In her early and mid 20s, Ada Chen Rekhi achieved "hockey stick" growth within her own career, eventually leading growth and marketing as the SVP of Marketing at SurveyMonkey after starting out just 8 years earlier as a new college grad in an entry level sales job at Microsoft.
In this post, Ada shares a few frameworks that anyone can use to trigger a high growth inflection point in their career.
About the Author
Ada Chen Rekhi
Ada Chen Rekhi is co-founder & COO of Notejoy and an executive coach who works with founders to scale themselves alongside their teams. Previously, she was SVP Marketing at SurveyMonkey, and founder of Connected (acquired by LinkedIn).Learn More
Differentiate or Die
Today I want to talk about how you can use growth marketing principles to accelerate your career — whether your goal is to become a marketing exec or to take on leadership in a different field.
When I graduated college, my first job was an entry level sales role at Microsoft. 8 years later, at the age of 28, I became the SVP of Marketing at SurveyMonkey, a billion dollar company.
This isn't meant to be a brag; I was just as astonished as anyone else that Dave and the team would pick me to take on the monumental task of leading a 25 person marketing team (I had previously been managing a team of 2 direct reports).
Growing your career and your personal brand aren't so different from growing a product and a company brand, and yet we're far less rigorous in how we apply what we know about growth to our own careers.
Jack Trout, the founder and pioneer of the theory of marketing positioning, had a famous line, “Differentiate, or die.”
In a market where there are over 200,000 MBAs awarded each year to aspiring business execs, differentiating your personal brand becomes even more important. How do you establish a strong career trajectory in a market where everything is constantly moving?
My answer was to think about myself as a product, and make intentional changes to the perceived brand attributes of my “product” in order to optimize its appeal to the job market.
So, in the rest of this post, I'll walk you through 3 key lessons from this journey:
- Lesson 1: the “Intro Funnel” that got me my first job in marketing
- Lesson 2: a 3-step process to get good at the things you don't like
- Lesson 3: leveling up to SVP
Lesson 1: The “Intro Funnel” that got me my first job in marketing
So what's the back story? How did it all happen?
The first big change in my career happened when I was very young.
I don't have an MBA, but I went to Wharton for my undergraduate. Coming out of school, I took my first job at Microsoft working in Microsoft adCenter as a search media strategist. It was an account management role working with big brands like Netflix, REI, and Overstock when the search industry was really young, and I spent a lot of time working with clients to optimize and build out their search marketing campaigns.
In college, I concentrated in marketing and had always wanted to be a marketer. I was chafing at the slowness of a large company, and wanted to shift from sales to a marketing role. So, I left after a year to move to San Francisco to join a startup called Mochi Media and work in marketing.
I was 22, and two firsts were happening. One, I was trying to recruit for the very first time on my own. Two, I was trying to make a wholesale career change from sales to marketing.
At the same time, I knew that I wanted to get into startups, but startup roles are largely unadvertised. That meant that the conventional means of hitting up the job boards were out of the question.
I ended up cold emailing, asking friends for introductions, and spending 3 months flying down every weekend from Seattle to San Francisco for interviews. I remember changing in bathrooms because I wanted to wear jeans to startup interviews and a suit to corporate ones.
This process was more streamlined than it sounds because I knew what I wanted. I was looking for a job that met three criteria:
- A product area that I like and believe in
- A mentor I could learn from
- A company that needed help in an area where I want to learn and get better (marketing)
Going for an unadvertised startup job was tough, but it turned out to be an unexpected bonus. It taught me very early in my career about the power of relationships and referrals to get a job. For example, in a recent career survey from Jobvite, 41% of recruiters rely on referrals, 20% on social networks, 11% on job boards. You have almost a 4x loss on job boards.
As I went through my job hunt, I kept a spreadsheet of all the cold outreach I'd done, all the intros I'd requested, the replies (not a ton!) that I got back, and the ones that wanted to follow up. In the end, out of over 60 attempts, I was able to close 6 offers. That was my funnel.
I had a friend recently who got a cold outreach for a job and took an interview. In my opinion, she's one of the most brilliant and talented people I know. But, after going through the interview rounds, she ultimately didn't get the job. She was so discouraged by the experience of rejection that she decided to stick it out for a while longer with her current company.
In business, when I'm testing some ad copy, we don't make decisions based on whether the first person we show an ad to clicks through and becomes a customer. We know we need lots of top-of-funnel traffic to hit our conversion goals, because that's just the way the funnel works.
And yet, it's incredibly hard not to personalize those losses when you're 0 for 1 on job recruiting. While getting six offers looks pretty good, the other numbers in the funnel tell a different story. 40% of the people I got a warm introduction to didn't even give me the time of day. Just about 3 out of 4 of the conversations didn't turn into a job offer.
Lesson learned: Make it a funnel. In my case, it was a simple three-stage funnel: warm introduction -> conversation -> offers.
Lesson 2: A 3-step process to get good at the things you don't like
The second big lesson learned was getting promoted from manager to director in my first marketing job out of school, and shifting from marketing to product.
I had just moved to San Francisco to join a startup called Mochi Media and work in marketing. I spent four years at Mochi Media as it went from Series A to Series B, became one of the largest online games properties on the Internet at the time, and eventually was acquired by Shanda Games for $80 million.
During that time, as the company grew, so did I. I was promoted from marketing manager to a director of marketing managing two people. I did another function change when I shifted from Director of Marketing to Director of Product.
But that part of the journey wasn't without some bumps. Research has shown that getting kids to eat their broccoli and other unfamiliar foods takes somewhere between 8 and 15 exposures before they come to accept them. You aren't born disliking broccoli. You're born disliking the unfamiliar.
I had my own version of “broccoli” in my first marketing role at Mochi. A common feedback area for me at that time was that I was really shy, and that I needed to work on my social skills. I knew building a network was important, but nothing made the pit of my stomach sink further than the thought of going out there.
So I set out to find a way to change it. Based on my personality, I need to have goals and some measurable way of managing progress towards those goals, like my Intro Funnel spreadsheet.
I set myself a personal goal: every week at my job at Mochi Media, I would count out 10 business cards and do three things that week: I'd attend an external business event. I'd hand out all 10 business cards. And I'd touch the back wall of the venue. As soon as I completed all three of these things, I could leave.
Well, the first few times it was really hard. It felt like visiting a doctor's office! My second phase was that I got really good at giving away business cards fast and breaking into circles because I was motivated to get out of there: hi, my name is Ada, it's nice to meet you. You wouldn't believe how fast I could zoom in and out.
And then gradually, something interesting started to happen. It started to take me longer and longer to touch the back wall because I'd go to an event and see someone there that I knew. And after that, I came to an important realization: I actually liked going to events where I know people.
How does this relate to broccoli? Meeting people and networking felt like a painful and unapproachable problem when I first decided to work on it, but my key insight from this activity is that you have to be able to separate dislike for something because it's unfamiliar, and dislike for something because it's actually something you dislike. If I had gone to 15 networking events and still hated it at the end, I would have stopped. But it took me far less than 15 to start enjoying my experiences there.
In my first job at Mochi Media, this networking became a huge asset. I became one of the public faces of the company that everyone in the games industry knew. After a year straight of this, we cooked up an idea in the company to launch a conference.
This became Flash Gaming Summit, an industry leading conference that sold out every year attracting over 500 attendees and Adobe as the flagship sponsor. This was a huge part of putting Mochi on the map and our subsequent $80MM acquisition.
My newfound skills at networking played a key role in attracting speakers, gathering attendees, and reaching out to sponsors. This was one of those things that came out of nothing and subsequently got me promoted to Director.
Afterward, the networking played an even bigger role in the shift to product. It turns out that there are two attributes in product management that are really important: deep expertise in core skills working with engineering teams -- I was pretty basic at this -- and deep expertise in your customer and what they needed.
After building a conference and having engaged in networking conversations every week for 3 years, it was very obvious that I had the latter, and it made my promotion to Director of Product an easier choice. I had half of the formula, and that was differentiated enough that they felt that I could handle that role.
Many people give the advice to focus on your strengths and it's ok to have weaknesses. While I agree with this, I think it's one step deeper than this. Make sure you differentiate being bad at or not liking something because you're unfamiliar with it, from true experience with and dislike for it. Eat your vegetables!
As a final note: doing things you think you don't like doesn't always result in doing them forever. For example, I recently tried the same technique with blogging. I told myself that I'd write 5 posts in 4 months to make sure that I was giving it an in-depth try. Despite the effort, I've discovered that I don't really enjoy it as an expression medium so have tapered it down (with a few exceptions!).
Lesson 3: Me, an SVP?
The third big career step was becoming the SVP of Marketing at SurveyMonkey.
When I first joined as SurveyMonkey as their VP of Marketing, my first thought was: do they know how old I am? (The answer is yes. It turns out they were very intentional on why they decided to hire me.)
In between my time at Mochi Media and when I joined SurveyMonkey, I spent some time building a startup called Connected, which provided contact management without the work. We raised a small round of funding, launched, and were acquired by LinkedIn, which had just IPO'd and was looking for a product like ours. Today when you are on LinkedIn and you get work anniversaries, job changes, and people in the news notifications, that's me!
At LinkedIn, I stayed in a marketing role and moved between several teams including growth and subscriptions. I went from managing a team of 2 there to a team of 25 at SurveyMonkey.
When I was at LinkedIn, I had a few very specific goals: first, I wanted to launch my startup Connected as the new LinkedIn Contacts, and I worked very hard on that as my primary goal until its launch. Second, I wanted to build my skills as an entrepreneur because it turns out being a founder is incredibly painful especially when it comes to figuring out how to grow to get your first customers, and knowing the right way to run your business.
My approach to LinkedIn was pragmatic, and it was all about acquiring direct experience in a company at scale. If LinkedIn were a car, I didn't want just the experience of driving the car. I wanted to get under the hood, and do the entire teardown to understand how the hoses and pipes connected and how the engine pistons work, to prepare myself for one day needing to go build a car out of duct tape and cardboard myself.
I managed to get a job on the growth team, and when I was there spent a lot of time there not only working on current projects, but diving deep into the historical archive of all the different tests they have run to optimize growth. I asked questions about why things worked and didn't work. Because again, I had a belief that I was unlikely to ever get as much traffic to run tests as LinkedIn did and it was a great way to develop my own growth sensibility.
LinkedIn was coming up on its 200 million user milestone, and I had an opportunity to lead the charge on the campaign. This is absolutely one of those simple campaigns where we could have sent an email and called it a day. But I was like a little kid who just got the keys to a monster truck.
How could I apply all of the knowledge that I had just learned? I put together a huge campaign, and begged, borrowed, and stole resources to get it all to come together. It was what we called our most valued member campaign, and the idea was to thank our membership around the world and recognize them for their part in LinkedIn. This campaign generated record setting buzz and had a huge positive response.
Just like Flash Gaming Summit, this was the campaign that put me on the map after about a year at LinkedIn. And internally, while it's often difficult to move, this made it much easier for me to ask for the job that I wanted next: leading online marketing for LinkedIn's premium sales subscriptions.
When the SurveyMonkey team was looking for their head of marketing, they were prioritizing someone who had experience launching and growing subscription products, they were looking for someone who had big co and small co experience, and they were looking for a marketer with deep expertise working with product teams. It turns out, management experience could have been nice too but after turning every stone they said to me, management we know and can teach you — the rest we can't.
In other words, they were looking for was a certain well-rounded-ness, plus the subscriptions piece. Although I didn't go about building all of those earlier experiences just to get this specific job, it also wasn't accidental.
Here's the process
The process I went through can be summed up like this:
1. Figure out what areas I'm passionate about and invest deeply in learning them & practicing them.
The key to this step is not only to "have a passion," but to invest resources and time in learning about it, and most important, getting hands-on time to practice it.
2. Develop the ability to articulate my areas of depth and expertise and find ways for this to be findable by others.
In this case, SurveyMonkey found me via my LinkedIn profile, but I also made sure I was doing public speaking, writing, and other activities to get myself out there.
3. Cultivate an openness to serendipity.
Here, it meant pursuing conversations that allowed me to explore opportunities with less fear of rejection.
My lesson learned from the transition from my entry level sales job to SVP of Marketing is this: don't focus on getting leverage too early. Many people give the advice to focus on leverage and delegation to drive results but in this case my advice is the opposite. When it's early days, don't focus on leverage so much as on learning as much as possible in an applied way. I didn't just want to drive the car — I wanted to know how to build it from the ground up. If I had focused on leverage before I knew how all the parts worked, it would have been very unlikely that I'd have achieved the operational mastery that gave me credibility for each next level.
As you keep growing your company and your career, I wish you three things: Don't let rejection get you down — make it a funnel. In my case the funnel was a really simple one: warm introduction -> conversation -> offers. Don't focus on leverage too early — learn how to build the car, don't just get a chauffeur. And, eat your broccoli.