Customer-Centric Marketing: François Dufour's path to $1B at LinkedIn

François Dufour was Alex's coach back when Alex ran marketing at Lattice. François really helped Alex transition from being an individual contributor to a true marketing executive at a fast-growing SaaS company. 

In this episode, François and Alex caught up to talk about:

  • early growth at LinkedIn and Twilio
  • the importance of getting close to customers
  • how to market and sell to a technical audience; and
  • how to upgrade yourself from individual contributor to marketing leader

Enjoy the show!

June 26, 2023

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Transcript

Alex Kracov: I'd love to start the conversation with your time at LinkedIn. You joined LinkedIn in 2008 to run marketing for LinkedIn Talent Solutions. From what I remember, it was a really fast-growing social network but there wasn't much of a business model. I'd love to know what made you join LinkedIn. And can you kind of paint a picture of what LinkedIn was like when you joined?

François Dufour: Yeah, so there was a business model. A very clear one, actually. Surprisingly, years later when Reid Hoffman got awarded, I think, the award of entrepreneur of the year at HBS, he showed his initial business plan. He was incredible how right he was. The only thing he got wrong — it was just a one year off. There were three business lines they were monetizing on top of their social network. But at the time when LinkedIn was 350 people, probably total revenue or bookings ARR of close to $90 million. The business lines were the premium account, the advertising business, and then the recruiting solutions business.

The first one, the larger one was the premium account. Oh, sorry, marketing solutions that we thought was going to be the largest business. And Talent Solutions that are recruiting solutions was the one I joined — two and a half people marketing that, about $20 million of AR, 10 sales reps. We thought it was just going to be the smallest. It turns out that it accelerated. He was right on for recruiters. We're at the right time at the right place. Even though joining there in December 2008, I got really scared because it was right after the beginning of the financial crisis. The first thing that gets cut is recruiting. The second thing that gets cut is marketing. I thought, why did I just join? Luckily, when you have a disruptive service like this which allows you to save money on other recruiting spend, that was right. Very, very strong, and fast-growing network, and clear idea. But we needed to build a lot of stuff.

Alex Kracov: And so you joined with just two and a half people, $20 million ARR. What did those early days look like, building it up from scratch? Today, everyone uses LinkedIn for recruiting. But when you joined, that wasn't quite the case. And so I'd love to know how did you think about positioning the product. How are you able to convince recruiters to actually use LinkedIn?

François Dufour: Yeah, so we didn't convince them to use LinkedIn. Our job was to convince them to use the LinkedIn premium services, recruiting services. The network itself, through the word of mouth, through network effect, was recruiting recruiters who are creating their profiles. So the job was to figure out which organizations have recruiters there, and really showing them why they needed our suite of solutions. And so the positioning was you need to go from — this is not a great way to put it. But to glorify job poster, the resume screener, and interview scheduler to being a lot more strategic and do what we called and explained to be 'passive candidate recruiting.'

You build your brand. You source people. You source the right one. You put in your jobs in front of the right ones. And you go from really being relying on luck— what was it called — to spray and post or post and spray, and really become a strategic function. So we give them the tools, the data, and mostly the inspiration from the best, boring a lot from what the headhunting firms do and the internal search teams do to show them what's possible. The suite of tools was increased in better sourcing with what's called a LinkedIn recruiter, job posts on the network, and solutions to help build your employer brand reputation, company profiles, and things like that.

Alex Kracov: It sounds like there's a lot of product marketing work to figure out what is the positioning, how do you think about this pitched to the recruiters, and changing the way recruiters work from just the posting or job postings on the internet to actually having a more proactive approach to recruiting. But when it comes to — I assume there's a lot of education stuff you put out into the market. But once you put out that education, was it mainly inbound? Were recruiters just coming to you saying, "Oh, I'm interested," and bought into that messaging? Or did you have to do more outbound and go out to them and say, "Hey, recruiter. You need to change the way you're doing things right now"?

François Dufour: We did both. First, with a network like that and then when you have so many free or self-serve premium recruiters, we wanted to make sure they could find our — we advertised on the network a little bit. We had some product integrations pointing them to our corporate pages. But in terms of outbound, we did a lot of education events, in-person, webcasts. And that later grew into a conference. But the conference, we can talk about that later, was mostly for customers. The events, especially we grew a program that I initially tested in three markets, where simply for three hours, we get people in a large meeting room up to anywhere between 30 to 120. We organized a panel with our most innovative customers, those who have been experimenting, innovating with LinkedIn. We just share how they were using social media in general to recruit. It turns out it was mostly around LinkedIn, of course.

Then we invited people to come to those webcasts or in-person, simply because we had the email addresses and the contacts on LinkedIn. They were just listening to the most innovative and progressive customers. At some point, they wanted to know. Well, of course, people were talking about how they were using LinkedIn for more strategic recruiting, because that's exactly who we selected. Then we went into a product demo. And so the outbound was working. That outbound was working so well. After I started with three of those meetings, we ended up running 130 a year in the world of that, and the same thing in webcast. Then of course, all the right content, emails, we come up and wrote recruiting trends initially for the US and then took that to many countries. That was more content, webcast, et cetera. It was a lot of a classic dimension type and content-based, outbound-based on education.

Alex Kracov: I think what's super interesting what you're saying there is you sort of used the voice of the customer and understood how are they using LinkedIn really successfully, and then mirrored that back to other recruiters to say, "Hey, look. This recruiter is using LinkedIn really well. You should use it in this way, too." That sort of compounded over time. Then you obviously had the added benefit of an amazing brand and the network effects that you could do to recruit more people.

François Dufour: Big, big, big time. This is where having a sales team in multiple regions helped. Because they were building those relationships, and we're tapping them big time as a marketing team. Hey, who in your region is strategic? Who should we know? What do they do right? This is why also we started some customer advisory boards with them. I didn't realize it at the time, of doing these city-based events. Every time just sweating through who do we invite. Those that were sharing the right stories — they didn't have to be stories about LinkedIn but strategic recruiting — we make sure we're staying very close to them, thanking them, sending them gifts, keeping them in our ecosystem. Then they upgraded later to also become the keynote speakers, the webcast speakers, our ambassadors, et cetera. That was essential.

Alex Kracov: It's amazing. It reminds me what I did at Lattice. Thanks to your help with the resources for human stuff. It's a really powerful playbook of just like grassroots from events and community-organizing things, and then showing that all back to the customers and your next round of buyers, if you will. You mentioned it a little bit briefly, the LinkedIn Talent Connect conference. I'd love to know how that came to be, and why you created such an awesome conference for recruiters.

François Dufour: There were already a few conferences and many conferences for recruiters. They were done by third-party organizations who had to make money from that, and therefore invited a lot of vendors. But the real reason that we created one is, at some point, we realized, okay, so now that we've got a good acquisition machine, we also need to do a lot more to upsell, cross-sell, and further engage the customers. One of the great ways to do that is, why don't we think about doing a conference so that we can put them more in touch with the most innovative ones, have the account managers spend more time with them, and really push the profession forward? That's why we started.

By the way, it wasn't an open conference. The conference was by invite only initially. So we drove that feeling of exclusivity. I was very lucky to be able to have decent budgets. There were no vendors. There was no exhibit floor. It was all about celebrating the journey and all the improvements of the profession, and being there as their strategic partner. Of course, we also invited prospects — handpicked. There were clear rules that the AEs could invite them. We invited also, of course, a lot of influencers as well. But it was all about sharing best practices, of course, keynotes by LinkedIn, and a lot of our ideally smartest people just crunching some data and playing back some best practices, helping this profession become more data-driven and more strategic.

Alex Kracov: And then another similar initiative, I guess maybe more for VIP level, was the customer advisory board. I think that was hugely influential. Was that the LinkedIn 100? Is that what you called the customer advisory board, or is that something else?

François Dufour: The LinkedIn 100 was later. It was a best-off, or at least a group of a few customers advisory boards. But yeah, I started the customer advisory boards probably two or three months into my tenure. Because I wanted to get to know more customers, feed everything we're doing with voice of customer, expose the product team, the product marketing team and each other to what they were thinking. That's something I got from my days at Yahoo!, which is also a best practice we got there through hiring people from eBay. We're exceptionally good at community management with these sorts of customer advisory boards.

The benefits, I didn't see them necessarily at the time. First of all, it's an amazing motivation for the team. You build relationships with customers. They don't end up being anonymous, like I don't know them entities. They're real people. You've become friends with them. You spend time. You understand what they're dealing with. It becomes a great source of content. It becomes an amazing source of listening to the same insights together as an extended team. When product, product marketing, marketing and sales share the same nuggets of insights from customers, it really sends us into the same direction usually. Everybody brings their own lens and their own facet to building that castle together. But it does it in a way that you want to solve somebody's problem.

Then next, also, it creates amazing ambassadors from the customers. For instance, we had the head of recruiting at Adobe who was there. We realized through this discussion massive champion of LinkedIn. At the time, Facebook was a big threat potentially for us. It was really against using Facebook to recruit. So much so that one day we get a ping from a journalist saying, "Hey, we hear Facebook is about to launch some recruiting solutions. I'm going to write about it." Okay. I know that Jeff over there at Adobe feels strongly about that. Do you want to talk to him? He turned around the story. The story ended up being instead of positive about Facebook getting in the space, it was negative. That could never have happened if we did not spent hours with this head of talent acquisition getting to know what he cared about and what he was passionate about.

Later, after three years of doing that, plus all the great speakers we had in our speaking circuit, we thought why don't we create a supergroup — LinkedIn 100 — of the most progressive, innovative, forward-thinking customers. We brought all of them together in this program called LinkedIn 100. We told the three of them that asked would there be co-chairs that basically we give them access to resources, our time, so that they could organize the forum by themselves. Just find the agenda, and they loved it. They had a conference within a conference, their own groups. They were the most innovative, basically, talent acquisition leaders.

Alex Kracov: Yeah, it's super interesting to hear you talk about just how close you were to customers. That's always like the early-stage advice. It's like founders need to be really close to customers. Do founder-led sales. But LinkedIn was able to maintain that at a pretty significant scale through these different programs, whether it was the LinkedIn 100, the cab, the conference. It's like an amazing playbook for other companies to run as well, where you can have this structured voice of the customer events. Then that just makes the whole business better, whether it's the product and sales stuff. It's really, really cool to hear you talk about.

And so LinkedIn is like this giant marketplace of talent. There's obviously a very careful balance to monetizing these marketplaces, right? If you monetize too aggressively, you might upset your greatest asset, which is the talent on the platform. The people, all these recruiters want to hit up. And so how did you think about that balance at LinkedIn?

François Dufour: Reid Hoffman, and the founders thought about it from the beginning. That's why the first value we had was members first. It was the recognition there will not be a healthy ecosystem if there are not a lot of free and engaged members. That becomes such an ingrained value that we wouldn't even start the pitches, the executive briefing — when we're talking to very large customers — and tell them, "Member first is our first and primary value. There's no amount that you can pay us. No check big enough that will make us forget that. And here's why." We were doing this on purpose, so they would understand all the things we wouldn't do for them. Because they understood that for them to benefit long-term from the ecosystem, we wouldn't sell our user's data. We wouldn't do things that would damage engagement. Of course, there was always a tension with the emails and things like that. Because the more you receive, the more it could be considered spammy. So we were thinking of ways to incentivize sending good emails. We're training people how to do that. Maybe they can renew the emails if their emails were replied or accepted. So we kept tweaking and iterating with that. That was — you're right — super essential.

Alex Kracov: It makes sense. That's why I can't go on LinkedIn and just export all of the emails from a bunch of prospects, right? I need to go through these really focused product experiences. Obviously, it worked out really well. During your time at LinkedIn, you grew the marketing team pretty significantly. I think it grew from like 2 to 50 plus people. I'd love to know what was that experience like for you. Because I don't think you'd ever done something like that before.

François Dufour: Yeah, the largest team that was mentioned before that was, I think, four people. First, when you join a rocketship and you know you're going to have the luxury to hire a lot of people, the first thing I did is — especially, I was marketing into recruiting — I need to teach, I need to learn to recruit well. And so I spent quite a bit of time. I recommend a book called Who: The A Method for Hiring. I spent an inordinate amount of time just going religiously through the process, not skipping steps from scoping the roll to reference checks, to onboarding and making sure that every hire I was making was going to be the right one, to go and learn fast, and do something that had not been done before. So quick learners, people who were, as much as possible, I was tapping my connections to make sure that there was a culture fit, and someone who came highly recommended. I made a few bets on people who had not had ever any product marketing experience. Because I knew they were strategic. They can write well, and they could especially learn really fast. And so over invested in that. I taught my team to also over invest in that.

Then I was already using OKRs at Yahoo!, and I kept doing that. That really helped a lot. Of course, adjusting the level that you manage the team in there, from the people who need quite a bit of coaching to those who don't. But in general, the moment I could pick up that someone could be autonomous, I would give them as much autonomy as possible. Then there was a fantastic sales culture in leadership at LinkedIn, led by Mike Gamson. That was super customer-first, very positive in the thinking focused on growth. I got my team also close to that. I drafted from that great leader to just learn from him how he was scaling his team thinking about that, inspiring people. I also used a lot of that magic that happens when you connect with the customers, and exposing my team to that. Come to the cab. Listen in. Get to know them. That really creates some common field that we operate from.

Alex Kracov: Were there any really tough moments along the way in building LinkedIn? Any kind of hard moments that stand out to you?

François Dufour: Yeah, well, for me, especially, there was always a tension between the self-serve business and the sales-led. Namely, the main problem was that our reps were very successful selling even SMBs up to $10,000 a year for something that could have bought for maybe a third of the price online. And so the reps, as a result, were really fishing in the segments that were meant to be self-service. That created a lot of tension internally, especially if you can imagine if you're the product manager in charge of the sales for business, and you see your revenue cannibalize a little bit by the salespeople, you can create then opportunities for churn later. Because the customer is like, do I really need all this? That led to really difficult conversations and adjustment in terms of team organization, budgets do not touch targets, and how to handle that. Did you have any other ones in mind that I may have shared with you before?

Alex Kracov: Yeah, there was. Any tough moments with Jeff Weiner?

François Dufour: Oh, yeah, okay. That was more a moment after the conference, after the first or the second one. I forget. A massive success. Everybody's super excited at the company. It's the first time LinkedIn had done a conference. Recruiting was an underserved function. So it was great to make them come together and celebrate them. I think I'm in my manager's office, Patrick Crane. Fantastic CMO. He hired me there. He was my boss also at Yahoo!. Jeff barges in and he goes, "Oh, I'm so happy for this conference. This is great. We've decided next year, you're going to be in charge. We're going to do one that brings together all our business lines together. So we're going to bring marketing. For advertising, we're going to be recruiting, and we're going to bring sales."

Before I had time to articulate my thoughts fully, I said, "Great. But I won't be doing that. I don't think I'll be here anymore." I was like, oh, my God. I'm going to get fired. They looked at me in such disbelief, but they didn't say anything for a while. I had the time to say, "Here's why. Because this is about them. If we make it about our three business lines, the common denominator is going to be LinkedIn. So it will become a conference about us. The talent cannot work because we celebrated them, and where are they going as a profession? How are they taking it to the next level? We cannot lose that. You felt the energy. They were so excited. There was a vendor standing for them." They looked. Oh, it makes sense. Then indeed, we were able to continue telling connecting keep it short. But I was really scared with the way they looked back at me. I was like, oh, my god. I think I'm out.

Alex Kracov: It makes a lot of sense. You always want to focus on one persona and have that persona be the champion. As soon as you start combining a lot of different personas, that sort of muddies your message.

François Dufour: Yeah, exactly. There’re moments where I've been to and I think they did a fantastic job, but you got your dream force. It's more about salesforce and customers in general. They're really good at customer marketing. But it doesn't feel it's got that one identity of the people are the champion. I wanted to really preserve that.

Alex Kracov: I'd love to switch gears a little bit away from LinkedIn. Because since LinkedIn, you've spent a lot of your career working in developer marketing. You started as being the CMO of Twilio. Then you went on to held interim CMO positions at Algolia, Apollo GraphQL, Vercel and more. I'd love to know what makes developer marketing different from marketing to other audiences.

François Dufour: Correction. I wasn't CMO at Vercel. I was an advisor. It's a great company. They really get front-end devs beautifully. And before that, I was also the head of marketing, VP Marketing for Udacity where aspiring developers were coming to us. So I had the chance also to see what it takes to become one. Developer marketing is — I'm tempted to say it's the same thing but more. More. You need to be more authentic. You need to be more focused on education. You need to be precise in the claims you make. You need to avoid buzzwords. You just need to help educate.

Basically, the main difference is developers need focused time to work. They are used to learning on their own very often finding resources, reading docs, trying to build things. They have to learn so much all the time because tech changes so fast, and just spend a lot of time also debugging and trying to solve, both be creative and also just fix problems. The moment you understand that this is all about making them efficient in learning, efficient in building and efficient in fixing, that changes how you think about things. For instance, don't write jargon. I understand that the developer, if they look at your webpage and they see buzzwords and jargon, they go straight to the dot. Why? Because that's where there's plain English to them. What your product is, you explain it in simple words. Work is explained there as well. So why don't you bring that ethos into your copy email, website, et cetera?

When they debug, they spend time sometimes looking for a comma or a period that's in the wrong place. And so that means also everything you write needs to be right on. You need to show a lot of empathy. That means to understand how they work, how they learn, what they're trying to do. The moment you get that right, then it works. These principles can be completely applied to the rest of marketing. Treat your customers as they're smart, because they are. They're creative. They're trying to problem solve. They want you to be authentic. They don't want you to just tell them, "Hey, this is going to be the best outcome possible when you use this." Describe functionally what it does and how it works, and keep the big claims to a minimum. Because when I tested some very big or exertional or benefit-oriented claims on the website of Twilio, if you're lucky, they don't read them. If you're unlucky, they'll start tweeting about it and badmouthing you. But then they exit out to dot.

Alex Kracov: I think one of the things Twilio was really good at was developer evangelism. You can't drive down the 101 in San Francisco without seeing the ask-your-developer billboards. I'm curious how you thought about it. Because you described education and speaking plain English. But how did you turn these developers into evangelist and make them just super excited? Was it making them the hero in the organization? How did you think about that at Twilio?

François Dufour: We were making them the heroes but when we were talking to another audience. Jeff Lawson was the founder who said, "Yes, I can build a business that's going to be targeted for developers, and where the developers will be the ones adopting the product and paying." People used to say developers have no influence. They got no budget. You cannot build a business on them. He proved the people wrong. Billboards were not targeted developers.

You asked me as we're preparing for this call. What campaigns, for instance, did you do to engage developers? It turns out I couldn't really think of one. Because campaigns are too gimmicky for them. What we did instead is a bunch of ongoing — we call it evergreen education from what we call stories with code, which is how-to tutorials. How do you create a text alert for appointment reminders, for instance, in Python, et cetera? Basically, let's be where they are learning. Either they're Googling something, how do I do this? I'm stuck. Or, they're at a conference or a hackathon trying to be able to hack something as a team. We were sponsoring a lot of that because we wanted access to giving them a five-minute demo, being there to support them. By the way, we're sweating the details of the five-minute demo to get it absolutely right, to tell a story. A bunch of educational things.

In the end, the billboard was really there. We kept it to show to decision-makers and buyers, to force a dialogue, to position the developers as heroes, and for talent rep purposes. And yes, it really helped the ethos of there's a brand out there of developers that champions you. We are the first probably to show some code on the front of the New York Stock Exchange when we IPO-ed, and also doing live demos on the floor, and live streaming that to really show the new influence and the power of developers in being creative in solving business problems.

Alex Kracov: When you're at Twilio, I think you grew revenue from $165 million to $400 million plus. The company went public during your time. I believe, during this time, the company also went from pure PLG to adding more of an enterprise sales motion. I'd love to understand what that process was like. How did you help the company transition to that new world?

François Dufour: Yeah, that's one of the reasons they hired me. Because they like my experience at LinkedIn and doing mid-market and enterprise marketing but on top of a very strong PLG consumer type motion, which Twilio was really good at. So we had a fantastic — Twilio was designed for that — developer self-serve experience. The first thing was going through. Today we call it from PLG to more PLS. From self-serve to really identifying and grooming the right developers, the right accounts that were showing promise, either because of their engagement or their profile, and making sure that the human assistance product-led sales was right.

We failed at sending a lead or sign up to an AE. That wouldn't work. But what worked is having a team in the middle that we call technical BDRs — people early in their careers who really understood how to help a developer on the way. Hey, can I help you get unstuck? Can I send you the right docs? Can I offer you the right discount to extend your trial? I'll show you two other resources that gets you unstuck. Then through that, helping figure out okay, is there really an opportunity there that I can pass on to an AE? What we added was really product-led sales motion first to that great PLG and salesforce adoption model.

Number two is when you go and try to really add this outbound or enterprise or sales-led motion, we had to do it with use cases. On the developer side, to go back to your former question, the main strategy was to put Twilio in the toolkit of every developer even before they have a real use case with volume and budget. That means ongoing education. I believe that we're playing a long-term game. An enterprise will engage with you and only spend time if they have the real need, which usually is a use case. That means we turn on the creative marketing that was use case-centric. It wasn't about all the products or the API breaks. But it was about oh, you can do text alerts. You can do call center. You can go call tracking. You can do two-factor authentication. Then creating mini-teams that were bringing together some people in product marketing, some people in demand gen, some people in sales, to go and approach that as almost startups and doing a more traditional dimension play.

The third aspect was a lot of sales enablement. Because it's a technical product, you need to explain it to decision-makers who are not necessarily familiar with. Well, this is how you think and use APIs, creating case studies for all these also use cases, and ongoing sales enablement and education. That was really key so that they can in turn just educate also the economy buyers.

Alex Kracov: Yeah, it's really interesting how sales just became an extension of this general education strategy. I love this idea of the technical BDRs who are coming in. Their goal is not just to sell but actually to help them just get more value and use the product more, which obviously will eventually lead to a sale. It's a very good way to sort of get a developer over the line and actually lead to those juicy enterprise.

François Dufour: Yeah, and that's super critical and something I've seen also. MongoDB does that. The sales team that handles the product-led sales, basically, is super helpful. It's quite technical. Vercel did the same thing with product advocates that were technically embedded in marketing. So close to the content created by developer relations. Really, they are to — a quid pro quo, I'm going to help you. In the process, I'm going to find some information about your use case, maybe your budget. Who else you'd like us to talk to you in the organization to give you the license and the freedom to use our service more, if you're interested? Then position the next conversation with potentially a sales engineer, or introduce the AE as the ally who can really help you make the case for spending more money on this if you really liked the tool by approaching together the decision-makers. Because developers typically hate just having to make these business cases and then work with procurement and buyers internally.

Alex Kracov: So the AE did all the annoying work for the developers. Yeah, it's interesting to hear. I've never been a part of a company who went public. I know, as part of this process, there's a lot of pressure to get the house in order when it comes to predictably forecasting revenue. But I'm sure there's a lot more. What is marketing's role as companies go public? How did you think about that challenge at Twilio?

François Dufour: When I joined, literally, three months later we're starting the process. So I wasn't really part of all the engine that was making everything more predictable, helping with forecasts, et cetera. Maybe three phases of helping with the IPO. The first is you need to help tell the story. There's a big product marketing in the case study exercise, the way that the product and the show on the website for investors, helping with the roadshow. The longest poll I think was really coming up with a great case study, stories and videos from customers, and great brands who would explain what Twilio was. Because that wasn't easy for others to understand what they were doing with it.

Number two, the day off actually is something that I think people just — at least, for us, we made it a big deal. Because that was, as I was explaining earlier, a moment to really celebrate developers in Wall Street. Live coding from the trading floor, the billboards, and going there even with an API flag and waving the API flag in Wallstreet was pretty cool. Then after, we also got ready to the moment you get out of your life period where you can really do any comms, is securing a — we managed to secure Forbes cover story that was showcasing Jeff Lawson. So the comms team had been really hard at work for that. By the way, also, the day off, there's a lot of comms and interview prep that needs to take place, which is very difficult for a founder. Because they go from pitching investors, and they are allowed to disclose. They have to disclose a lot of things, tell the exact same pitch all the time. All of a sudden, you're talking to a journalist, vastly different. So helping Jeff do that was also a big amount of work for the comms team.

Alex Kracov: I'd love to switch gears to when we first started working together. You were my marketing coach at Lattice. We met as I was trying to scale myself and move from just the first marketer at Lattice to a VP of Marketing. You really were amazing and really helped me become a better marketer but also, probably, more importantly, helped me learn how to be an executive at a company. I know you did this not just for me, but you're coaching a lot of other aspiring marketers at the time. And so I'm curious what common challenges you see marketers face as they grow their careers. Are there certain patterns that emerge as people try to move from a solo marketer to a director and VP and beyond?

François Dufour: Yeah, a few. But first, I want to call you out for — I mean, everything was in you. It was such a pleasure to work with you. Thank you for the kind words. It was really a privilege to see you grow. If you don't mind, I'll give examples of how you've done it.

Alex Kracov: Sure, yeah.

François Dufour: First, you were an incredibly high-performing, fast-producing IC who also had created or started enlisting a really strong team. The next thing to understand is, I cannot do everything anymore. I need to hire people who are better than me at their craft. So segmenting. You are doing everything. All of a sudden, you need to create a product marketing function. You need to create a content function. You need to create a comms function, fill marketing, growth, et cetera.

In your case and to anybody, I'd recommend, we also understand is there anything of that you want to hold out and keep to yourself because you love doing it? In your case, you love doing multichannel integrated campaign, brand work, website work. That part you kept. What is it that you love doing? It's going to be very difficult finding someone who's better than you at that. What are the other things that you need to hire for? Then spend time initial upfront understanding what is the job of a product marketer. Interview a few without actually — by that, I mean benchmark. Understand what the role is about, but mostly what each role will be about at your company. Because the product marketing of company A could be vastly different from product marketing of company B. Same thing, what type of growth leader demand gen. So really think about that. Understand each role. Understand what you're trying to hire. Never hesitate. This is what you did to hire people who seem more impressive than you, and you're going to learn from. Think of every hire as a gift to the company, to your team, and to yourself. Because they're going to push you to become better. I've seen some people just shy away from hiring people who are better than them because they thought, hey, they're going to take my role. Great. Your boss wants you to have a succession plan. Just build a succession plan.

Then more and more, you communicate about your vision, the key priorities, repeat them again, and again, remove blockers for your team instead of doing stuff for them. You allowed them to try stuff and sometimes fail. Then urge the need, the reflex that someone like you may have had. Because you knew how to fix something in five minutes. They didn't. Give them pointers, but let them do it. Then take stock in a regular basis. Where do you stand? How am I doing there? The fact that we were working together was I think also helpful, because they allow you to stop and think and get challenged by somebody else. Why did you do this, or is that okay that you don't touch this anymore? Do they need any guidance? Where you are exceptional is you remove blockers for them all the time. You show them also this culture of moving fast and trying things. And that even when you were managing a large team, you were still getting your hands dirty. You also set the tone.

Alex Kracov: I think you were so helpful in just making sure I was on the right track and not going crazy. Because I was just learning so much on my own. But I never actually worked at a SaaS marketing program before. So I didn't know actually what good looked like. And so you were such a helpful parameter in understanding oh, I am on the right track, or, oh, this problem is really common. One thing that comes to mind was the email list. We're all fighting over how many emails we can send out. Demand gen wants to send emails. Events wants to send emails. Content wants to send emails. I remember you saying to me, like, that's just the problem that marketing teams have. Like at Yahoo!, I think there was like a very clear process to get an email out the door. Little tactical things were so helpful. It's just me being like, oh, this is just what a scale of marketing program looks like.

François Dufour: Great point. Basically, there's a few things as a marketing leader you need to do exceptionally well and in different way. Most of the other things are very similar. People face the same thing. Surround yourself with friends, network. Join communities that face the same challenges because you'll learn so fast and so much. Especially now, there's so much content and communities everywhere. It'd be a crime not to do it. In this case, when we worked together, it was because Jack, CEO and Founder and Co-Founder, believed in you. He said, I've got someone who's crazy high potential who hasn't seen the movie before. Can you help? But everybody deserves a buddy like that. Whether you pay them or not, it's really essential to find your support system.

Other advice for marketers, in tech especially. A lot of them get too quickly disconnected from product and especially customers. I'm going back to the point I was making at LinkedIn before. Customer proximity is your magic potion. You lose that, you can become irrelevant pretty quickly. Or you become someone who creates programs, runs programs, look at budgets. We need some people like that. But as the head of marketing for a company, you are serving a CEO, typically, that has amazing intuition and understanding of the customer. They expect you to also understand the customers and the market.

If you want to build a great relationship with product, you need to infuse that knowledge of the competitive environment, the market, the customers. If you want to build a great relationship with sales, you of course need to surround them with qualified leads enablement, which also starts with expertise of marketing customers. That is one thing that if we don't prioritize it, it falls through the cracks. But these days, staying in touch with customers can be as easy as listening to three gone calls a week. But the idea also is just building relationships with customers so that they keep educating you. That's the one thing that I hear a lot of CEOs complain about the head of marketing.

Alex Kracov: That's something I definitely thought I was doing at Lattice. But in retrospect, I was not doing enough. A dock now I am so deeply invested with customer relationships, managing support, getting on calls, talking to people. I just really understand the problem. I was not getting on calls enough with the HR folks we were selling at Lattice. In retrospect, I probably could have done an even better job if I had done that.

François Dufour: Same thing for me. At Twilio, I should have done that also a lot more. I was doing it every week at Udacity talking to stood in a week. I was doing it quite a bit at LinkedIn. Arguably, never enough. But you look at a CEO, for instance, who will probably spend after even they've got an established sales team, hopefully anywhere between 10% and 20% of their time with customers. In marketing, if you don't understand them, you'd go nowhere. It's a great motivation.

Alex Kracov: One of the big transitions for me was, when you went to a VP, your first team becomes the exec team and working with all these different functional leaders. You obviously still have to manage the marketing team, but you have to work with sales and product and the CEO and that group. Then you also have to work with the board and manage that relationship. Do you have any advice for marketers who are just becoming a VP, on how they can manage either both the exec relationships and the board side of things?

François Dufour: Yeah, sure. The first thing is — I'm going back — if you know the customers, already that gives you a wonderful set of insights to bring and contribute. Two, and I remember we're talking about that. Imagining the analogy of you're at the center of your team, initially. You're doing a lot of things. You're coordinating all the trainings, et cetera. But get yourself out of there to operate at the periphery, which gives you more bandwidth, to spend time with these relationships. It means hiring right, having clear roles and responsibilities, OKRs, and letting your team operate as autonomously as they can. Then build clear expectations with your peers. By that, have sales product, et cetera. I did that wrong at LinkedIn for a long time, where I was negotiating almost expectations with them one by one and my priorities with them one by one. Of course, they have different priorities and different agendas.

What I learned and what my advice would be: make sure that the expectations are discussed in public with the constituents. Here are the trade-offs you're dealing with. You put forth our recommendation. Then you discuss it as a team — CEO, head of product, head of sales, you, and maybe your top lieutenants together. You come up with a list as published and clear. These are the things that marketing is supposed to do first. Here's how it's staffed. Here are the things below the line. Then you can validate it with the board. Socialize with the board, not validate. But until you got this alignment — because marketing can be doing so many different things — you're going to be trouble. Then there's ways to address the real issues which each function if you want to get into that product sales, et cetera. But these are the initial requirement.

Alex Kracov: I still actually remember doing that exercise with you. We had a big whiteboard. It was me, you, Jack, and J Zac in a room. I listed out all of the marketing things. We listed out the top five priorities and what fell below the line. It really just helped me communicate to Jack and J Zac. It was like, hey, here's all the stuff I am doing. Each of these have needs to be staffed in a certain way, have different impacts on the business. Just having a framework and a way to talk with the other execs of the company about it was so helpful, and giving them a sense too of why I was making decisions and why I was maybe deprioritizing outbound over SEO and things like that. So thank you for that.

François Dufour: A pleasure. The template is crazy basic, but it's the exercise of doing that together. For example, Algolia. The head of product wanted in the top three of marketing to see product launches. Of course, his team creates product. He wants to launch them in the right way and drive massive adoption right away. But they hired me as a fractional CMO to build up their enterprise marketing motion. The CEO was super clear about that. We're all in the room. The head of product hears that firsthand from the CEO. Then he goes, okay, I understand. So now the exercise for him becomes: how do I do that on my own with my team? Can marketing support and give me the tool instead of the actual bandwidth? That magic line row of below the line for now is so helpful.

Alex Kracov: I'd love to end our conversation on a fun and maybe timely note. Everyone is talking about AI right now. AI startups are getting funded like crazy. Everyone is trying to figure out how to best incorporate AI into their companies. I think you probably have an interesting perspective. How do you think AI is going to impact marketing? Any guesses on the future?

François Dufour: Well, yeah, we're each going to get our — and you've seen it every day — new co-pilots launching. So we each are going to get our co-pilot or multiple co-pilots for different activities. For instance, for product marketing. There's so much you can do with it if only using GPT. By the way, at $20 a month as well paying for the premium version. But in terms of research, understanding the persona where they care about the pain points you deal with, creating persona cards, riffing on messaging, riffing on headlines. I even was able by pushing it created a really wonderful billboard concept for different campaigns with just that in 30 minutes or less if you really iterate and push it and give it a clear brief and push back when you see something you don't like.

Product marketers have this assistant right there. But then, you can also use that for growth. You can actually have it do, of course, content creation assisting. I don't recommend just pushing anything without supervision. So it's still original and a bit unique. But campaigns, banners, landing pages, all that stuff. So it's really augmenting and accelerating us big, big time, starting with researchers. I understand if you're a product marketer, you need to understand your different segments and your competitors. You can ask. If you ask it the right questions, how, why? Why is it growing, et cetera? It just gets accelerated in a way that I never thought was possible so fast.

Alex Kracov: Well, thank you so much for the wonderful — Oh, you used that?

François Dufour: Yeah, what have you seen?

Alex Kracov: What have I seen? We've actually played around with it for this podcast. I'm pretty sure Grow & Tell, the name, I think it came out of a brainstorm with ChatGPT, where Eric was our producer. He was going back and forth with ChatGPT in trying to come up with different names and sub headers and things like that. So that's one way. It's just creative ideation. We're also experimenting with on the content side of things. Because we were investing a lot into SEO. So it's like, what's this balance between AI-generated SEO content versus stuff written by humans? It's not quite perfect. It's not quite it does all of the job. But it definitely augments our jobs right now. I don't know. I need to play around with it more. But those have been two ways we've experimented with it at Dock.

François Dufour: Here's a way that, if you're okay with the last minute, has been very helpful in terms of prompt. If you find a framework, or an article, or blog post you really like online, you feed that to GPT. You say, using the framework, I would like you to apply that to — you describe the target audience you have, the product category, et cetera. Basically, spit out a recommendation along these lines. And so if you find a blog post or a framework for almost everything you want to do, you can actually marry your own contexts with that framework and be very, very specific in the way you want it to format the output.

Alex Kracov: It's crazy, yeah. We're trying to think through how we build it into Dock, the product. We haven't quite figured out. We're not going to pivot the whole company to AI. But I think there are some really interesting features and things we can add to just augment the way sales teams, customer onboarding, and all that stuff work. I don't know. It's an exciting time to be in tech. Even though there's a little economic downturn, but AI is definitely going to be an interesting headwind for all of us.

François Dufour: Oh, yeah. Totally.

Alex Kracov: Well, thank you so much for the wonderful conversation, François. If people want to find you, where should they follow up?

François Dufour: LinkedIn is the best. Find me there. You can follow me there and see the articles I publish. I write on PLG. I write on positioning and category creation. Also, I publish quite a lot on decibel.vc if you want to see some best practices for everything that has to do with B2B, well, B2B software marketing suite.

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Customer-Centric Marketing: François Dufour's path to $1B at LinkedIn

June 26, 2023

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Episode Summary

François Dufour is a marketing partner and resident CMO at Decibel—and a CMO coach on the side.

François started his career in product marketing at Yahoo back in 2004—where he helped make Yahoo Messenger the #1 IM service in the US. He then went on to lead LinkedIn Talent Solutions’ marketing efforts from 2008 to 2013. He grew that business from a few million to close to a billion dollars in revenue, while growing the marketing team from 2 to 50 people.

Since then, he’s spent the last decade working as a marketing leader for many iconic Silicon Valley brands. He was the VP of Global Marketing at Twilio and helped them go public. He was VP of marketing at Udacity, and then held many advisory CMO positions for successful companies like Algolia, Apollo GraphicQL, and Vercel.

François Dufour was Alex's coach back when Alex ran marketing at Lattice. François really helped Alex transition from being an individual contributor to a true marketing executive at a fast-growing SaaS company. 

In this episode, François and Alex caught up to talk about:

  • early growth at LinkedIn and Twilio
  • the importance of getting close to customers
  • how to market and sell to a technical audience; and
  • how to upgrade yourself from individual contributor to marketing leader

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Transcript

Alex Kracov: I'd love to start the conversation with your time at LinkedIn. You joined LinkedIn in 2008 to run marketing for LinkedIn Talent Solutions. From what I remember, it was a really fast-growing social network but there wasn't much of a business model. I'd love to know what made you join LinkedIn. And can you kind of paint a picture of what LinkedIn was like when you joined?

François Dufour: Yeah, so there was a business model. A very clear one, actually. Surprisingly, years later when Reid Hoffman got awarded, I think, the award of entrepreneur of the year at HBS, he showed his initial business plan. He was incredible how right he was. The only thing he got wrong — it was just a one year off. There were three business lines they were monetizing on top of their social network. But at the time when LinkedIn was 350 people, probably total revenue or bookings ARR of close to $90 million. The business lines were the premium account, the advertising business, and then the recruiting solutions business.

The first one, the larger one was the premium account. Oh, sorry, marketing solutions that we thought was going to be the largest business. And Talent Solutions that are recruiting solutions was the one I joined — two and a half people marketing that, about $20 million of AR, 10 sales reps. We thought it was just going to be the smallest. It turns out that it accelerated. He was right on for recruiters. We're at the right time at the right place. Even though joining there in December 2008, I got really scared because it was right after the beginning of the financial crisis. The first thing that gets cut is recruiting. The second thing that gets cut is marketing. I thought, why did I just join? Luckily, when you have a disruptive service like this which allows you to save money on other recruiting spend, that was right. Very, very strong, and fast-growing network, and clear idea. But we needed to build a lot of stuff.

Alex Kracov: And so you joined with just two and a half people, $20 million ARR. What did those early days look like, building it up from scratch? Today, everyone uses LinkedIn for recruiting. But when you joined, that wasn't quite the case. And so I'd love to know how did you think about positioning the product. How are you able to convince recruiters to actually use LinkedIn?

François Dufour: Yeah, so we didn't convince them to use LinkedIn. Our job was to convince them to use the LinkedIn premium services, recruiting services. The network itself, through the word of mouth, through network effect, was recruiting recruiters who are creating their profiles. So the job was to figure out which organizations have recruiters there, and really showing them why they needed our suite of solutions. And so the positioning was you need to go from — this is not a great way to put it. But to glorify job poster, the resume screener, and interview scheduler to being a lot more strategic and do what we called and explained to be 'passive candidate recruiting.'

You build your brand. You source people. You source the right one. You put in your jobs in front of the right ones. And you go from really being relying on luck— what was it called — to spray and post or post and spray, and really become a strategic function. So we give them the tools, the data, and mostly the inspiration from the best, boring a lot from what the headhunting firms do and the internal search teams do to show them what's possible. The suite of tools was increased in better sourcing with what's called a LinkedIn recruiter, job posts on the network, and solutions to help build your employer brand reputation, company profiles, and things like that.

Alex Kracov: It sounds like there's a lot of product marketing work to figure out what is the positioning, how do you think about this pitched to the recruiters, and changing the way recruiters work from just the posting or job postings on the internet to actually having a more proactive approach to recruiting. But when it comes to — I assume there's a lot of education stuff you put out into the market. But once you put out that education, was it mainly inbound? Were recruiters just coming to you saying, "Oh, I'm interested," and bought into that messaging? Or did you have to do more outbound and go out to them and say, "Hey, recruiter. You need to change the way you're doing things right now"?

François Dufour: We did both. First, with a network like that and then when you have so many free or self-serve premium recruiters, we wanted to make sure they could find our — we advertised on the network a little bit. We had some product integrations pointing them to our corporate pages. But in terms of outbound, we did a lot of education events, in-person, webcasts. And that later grew into a conference. But the conference, we can talk about that later, was mostly for customers. The events, especially we grew a program that I initially tested in three markets, where simply for three hours, we get people in a large meeting room up to anywhere between 30 to 120. We organized a panel with our most innovative customers, those who have been experimenting, innovating with LinkedIn. We just share how they were using social media in general to recruit. It turns out it was mostly around LinkedIn, of course.

Then we invited people to come to those webcasts or in-person, simply because we had the email addresses and the contacts on LinkedIn. They were just listening to the most innovative and progressive customers. At some point, they wanted to know. Well, of course, people were talking about how they were using LinkedIn for more strategic recruiting, because that's exactly who we selected. Then we went into a product demo. And so the outbound was working. That outbound was working so well. After I started with three of those meetings, we ended up running 130 a year in the world of that, and the same thing in webcast. Then of course, all the right content, emails, we come up and wrote recruiting trends initially for the US and then took that to many countries. That was more content, webcast, et cetera. It was a lot of a classic dimension type and content-based, outbound-based on education.

Alex Kracov: I think what's super interesting what you're saying there is you sort of used the voice of the customer and understood how are they using LinkedIn really successfully, and then mirrored that back to other recruiters to say, "Hey, look. This recruiter is using LinkedIn really well. You should use it in this way, too." That sort of compounded over time. Then you obviously had the added benefit of an amazing brand and the network effects that you could do to recruit more people.

François Dufour: Big, big, big time. This is where having a sales team in multiple regions helped. Because they were building those relationships, and we're tapping them big time as a marketing team. Hey, who in your region is strategic? Who should we know? What do they do right? This is why also we started some customer advisory boards with them. I didn't realize it at the time, of doing these city-based events. Every time just sweating through who do we invite. Those that were sharing the right stories — they didn't have to be stories about LinkedIn but strategic recruiting — we make sure we're staying very close to them, thanking them, sending them gifts, keeping them in our ecosystem. Then they upgraded later to also become the keynote speakers, the webcast speakers, our ambassadors, et cetera. That was essential.

Alex Kracov: It's amazing. It reminds me what I did at Lattice. Thanks to your help with the resources for human stuff. It's a really powerful playbook of just like grassroots from events and community-organizing things, and then showing that all back to the customers and your next round of buyers, if you will. You mentioned it a little bit briefly, the LinkedIn Talent Connect conference. I'd love to know how that came to be, and why you created such an awesome conference for recruiters.

François Dufour: There were already a few conferences and many conferences for recruiters. They were done by third-party organizations who had to make money from that, and therefore invited a lot of vendors. But the real reason that we created one is, at some point, we realized, okay, so now that we've got a good acquisition machine, we also need to do a lot more to upsell, cross-sell, and further engage the customers. One of the great ways to do that is, why don't we think about doing a conference so that we can put them more in touch with the most innovative ones, have the account managers spend more time with them, and really push the profession forward? That's why we started.

By the way, it wasn't an open conference. The conference was by invite only initially. So we drove that feeling of exclusivity. I was very lucky to be able to have decent budgets. There were no vendors. There was no exhibit floor. It was all about celebrating the journey and all the improvements of the profession, and being there as their strategic partner. Of course, we also invited prospects — handpicked. There were clear rules that the AEs could invite them. We invited also, of course, a lot of influencers as well. But it was all about sharing best practices, of course, keynotes by LinkedIn, and a lot of our ideally smartest people just crunching some data and playing back some best practices, helping this profession become more data-driven and more strategic.

Alex Kracov: And then another similar initiative, I guess maybe more for VIP level, was the customer advisory board. I think that was hugely influential. Was that the LinkedIn 100? Is that what you called the customer advisory board, or is that something else?

François Dufour: The LinkedIn 100 was later. It was a best-off, or at least a group of a few customers advisory boards. But yeah, I started the customer advisory boards probably two or three months into my tenure. Because I wanted to get to know more customers, feed everything we're doing with voice of customer, expose the product team, the product marketing team and each other to what they were thinking. That's something I got from my days at Yahoo!, which is also a best practice we got there through hiring people from eBay. We're exceptionally good at community management with these sorts of customer advisory boards.

The benefits, I didn't see them necessarily at the time. First of all, it's an amazing motivation for the team. You build relationships with customers. They don't end up being anonymous, like I don't know them entities. They're real people. You've become friends with them. You spend time. You understand what they're dealing with. It becomes a great source of content. It becomes an amazing source of listening to the same insights together as an extended team. When product, product marketing, marketing and sales share the same nuggets of insights from customers, it really sends us into the same direction usually. Everybody brings their own lens and their own facet to building that castle together. But it does it in a way that you want to solve somebody's problem.

Then next, also, it creates amazing ambassadors from the customers. For instance, we had the head of recruiting at Adobe who was there. We realized through this discussion massive champion of LinkedIn. At the time, Facebook was a big threat potentially for us. It was really against using Facebook to recruit. So much so that one day we get a ping from a journalist saying, "Hey, we hear Facebook is about to launch some recruiting solutions. I'm going to write about it." Okay. I know that Jeff over there at Adobe feels strongly about that. Do you want to talk to him? He turned around the story. The story ended up being instead of positive about Facebook getting in the space, it was negative. That could never have happened if we did not spent hours with this head of talent acquisition getting to know what he cared about and what he was passionate about.

Later, after three years of doing that, plus all the great speakers we had in our speaking circuit, we thought why don't we create a supergroup — LinkedIn 100 — of the most progressive, innovative, forward-thinking customers. We brought all of them together in this program called LinkedIn 100. We told the three of them that asked would there be co-chairs that basically we give them access to resources, our time, so that they could organize the forum by themselves. Just find the agenda, and they loved it. They had a conference within a conference, their own groups. They were the most innovative, basically, talent acquisition leaders.

Alex Kracov: Yeah, it's super interesting to hear you talk about just how close you were to customers. That's always like the early-stage advice. It's like founders need to be really close to customers. Do founder-led sales. But LinkedIn was able to maintain that at a pretty significant scale through these different programs, whether it was the LinkedIn 100, the cab, the conference. It's like an amazing playbook for other companies to run as well, where you can have this structured voice of the customer events. Then that just makes the whole business better, whether it's the product and sales stuff. It's really, really cool to hear you talk about.

And so LinkedIn is like this giant marketplace of talent. There's obviously a very careful balance to monetizing these marketplaces, right? If you monetize too aggressively, you might upset your greatest asset, which is the talent on the platform. The people, all these recruiters want to hit up. And so how did you think about that balance at LinkedIn?

François Dufour: Reid Hoffman, and the founders thought about it from the beginning. That's why the first value we had was members first. It was the recognition there will not be a healthy ecosystem if there are not a lot of free and engaged members. That becomes such an ingrained value that we wouldn't even start the pitches, the executive briefing — when we're talking to very large customers — and tell them, "Member first is our first and primary value. There's no amount that you can pay us. No check big enough that will make us forget that. And here's why." We were doing this on purpose, so they would understand all the things we wouldn't do for them. Because they understood that for them to benefit long-term from the ecosystem, we wouldn't sell our user's data. We wouldn't do things that would damage engagement. Of course, there was always a tension with the emails and things like that. Because the more you receive, the more it could be considered spammy. So we were thinking of ways to incentivize sending good emails. We're training people how to do that. Maybe they can renew the emails if their emails were replied or accepted. So we kept tweaking and iterating with that. That was — you're right — super essential.

Alex Kracov: It makes sense. That's why I can't go on LinkedIn and just export all of the emails from a bunch of prospects, right? I need to go through these really focused product experiences. Obviously, it worked out really well. During your time at LinkedIn, you grew the marketing team pretty significantly. I think it grew from like 2 to 50 plus people. I'd love to know what was that experience like for you. Because I don't think you'd ever done something like that before.

François Dufour: Yeah, the largest team that was mentioned before that was, I think, four people. First, when you join a rocketship and you know you're going to have the luxury to hire a lot of people, the first thing I did is — especially, I was marketing into recruiting — I need to teach, I need to learn to recruit well. And so I spent quite a bit of time. I recommend a book called Who: The A Method for Hiring. I spent an inordinate amount of time just going religiously through the process, not skipping steps from scoping the roll to reference checks, to onboarding and making sure that every hire I was making was going to be the right one, to go and learn fast, and do something that had not been done before. So quick learners, people who were, as much as possible, I was tapping my connections to make sure that there was a culture fit, and someone who came highly recommended. I made a few bets on people who had not had ever any product marketing experience. Because I knew they were strategic. They can write well, and they could especially learn really fast. And so over invested in that. I taught my team to also over invest in that.

Then I was already using OKRs at Yahoo!, and I kept doing that. That really helped a lot. Of course, adjusting the level that you manage the team in there, from the people who need quite a bit of coaching to those who don't. But in general, the moment I could pick up that someone could be autonomous, I would give them as much autonomy as possible. Then there was a fantastic sales culture in leadership at LinkedIn, led by Mike Gamson. That was super customer-first, very positive in the thinking focused on growth. I got my team also close to that. I drafted from that great leader to just learn from him how he was scaling his team thinking about that, inspiring people. I also used a lot of that magic that happens when you connect with the customers, and exposing my team to that. Come to the cab. Listen in. Get to know them. That really creates some common field that we operate from.

Alex Kracov: Were there any really tough moments along the way in building LinkedIn? Any kind of hard moments that stand out to you?

François Dufour: Yeah, well, for me, especially, there was always a tension between the self-serve business and the sales-led. Namely, the main problem was that our reps were very successful selling even SMBs up to $10,000 a year for something that could have bought for maybe a third of the price online. And so the reps, as a result, were really fishing in the segments that were meant to be self-service. That created a lot of tension internally, especially if you can imagine if you're the product manager in charge of the sales for business, and you see your revenue cannibalize a little bit by the salespeople, you can create then opportunities for churn later. Because the customer is like, do I really need all this? That led to really difficult conversations and adjustment in terms of team organization, budgets do not touch targets, and how to handle that. Did you have any other ones in mind that I may have shared with you before?

Alex Kracov: Yeah, there was. Any tough moments with Jeff Weiner?

François Dufour: Oh, yeah, okay. That was more a moment after the conference, after the first or the second one. I forget. A massive success. Everybody's super excited at the company. It's the first time LinkedIn had done a conference. Recruiting was an underserved function. So it was great to make them come together and celebrate them. I think I'm in my manager's office, Patrick Crane. Fantastic CMO. He hired me there. He was my boss also at Yahoo!. Jeff barges in and he goes, "Oh, I'm so happy for this conference. This is great. We've decided next year, you're going to be in charge. We're going to do one that brings together all our business lines together. So we're going to bring marketing. For advertising, we're going to be recruiting, and we're going to bring sales."

Before I had time to articulate my thoughts fully, I said, "Great. But I won't be doing that. I don't think I'll be here anymore." I was like, oh, my God. I'm going to get fired. They looked at me in such disbelief, but they didn't say anything for a while. I had the time to say, "Here's why. Because this is about them. If we make it about our three business lines, the common denominator is going to be LinkedIn. So it will become a conference about us. The talent cannot work because we celebrated them, and where are they going as a profession? How are they taking it to the next level? We cannot lose that. You felt the energy. They were so excited. There was a vendor standing for them." They looked. Oh, it makes sense. Then indeed, we were able to continue telling connecting keep it short. But I was really scared with the way they looked back at me. I was like, oh, my god. I think I'm out.

Alex Kracov: It makes a lot of sense. You always want to focus on one persona and have that persona be the champion. As soon as you start combining a lot of different personas, that sort of muddies your message.

François Dufour: Yeah, exactly. There’re moments where I've been to and I think they did a fantastic job, but you got your dream force. It's more about salesforce and customers in general. They're really good at customer marketing. But it doesn't feel it's got that one identity of the people are the champion. I wanted to really preserve that.

Alex Kracov: I'd love to switch gears a little bit away from LinkedIn. Because since LinkedIn, you've spent a lot of your career working in developer marketing. You started as being the CMO of Twilio. Then you went on to held interim CMO positions at Algolia, Apollo GraphQL, Vercel and more. I'd love to know what makes developer marketing different from marketing to other audiences.

François Dufour: Correction. I wasn't CMO at Vercel. I was an advisor. It's a great company. They really get front-end devs beautifully. And before that, I was also the head of marketing, VP Marketing for Udacity where aspiring developers were coming to us. So I had the chance also to see what it takes to become one. Developer marketing is — I'm tempted to say it's the same thing but more. More. You need to be more authentic. You need to be more focused on education. You need to be precise in the claims you make. You need to avoid buzzwords. You just need to help educate.

Basically, the main difference is developers need focused time to work. They are used to learning on their own very often finding resources, reading docs, trying to build things. They have to learn so much all the time because tech changes so fast, and just spend a lot of time also debugging and trying to solve, both be creative and also just fix problems. The moment you understand that this is all about making them efficient in learning, efficient in building and efficient in fixing, that changes how you think about things. For instance, don't write jargon. I understand that the developer, if they look at your webpage and they see buzzwords and jargon, they go straight to the dot. Why? Because that's where there's plain English to them. What your product is, you explain it in simple words. Work is explained there as well. So why don't you bring that ethos into your copy email, website, et cetera?

When they debug, they spend time sometimes looking for a comma or a period that's in the wrong place. And so that means also everything you write needs to be right on. You need to show a lot of empathy. That means to understand how they work, how they learn, what they're trying to do. The moment you get that right, then it works. These principles can be completely applied to the rest of marketing. Treat your customers as they're smart, because they are. They're creative. They're trying to problem solve. They want you to be authentic. They don't want you to just tell them, "Hey, this is going to be the best outcome possible when you use this." Describe functionally what it does and how it works, and keep the big claims to a minimum. Because when I tested some very big or exertional or benefit-oriented claims on the website of Twilio, if you're lucky, they don't read them. If you're unlucky, they'll start tweeting about it and badmouthing you. But then they exit out to dot.

Alex Kracov: I think one of the things Twilio was really good at was developer evangelism. You can't drive down the 101 in San Francisco without seeing the ask-your-developer billboards. I'm curious how you thought about it. Because you described education and speaking plain English. But how did you turn these developers into evangelist and make them just super excited? Was it making them the hero in the organization? How did you think about that at Twilio?

François Dufour: We were making them the heroes but when we were talking to another audience. Jeff Lawson was the founder who said, "Yes, I can build a business that's going to be targeted for developers, and where the developers will be the ones adopting the product and paying." People used to say developers have no influence. They got no budget. You cannot build a business on them. He proved the people wrong. Billboards were not targeted developers.

You asked me as we're preparing for this call. What campaigns, for instance, did you do to engage developers? It turns out I couldn't really think of one. Because campaigns are too gimmicky for them. What we did instead is a bunch of ongoing — we call it evergreen education from what we call stories with code, which is how-to tutorials. How do you create a text alert for appointment reminders, for instance, in Python, et cetera? Basically, let's be where they are learning. Either they're Googling something, how do I do this? I'm stuck. Or, they're at a conference or a hackathon trying to be able to hack something as a team. We were sponsoring a lot of that because we wanted access to giving them a five-minute demo, being there to support them. By the way, we're sweating the details of the five-minute demo to get it absolutely right, to tell a story. A bunch of educational things.

In the end, the billboard was really there. We kept it to show to decision-makers and buyers, to force a dialogue, to position the developers as heroes, and for talent rep purposes. And yes, it really helped the ethos of there's a brand out there of developers that champions you. We are the first probably to show some code on the front of the New York Stock Exchange when we IPO-ed, and also doing live demos on the floor, and live streaming that to really show the new influence and the power of developers in being creative in solving business problems.

Alex Kracov: When you're at Twilio, I think you grew revenue from $165 million to $400 million plus. The company went public during your time. I believe, during this time, the company also went from pure PLG to adding more of an enterprise sales motion. I'd love to understand what that process was like. How did you help the company transition to that new world?

François Dufour: Yeah, that's one of the reasons they hired me. Because they like my experience at LinkedIn and doing mid-market and enterprise marketing but on top of a very strong PLG consumer type motion, which Twilio was really good at. So we had a fantastic — Twilio was designed for that — developer self-serve experience. The first thing was going through. Today we call it from PLG to more PLS. From self-serve to really identifying and grooming the right developers, the right accounts that were showing promise, either because of their engagement or their profile, and making sure that the human assistance product-led sales was right.

We failed at sending a lead or sign up to an AE. That wouldn't work. But what worked is having a team in the middle that we call technical BDRs — people early in their careers who really understood how to help a developer on the way. Hey, can I help you get unstuck? Can I send you the right docs? Can I offer you the right discount to extend your trial? I'll show you two other resources that gets you unstuck. Then through that, helping figure out okay, is there really an opportunity there that I can pass on to an AE? What we added was really product-led sales motion first to that great PLG and salesforce adoption model.

Number two is when you go and try to really add this outbound or enterprise or sales-led motion, we had to do it with use cases. On the developer side, to go back to your former question, the main strategy was to put Twilio in the toolkit of every developer even before they have a real use case with volume and budget. That means ongoing education. I believe that we're playing a long-term game. An enterprise will engage with you and only spend time if they have the real need, which usually is a use case. That means we turn on the creative marketing that was use case-centric. It wasn't about all the products or the API breaks. But it was about oh, you can do text alerts. You can do call center. You can go call tracking. You can do two-factor authentication. Then creating mini-teams that were bringing together some people in product marketing, some people in demand gen, some people in sales, to go and approach that as almost startups and doing a more traditional dimension play.

The third aspect was a lot of sales enablement. Because it's a technical product, you need to explain it to decision-makers who are not necessarily familiar with. Well, this is how you think and use APIs, creating case studies for all these also use cases, and ongoing sales enablement and education. That was really key so that they can in turn just educate also the economy buyers.

Alex Kracov: Yeah, it's really interesting how sales just became an extension of this general education strategy. I love this idea of the technical BDRs who are coming in. Their goal is not just to sell but actually to help them just get more value and use the product more, which obviously will eventually lead to a sale. It's a very good way to sort of get a developer over the line and actually lead to those juicy enterprise.

François Dufour: Yeah, and that's super critical and something I've seen also. MongoDB does that. The sales team that handles the product-led sales, basically, is super helpful. It's quite technical. Vercel did the same thing with product advocates that were technically embedded in marketing. So close to the content created by developer relations. Really, they are to — a quid pro quo, I'm going to help you. In the process, I'm going to find some information about your use case, maybe your budget. Who else you'd like us to talk to you in the organization to give you the license and the freedom to use our service more, if you're interested? Then position the next conversation with potentially a sales engineer, or introduce the AE as the ally who can really help you make the case for spending more money on this if you really liked the tool by approaching together the decision-makers. Because developers typically hate just having to make these business cases and then work with procurement and buyers internally.

Alex Kracov: So the AE did all the annoying work for the developers. Yeah, it's interesting to hear. I've never been a part of a company who went public. I know, as part of this process, there's a lot of pressure to get the house in order when it comes to predictably forecasting revenue. But I'm sure there's a lot more. What is marketing's role as companies go public? How did you think about that challenge at Twilio?

François Dufour: When I joined, literally, three months later we're starting the process. So I wasn't really part of all the engine that was making everything more predictable, helping with forecasts, et cetera. Maybe three phases of helping with the IPO. The first is you need to help tell the story. There's a big product marketing in the case study exercise, the way that the product and the show on the website for investors, helping with the roadshow. The longest poll I think was really coming up with a great case study, stories and videos from customers, and great brands who would explain what Twilio was. Because that wasn't easy for others to understand what they were doing with it.

Number two, the day off actually is something that I think people just — at least, for us, we made it a big deal. Because that was, as I was explaining earlier, a moment to really celebrate developers in Wall Street. Live coding from the trading floor, the billboards, and going there even with an API flag and waving the API flag in Wallstreet was pretty cool. Then after, we also got ready to the moment you get out of your life period where you can really do any comms, is securing a — we managed to secure Forbes cover story that was showcasing Jeff Lawson. So the comms team had been really hard at work for that. By the way, also, the day off, there's a lot of comms and interview prep that needs to take place, which is very difficult for a founder. Because they go from pitching investors, and they are allowed to disclose. They have to disclose a lot of things, tell the exact same pitch all the time. All of a sudden, you're talking to a journalist, vastly different. So helping Jeff do that was also a big amount of work for the comms team.

Alex Kracov: I'd love to switch gears to when we first started working together. You were my marketing coach at Lattice. We met as I was trying to scale myself and move from just the first marketer at Lattice to a VP of Marketing. You really were amazing and really helped me become a better marketer but also, probably, more importantly, helped me learn how to be an executive at a company. I know you did this not just for me, but you're coaching a lot of other aspiring marketers at the time. And so I'm curious what common challenges you see marketers face as they grow their careers. Are there certain patterns that emerge as people try to move from a solo marketer to a director and VP and beyond?

François Dufour: Yeah, a few. But first, I want to call you out for — I mean, everything was in you. It was such a pleasure to work with you. Thank you for the kind words. It was really a privilege to see you grow. If you don't mind, I'll give examples of how you've done it.

Alex Kracov: Sure, yeah.

François Dufour: First, you were an incredibly high-performing, fast-producing IC who also had created or started enlisting a really strong team. The next thing to understand is, I cannot do everything anymore. I need to hire people who are better than me at their craft. So segmenting. You are doing everything. All of a sudden, you need to create a product marketing function. You need to create a content function. You need to create a comms function, fill marketing, growth, et cetera.

In your case and to anybody, I'd recommend, we also understand is there anything of that you want to hold out and keep to yourself because you love doing it? In your case, you love doing multichannel integrated campaign, brand work, website work. That part you kept. What is it that you love doing? It's going to be very difficult finding someone who's better than you at that. What are the other things that you need to hire for? Then spend time initial upfront understanding what is the job of a product marketer. Interview a few without actually — by that, I mean benchmark. Understand what the role is about, but mostly what each role will be about at your company. Because the product marketing of company A could be vastly different from product marketing of company B. Same thing, what type of growth leader demand gen. So really think about that. Understand each role. Understand what you're trying to hire. Never hesitate. This is what you did to hire people who seem more impressive than you, and you're going to learn from. Think of every hire as a gift to the company, to your team, and to yourself. Because they're going to push you to become better. I've seen some people just shy away from hiring people who are better than them because they thought, hey, they're going to take my role. Great. Your boss wants you to have a succession plan. Just build a succession plan.

Then more and more, you communicate about your vision, the key priorities, repeat them again, and again, remove blockers for your team instead of doing stuff for them. You allowed them to try stuff and sometimes fail. Then urge the need, the reflex that someone like you may have had. Because you knew how to fix something in five minutes. They didn't. Give them pointers, but let them do it. Then take stock in a regular basis. Where do you stand? How am I doing there? The fact that we were working together was I think also helpful, because they allow you to stop and think and get challenged by somebody else. Why did you do this, or is that okay that you don't touch this anymore? Do they need any guidance? Where you are exceptional is you remove blockers for them all the time. You show them also this culture of moving fast and trying things. And that even when you were managing a large team, you were still getting your hands dirty. You also set the tone.

Alex Kracov: I think you were so helpful in just making sure I was on the right track and not going crazy. Because I was just learning so much on my own. But I never actually worked at a SaaS marketing program before. So I didn't know actually what good looked like. And so you were such a helpful parameter in understanding oh, I am on the right track, or, oh, this problem is really common. One thing that comes to mind was the email list. We're all fighting over how many emails we can send out. Demand gen wants to send emails. Events wants to send emails. Content wants to send emails. I remember you saying to me, like, that's just the problem that marketing teams have. Like at Yahoo!, I think there was like a very clear process to get an email out the door. Little tactical things were so helpful. It's just me being like, oh, this is just what a scale of marketing program looks like.

François Dufour: Great point. Basically, there's a few things as a marketing leader you need to do exceptionally well and in different way. Most of the other things are very similar. People face the same thing. Surround yourself with friends, network. Join communities that face the same challenges because you'll learn so fast and so much. Especially now, there's so much content and communities everywhere. It'd be a crime not to do it. In this case, when we worked together, it was because Jack, CEO and Founder and Co-Founder, believed in you. He said, I've got someone who's crazy high potential who hasn't seen the movie before. Can you help? But everybody deserves a buddy like that. Whether you pay them or not, it's really essential to find your support system.

Other advice for marketers, in tech especially. A lot of them get too quickly disconnected from product and especially customers. I'm going back to the point I was making at LinkedIn before. Customer proximity is your magic potion. You lose that, you can become irrelevant pretty quickly. Or you become someone who creates programs, runs programs, look at budgets. We need some people like that. But as the head of marketing for a company, you are serving a CEO, typically, that has amazing intuition and understanding of the customer. They expect you to also understand the customers and the market.

If you want to build a great relationship with product, you need to infuse that knowledge of the competitive environment, the market, the customers. If you want to build a great relationship with sales, you of course need to surround them with qualified leads enablement, which also starts with expertise of marketing customers. That is one thing that if we don't prioritize it, it falls through the cracks. But these days, staying in touch with customers can be as easy as listening to three gone calls a week. But the idea also is just building relationships with customers so that they keep educating you. That's the one thing that I hear a lot of CEOs complain about the head of marketing.

Alex Kracov: That's something I definitely thought I was doing at Lattice. But in retrospect, I was not doing enough. A dock now I am so deeply invested with customer relationships, managing support, getting on calls, talking to people. I just really understand the problem. I was not getting on calls enough with the HR folks we were selling at Lattice. In retrospect, I probably could have done an even better job if I had done that.

François Dufour: Same thing for me. At Twilio, I should have done that also a lot more. I was doing it every week at Udacity talking to stood in a week. I was doing it quite a bit at LinkedIn. Arguably, never enough. But you look at a CEO, for instance, who will probably spend after even they've got an established sales team, hopefully anywhere between 10% and 20% of their time with customers. In marketing, if you don't understand them, you'd go nowhere. It's a great motivation.

Alex Kracov: One of the big transitions for me was, when you went to a VP, your first team becomes the exec team and working with all these different functional leaders. You obviously still have to manage the marketing team, but you have to work with sales and product and the CEO and that group. Then you also have to work with the board and manage that relationship. Do you have any advice for marketers who are just becoming a VP, on how they can manage either both the exec relationships and the board side of things?

François Dufour: Yeah, sure. The first thing is — I'm going back — if you know the customers, already that gives you a wonderful set of insights to bring and contribute. Two, and I remember we're talking about that. Imagining the analogy of you're at the center of your team, initially. You're doing a lot of things. You're coordinating all the trainings, et cetera. But get yourself out of there to operate at the periphery, which gives you more bandwidth, to spend time with these relationships. It means hiring right, having clear roles and responsibilities, OKRs, and letting your team operate as autonomously as they can. Then build clear expectations with your peers. By that, have sales product, et cetera. I did that wrong at LinkedIn for a long time, where I was negotiating almost expectations with them one by one and my priorities with them one by one. Of course, they have different priorities and different agendas.

What I learned and what my advice would be: make sure that the expectations are discussed in public with the constituents. Here are the trade-offs you're dealing with. You put forth our recommendation. Then you discuss it as a team — CEO, head of product, head of sales, you, and maybe your top lieutenants together. You come up with a list as published and clear. These are the things that marketing is supposed to do first. Here's how it's staffed. Here are the things below the line. Then you can validate it with the board. Socialize with the board, not validate. But until you got this alignment — because marketing can be doing so many different things — you're going to be trouble. Then there's ways to address the real issues which each function if you want to get into that product sales, et cetera. But these are the initial requirement.

Alex Kracov: I still actually remember doing that exercise with you. We had a big whiteboard. It was me, you, Jack, and J Zac in a room. I listed out all of the marketing things. We listed out the top five priorities and what fell below the line. It really just helped me communicate to Jack and J Zac. It was like, hey, here's all the stuff I am doing. Each of these have needs to be staffed in a certain way, have different impacts on the business. Just having a framework and a way to talk with the other execs of the company about it was so helpful, and giving them a sense too of why I was making decisions and why I was maybe deprioritizing outbound over SEO and things like that. So thank you for that.

François Dufour: A pleasure. The template is crazy basic, but it's the exercise of doing that together. For example, Algolia. The head of product wanted in the top three of marketing to see product launches. Of course, his team creates product. He wants to launch them in the right way and drive massive adoption right away. But they hired me as a fractional CMO to build up their enterprise marketing motion. The CEO was super clear about that. We're all in the room. The head of product hears that firsthand from the CEO. Then he goes, okay, I understand. So now the exercise for him becomes: how do I do that on my own with my team? Can marketing support and give me the tool instead of the actual bandwidth? That magic line row of below the line for now is so helpful.

Alex Kracov: I'd love to end our conversation on a fun and maybe timely note. Everyone is talking about AI right now. AI startups are getting funded like crazy. Everyone is trying to figure out how to best incorporate AI into their companies. I think you probably have an interesting perspective. How do you think AI is going to impact marketing? Any guesses on the future?

François Dufour: Well, yeah, we're each going to get our — and you've seen it every day — new co-pilots launching. So we each are going to get our co-pilot or multiple co-pilots for different activities. For instance, for product marketing. There's so much you can do with it if only using GPT. By the way, at $20 a month as well paying for the premium version. But in terms of research, understanding the persona where they care about the pain points you deal with, creating persona cards, riffing on messaging, riffing on headlines. I even was able by pushing it created a really wonderful billboard concept for different campaigns with just that in 30 minutes or less if you really iterate and push it and give it a clear brief and push back when you see something you don't like.

Product marketers have this assistant right there. But then, you can also use that for growth. You can actually have it do, of course, content creation assisting. I don't recommend just pushing anything without supervision. So it's still original and a bit unique. But campaigns, banners, landing pages, all that stuff. So it's really augmenting and accelerating us big, big time, starting with researchers. I understand if you're a product marketer, you need to understand your different segments and your competitors. You can ask. If you ask it the right questions, how, why? Why is it growing, et cetera? It just gets accelerated in a way that I never thought was possible so fast.

Alex Kracov: Well, thank you so much for the wonderful — Oh, you used that?

François Dufour: Yeah, what have you seen?

Alex Kracov: What have I seen? We've actually played around with it for this podcast. I'm pretty sure Grow & Tell, the name, I think it came out of a brainstorm with ChatGPT, where Eric was our producer. He was going back and forth with ChatGPT in trying to come up with different names and sub headers and things like that. So that's one way. It's just creative ideation. We're also experimenting with on the content side of things. Because we were investing a lot into SEO. So it's like, what's this balance between AI-generated SEO content versus stuff written by humans? It's not quite perfect. It's not quite it does all of the job. But it definitely augments our jobs right now. I don't know. I need to play around with it more. But those have been two ways we've experimented with it at Dock.

François Dufour: Here's a way that, if you're okay with the last minute, has been very helpful in terms of prompt. If you find a framework, or an article, or blog post you really like online, you feed that to GPT. You say, using the framework, I would like you to apply that to — you describe the target audience you have, the product category, et cetera. Basically, spit out a recommendation along these lines. And so if you find a blog post or a framework for almost everything you want to do, you can actually marry your own contexts with that framework and be very, very specific in the way you want it to format the output.

Alex Kracov: It's crazy, yeah. We're trying to think through how we build it into Dock, the product. We haven't quite figured out. We're not going to pivot the whole company to AI. But I think there are some really interesting features and things we can add to just augment the way sales teams, customer onboarding, and all that stuff work. I don't know. It's an exciting time to be in tech. Even though there's a little economic downturn, but AI is definitely going to be an interesting headwind for all of us.

François Dufour: Oh, yeah. Totally.

Alex Kracov: Well, thank you so much for the wonderful conversation, François. If people want to find you, where should they follow up?

François Dufour: LinkedIn is the best. Find me there. You can follow me there and see the articles I publish. I write on PLG. I write on positioning and category creation. Also, I publish quite a lot on decibel.vc if you want to see some best practices for everything that has to do with B2B, well, B2B software marketing suite.

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