The Mark Donnigan Hypothesis: Successful Marketers Know the Journeys of Their Product’s Buyer and Beneficiary

Mark Donnigan’s experience spans 20 years as a transformative B2B and enterprise marketing and business leader driving demand, brand development, and strategy for startup, emerging, and growth-stage companies, backed by some of the largest VC firms in Silicon Valley. He has managed teams of 25 people, comprising marketing, SDR/BDRs, and account executives producing $29 million per year in revenue with P&L budget responsibility of $3 million annually, including mid-six figures for marketing investments. He builds disruptive innovative startups, with a focus on architecting go-to-market plans and marketing motions that drive real business outcomes.

In this episode of the Product Science Podcast, we talk about how marketing can be a crucial component in finding product/market fit and propelling your startup to new stages of growth. We also touch on some traps organizations fall into that slow their marketing and product development down.

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Questions We Explore in This Episode

The Mark Donnigan Hypothesis: Successful Marketers Know the Journeys of Their Product's Buyer and BeneficiaryWhat realization did Mark have that caused him to drop out of school? What did he learn getting involved in sales, and how did he transition into marketing? What challenges did he encounter working in streaming in the early 2010s? What does Mark mean when he says that there’s no shortcut?

What does Mark do with an early-stage company? What’s the first thing you need to do? Why is it so important to know who your buyer is? What does Mark mean when he says that the buyer is often hidden inside the organization? How can that be misleading in and why can it be hard to identify the buyer you need to reach?

Why do you know and understand how the buyer is able to understand your product or solution? What are the three main problems that Mark identifies when you’re trying to achieve product market fit? What assumptions can you make about who your buyer actually is within an organization? How do you understand who the real beneficiary is? How do you know when you’re falling into one of these traps?

What does Mark do with later stage companies? Why is it so important to map the buyer’s journey for your industry and the product that you’re selling? Why does Mark like the jobs to be done framework? What are the jobs that Mark considers essential? What is the fastest way to dominate a market? Why do you need to market what the problem is?

What do you do in a crowded marketplace? What example does Mark use to illustrate this concept? What is the ideal relationship between marketing and product leadership, and what are some examples of good synergy? What are some challenges Mark has encountered in this area? Why do you see so much good marketing today that doesn’t work?

Quotes From This Episode

“There are three things we have to do in order to talk about scaling: know who the buyer is; understand how the buyer is able to consume your product; and understand who the beneficiary of your solution is inside the organization.” – Mark Donnigan

“If you’ve completed the sale but the customer is not actually using the product or not getting the full value out of the product, that’s going to catch up to you.” – Mark Donnigan

“Marketing leaders who are looking to grow need to make it their business to understand the power lines of the product and the ecosystem they operate in.” – Mark Donnigan


Holly Hester-Reilly: Hi, and welcome to the Product Science Podcast, where we’re helping startup founders and product leaders build high growth products, teams and companies, through real conversations with people who have tried it and aren’t afraid to share lessons learned from their failures along the way. I’m your host, Holly Hester-Riley, founder and CEO of H2R Product Science.
This week on the Product Science Podcast, I’d love to share this conversation with Mark Donnigan. Mark Donnigan helps disruptive innovation startup companies launch products and open new markets so that they can go further faster and scale sustainably. Mark is a go-to-market strategist, consultant, and senior executive who operates as a virtual marketing leader supporting CEOs and founders. Welcome, Mark.
Mark Donnigan: Well, thank you, Holly. It’s great to be here.
Holly Hester-Reilly: I’m so excited. So I always love to start by hearing a little bit about people’s journeys. So how did you get into this kind of role?
Mark Donnigan: Yeah, so I started my college education in computer science. My dad retired with Hewlett Packard, and I started programming when I was 12. So I thought, “Yeah, this is what I want to do.” And preparing for finals, my second year in this computer science program I was in, I realized that I was sitting in a microprocessor class, I didn’t hear a word the professor said because I was daydreaming about the band that I was in and thinking about music. So needless to say, I dropped out, worked for a couple years, and then went to music school.
And so how this connects is, is that here I am, I’ve got clearly a technical bent, and yet very creative, and when you’re 19-20 years old and you’re trying to figure out, “Okay, how do you combine this?” Things seems so binary like, “Well, I’m either going to be an engineer or I’m going to be a rock star.” Well, of course, I want to be a rock star, so. And so then I started going down that path, by the way, never even got remotely close to being a rock star, so. And figuring out-
Holly Hester-Reilly: Very hard to do.
Mark Donnigan: Yeah, exactly. Figuring out, “Okay, actually making a living with music is very, very, very, very, very, very hard.” And so, that took me then into sales, and I naturally gravitated towards selling technical products, technical solutions, that sort of thing. And along the way, I think without even really realizing what was happening, the creative side would come out, because I would say, “Hey, I have these marketing materials that I’m getting from…” When I was an individual contributor, of course, they’re just given to me, right? Like, “Here’s our product briefs to support the solution.”
But then, as I began to lead a team, and then I had marketing resources if not reporting to me, available to me, I found that I was spending a lot more time thinking about the strategy, thinking about how we talked to the market, thinking about… And it was all in service to revenue. So it wasn’t that I necessarily had said, “Gee, I really don’t like this wholesale thing, I’d rather kind of be on the marketing side,” but it just became very, very natural. And so, then that leads into a lot of self-education and learning about marketing, learning about the discipline, learning about the mechanics.
And so through the years as my career twisted and turned like a lot of ours have, I found that I always had a revenue kind of role and yet it always connected, and in time connected more and more to not just marketing as in collaterals and data sheets and what’s on the website and that sort of thing, but really strategies, like how are we going to approach the market? What do we say to the market? How do we build an audience? How do we build a community? And some of this is even before community building was a thing. It’s just that I began to kind of fundamentally understand, “Wow, this is a heck of a lot easier when there’s people who are already sort of assembling around you as a company and as a product and solution, and they’re already predisposed to what we’re doing, what we’re saying, what we believe about the market, what we believe about the technical direction for wherever we are.”
I primarily have been in video and in software and video services, so that’s kind of primarily where I’ve worked but touched on a few other areas, but that really is my story. So, I’m not a salesperson who kind of quote-unquote fell in love with marketing. I fell in love with marketing because I just somewhere along the way figured out that there was this ability to fuse the analytical with the creative, and to build businesses, and it’s just something I love doing. So, [crosstalk] that’s my story.
Holly Hester-Reilly: Cool. Can you tell us a little bit more about one of the places where you worked as a leader in the marketing organization?
Mark Donnigan: Yeah, absolutely. So, I’m engaged as a consultant currently, and work with a number of different companies, but there was a company that was actually a client of mine, and I joined them as pre, and this is very applicable to your listeners, because they had some very advanced technology that they developed, some IP, it was a lot of patents around this. And what the solution could do was really revolutionary as assets, particularly video, media assets, particularly video. We’re moving to digital distribution. Now, this is 2010-2011. So right now, streaming, sitting here in 2020 it’s kind of like, “Yeah, hello.” This is common.
2010, clearly, there still was streaming going on, Netflix was very much a thing and YouTube, et cetera. But there were more challenges with things like bandwidth, and how do we get higher resolution, higher quality to stream reliably? Certainly, to the home was a little bit easier but on a cell phone, mobile network is very hard. And so, this company had developed some really amazing technology. And it’s the typical challenge, right? You know that this can have a huge impact and yet, just because you built it, doesn’t mean that everybody’s just going to come running, even though when you present it to a video streaming service, or somebody who’s delivering video to even a cable company, or a satellite entertainment distribution service, they could clearly see value.
But the challenge was, “Okay, so how do we now not just commercialize this technology?” That’s the packaging. That’s building the product, right? Because you just have technology, technology by itself. Yes, you can sometimes do IP licensing, you can monetize, but it’s a very difficult path. So I began to work with them as a consultant, because again, I had a lot of experience in the video space. So I knew what companies cared about, what these streaming services were thinking about, what they needed. I had a lot of contacts, so it was easy to also even just make connections and start up sales conversations.
So as we transitioned from, “Hey, we’ve got this technology and we can sort of hand build a result. So we can prove to you this technology works, but we really can’t sell you anything because it’s not a product yet.” Then I worked very, very closely, not really as a product leader but as a very critical conduit between the team that was building the product, ultimately building the solution, commercializing this so that we had something we could actually sell, and the market.
And, of course, then when you come out with version 1.0 it’s incomplete. And I’ve heard it said a lot, “If you’re not a little bit embarrassed by your first version, maybe you’re sort of overbuilding, or you haven’t launched soon enough.” But still, there’s a critical phase there where you have to still try and move from, “Okay, we have something. Now, just because we have it, even though there’s a few early adopter customers we can sell to, that doesn’t mean we have a market.” So then, it’s not even so much a role because in an earlier stage startup, especially, sort of pre or just as you’re starting to get to… You’re starting to generate your first dollar, get to revenue, there’s a lot of jobs to be done and [crosstalk] things are not so linear.
But it was perfect for me, because then as I began to move into more selling or business development and assisting the team, and we had a small team working largely with the startup founders and the original core team, and then we expanded that. And then, along the way, you’re sort of doing marketing ad hoc, a lot of times, especially for these longer sales cycle kind of B2B, where sometimes it’s just we have so much to be doing right now. And yes, there’s so much marketing work to be done, but we’ve got to get this product stuff done, and we’re still chasing customers, and we’re still… And so it’s kind of ad hoc.
And so then over time, what happened was my role and my responsibilities then transitioned into marketing now. What’s super interesting is that this sort of natural progression that I just described is actually really the typical, or you might argue atypical path that I think every… I’ve just observed and in working with the various clients that I’m working with, even now today, there’s no shortcut, there really isn’t. It’s, you can bring in somebody, and this is where I come into the picture, a lot of times, that is kind of been there done it.
And so that helps you to avoid obvious holes in the road and obvious things that’s kind of, “Yeah, don’t go there. We’re going to really get stuck over there.” But there just isn’t a straight path. And so, this is the life of an early stage of a product leader, of a startup founder, of somebody, whether it’s launching the first product or maybe a brand new product or product line, even inside an established company.
Holly Hester-Reilly: Yeah. So tell me more, we definitely have a lot of listeners that are in B2B companies, and one of the things you said that resonated with me is that, you got started at this company when they just had some early adopters, they didn’t really have a market yet. How-
Mark Donnigan: Not even early adopters, we had to go get them.
Holly Hester-Reilly: Okay.
Mark Donnigan: So.
Holly Hester-Reilly: Yeah, so tell me a little bit more about what are the things that you do with a company when they’re in that stage? How do you help them see… Do they even see where they’re at? Or do they need your help realizing whether they’ve found their market or not?
Mark Donnigan: Yeah, great question. So, I find that there’s sort of three things that we have to get through in order to really first get to where you can begin to talk about scaling, because everybody loves to talk about scale or the product market fit, right? And product market fit, it basically implies scale like, “Hey, we have product market fit, so now we can go out and hire more sellers, and we know that we’re going to grow this thing. But the first thing you have to do is, and I find that it’s surprising how many people don’t really know who their buyer is.
Now, on the surface, if I just stop there, there’s going to be a certain percentage listening who are kind of say, “Yeah, okay. Well, maybe there’s somebody out there, but I know who my buyer is.” So let me explain what I mean by this. What I really mean is not who your buyer is, as in, “Hey, in my ideal customer profile account or whatever that looks like, I know that ultimately I’m going to have to sell to this kind of, to this level, or to this person or this title, or whoever. I can define that.” That’s fine. That’s actually not too hard, is to kind of figure out, “Okay, ultimately, who do I need to talk to?”
But in today’s buyer’s journey, the buyer is often hidden inside the organization. And what I mean is, is that the buyer is an influencer. And the old days of being able to go to the person with a checkbook or the PO pad is long gone. Those sales cycles just really don’t exist anymore. Where they exist is probably in commoditized products and solutions. But I think for most of us, that’s probably not where we want to be. So if I’m selling, I don’t know, paper napkins, or I guess they don’t even use them, but to Cheesecake Factory or something, or McDonald’s or whatever, that’s commoditized, maybe that’s more easier to kind of know, “Okay, this is the buyer.”
But in any other, especially a technically oriented B2B sales process, you have to know who the buyer is. The reason why people get tripped up on this is that when you’re early and you have a solution that is, its innovative, that’s different, that’s unique, whatever you want to say, you sometimes will get people who will raise their hands, show great interest in what you’re doing. And so that can be interpreted as buying signs or that can be interpreted as influence, and then it’s further compounded by the big fancy title on their business card.
So I’ll tell you by experience, we got tripped up with this company that I mentioned working with, where we’re selling video technology, software technology, we’re selling it. Initially, we were approaching a certain segment of the media and entertainment business, and we figured, “Okay, so we need to get to senior, we want to get to a senior executive, somebody who could give us the PO, who controls the budget or has a budget or can easily access a budget.” That’s obvious. So we began looking around, and sure enough, inside all these organizations, these big media and entertainment companies, there are people with senior vice president titles, sometimes executive vice presidents, sometimes CTO, so we’d be so excited. “We found the person. This is it! Surely they can sign the PO.”
Well, yes, they control the budget. Yes, they… So all those things were true, but the problem was, was that they were not actually the buyer, the buyer was typically a subject matter expert who was sometimes two or three or even four levels below them. And if we didn’t get to that person, we could have literally years worth of amazing meetings with a CTO and see zero revenue, absolutely zero revenue. So let me move on, because we can keep unpacking this, but knowing who your buyer really is, is just super, super critical in today’s buying journey.
The second is, and again, I’ve been tripped up here multiple times. So this happens, it’s an easy pitfall to fall into. And that is not actually knowing or understanding how the buyer is able to consume your product or solution. Now, think carefully about what I just said because in my experience, so we’re selling software, right? And you would think, “Well, software’s great.” Okay, you probably need to know what operating system they prefer. So if you only have a Linux executable, and they’re running Windows, well, that’s a problem. But if you hit Windows, Linux, what else do you need? Like it’s a… Well, but okay, what if they’re deploying on the public cloud? What if they’re deploying in some configuration that you don’t support?
Now, this is really, really critical, and without domain knowledge and specifically ecosystem knowledge, I’ve seen this is a huge one, where you can have a solution that solves a real need in the market. So it actually does what you say it does and people want it, they need it. So they’re super excited. Everybody’s excited until you get to “Well, how can we implement this? How can we actually ingest this technology?” And all of a sudden, there’s this roaring, the car is moving along 70 miles an hour and you just slammed on the brakes, and everybody’s like, “What just happened? We are moving forward for months, we even went through a little mini-POC, everything was awesome and all of a sudden the deal’s off. What the heck happened?”
Well, a lot of times what happened was, was that for whatever reason, and this isn’t ill intent necessarily, but at some point, questions were either not asked or the answers were not understood, or there were just assumptions made. And I’ll tell you, I personally experienced all three of those. I personally experienced where we actually heard the feedback from the customer, but we just assumed, “Yeah, but this is so amazing, this can bring so much value to them. They’ll find a way to make it work.” And a lot of times in the kinds of solutions that are sold today that, where there’s integration, where they’re not just standalone, no, at the end of the day, they’re not going to find a way to make it work.
And so, understanding how that customer is able to ingest or use your solution is absolutely critical. And then there’s a third one, and I keep saying, “Oh, but this one’s even kind of more important,” but that is, is that you have to understand who the beneficiary inside the organization of your solution is. And so, well, we have run into, and I’ve seen and I spent a lot of time and a lot of cases working with, “Okay, we’ve identified who the buyer is. Okay, we know how they need to implement our solution, and yes, and we believe we can meet their requirements. But do we really understand who the beneficiary is?”
So I can assume that, of course, it’s an economic sales argument, so the CFO is the one who’s the beneficiary. So all I’ve got to do is win over the CFO. Well, that may not be true. That could be a very erroneous assumption. And I could be building a whole sales motion and a whole marketing and a whole even a product approach based on that, and then, really puzzled why deals aren’t closing or puzzled why, how come in the last three or four deals somebody completely from the left field popped up and basically killed it? How could that happen? Well, because we obviously probably didn’t really understand who the real beneficiary is.
So the CFO’s saying, “Oh, yeah, of course, we would love to buy a solution like that.” And because, hey, there’s an economic argument, let’s just say. But there’s somebody over here that has a completely different perspective and they’re saying, “Yeah, okay, fine, we can save a million dollars. Hey, I know that’s a big deal, but do you want to save a million dollars or do you want to do this other thing?” And then they go, “Oh, well, of course, we want to do this other thing.” And then your deal’s killed.
Holly Hester-Reilly: Yeah.
Mark Donnigan: And so those are a couple, three, specifically, things that I think for product leaders, for sales, for anybody who’s looking at go-to-market, whether it’s a brand new like a startup, or whether it’s a new product line, or it’s just even, “Hey, we’re finding that our sales are lagging a little bit, we’re trying to figure out what’s going on, what’s happening here,” really suggests examining those three.
Holly Hester-Reilly: So, if you are at a company that’s early stage, either trying to find those first early adopters, do you have any tips for someone who’s not been through it as much as you have to identify if they’re falling into one of those traps, like that they haven’t found the right person or they haven’t really [crosstalk]?
Mark Donnigan: Yeah. That’s a great question, because some of what… Look, I have the scars to prove it so I’m not here talking about these three things as if, “Yeah, well, I avoided them so let me show you.” I have the scars to prove that I have multiple times and it’s an easy thing to fall into. There is just experience in some cases, but let me say this, I think any time that you are seeing… Let me phrase it this way, you’re hearing what you want to hear, but you’re not getting the result that is commensurate with what you’re hearing, you should start asking questions.
So if there’s a string of really good, and I mean, legitimately, I don’t mean where we’re kind of deluding ourselves on the company side, but really, like you go into customer call and you hang up and you’re like, “Well, they love us. This is really… Wow, this is amazing, and it’s legit.” And yet, you’re doing that over and over and over again. And then somebody says, “So when’s the PO coming?” “Well, I don’t know, we just can’t quite seem to get…” That right there tells you that there is something that needs to be uncovered.
Now, it does require some real, I think, objective, and this is hard to do, right? Because we all want to stay optimistic, we want to stay positive. “It’s going to come. It’s going to come. We just need to get over this one. We just need, then after the next release…” And yet, if you’ve been working with somebody, and meeting after meeting is positive, and yet, there’s no real PO on the horizon and there’s not a clear path to how that’s going to happen, then there’s something that is happening. There’s either you still haven’t quite gotten to the right person in the organization, or you might have eight people convinced but there’s two more that aren’t convinced and it turns out those two are actually the ones that are maybe the beneficiaries and they’re the ones saying, “Guys, I know, you’re really excited about this, but…” And it’s the but that then trips everything up. So, that’s just one of dozens of sort of signposts that there could be an issue.
Holly Hester-Reilly: Yeah, that makes a lot of sense. It dovetails really well with what product leaders see and product researchers often see where maybe they’re focusing more on the user than the sale but they’re encountering the same thing. Users are saying that their interested in something but then they’re not using it, and you realize there’s something wrong.
Mark Donnigan: Yeah, and I just want to piggyback on that because also the whole issue of completing a sale but then the customer not actually really using the product or not getting the full value out of the product, boy, I think there’s hidden landmines right now. I think there’s so many sales that are happening today where that’s basically what happens. And the company is sort of happy because they got paid, I mean, it’s not that they didn’t get paid but, and they’re kind of either moving on because they don’t want to look behind in the rear view mirror, or but they’re moving on to their next deal, but boy, that is not good. If there’s revenue that’s out there that has been realized, but yet the value of the solution that was sold is not being realized by the organization that paid for that solution, that’s going to catch up to you.
Holly Hester-Reilly: Oh, yeah.
Mark Donnigan: That’s not going to be good, so.
Holly Hester-Reilly: Yeah, that’s going to be a big churn risk.
Mark Donnigan: Yeah, for sure.
Holly Hester-Reilly: Yeah. So what are the things you do with companies that are a little bit later stage? So, once they’ve got early adopters but they are trying to scale, do you work with companies at that stage, too?
Mark Donnigan: Yeah, so that’s a good question. My website is actually Growth Stage Marketing. So it’s, and right there, it tells you, really, ultimately, what I do. And so as much as I do work with earlier stage, and companies who might be quite early in bringing their product to market, really, I love it when there’s a little bit of traction, because with just a little bit of traction, doesn’t have to be a lot, but with just a little bit of perpetual motion, boy, we can really get the car moving fast. And so that’s where I like to work.
So one of the things that I found with organizations that have some revenue, that they actually do have generated sufficient interest in the market that now maybe their phone’s ringing, maybe just a little bit, but it’s ringing, people are calling, “Hey, I heard about you guys. I need to talk to you guys about that.” That then becomes about shoring up, really the sales engagement process, which, again, depending on the business model, if it’s a SAS oriented, sort of more self-service or semi-self-service, or even if it’s SAS but it’s an enterprise type sale where it really needs an account executive or a sales rep that’s engaged. Some of this shifts a little bit based on the business model, but the basic foundations are the same.
And so, one of the things that I do is I believe very strongly in mapping and really understanding the buyer’s journey for your industry and for the product that you’re selling and then ultimately, making sure that all of your sales motions, again, that may be self-serve, so maybe largely all digital, and it’s all sort of demand generation, growth-oriented, or it might be very still traditional enterprise sales. I think largely nowadays it’s a mix of both, but making sure that the buyer’s journey is mapped so that the job of the buyer, I really like the Clayton Christensen Jobs To Be Done framework, I think it just explains so many things so well when we’re talking about strategy and especially around go-to-market and marketing and sales.
And the Jobs To Be Done framework is really just going to a deeper level of understanding of if I am a buyer, and I’m needing to make a buying decision for a solution like ours, what are the steps that I need to complete so that I can be confident that I made the best decision? And you map that out. Now, they’re not always known. And of course, they can change and they are a little bit organizational-specific, so it’s not that you’re going to know every job from A to Z, but you can largely follow that through.
And then that allows you to build sales motions, you can call it processes, I don’t really care, but it’s basically the same thing. Your sales approach, as well as your marketing approach, so that your buyer can get their job done. And hopefully they get their job done, meaning completing these steps that are needed, and they select our solution. So would it be helpful if I described it kind of a high level what some of these jobs are?
Holly Hester-Reilly: Yeah, sure.
Mark Donnigan: Yeah. So again, a lot of this is it’s not really that new or revolutionary, it’s just that I think that for a lot of us, we haven’t taken the time to sit down and really map it out. And so, the first thing is obviously a problem identification. Now that sounds like “Well, of course, duh, why would I be in the market looking for something if I didn’t know I had a problem?” But it’s really interesting around the problem identification, it’s very possible that someone can have pain but they don’t know what the problem is yet. Or they define the problem, maybe they’ve defined it wrong.
And so, one of the things that I’m always very focused on especially from a marketing perspective is if you’re going to build a category and a category is really the only way to, it’s the fastest way to dominate a market, I guess that’s the best way to put it. Not only do I need to describe what my solution is, but more importantly, I need to describe what the problem is, because I need someone to read that or to watch my video or however I get the information to them, and just say, “Wow, that’s me. Wow, somebody gets me.”
So the first is problem identification, and then, of course, they go through a solution. They have to explore possible solutions. So this is where we get to. This is kind of where, classical marketing sort of starts like, “Here’s our solution, and all the case studies and white papers and everything that supports it.” But what I’m saying is, we actually need to back up because we actually need to market what the problem is, and clearly name it, clearly define it. Now, that is also going to filter out a few people that may have been on our target list, but that’s okay, because we weren’t right for them anyway and we would have just wasted time talking to them and then found out, “Oh, I guess, we’re not the right solution.”
Holly Hester-Reilly: Yeah, that’s actually something I want to hear a little more about, because that’s also something we do on the product side a lot, saying, “Okay, we’re going to filter out that we’re not solving for those people, we’re solving for these people, let’s be focused on our target.”
Mark Donnigan: That’s right. Yeah.
Holly Hester-Reilly: But a lot of times it can be hard, especially with founders to convince them that their audience is too wide for the stage that they’re at and that they need to narrow down. What are some of the things that you do to help convince them?
Mark Donnigan: Yeah, so you can obviously narrow in based on industry sector, in some cases, geography. Again, it depends on what your product is, but it could be… But one example I like to use, I default to this because I just think it’s such a good one. I think you don’t have to be in the CRM marketing automation, martech space to know that there are 4,900 more companies than there need to be in the martech space. And apologies for all the great people who are out there building martech products, that’s cool, but there are so, so, so many.
So what do you do? So your founder is real passionate about it, they really believe they have some unique twist, there’s something that really is special, they have a lot of experience, domain knowledge, et cetera, so they’re going to start a company? Well, the first thing that I would advise is do not just build your solution predicated on the fact that there’s something that you can do better than everyone else, because probably there isn’t. But here’s what you could do. You could build the best marketing automation platform for dentists. And now you are not just a CRM, you are a sales and marketing automation solution for dental offices.
Now, I like to use this example and one of these days, I’ll actually go look up how many dentists there are. I don’t actually know. The point is, the reason why I like this example is, is that you can obviously understand that if you talk about the total addressable market of small businesses, let’s just say that you were saying, “Okay, that’s fine. I’m not trying to take on Salesforce, I’m not going to take on HubSpot. I’m not going to take on Marketo, and all that. I’m okay, but I want to go after the 1.5 million small businesses in America or whatever the number is.” So dental offices, how many are there? Are there 100,000 dental offices? 50,000? I don’t know. But it’s much, much, much smaller.
So it’s kind of counterintuitive. You’d say, “Wait. Well, wait a second Mark. I have a market of 1.5 million. I mean, I’d rather go after that.” And I’d say, “No.” Because the odds of you capturing any real significant segment and across all the different addressable needs based on industry and everything. It’s just way too difficult. But what if you addressed all of the HIPAA compliance and everything that a dentist needs? And now let’s just say for sake of discussion, there’s 100,000 dental offices in the US. And could you get 20,000 of them? Could you get 30,000 of them? Could you get 20-30% of the market? Could you even own 40%? Maybe you could own 50% of the market?
And by the way, you’re able to focus, you’re able to narrow. You wake up every day you’re only thinking about one customer profile. That’s it. And this is where the magic is and this is where the power is. Now, I intentionally use sort of a commoditized… I’m going to get stones thrown at me from the martech vendors. But just the point is, is that, you know what CRM, marketing automation, the basic functional matrices across all the solutions are basically identical. So they’re very-
Holly Hester-Reilly: Yeah. It’s a very mature area.
Mark Donnigan: It’s very, very mature. So that’s an example where you could narrow again based on industry segment. Of course, you can do that kind of thing with geography, all though geography is it’s a global world, and with the internet it’s really not. There’s some regional things that you can do, but that’s kind of approach there.
Holly Hester-Reilly: Yeah. What are some of the other things that you do for growth stage companies?
Mark Donnigan: Yeah. So, after we start to, after we really define the buyer journey, and it’s a process, definitely. Some industries and some markets are easier to quantify than others, but after you define that, now, what I typically do is get involved in actually executing around that. Doesn’t necessarily mean I’m doing all of the work. A lot of times there’s a team in place, or there’s a couple resources. Sometimes there’re full time employees that are part of the team, or maybe even co-founders that, have marketing experience. And in other cases, it’s consultants and contractors and agencies. But the point is, is that there needs to be a conductor, so to speak. And so I very much get involved in conducting the orchestra, and then making sure that everybody’s in time and playing in tune. And so, yeah.
Holly Hester-Reilly: Do you have any experiences you can point to where when you were doing that you worked with a really great product leader? And what was that relationship like between marketing and products leadership?
Mark Donnigan: Yeah, so I have been very fortunate. I think there’s enough stories out there of the tension between marketing and product. Literally, throughout my career I’ve had fabulous relationships with the product leaders. One of the things that I’ll say, is, I think, for me, and this started way, way, way, way back as a salesperson. I always made it my business to know how my product worked. Now, some of that, may be that’s sort of my technical bent coming out and just really wanting to understand, but it went beyond that.
And what that has served through the years, and I think that’s really helped, I know, that that’s helped me with the product marketing interface, so to speak, is that it gives me as a marketer, as primarily a marketer, and with my marketing hat on most of the time, it gives me credibility both internally with the product team, and it gives me credibility with the field. And this, I think, is just really one of my advice, one of the major key advices that I give, advice that I give to marketing leaders who are looking to grow, maybe move from a director of marketing to a VP of marketing or into a CMO role, is that they really need to make it their business to understand and really know the power lines of the ecosystem they operate in, and of the product.
Now, some products, this is easier than others. So if I’m in the medical space, and you need to be a research scientist, it’s probably a little bit harder. But still, there’s a way that you can assimilate enough knowledge and information that, that can be just incredibly useful, very, very useful. And so, my personal experience you asked what that relationship has been like and is like, is I’m largely being hired by founders who are, they’re product-led founders. And so, I couldn’t even be working in some of the situations I’m working in if there wasn’t that trust, and because it just it’d be oil and water. Just very difficult.
Holly Hester-Reilly: How often do you find that you’re communicating with the product leaders in those situations or with the founders?
Mark Donnigan: Quite a lot, actually, because especially and maybe this is a little bit unique to where I’ve been, but a lot of times product marketing and what you might call sort of more your brand marketing side or corporate marketing is kind of one and the same. So, I’m working with someone now and we have a real interesting challenge, because the company has developed a technical approach to solve a problem that absolutely where the direction that is happening in this particular industry is going, the current approach of using software only is not going to scale. And the industry is starting to wake up to this, but there’s some biases, and there’s some, even some pretty good technical reasons why hardware, that is purpose-built chips and more of hardware-based solutions are thought to maybe not work.
So one of the first things that we’re doing is we’re focusing on changing the mindset that hardware doesn’t work and that software is the best approach. So if we don’t switch people from the mindset that I have software for my solution and that’s good enough, or that works, or it’s all I need, then it doesn’t matter how amazing our solution is, how low cost it is, everything about the product, features, the TCO, all of that does not matter because someone’s simply going to say, “Hey, that’s nice. If I needed hardware, I would buy that solution, but I don’t, I need software.”
So the very first thing that we’re focusing on is the switch. Now, if I didn’t have that understanding, it’d be easy to just fall into “Wow, this is great, this is an amazing solution, let’s find all the creative ways that we can to market it, to message it, to talk about how amazing this product is.” And I came in and I said, “I don’t even want to start talking about the product yet,” because fundamentally, we approach the market and a large percentage of people are going to go, “Hey, that’s nice. Cool, good luck.” So the first thing we have to do is get them to switch.
Holly Hester-Reilly: Yeah. So how do you do that? How do you switch their mindset?
Mark Donnigan: Well, so, a lot of this is getting into the community. And this is where, what I’m finding on just in general is that, kind of the old approach of, “Hey, we go to trade shows, we have our standard communications mediums,” which were typically events and trade shows, were industry journals, magazines, so just a lot of more kind of PRish type stuff. All those things are still needed. It’s not that, “Oh, just cancel our PR program, and yeah, we don’t need to go to a show again,” but it’s about community. And so buyers, especially technical buyers are self-organizing more and more. And you’re seeing this in the video space that I’m in, there’s a really amazing example of a meetup that started in San Francisco about five years ago.
And this meetup was literally just video engineers out of Google and Apple and Facebook, and any… And it wasn’t that you had to work for those companies, it’s just of course there’s a lot of them there in San Francisco. And they just began meeting for beers once a month. “Hey, listen, let’s just talk shop, just this is cool. Let’s meet, compare notes and kind of talk shop.” And in time this began to grow, became more formalized, they started bringing speakers in. Well, last year, their in-person conference, last year being 2019, the in-person conference, drew more than 1,000 people and they were sold out I don’t know, six or eight weeks before it even started.
Now, just to give a reference point, there was a competing commercial conference that everybody knew about in the video industry. That one had peaked a couple years earlier at around maybe 800, 900, 1,000 attendees. That one is now I think in 2019, they’re lucky if they had 500 people. This one that was completely self-organized by… Now, I say self-organized, I mean, there’s a committee, there’s a group and they did an amazing job. So this isn’t just kind of everybody shows up and throw some money in the hat and they go… I mean, this is a real professional event. But the point is, is this was not a industry group, it wasn’t a magazine, it wasn’t a publisher, it wasn’t kind of done through your normal… It wasn’t industry association that put this thing on.
So what’s happening is, is that as you get into these communities and as you are trusted not because you’re out there pitching, but as you’re contributing, then you get a voice. And then as you have a voice, now you get to begin to just talk about what you’re, the way you see the world. And this is a very, very different marketing approach, but this is absolutely where things are, not just where they’re headed, it’s where they are. And it’s why, in my view, you see so much good marketing today that doesn’t work.
[crosstalk] Yeah. And we’ve all seen it, right? There’s stories of you’re like, “Why did that company, they just closed down? But wow their marketing was so good.” Or, “Wow, if anybody was going to make I thought it would be those, and they didn’t make it. What happened?” Everybody’s kind of scratching their head and it’s kind of like, “I guess, it’s bad luck. Wow, so sad. Those guys were good guys,” whatever. And we all know examples of this. And there’s always more to it. I’m greatly generalizing, I get it, but a lot of times it’s because it was well-executed marketing. It’s true. It was right out of an MBA playbook and done very well. But that’s the problem.
Holly Hester-Reilly: Yeah.
Mark Donnigan: So.
Holly Hester-Reilly: Yeah, the world has changed a lot.
Mark Donnigan: The world has changed a lot. I like to say, and I do talk about B2B, because we have to understand, “Okay, are we selling to businesses or how are we selling?” But marketing is H2H, it’s human to human. So therefore, when you start thinking about changing the mindset of how someone in the industry is thinking about approaching a problem or implementing a solution? Yeah, the absolute wrong approach is to just go blast LinkedIn ads. I mean, nobody’s going to watch or listen. So, it’s not going to work.
Holly Hester-Reilly: Yeah, that makes sense.
Mark Donnigan: Yeah.
Holly Hester-Reilly: Well, I think we’re about out of time. So to wrap up, I always like to ask people if they have advice for aspiring sort of followers of their area. So let’s say there’s someone listening who is a founder and is trying to build the marketing function, what do you recommend they do?
Mark Donnigan: Yeah, so you might assume that I’d say, “Well, really, go grab… Here’s three marketing books and really dig into those.” There is so much great information out there, and somebody who’s really wanting to dig into marketing, like a founder says, “Hey, I come from product, not marketing, so I better learn about it.” They’re probably already reading all the books and more, so I’m not even going to bother naming some of my suggestions there. But I really think and we’ve been talking, really the whole center of this whole conversation, the center of this conversation is knowing the ecosystem and getting out into the field.
This applies to product, this applies to marketing. If somebody largely is developing a solution and working in isolation, with an occasional popping up and maybe trying to conduct a survey or trying to have a few calls with some potential customers or something, just the odds are just too great that either they’re building something in the wrong direction or again, it comes back to what I said, they don’t really understand who the buyer is. So they’re, again, they’re assuming, and that’s wrong, wrong assumption, or they don’t know who the real beneficiary is, or they really don’t understand how that solution is going to be implemented. And so they do develop actually a compelling product, it solves a real need, but ultimately, it can’t be used, or it can’t be used easily enough that they can close the deals they need to close.
So I think put simply, net, net, net, what I just said is know the industry and learn it. And if it’s a new industry to them, then probably the next couple quarters should be 50% of the time, should be in any way possible spent out listening. And I’ve realized now it’s not so much out but in whatever ways are possible engaging, setting up zoom calls, reaching out, talking to people, sitting on webinars, just really digesting and then listening without bias. Because the other problem is, is that we, and we all do it but it’s easy to also listen to be like, “Yeah, but these people don’t really see the big picture.” well, if these are people in the industry, and if they’re telling you what they’re doing, that doesn’t mean that there isn’t disruption coming. But it also means that we better be aware of that and we’d better listen.
Holly Hester-Reilly: Yeah. Yeah, absolutely. Well, Mark, it’s been a pleasure to talk to you, how can people find you if they want to follow?
Mark Donnigan: Yeah, so just go to So my website is And I have a playbook out there actually, that I think founders would find, or just product leaders would find really interesting. Has a nice framework for go-to-markets and steps to follow, so. And I don’t ask for your email, it’s ungated. So just click it and you can get value.
Holly Hester-Reilly: Wonderful. Well, thank you so much. It’s been a pleasure to talk to you today.
Mark Donnigan: Thank you, Holly. Really great. Thank you.
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