So far, 2022 can best be characterized by uncertainty: We don’t know if the economy will weather various percolating storms. We don’t know exactly what the market will get excited about, and which new tools and products will thrive.
But at Reforge, we routinely check in with our expert network to get the best possible insight into what we might expect, and how we may want to approach unknown territory.
We see it as our responsibility to our community of working professionals to understand what’s going on, and how it may impact our work. The leaders we partner with help us process and communicate how industries are evolving up to the moment — and we can’t do that unless the best in the field are explaining real-world problems as they arise.
That’s why we asked three industry leaders — true innovators from growth, marketing, and product — about the biggest questions they have in their working lives right now.
We kept the conversation open-ended and encouraged them to give us context on why they’re excited or concerned about a particular aspect of their function.
- Elena Verna gave us an insider’s look at product-led sales and how self-serve and top-down growth models are trying to have the best of both worlds.
- Sachin Rekhi spoke to us about an alternative approach to the lean startup methodology.
- Stephanie Kwok gave us a strategic, bird’s eye view on how to build a marketing team as CMO’s are increasingly responsible for greater portions of the P&L.
Let’s dig into the interviews.
Elena Verna on Figuring Out the Playbook for Product-Led Sales
Elena Verna is a growth leader whose advisory roles give her a uniquely valuable insight into how different companies are thinking about growth in 2022. While many will turn to product-led sales — a hybrid approach that’s led to major growth for some B2B brands — there’s no playbook for success… yet.
Elena spent six years cultivating a deep passion for growth at SurveyMonkey, thriving in an environment with big responsibilities and expectations around metrics.
“I love the crushing weight of accountability!” she says.
When she left SurveyMonkey, Elena was primed to be an executive leading growth for a major tech company, but quickly realized how difficult it was to assess the environment and culture of the companies she was considering stepping into.
She decided the best way to vet organizations was to take temporary leadership roles until she found the right long-term fit. But Elena accidentally stumbled into a thriving career as an advisor, allowing her to gather insights across a multitude of organizations as a growth leader.
To that end, she’s worked with lots of companies, and has spent years thinking about product-led sales. She explains that it has become a new go-to-market strategy in the B2B space, replacing traditional top-down sales as the default approach to acquisition.
She describes product-led sales as a hybrid model between a self-serve model, where users begin experimenting with a product, and top-down sales where sales teams get enterprise-level conversions on the product. She says it’s essentially, “an escalator out of self-serve into sales,” but only if it’s successful.
Many of the most successful companies we know and use daily have this type of model, including Asana, Trello, and Slack. That said, according to Elena, there are tons of companies that can’t strike the balance.
There’s no map for success, no scalable framework to make it work — and that’s what excites her.
“Everybody wants to have the best of both worlds. Companies want large enterprise contract values at a consumer-like cost of acquisition. If you’re able to marry the two, it creates a unicorn status. You have a very efficient growth model that is self-fulfilling with flywheels, and yet you’re able to close million dollar contracts on top of it.”
Elena’s role as an advisor has allowed her to become a thought leader in product-led sales, where she’s able to impose the kind of crushing weight of accountability on herself as she tries to answer one of the biggest strategic questions companies face: How do we succeed in a world where product-led sales is the golden ticket to growth in 2022?
Sachin Rekhi on the Chances of New Products Succeeding
Sachin Rekhi, our program creation partner for Mastering Product Management, is the consummate product innovator and entrepreneur. He writes prolifically at sachinrekhi.com and spoke to us about his philosophy and approach to getting products from 0 to 1.
Sachin is currently revisiting Peter Thiel’s 2011 book Zero to One, which aims to contradict the Lean Startup method. At the time, the attack was contrarian — maybe even radical — but now it's become increasingly clear the best products don’t get made that way.
The Lean Startup’s 0-to-1 approach to product building is based on the premise of leading with experimentation: Don’t worry about having a plan, just run tests and figure out what the product is going to be as you go.
Thiel’s book basically says: That’s a dumb idea and here are a bunch of reasons why.
Sachin has come around to Thiel’s point of view, recently tweeting:
“The Lean Startup methodology is the 5 paragraph essay of entrepreneurship: Learning the 5 paragraph essay in grade school is super helpful for educating first time writers on how to structure an argument. And yet, no serious writer would ever publish anything that way.”
Still, according to Sachin, you can find MBA classrooms where students are still learning about lean as a viable path.
Moreover, he’s worried that because we’re in a complex economic moment, the lean approach — where staffing, resourcing, and advanced planning are scant — might once again become popular. Sachin thinks that’s a bad idea and champions what he refers to as the anti-lean approach, which builds upon Thiel’s thinking which he describes as theoretically sound, but a bit simplistic.
Sachin is a three-time serial entrepreneur and someone who has built 0-to-1 products at Microsoft and LinkedIn. He built LinkedIn Sales Navigator from scratch, “using a playbook that didn’t look lean at all.” LinkedIn Sales Navigator has gone on to generate over $1 billion in annual sales, which, to put it mildly, gave him “the conviction this other way” — the anti-lean approach — “is in fact better.”
When we asked him why he cares about how people approach new products, he said outright: “I’m obsessed with trying to figure out how to improve the chances of new products succeeding.” He went on to say that he actually gets a bit restless once the new product has legs. He doesn’t necessarily thrive on the granular work of optimization, it’s the creation phase that fuels his passion.
He describes his new company, a note-taking product called Notejoy, as “a complete passion play.” He thinks “something as mundane as note-taking might help someone to find synthesis and synergies, or solve a problem, or come up with a new concept” in a way that feels organic and low pressure.
If it’s successful, Notejoy could be like a “new age Wikipedia,” Sachin says. Instead of the output being a polished final product, it’s “the scraps of notes you take that others might find value in.”
“The bar to write online is becoming higher and higher because you’re worried about the eyeballs against it,” says Sachin, “but if they’re just notes, maybe you’d be willing to share them.”
It’s clear that Sachin loves discovery and values ideas that are still baking.
Stephanie Kwok on How Marketing Can’t Be Everything All At Once
Stephanie Kwok, an Executive in Residence and program creator, is thinking about how marketing teams are frequently responsible for a huge portion of the company’s profit and loss statement (the P&L) — and what that means for the evolution of the marketing leader.
In her most recent role as Head of Strategy and Operations at FanDuel, Stephanie grew her career as an executive and helped the organization weather an industry crash and a failed merger, and grow 15X to more than $2 billion in revenue. And what’s on her mind right now is not just what a sustainable, strong marketing team might look like, but also how marketing fits into the organizational structure.
She’s been reading and talking to other marketing executives about how marketing leaders increasingly have a responsibility to manage larger and larger portions of the P&L.
This can be tricky, because while marketing teams may end up being technically responsible for key performance metrics like retention and revenue, they don’t actually always have control over all the levers that would impact those metrics, like product and engineering.
For Stephanie, it’s fascinating to think about the evolution of what a marketing leader can look like.
Prior to the tech industry boom, many marketing leaders started at consumer packaged goods (CPG) companies as brand managers who were responsible for growing the business in a holistic way. For example, a brand manager for the Brita line at Clorox had control over multiple levers that are responsible for growing the business, including pricing, SKU optimization, and product launches into adjacent categories.
Today, this work is often fragmented across product, growth, and marketing teams — and the brand manager is no longer the key player for crafting the product and go-to-market strategy.
“It often doesn’t get the support or buy-in from the CEO and other parts of leadership that it did in traditional CPG companies,” she says.
If Stephanie were to take on a leadership position at an organization, she’d want to help implement what she’s referring to as a general manager (GM) type structure. She believes a GM structure allows companies to ensure that the leader has both accountability for performance, and ownership over key growth levers. Critically, it also enables organizations to build teams with the right skill sets; it doesn’t pigeonhole people into CMO or CPO roles where they might be expected to have full command over everything in a traditional marketing or product vertical.
In Stephanie’s opinion, brand marketing, product, growth, engineering, etc., need to be fully aligned and properly empowered if a company is going to succeed. While marketing has evolved definitionally, the traditional marketing levers are still foundationally key to the success of a product. She’s skeptical of driving growth purely off new platforms that promise quick user growth.
“Figure out what differentiates your product,” Stephanie says, “and put in the work to build and package an authentic, compelling, and consistent brand that resonates with your users in order to drive large and sustained growth.”
The Point Is: Learning is a Daily Practice of Embracing the Unknown
While Elena, Sachin, and Stephanie are needling at different ideas and obsessions, they’re each pursuing something that feels like a problem, and they’re leaning into it especially because it may feel mysterious or chaotic.
- Elena wants to understand product-led sales because there is no scalable framework.
- Sachin wants to get to the heart of how and why products succeed.
- Stephanie wants to know what the best pillars for marketing in tech ought to look like.
At Reforge, we thrive on complexity and discovery, and we’ll continue to follow our industry leaders as they discover more, not only about these topics, but as they formulate new questions and go down undiscovered rabbit holes.
What is Reforge?
We know that when you live and work in a rapidly changing environment, you need to be nimble and get answers to today’s most important professional questions from the most knowledgeable people in rapid turnaround time.
At Reforge, we have a multi-faceted approach to knowledge-capturing and leveling-up. Reforge Membership combines participation in live cohort-based programs with access to content and community to help you and your company scale. We help people solve real-world problems by working with them on actionable solutions.
Live Cohort-Based Programs: Reforge runs three live cohorts per year: Fall, Spring, and Summer. Live cohorts bring together professionals in product, growth, marketing, and engineering, so everyone can benefit from working through an intensive deep-dive with a community of professionals working to solve similar questions.
Our programs are built by subject matter experts — like Elena, Sachin, and Stephanie — who are working leaders in product, growth, marketing, engineering, strategy and operations, and beyond. They partner with Reforge’s insights team to distill the most important strategies, frameworks, and case studies, so working professionals can take what they learn and immediately apply it to their daily work.
Live Zoom Events and Q&A’s: While live cohorts are in session, Reforge hosts multiple Zoom events each week for members.
- Program-specific events allow members within a program to build community around their topics. Our Executives in Residence host live events throughout the cohort and invite outside leaders to bring real-world case studies to live program sessions, because our objective is to expose members to as many angles of a particular topic as possible.
- Weekly panel discussions are where industry leaders come together to think through broader career questions that we all navigate at some point.
Reforge Membership: In addition to live cohorts, a Reforge membership unlocks year-round access to all program content, including frameworks, tools, case studies, and event recordings to give members their best opportunity to level-up at their own pace. We are constantly working alongside industry experts to deliver leading-edge insights to our members in ways that resonate best with them. Anticipating what our members need to do their best work is the foundation upon which we build our own careers.