hours a week of effort that is needed.
So corners do need to be cut, unfortunately. It's just a reality and one of the big drivers of entrepreneurial success in this context is choosing which areas to do an A+ job on and which areas to cut corners on - not because you're lazy but just because there's just not enough time in a week.
So I decided that I was going to do an A+ job on hiring. That meant I would have to cut corners initially on training and some of the management tasks, but I felt that if I could get the right people in then the training and the management would come easier.
My thinking was that A players - they want to win. But if I brought in B and C players, I don't think the best program in the world would cause great success.
Looking back, I am really glad I did that, obviously. So that was the thought process then.
Marcia Layton Turner: Today, what percentage of your day is spent coaching your sales team? Are you still involved with them on a daily basis?
Mark Roberge: I will answer that from two different perspectives. One perspective is that for the first six or seven years of the business, we were a one-product company. I ran global sales and services for HubSpot with 450 people under me. At that point, I did not spend a lot of time coaching my sales people but I did spend a decent amount of time coaching the team. I spent probably half of my time with my direct reports, doing one-on-one coaching on the businesses they were running. Now, I also set a quota for myself to have two or three interactions a week on the front line, to stay relevant to what is happening. That could have been participating in a customer call, where a sales person requested my help. It could have been checking in with a current customer on how their experience has been. It could have been listening to a recorded demo from one of our salespeople and then coaching them around the call.
You've got to be a little careful with the coaching in the last example because you could undermine the salesperson’s manager, especially if you conflict, so I wasn't doing that to improve the rep, I was just doing that because the rep wanted it and wanted to spend some time with them. But I always started by saying, "Listen, I don't spend 40 hours a week with you. This is one call on the many data points and Ryan, your manager, whatever he's saying is right. I'll share with you some comments, but I have a very narrow view of what's going on here."
The reason I did those calls was just to stay relevant with the front line, to know exactly what was going on.
Around that time we split the company and came up with a new sales product line and I was put in charge of that effort. Then I had a much more cross-functional team – it wasn’t just sales. My charter was to grow to a hyper-growth business with an even better business model than our core business. To do that I was trying to learn from the Dropboxes and the Evernotes of the world on how to scale the revenue and customer adoption without sales people.
Now I have a handful of sales people on this but we're really trying to scale a lot of this humanlessly, so this is kind ofa fun new challenge. In this case I do spend a lot of time coaching my sales team because we're in the very early figuring out phase of this business. We do three film reviews a week where I sit in there with the reps and listen to calls and it's coaching them, but it's also trying to figure out the ultimate sales model and playbook that we're running.
Marcia Layton Turner: You talk regularly about the importance of tapping into data to understand the optimal number of calls to make to prospects or when to give up. But where do companies get this data, or what are the tools that they need in order to gather and access this data?
Mark Roberge: I hired a PhD to do it; we just handed it over. So first off, you have to collect the data from the sales team, but you're never going to have success gathering data from a sales team if the only reason they are inputting the data is so that you have a fancy report. The input of the data either needs to add value to the reps in terms of their sales process and closing business or it needs to be automated. So we kind of did both.
We were using Salesforce as our CRM and found that it could take a dozen or more clicks to just log a call and an email. When you’re doing this 50 or 60 times a day, it’s very time-consuming. It was really a pain in the butt. But as the person making the first 1,000 dials who was very motivated to help create a data set to be studied and optimized, I was very motivated to log all my calls no matter how many clicks it took.
But I also knew that not everyone was as motivated as I was, so I hired a pretty expensive Salesforce consultant to streamline it and make it two clicks. We introduced a macro button in our Salesforce system that would log a call, connect, and send an email. It went from about 12 clicks to literally just pressing this button.
So, number one, significant streamlining on collecting the data and number two, huge value for the rep because they no longer had to do a big time engine exercise. We could now rely on our algorithms to service these leads for them and they could just focus on what they love to do, which is connect with prospects and try to move them through the sales process. And they had great comfort that the leads that they were given were being called in a way that was optimal to yielding their quotas and revenue contributions.
Once we had that, then we could export that data to an Excel spreadsheet and then do a statistical analysis on it.
Marcia Layton Turner: So it sounds like the data was exported by the PhD, he or she evaluated it, and then re-set the Salesforce system so that the calls would be made at the optimal time, right?
Mark Roberge: That's right. The PhD looked at the data and came back with, "Okay, we found consistent patterns and here's how I would think about segmenting these leads. At this particular stage of the buying journey, the optimal number of calls to go after them is seven and they should be called every other day, or some sequence like that." Or they had a call pattern they could program in, so any time a lead came into the system that fit that criteria, that was the process they would follow. We were sitting on a lot of data when we did this, but if you don’t have mounds of data you can use your intuition to organize it.
Marcia Layton Turner: I was going to ask how you make data analysis part of your sales process but it sounds like you outsourced that. They were the ones who are responsible for analyzing everything that your reps were inputting, right?
Mark Roberge: Yes, for this particular challenge of establishing the call cadences, data was at the center of our coaching and management approach. It was at the center of our hiring approach. But not everything was outsourced. In this case it was, but when we went through our monthly coaching exercises, all the salespeople were trained on how to rely on that data, to diagnose a deficiency in a sales person's performance and come up with a good coaching plan.
Marcia Layton Turner: Would you talk about the importance of doing research on a lead before making contact? I read that this is also part of your process. What does that research entail, what kind of information are you looking for, what's involved?
Mark Roberge: Yes, it's really important these days. Ten years ago I think it was more acceptable to get a company name and a contact name and call them with your generic elevator pitch. And there was some success with that approach, because if someone was actually interested in what you had to say, they had to talk to you to get information about a potential purchase. But now that’s not the case. Everyone has a pretty website, there's tons of information out there, and that tactic doesn't work.
It’s really important for sales people to position themselves as a trusted consultant or advisor that can add value to this buying journey. So the best context is to find out what this prospect has done with your company. Have they visited your website? What pages have they looked at? What blog articles have they read? What eBooks have they downloaded? Have they been part of our lead nurturing campaign and, if so, which emails did they open? All this information is gold, to tell you what this prospect is specifically interested in.
I can easily personalize my prospecting efforts based on that information. As opposed to my giving them a generic elevator pitch, I can ask them, "I noticed that you downloaded this eBook and wondered what questions you had on it." I could send them related information that they haven't seen but, based on their research patterns, would be interesting to them. That's a high value activity. That's the best thing and then there's a bunch of other general context that can happen.
So, first and foremost, you can find out a lot on LinkedIn in terms of who these people are, how long they've been at the company, what their specific role is, who they report to, and who they know. All these things are really important context for me to understand going in to the prospecting activity. They might be active in social media, so you can go to their website and see if they've got a blog and what they write about.
You can see if anyone at the company, or the company itself, has a Twitter handle and if so what that looks like. Then we have some tools now that show you who at our company has interacted with anyone at their company. With that information in-hand, your “in” could be as simple as knowing that someone at their company called our support team. It amazes me how often that happens and sales people have no idea that that occurred. That's a very leverageable piece of information.
It also could be that someone in our legal department is cousins with someone in their marketing team. There is value in knowing that. I think I heard in a conference call the other day when we discovered that the sales person was calling on a company and their wife worked on the same floor as the company they were calling in to and knew a ton of the people there, but they never made that connection until months into the process.
Marcia Layton Turner: How do you find that out? Is there a way to build that in?
Mark Roberge: We have some tools we are developing that we are using in-house right now, that essentially studies everyone that you're emailing and it exposes that in the prospecting software for everybody at the company. So it's pretty easy just to type in a company to that system and it will tell you if anyone at your company has emailed someone at that domain.
Marcia Layton Turner: Interesting.
Mark Roberge: It's really valuable.
Marcia Layton Turner: When will that be available?
Mark Roberge: It's part of the Sidekick product now and a more sophisticated version should be in beta by the end of the year.
Marcia Layton Turner: Let's go back to the hiring. You talked about the importance of hiring A+ people and how that was key to your success. Can you tell me a little bit about where you find the best people?
Mark Roberge: Yes. Finding people is so critical in the hiring process. I haven't seen a lot of success with candidates applying to companies early on. Now HubSpot has a cultural reputation so good candidates do proactively seek us out, but that wasn't the case for the first five years in the business. They just didn't know who we were.
So putting out a job ad, I am not sure that tactic really yields great sales people.
Now we actively outreach to find and target high quality people. One of those tactics is using a tool like LinkedIn, the free version.
After you do some interviews, you start to make a list in your area of who runs reasonably sized inside sales shops. You get a sense of who has good training programs so you know that the reps are going to have a higher caliber training. You already know what they make, so you know if you're going to be competitive with that or maybe even be a step up for them.
You also start to develop a sixth sense about which companies to target. When you hear about leadership changes or changes to a sales comp plan and you know some of the reps will be kind of squishy about being there anymore - those are ones you focus on.
And you can learn a lot from a candidate just from their online profile. Where they went to school is an indicator of their intelligence. Sometimes they might talk about some of their awards or GPA or test scores, which would also be an indication of their intelligence. How long ago they’ve been at a particular employer is another. For a sales person, if they are changing jobs every year they are getting fired. But if they are in an environment that you know is a pretty high caliber environment and they have been there for four years, they are probably a top performer.
Sometimes they might talk about attending presidents club and that kind of stuff, so there's a ton you can find out online to make sure that the folks you're investing time in and targeting have a higher likelihood of being quality people.
What I also love to do is help out sales leaders. I would have a coffee, even back in the day when I had no reputation and I was kind of clueless as to what I was doing, I would have coffee with sales leaders to get to know them. If they come from a good-sized company, I could then ask for their feedback on various candidates that they used to work with.
I might say, "Hey, Tara. I'm hiring a new role and here are five people that are connected to you, that you used to work with. Are any of these good?" They are generally happy to get back to you with who's good and who's not. And it can also trigger them to think about who else they know who might be a fit. Sometimes I’ll hear, “Here are two other people you should be looking at." So there is a bunch of creative tactics you can do in there to target good people.
Marcia Layton Turner: Is there anything that I haven't asked that you think other sales leaders should know, any advice we haven't touched on?
Mark Roberge: I think the only other thing I’d suggest is not falling into the trap of just hiring sales people with experience in your industry. To have experience in your industry is not bad, it's just that because it's so easy to evaluate that, I think too many sales leaders put too much weight on that and then overlook deficiencies in the candidate's ability to succeed in your environment. So just be careful. Make sure you appreciate the unique context that you have. Like is it a fast paced transactional or is it a long consultative one? Are you selling to marketers or are you are selling to IT?
How much relationship does the sale need, and does it require face to face or is it done all over the phone? These are different contexts that you have and there are a lot of different types of sales people out there.
I've seen sales people be number one at their company, before we hired them, and then come in and not do as well here. I've seen people not do well here and go off to other companies and have great success. What that means is that there are a lot of different styles of selling. There are lots of different strengths that sales people have and they don't always match up with your environment. So have a really deep appreciation of your unique buyer context and sales context and make sure you align your interview process and the types of candidates you are looking for with that context.
Marcia Layton Turner: Excellent. Thank you so much, Mark.
About Mark Roberge
Mark Roberge is chief revenue officer of HubSpot’s Sales Division. Prior to this role, Mark served as HubSpot's SVP of worldwide sales and services from 2007 to 2013, during which time he increased annualized revenue from $0 to $100 million, grew the customer base to 10,000 customers across 50 countries, and expanded his team from 1 to 400 employees.
Mark was ranked #19 in Forbes' Top 30 Social Sellers in the World. He was also awarded the 2010 Salesperson of the Year at the MIT Sales Conference. Mark holds an MBA from the MIT Sloan School of Management and a bachelor's degree in Mechanical Engineering from Lehigh University.
He has been featured in the Wall Street Journal, Harvard Business Review, Forbes, Inc., Boston Globe, and other major publications for his entrepreneurial ventures. Mark is the author of the #1 Amazon best-selling book, The Sales Acceleration Formula: Using Data, Technology, and Inbound Selling to go from $0 to $100 Million.