June 01, 2023

Marketing Leadership Lessons: Kill snakes, create the category, assume noble intent (podcast episode #61)


Shafqat Islam, Chief Marketing Officer, Optimizely, chats about his entrepreneurship journey, content marketing, and tenacity, on episode #61 of the How I Made It In Marketing podcast.

Listen now to hear Islam discuss having a plan, communicating it, sticking to it, and just executing like crazy for as long as it takes.

by Daniel Burstein, Senior Director, Content & Marketing, MarketingSherpa and MECLABS Institute

Marketing Leadership Lessons: Kill snakes, create the category, assume noble intent (podcast episode #61)

The How I Made It In Marketing podcast is underwritten by MECLABS Institute, the parent organization of MarketingSherpa. To learn how MECLABS Services can help you get better business results from deeper customer understanding, visit MECLABS.com/results.

I love a really good turn of phrase.

Hey, as a writer, I’m a real sucker for words.

So when I saw this phrase on a podcast guest application it grabbed my attention – “Kill snakes.”

I gotta admit, that is not one I have heard before. So I went to the Google, and it served me up… a lot of… how to kill snakes around the house.

So then it was time for AI. And according to ChatGPT, “’Kill snakes’ is an idiomatic expression that means to tackle or deal with a difficult or unpleasant task or situation in a direct and forceful way. The phrase is often used to describe someone who is brave, decisive, and not afraid to take action when faced with a problem. It can also be used to encourage someone to be bold and take action instead of being passive or hesitant. The expression is most commonly used in informal contexts and is often associated with a sense of urgency or importance.

I thought that description was the perfect way to set the tone for the discussion with Shafqat Islam, Chief Marketing Officer, Optimizely.

Islam manages a team of 100 with a $30 million marketing budget. He had zero CMO experience when he got his current role.

Optimizely is owned by Insight Partners. Insight acquired Episerver, NewsCred, and Optimizely. It combined the companies into one, which it branded as Optimizely. Insight Partners is a private equity and venture capital firm with $90 billion of regulatory assets under management.

Listen to our conversation using this embedded player or click through to your preferred audio streaming service using the links below it.

Listen on Apple Podcasts | Listen on Spotify | Listen on Google Podcasts

Stories (with lessons) about what he made in marketing

Some lessons from Islam that emerged in our discussion:

Never, ever, ever give up

12 years from starting a company to exit, with a roller coaster journey in between.

Islam started NewsCred with co-founders Asif Rahman and Iraj Islam in their living rooms without knowing much about content or marketing.

From the early days, the team they built had a few traits that have ended up serving them well for the past decade: they were insanely curious, relentlessly resourceful, and listened a ton to customers. They pivoted their business multiple times, but they just never, ever, ever gave up. That perseverance and tenacity are hallmarks of a NewsCred employee anywhere in the world: from Dhaka to London to Boulder to New York. Speaking of Dhaka, Islam believes this is the biggest exit for any company started in Bangladesh.

In 2020, they divested their content services business. It was a great outcome, and it allowed them to focus on their software. Soon after, they rebranded to Welcome, and thought they would be heads down on their mission to build software that would unleash the potential of marketing teams.

They never thought they’d be acquired a year later. But Alex Atzberger, Optimizely’s CEO is equally tenacious and refused to take no for an answer!

Category creation Is hard

How they created the content marketing and CMP category.

Islam knows from personal experience how category creation is both challenging but also incredibly rewarding.

At the time he co-founded NewsCred, traditional advertising was losing its effectiveness as consumers were becoming more immune to all the noise. They identified a gap in the market for high-quality content that would engage and inform consumers and recognized the growing importance of content marketing. That’s why they developed a platform that allowed businesses to create and publish content across various channels, including social media, email, and their own websites.

A key part of creating the CMP category was addressing not just consumers’ pain points, but also marketers’.

When asked how his engineering background helped him identify the category creation opportunity, Islam discussed the first principles concept, which, for example, Elon Musk used at Tesla.

Kill snakes

Getting stuff done when execution is all that matters.

In today's fast-paced competitive market, execution is often the differentiating factor between companies that succeed and those that fail – because in the end, it's the results that matter most.

Islam has worked to foster a culture of execution by empowering his teams to take ownership of their work, adopting a “better done than perfect” mindset over perfection, and collaborating efficiently and effectively across teams.

It’s also important to him that this approach to execution translates to their customers, who they know have to constantly adapt to stay relevant in the rapidly evolving digital landscape. By bringing new products and features to market with speed and constantly iterating and improving, they help businesses stay ahead of the curve and meet ever-changing customer needs.

When asked about rolling out this ‘kill snakes’ approach at a larger company, Islam discussed a mental model he used – differentiating Type 1 and Type 2 decisions, which he learned from Jeff Bezos.

Lessons (with stories) from people he collaborated with

Islam also shared lessons he learned from the people he collaborated with.

Assume noble intent

via Cliff Dorsey, former Chief Revenue Officer at Welcome, and Charles Hough, former President & COO at Welcome

Give people outsized opportunity and they will make you proud

via Alicianne Rand, former VP of Marketing at NewsCred, Amy Wu, former SVP of Finance and Operations at NewsCred, and Benjy Boxer, former Director of Product Strategy at NewsCred

Have a plan, communicate it, stick to it, and just execute like crazy for as long as it takes

via Charles Hough, former President & COO at Welcome

Related content mentioned in this episode

Marketing: Sometimes you have to throw the business model out (podcast episode #34)

About this podcast

This podcast is not about marketing – it is about the marketer. It draws its inspiration from the Flint McGlaughlin quote, “The key to transformative marketing is a transformed marketer” from the Become a Marketer-Philosopher: Create and optimize high-converting webpages free digital marketing course.

Podcast guest application

If you would like to apply to be a guest on How I Made It In Marketing, here is the podcast guest application.

This article was distributed through the MarketingSherpa email newsletter. Sign up for free if you’d like to get more articles like this one.


Not ready for a listen yet? Interested in searching the conversation? No problem. Below is a rough transcript of our discussion.

Daniel Burstein: I love a really good turn of phrase. Hey, as a writer, I'm a real sucker for words. So when I saw this phrase on a podcast guest application and grabbed my attention, kill snakes, I got to admit that is one that I had never heard of before. So I went to Google and it served me up a lot of how to kill snakes around the house.

So then it was time for A.I. And according to ChatGPT, kill snakes is an idiomatic expression that means to tackle or deal with a difficult or unpleasant task or situation in a direct and forceful way. The phrase is often used to describe someone who's brave, decisive and not afraid to take action when faced with a problem can also be used to encourage someone to be bold and take action instead of being passive or hesitant.

The expression is most commonly used in informal contexts and is often associated with a sense of urgency or importance. I thought that description was a perfect way to set the tone for the discussion I'm about to have with our next guest. Joining me now to share lessons from his career and the stories behind them, including how he learned to kill snakes, metaphorically speaking, a brave and decisive leader who is not afraid to take action.

Shafqat Islam, the Chief Marketing Officer of Optimizely. Thanks for joining us, Shafqat.

Shafqat Islam: Thank you for having me. I have never been introduced with that kill snakes metaphor before, but I love it.

Daniel Burstein: There you go. That can be your new way to get introduced everywhere. It will just go if you become president of the United States. One day they'll say, here's a guy to kill snakes. Now let's take a quick look at your background. So you were you've got bachelor's degrees in both computer engineering and economics from the University of Pennsylvania.

And then this is great. You work your way up to vice president of Merrill Lynch Bank Swiss, but you started there as a junior, as an undergrad in college and work your way all the way up to vice president and working in Switzerland. Then you were the co-founder and CEO of News Cred and now you’re the Chief Marketing Officer of Optimizely.

You managed a team of 100 with a $30 million marketing budget. And I love how you called out that you have zero years of CMO experience, so maybe we'll be learning as much from each other here. I don't know. We'll see. And then Optimizely, if you're not familiar, Optimizely is owned by Insight Partners. Insight acquired Epic server news, create and optimized and rebranded it all as LI and Insight Partners is a private equity and venture capital firm with a $90 billion of regulatory assets under management.

So all kidding aside, obviously very, very accomplished. Done a lot of CMO in your short time that you've been here, what is your day like as CMO of Optimizely?

Shafqat Islam: Well, first and foremost, I'm responsible for generating pipeline, so I start every day by looking at how we're doing and how we're trending when it comes to pipeline. And while that sounds a little bit, you know, data driven or nerdy, that's who I am as my personality, as an engineer by trade. So I often will start my day in Power BI or some of our dashboards just to see get a pulse of like, how are we doing?

How are we trending? I have an amazing team that's very globally distributed, so the rest of my day is spent talking to my teammates across the SDR function Brand Marketing Demand Gen Digital, and they are literally in almost every country that you can think of in the US, Europe, Asia. So I have a very long day because I get to chat with people all over the world.

Daniel Burstein: Well, thanks for taking time out of that long day to chat with us. We're going to start by talking about lessons from the things you made. And this first lesson is never, ever, ever give up. So how did you learn this lesson?

Shafqat Islam: Yeah, you know, when you're a startup founder, a lot of people think that journey is always up into the right. They read about stories like Facebook or, you know, those big companies where they've seen TV shows. But the reality of a startup is it's very much a roller coaster and it's just filled with, you know, dizzying highs, nauseating lows.

That's what I say. And it's, you know, for us at News Spread, we were creating a category. And so we had to build credibility. We had to evangelize the category. We had to really convince people to take us seriously. I was also an outsider in that I didn't know venture capitalists. I didn't know anything about the startup ecosystem.

And so what I told my team all along that journey and that and it was a long journey, was, I don't know, 10 to 12 years from start to exit, depending on when you what kind of starting date you use. I told them we had to keep our heads down and just make progress every single day. Right.

If you can make the company 1% better every day, then ultimately good things will happen. And when I say never, ever, ever, ever give up, I put a lot of errors there. I also believe, like in when you're building something entrepreneurial, ultimately you just have to stay alive long enough for good things to happen. And I think we executed that strategy pretty well because ultimately we had a good outcome or a couple of good outcomes.

But it was not at all clear during the journey that we would get there, but we just, you know, stayed focused head down and just persevered. And that's a trait that I look for a lot. Perseverance and resiliency.

Daniel Burstein: Yeah, you know, when we talk about that perseverance, resiliency, a lot of times sometimes it's not just our ability to do the thing is having the right team. And so I want to ask you if you've learned anything about finding the right co-founders. We find this a lot from people who are about to launch a startup. How do I know if I have the right co-founder?

So you mentioned you started News Cred with Asif Rahman and Iraj Islam, take us back. You were I mean, it sounds like you're doing well. You're a VP, you're a banker, right? You're doing well there. How do you decide to make that leap and specifically make the leap with these two individuals? And over those 10 to 12 years, what did you learn about finding the right co-founders?

Shafqat Islam: Yeah. So for me, I don't always listen to traditional or conventional wisdom. And, you know, this will probably come out at during the rest of the podcast. But there's a there's a saying like, don't do business with friends. I'm the exact opposite. I only do business with friends because ultimately, if they're good enough to be your close friends, that means they have hopefully some redeeming qualities, especially things around trust, teamwork, collaboration, things that really matter at an early stage of a startup and so a symphony.

Asif and Iraj were both really good friends of mine. One was a college friend, one's family friend, who I've known since I was a child, and we just took a leap of faith. It was actually the day before I was getting married. Iraj convinced me like, Hey man, this is like your window of opportunity. Let's let's do it. Once you have kids and a mortgage, it's going to be a lot harder. I just. I didn't tell my wife until after we got married because I didn't get that part, but we just wanted to do something entrepreneurial. And honestly, we didn't know where we would end up. We didn't sit around one day and say, Oh, let's build a new company in the content marketing space and create a category and build software.

Like, we didn't do any of that. We just started got started totally different idea, iterated and pivoted our way to where we ended up. But again, that just shows you the importance of having that strong team because I think the idea you start with is most often not at all. The idea that you end up executing on and finishing the journey on.

So I just want to point out those two big leaps and to long term relationships within a few days of each other. Co-founding a company with these vows and getting married, I'm happy to say. I'm happy to say both of those bets worked out for me because I'm still happily married and I have two beautiful children and a great wife.

Daniel Burstein: Congratulations. So that's the beginning of starting a company. The end is sometimes an acquisition. So wonder if you had anything you learned there about how to find the right acquirer, how to get involved there. So you mentioned Alex Atzberger, Optimizely’s CEO. The CEO is equally tenacious and refused to take no for an answer. You also mentioned that you were starting this company, these co-founders. You were friends with them. You knew them from college or even earlier. How did you suss out Alex Asperger optimizing all this and to find out if is this the right company to acquire us? And clearly you're still on see CMO. So you saw an opportunity for yourself there as well.

Shafqat Islam: Yeah, people matter more than almost anything else when it comes to acquisitions. We weren't looking to sell. We were in a heads down. We had just sold as part of our business. We had spun off a services part of our business and we were all in on the software part of our business, which is the copy category, the content marketing platform category.

And I thought we were going to do it for another five years. I've always kept good relationships in in the industry with people that, you know, you never know where these relationships can could lead to. One was a friend of mine who is a founder of a company called IDO, also in the MarTech space in general. And I always kept up with them.

They got acquired by Optimizely, we always joked like, oh, maybe one day we'll work together if you buy us now that you're a part of this big company optimizing never I never thought that would actually happen. But I kept in touch in like a couple of years after their acquisition, he introduced me to Alex. Alex and I met in New York City.

We had some drinks, we had a good meal together and we connected right away, just around not necessarily the business, but the values and the type of company we want to build, the type of people we want to be around the style of company, just, you know, around the resiliency, the tenaciousness, just giving a damn. There are so many attributes that he had that frankly reminded me of myself.

People joke all the time, You know, Alex is German. I'm originally from Bangladesh. We look completely different. We sound totally different, but people joke all the time that we're, you know, we might as well be identical or twins or brothers because we have that much in common. And so after that meeting, you know, he was pretty persistent. And ultimately I was thinking, what's the best outcome for my team, first and foremost, who had gone through that roller coaster?

And secondly, what would be the best outcome for my customers? Because a lot of times post acquisition, yeah, that's where products go to die. And I was just relentless about kind of ensuring that he and optimize. He believed in our products and would continue to invest and nurture and grow our team. And so that's what happened. And I'm still here now. We're a year and a half through the acquisition. I'm very proud of the fact that every single one of my direct reports is still here. I think 90 plus percent of our team is still here. So there's something to be said that it was just a great cultural fit and values fit, and that's why people stick around.

Daniel Burstein: Very nice. You talk about I like that saying acquisitions is where products go to die. Let's talk about how you brought the product to life. You said category creation is hard, very hard, but it can also be very beneficial if you can really create that new category in a potential customers mind. So tell us, what did you learn? How did you do it?

Shafqat Islam: Yeah. So in our case, the category of is content marketing and very specifically we built a platform for content marketers. So that's a content marketing platform. So both of those things were nonexistent when we started the company and it was called New Screen. You know, we identified some what I call a green shoots. There was some demand that was starting to appear.

This is now, you know, we started, what, 27, 28 to 3 years into that journey. And we started noticing like a lot of marketers and brands are starting to create content. Often it was for Facebook or Twitter or social media that was initially the type of content. And then we started noticing they were creating editorial content. But it was few and far between, very rare.

And so we thought that maybe this is an opportunity that ultimately brands and marketers are going to want to have a conversation with their customers. They're going to create content. They're going to need to scale like a content operation. And so this was all in our heads. And we went around and started talking to marketers and agencies. We had the door slammed on us hundreds of times.

We were like, We don't know what you're talking about. What do you mean content? Like, we make ads. We're marketers. Like that was kind of the initial take, and in hindsight it must seem crazy because content marketing is this huge category. Everyone's doing it. It feels totally natural. But in the early days, ten plus years ago, it was not natural.

And so we evangelize the category. We created a lot of thought leadership around it. A lot of it was kind of hand-to-hand combat where we were convincing individual CMO's and brands why content marketing matters. We organized some of the biggest events in the category. We had 2000 people who would show up for our annual content marketing summit in New York City.

And so it was hard, but it was certainly rewarding. We were early in the category, we were leaders in the category, and those are all the great parts of category creation. The hard part is that no one believes you in the early days and you got to just keep, you know, keep sticking at it and it goes back to them. Never, ever, ever give up phrase like that becomes especially true when you're trying to create a new category of products.

Daniel Burstein: So I wonder if anything in your engineering background or economics background working at a bank helped you find this opportunity, right? Can we learn anything from that background or way of doing things? I love interviewing engineers. One thing an engineer in the past is CMO company now and he mentioned that when he first got into sales he didn't know how to sell, so he just took an engineering approach.

I'm like, okay, let's break down the problem and how do we solve this problem? You know? And he and clients actually loved it. It was like really helpful to them. So I wonder, you know, for those of us who don't have that background in engineering economics working at Big Bank, all of these are very analytical professions, very good at breaking down problems and solving them.

Did anything from those backgrounds, do you think if you can identify, help you find the opportunity for this category and build it like what? What can we learn from that?

Shafqat Islam: Yeah, it's a great question. The one thing that comes to mind is this idea, this mental model that I call first principles, like starting from first principles. It's a big engineering kind of a concept. You know, I think Elon Musk talks about it when inventing the electric car, inventing kind of a Tesla, right? If you want to put a battery in a car and make it go 30 miles, you can kind of use the existing car structure and just stick a battery on it.

But if you change the problem and you say, hey, I need a car that's going to go faster than a Lamborghini and travel 300 miles on one charge, you can just take an existing car. You got to start from first principles, which really means just take a completely blank slate approach, throw away everything you know about a domain and come up with ideas from scratch.

And I think that's an it's an engineering concept, but it's a concept that I've used a lot. And certainly when you're coming up with a new category and building a new product, I think taking a first principles approach works. I use that framework. Ticino today, still as I run my marketing team, even something as simple as how do we come up with our marketing budget every year?

We don't just iterate on last year's budget, we just started from scratch. We did something called zero based budgeting and just wipe the slate clean and said If we are going to do it from scratch every year, what would it look like? So I use that principle quite a lot in my day to day.

Daniel Burstein: Yeah, perfect Here Musk reference Office Space X to how do you get a cheaper rocket coming up. Well, talk about Elon Musk. I mean when you look at that guy to you look at where he is today. But to get there, my gosh, he had to get stuff done right. Things that people thought were impossible. These rockets and electric cars and everything.

And you say kill snakes, so kill. This is your motto, I guess, for how to get things done when things get hard. So what's a snake you've killed? Kind of walk us through this.

Shafqat Islam: Yeah. Maybe I'll give you the background of the story and how I heard about it first. So there's at least this is hearsay. A I don't know if you believe everything on the Internet, but this. I stumbled upon it on the Internet. The story starts with actually a president or a presidential candidate, Ross Perot. He was a very successful entrepreneur running a big company called Ed’s.

And so this is actually his saying. And what he used to tell people was, you know what they were competing against a big behemoth, General Motors, like what he would say, old school versus Ed's was a startup. And he'd say, like it walk around the office and imagine you see a snake. And there's two types of approaches, two types of companies.

There's one company in this case would be General Motors, the old school one. They would immediately hire a bunch of snake consultants, set up a committee about snakes, maybe a few meetings about snakes, and they would come up with like, you know, two quarter, four quarter long plan on how they're going to tackle the snake. And ultimately a year goes by and they're still talking about the snake. And you know what happens? That snake is just running around the office. Free. Free as a bird. I'm mixing animal metaphors.

Then there's a second type of company that Ross Perot talked about, which is Ed's is you're walking down the hall to a view and you see a snake in an office. What should you do? You should kill the frickin snake. And that's the type of company that I want to build. Like if you see a problem, just kill the freaking snake. We use that all the time at NewsCred and welcome. And now at Optimizely introduced this. I think the first time was that like some sort of sales kickoff people loved it and I was as Alex ask me to talk about it across the whole company and what it's become is it's become shorthand for you know, getting shit done.

Sorry to use the bad language, but you can bleep it out later if you need it for just getting stuff done. And it's people will often say, Oh, the customer has a problem, or we found a bug in this in the product or Hey, we're weird. This dashboard's not working. Whatever the problem, big or small, often people will just respond in slack or teams with the snake emoji, people don't even have to say anything.

They just put the icon and that means like I got it. Or that means if you're an engineer, that means, you know what? I'm just going to solve this bug right away. I'm not going to like, create a ticket and wait for the next Sprint review and put it on the JIRA board. I'm just going to solve this problem and ship the fix. And so this killing snake's metaphor has permeated through almost every organization that I've worked. And I have to give credit to Ross Perot. That's where I originally learned the story.

Daniel Burstein: All right. So let's challenge that up a bit and see what that actually means in terms of your management. So makes a lot of sense. NewsCred start up, smaller company now, much bigger company, much harder and a much bigger company globally distributed Major VC owner Are there any specific management tactics you've had to do to roll this out?

Because for example, at NewsCred I can imagine one small startup a lot of times, you know, the founder of the CEO or some people closely, it's a lot more easy to kind of pass along from these culture things. But it's such a big distributed organization where frankly, you know, GM has all those consultants because everyone wants to cover their but don't want to get in trouble, Right?

Yeah. So so what have you done to be able to roll this out globally so people actually believe in it and go for it and take that chance?

Shafqat Islam: It's scary. Yeah. The number one thing is you have to create an environment of trust and safety and security where people feel empowered to make decisions and know that it's okay if some of those decisions don't work out. Like making mistakes should be treated as like learnings and not failures. That's number one. And if you can do that, it empowers the whole organization not just to kill snakes, but to take risks.

Be bold, not cover their ass all the time and send 100 emails to make sure like the committee approves it. Just create this this layer of comfort, safety, security, whatever you want to call it that so people know and listen, part of our products in our portfolio is we're an experimentation company. We have a big experimentation product. And if you're going to run experiments, a lot of times, in fact, most of the time experiments don't end up working out right.

And so again, I take this mantra of there's no such thing as failure, it's only learnings. And then, you know, you just have to empower the team and give them safe space. Now, one other mental model I use, I feel like this is becoming a mental model podcast, but helpful. It's helpful is kind of there's two types of decisions in the world.

And I learned this from I think this was the Amazon thing, a Jeff Bezos thing. There's like type one and type two decisions. You know, type one decisions are one that you can walk back, you go through the door, you make a decision, you don't like it. You can just kind of open back that door and take a few steps back and kind of you're not you're not committed to it for life. You're not going to screw up the whole company.

Every once in a while there is a type two decision where like, there's no walking back through that door, right? It's like if Alex acquires new screen welcome and then six months later decides that wasn't a good idea, he can't undo it. Right. But there's very few type two decisions.

By the way, I might have the one and two switch switched around, but you get the concept. There's very few of those. So I think if you identify the type of decision you're taking and it's the it's the device, it's the decision that is reversible, that's especially the case where you need to kill snakes and and know that, you know, worst case, like you learn something I always tell my team like think about what could go right like use that expression what could go right A lot of times people are so worried about what could go wrong. And I'm like, I'm not interested in that. But, you know, I have a very optimistic personality. So maybe that's why.

Daniel Burstein: Yeah. And you mentioned marketing, experimentation and AB testing, and I wonder what role that could play in providing the safety to kill snakes, because I'm glad you mentioned that story too. I was literally telling that example to my daughter yesterday. She's deciding on what college to go to, you know, with the doors. Can you walk back through the door?

And I also mentioned because it's very it's true for business, it's true for life, too. I also mentioned it's a shame you can't ab test some of these decisions in life. Right. Let me choose this car. Go meet you. That college. Let's see how it goes out. And you know, I'll pick the winter months that it reaches statistical validity, but so does AB Testing and marketing experimentation help make killing snakes a little easier because you're not going all in?

Shafqat Islam: Yeah, I mean, that's that's our whole sales pitch to other CMO's and, and business leaders. It's not just marketers, it's business leaders, right? I think successful companies are the ones that take the most risk, that run the most number of experiments. Obviously, running experiments is slightly different than taking risk because an experiment you have some level of structure around it, right?

You have a hypothesis, you're going to test it, you have results that you collect and and hopefully you learn from it. I think to me, the best companies in the world are the ones that are running experiments all the time. And I'm not talking about AB testing on your website and testing colors and buttons. That's that's just one small example of a type of experiment.

Experiments could be products you roll out, could be, you know, initiatives or strategy decisions you make. Like there's a lot of decisions that you can ab test even seemingly decisions that you would think are not reversible. Often they are. What's the worst thing that happens if you go to a college that you don't? Absolutely love, you can transfer it.

And I know a lot of people who transfer and have had very successful college and post-college careers. So obviously that's a little bit more of a big decision. But I would posit that most decisions in life in business can be tested or reversible or worst case doesn't work out like you can always recover from those.

Daniel Burstein: Yeah, I love that. And really, that's what this podcast is about too. It's not just really work. We have a work life and it's kind of all together. Our decisions and working life and our life as marketers should help inform those because we learn about kind of how people make decisions. That's what marketing is all about. So in the first half of the podcast, we talk about lessons we learn from the things you made in the second half.

We're going to talk about lessons we learn from the people you made it with. But first let me say the How I made It and Marketing podcast is underwritten by MECLABS Institute, the parent organization of Marketing Sherpa, to learn how MECLABS services can help you get better business results from deeper customer understanding. Visit MECLABS.com/results. That's MECLABS.com/results.

All right. So let's take a look at one of those. Some of those people you learned from. You said the lesson is assume noble intent and you learn it from Cliff Dorsey, former Chief Revenue Officer at Welcome, and Charles Hough, former President & COO at Welcome. So how did you learn this idea of assume noble intent?

Shafqat Islam: Yeah, I think the actual words came from Cliff. So Cliff was one of my top executives. He ran sales for me. He has a military background and he introduced the whole company to this phrase. And I think in in high stakes situations, in high pressure situations, is, for example, if you're in the field and you're in the military, you have to assume that everyone has your back.

Everyone in your team is trying to make good decisions. They're trying to make the right decisions to move you, your team, you know, whatever forward. Charles then introduced me to, I would say a corollary to this concept. He always talks about the most important thing in business, in life being trust. But the way he phrased it was you should always give trust first before you expect to earn trust back, which is kind of flipped on its head. Most people are like, Oh, I deserve to be trusted. Like, why aren't you trust me? And what Charles always said is, Why don't you extend trust to the other person first? First and foremost, like that's everyone has it in them to give trust and extend trust to the other party. So if you start there, then the other party will always reciprocate and give you trust back.

So we kind of combine those two concept and assume noble intent was a way we kind of combine them all together and that was a value that we had at welcome for a long time. And we've again brought that over here to optimize. Yeah, I know Alex is a big fan of it and people and people say it all the time, you're always going to be in tough meetings.

You may have disagreements, there might be tension at work, but always assume that the person on the other side is trying to move the business forward. Actually cares about the goals of the company. They're not just saying something to annoy you or irritate you or put you down or, you know, if they're giving feedback, assume noble intent, assume they care about you and want to extend empathy.

Daniel Burstein: And maybe they just have a different way of thinking. I mean, I've seen some of the biggest frustrations I've seen as creative people work with data. People just drive each other nuts. It's like they just think differently. So it makes a lot of sense inside an organization. Assume noble intent. How do you apply that to customers? Because one thing I've noticed is sometimes when a marketing idea comes up in an organization and let's say a free trial or something, and then we work so hard to make it so difficult because we think everyone is going to rip us off right?

And so I think of the New York Times famous paywall example when they first upped the paywall. It's kind of a soft paywall. Yes, that was a paywall. They realize some people are going to work so hard to find a way in to kind of cheat this system. Let's let them they're not going to pay any way. We'll get some traffic. So I wonder, like, do you apply as to mobile intent to customers as well, or no customers are just going to be like shady and they're going to like cheat us. And any chance I can get.

Shafqat Islam: You know, I'll be honest, I never even thought about applying it to customers before you mentioned it, but you absolutely should, because in their New York Times example, 90% of your customers will do the right thing, will pay you. Will they? Will they? They're not all out to cheat you. And I think we spend too much of our time focusing on that 10% or might even be 1% that okay, there were some bad eggs or bad apples, but most of the time assume noble intent from your customers that they care about you and your products. They want you to succeed. They want you to do well assuming you provide good value for them. So I actually love the idea of assuming this kind of assuming the noble intent of your customers as well.

Daniel Burstein: Yeah, I appreciate that. And we can make a better user experience up to make things so difficult for the customers who aren't going to cheat us if we do that. All right. Another example with your own team. Here's a lesson you have, give people outsized opportunity and they will make you proud. And here are some people who I assume made you proud.

And listen, I'm going to mess this name up again. Alicianne Rand, former VP of Marketing at NewsCred, Amy Wu, former SVP of Finance and Operations at NewsCred, and Benjy Boxer, former Director of Product Strategy at NewsCred. So how did you take, again, probably a risk to give these people outsize opportunity, I'm assuming, early in their career. And then how do they make you proud?

Shafqat Islam: Yeah. So these three people first of all, have gone on to do amazing things. So I'll give you like a 1015 second anecdote. And each one, Alicianne was one of our first employees ever. She was an account manager at a branding agency. And frankly, I didn't really know the difference between branding and marketing at that point. When I hired her. Remember, I was an engineer, and so she was one of our first handful of employees. She went on to become to run marketing for us. You know, when we had gone through a massive scale, we were up to like 200 to 50 people, raise $100 million of capital. And she was running marketing and running demand, running, brand running.

She just did amazing. And then she went and ran a big marketing function within Estee Lauder. And then she now is the CMO and runs marketing at Venmo. Amy Wu started as an intern. She was on loan as an intern analyst for us. She eventually ran all finance. She became our CFO and was, you know, helped us raise massive amounts of capital, as have all of our board meetings.

She's now one of the most successful venture capitalists in the world and has an amazing Benjy Boxer, I think started off as a business analyst, entry level kind of position. I gave him more and more responsibility over time, and at some point he was running all of our product strategy. He went on to start and found a company called Parsec, and they sold for, gosh, I don't know, 350, $400 million to Unity, a public company.

Last year I was early investor in them, so I backed him again and that was successful again. And so these are all people where I think if you look at their resumes or their experience or their age, a lot of times they wouldn't be given those types of massive opportunities. And I do the exact opposite. You know, there's a lot of what I do that's maybe counterintuitive, which is if you give people those outsize opportunities, they will reward you in spades. They'll do things you'll never expect. And sure enough, these people all did and they just needed someone to believe in them.

Daniel Burstein: So, I mean, one thing I'm sure you can hear by now, I'd like to challenge ideas on this podcast because, you know, you hear stuff, it's all good. We can all go along and get along and it sounds good, but I mean, these things are hard. So how do you know when to give someone that outsize opportunity? Because you mentioned these three individuals.

I imagine you've had hundreds, if not thousands of people working for you at this point. Some of them you probably gave them the opportunity and it didn't work out as well. Some of them you're like, no chance. So what? You know, what are some of the things you look for when you're like, okay, that person, intern, whatever it is, let's let's, let's give them this leap of faith in this new opportunity.

Shafqat Islam: Yeah. And I think what you're kind of referring to is success bias, right? How do we know? Maybe it's just these three people who are successful and everyone else crashed and burned. That didn't that didn't happen. Luckily, I do think there's there is ways to identify, you know, these very successful people in life or in work. And because they often will have similar traits, you know, the first thing is they're willing to do almost anything initially.

They're not trying to get a big title, big job. They're literally willing to do anything. And I think that's always a good, good trait. People who just say, you know what, give me any seat on this rocket ship and I will take it and I will prove to you that I deserve more and more and more. So I like those people versus the people who say, What's my title?

What's my pay? What's what's it going to look like optically? How big is my team? All three of these people started with no team. They didn't even care what size team they have. So I think like caring about the right things is important and identifying, you know, who are the people who care about the right things. Other traits that I look for, it's like insatiable curiosity.

They're always asking questions. They always want to learn. They're not they're they're not afraid to say what they don't know. I think that's always a really good way to identify these people. Like if someone tells you, Yeah, I got it, I know all of this. I can easily be a CMO or a CFO. Then I'm like a red flag or orange flag, like no one.

No one knows everything. So I think part of it is just looking, looking for these kind of intangible traits. And obviously all these people are super smart. So you can tell very quickly if someone's like highly intelligent or not. I don't look for school or pedigree or anything like that. Like I couldn't even tell you where everyone went to school.

They probably went to good schools, but I have no idea. I never asked that question. It's really more kind of in the workplace, like what are the traits and what are their what's their personality? Does it always work out? No. But obviously part of a job of a leader is to coach and mentor and keep a close eye and not do something totally irresponsible. So I'm not saying I had a 100% track record, but I think I had a pretty good track record when it comes to like, you know, giving people this these types of opportunities.

Daniel Burstein: And I think it probably goes along with the taking risks that we talked about earlier. Yeah. So let me ask you, for you personally, you yourself give people outsize opportunity and they will make you proud. It would probably be a leap to say going into the CMO role is giving you outsize opportunity. Obviously you were startup founder, you know, very successful.

However, you mentioned you did come into this role with zero experience as a CMO. So what did you do coming into this role to set yourself up for success? You mentioned some of the things that you've seen others do. What did you do when you were coming in? You're like, Okay, I've got this background. I know these things. There's a new ball game. I'm CMO, you know, different company, maybe different size company.

Shafqat Islam: Yeah. So, you know, I build products for marketers my whole life. So I knew a little something about marketing and I obviously had CMO's who worked for me as the CEO before. So, you know, while I, I have zero years of experience as a CMO, I had, I had, you know, a decent amount of contextual awareness of what needs to happen.

But I think similarly Alex gave me the opportunity because he needed someone to solve a bunch of problems and I was always the thing that I did post-acquisition is I never wore a very specific hat around like, Hey, I'm only going to optimize for welcome, So welcome to the rebranded name of News script, the company that you know, Optimizely acquired.

I never said, let's optimize for the startup for welcome. I never said let's optimize for marketing or let's optimize for a specific team. I always just focus on what's important for the overall optimizing business and how do we drive that forward. And I think when it comes to marketing, a CEO's I believe, appreciate that and I know Alex does, I appreciate that in my marketer because I'm not here to just make the marketing stats look good, make the marketing pipeline look good.

I care about overall company pipeline, whether or not market, what percentage marketing contributes or attribution to. I could care less. Like I just want to know like are we generating enough pipeline as a company in order to win to put up big sales numbers? So I think that's something Alex look for. I'm also like extremely data driven and I think when the world changed and you know, we moved away from a zero interest rate environment to all of a sudden, you know, businesses were under a lot more scrutiny, financials were under scrutiny.

People were looking at spend being very disciplined about how you spend money, how you track an instrument, every dollar that you spend in marketing, those are things that come naturally to me, maybe as an engineer or maybe just my background. So I say, those are probably some of the reasons Alex took a leap of faith, and I said, Sure, I'm happy to help and I'll give it everything I can.

And my approach is I take it day by day, week by week. If there's someone else who can do this job better, I think I'll help. I'll be the first one to say, Let's go hire that person. And if I'm doing a sufficiently good job and driving pipeline and building the brand and moving the business forward, I'll keep doing it.

Daniel Burstein: Sounds good. Let's take a look at one last lesson, and this is in line with some other things. You said Have a plan, communicate it, stick to it, and just execute like crazy for as long as it takes. You said you learned this from Charles Hough, former President & COO at Welcome. How did you learn this from Charles? Have you applied it?

Shafqat Islam: Yeah, Charles is an execution machine, so we had a pretty complicated business doing the rollercoaster period that I described. One of the challenges we had, we sat down actually it was an executive offsite. I think we were for for some strange reason we did in Atlantic City, which I don't know how or why we ended up there, but we're in the Borgata in like a meeting room.

And we were basically talking about like the challenges that are business. And one thing we realized is we had two businesses in one, we had a services business where we'd create content for our customers and then we had a software business, which was our CMP, our content marketing platform business, and but it was all being run as one kind of convoluted, messy, difficult business.

We came up with a strategy, Charles came up with it. He's like, You know what? We're going to separate the two. We're going to run them independently. Two separate panels focus each team so they have the independent metrics that make sense for that business, not try and like kind of confuse everything. And then one day we're going to spin out and sell the content services business.

We're going to use that capital to invest it in the software business and scale the software business. So he laid out this grand strategy. We all looked at him like he was totally nuts because I was like, What are you talking about? This might sound good in paper, but there's no way we're going to separate the two businesses, run them independently, sell one and execute.

Like, it just seemed crazy. But we did. But we committed to and we just put our heads down, laid out an execution plan against that strategy. And it was like a two year plan. And every single month, every single quarter, we reported on our progress against that Northstar vision. He had different horizons to get to that Northstar vision.

And we we presented to our whole company like the exact same visual to show us like where we are, which Ferrari and Horizon one, two or three. Like how are we progressing until people almost sick or bored of it, They're like, Oh my God, how many more times are we going to talk about these horizons and the North Star?

And we're like, We're going to talk about it until we're done executing. Two years later, we pulled it off. We executed like crazy and we spun out the business, got a great outcome for the services business, took that capital built out optimization, didn't think we were going to build out. Sorry, welcome. We didn't think we were going to sell to optimize it that quickly. But we got a great offer and great team, great leadership. And Alex, we decided to, you know, pull the trigger there as well.

Daniel Burstein: So you talked about a lot of the financial elements of that decision. This is a decision I've seen other companies make, too. What about the marketing elements? Right. So if you're if you want to ultimately have these two different companies don't want as a separate company, was there a rebranding like what was involved in the marketing elements over those two years?

Shafqat Islam: So Well, the first challenge we had from a marketing and brand standpoint was the whole company was called News Credit, which kind of worked for the content side of the business. And even that name wasn't great, but it certainly doesn't work for like software platform for marketing collaboration. No one would be like, Oh, that must be news, correct?

Like, the name didn't match at all. So the first thing I think what it allowed us to do by separating those two businesses is to like rebrand the software business. And that's how we got to welcome. So that help from a branding perspective. But again you know, rebranding is so much more than picking a nice name in a logo.

It's everything that the company stands for. It's the customer experience. It's how people interact with the brand. So but, but I think the strategy actually helped to separate the two and create more meaningful, relevant brands. The other thing it really helped us to do from a marketing standpoint become crystal clear and who are ICP or ideal customer profile is because when you're marketing everything to everyone, you're essentially not marketing at all.

But what we realize is there is a very specific set of marketing personas set by content services that work with the agencies, then their creative, their editorial, their like content DNA, and we could market to them very specifically the words we use, the language, we use the website, everything. And even the people who serviced those accounts, they were much more geared towards that.

ICP versus for welcome. The software platform had it entirely different. ICP MarTech, Buyers, marketing operations, people who are more technical, they're more process oriented. And so we were able to really hone in on our ICP and do really specific packaging, positioning messaging campaigns for each ICP. So in hindsight, while it was complicated, it actually made our marketing life somewhat easier by just getting more specific. Kind of sounds like it's a good idea because that's how you should have done it originally. Sometimes businesses grow in certain ways, not intentionally, and then you realize, Oh wait, I mean, we have two businesses here that are totally right. And I mean, if there's one big lesson is I wish we realized that wait a minute, we have two businesses here earlier. Some of it is maybe we realize it, but we didn't want to admit it. Maybe it seemed too complicated. Obviously, if you treat the whole business as a software business, it's better for valuation and fundraising in pieces.

So there's a lot of things in hindsight I would do differently. But I think acknowledging like, what is the reality of our business, not what do we want the business to be, but what is the reality of this business? I think if we had found that out earlier, maybe we would have saved ourselves some pain.

Daniel Burstein: Yeah. So let me ask you two. You've talked a lot about this. Have a plan communicated? Stick to, you know, very execution. Execution, which is awesome. And I totally agree. But when do you have to pivot on a plan? And I'll give you an example real quick while you're thinking. I interviewed Edithann Remy, the CMO of On the Border Mexican Grill Cantina on, How I Made it marketing.

One of her lessons was sometimes you have to throw the business model out and she was talking about living through COVID as a restaurant and realizing their entire business model had to change. They had to go a lot more into catering. COVID obviously is one huge example. You mentioned earlier about how the business environment is changing now with interest rates and the pressure businesses are under.

So when you have this, on the one hand, I agree that you have this planet, boom, our North Star, we're going, we're going. We're doing this for years, four years, four years. But at what point do you have to say like either, wait a minute, this plan isn't working or the macroeconomic environment change our competition, change our customers, change something change and we shouldn't stick to it. We need to pivot to something else.

Shafqat Islam: Yeah. So in the early days of a business as it's maturing and you can define early however you want for a startup, it's like, you know, first few years as you're kind of finding product market fit. I think there's a lot of iterating and pivoting that has to happen at that point. Having like this clear North Star, an execution plan doesn't really make a lot of sense.

I mean, we started doing something totally different and we iterated and pivoted so many times until we landed on something that, you know, we thought had product market fit and could get us to the you know, to the, let's say, the end final state, the dream state. But even then, to your point, even a mature should always be looking to see like are there macro things that are challenging.

A lot of the underlying assumptions like the economy is obviously one of them. You mentioned competitors. I mean, let's just look at what's happening today. IE is has come around and that's going to put a lot of existing business models and businesses is maybe irrelevant. And so if those people are just like putting their hands heads down or have blinders on, then I think there's going to be a problem.

So I think always having the humility to know, yes, we have a plan, but even the best laid plans often go wrong because, you know, the markets change. It's important. I also think there is a there's time horizons. You know, I think it's easier to have conviction and vision over a long period of time, like a 3 to 5 year vision, knowing that any given quarter or any given year stuff happens that could require you to like, reorient your map or take a different, you know, you're trying to get from A to B, the highways, clothes are doing repairs.

You got to take a different road sometimes, but ultimately you're still trying to get to your destination. So I think having some level of flexibility is absolutely key in marketing. You know, we're having to pivot all the time sometimes based on like our specific pipeline coverage or pipeline requirements or state of the pipeline for any given territory. We might realize, you know what, North America is doing fine.

Europe is way behind. We need to move a lot of our marketing dollars or paid dollars to Europe so we can help with pipeline in that territory. We didn't plan it out that way. We didn't even know that was going to be the case two quarters ago. But you look at the data and if the data shows change is needed, I think having flexibility is a key attribute for any good marketer, but also any good business person.

Daniel Burstein: So I wasn't going to ask, but since you mentioned it, it's too juicy to let it go. What is your perspective on A.I. in marketing? So I would imagine from where you're sitting it is both a massive opportunity and a massive threat. And with your background, everything you've gone through so far, what's your perspective on A.I. and marketing?

Shafqat Islam: So, you know, we did spin out the content services business where we were creating content, and then that's more like an agency business. And so that's no longer with us. I do think that entire world is going to get massively disruptive, especially with generative. I like the quality of the content that's now being produced by A.I. It's not that different than what I'm seeing coming out of humans now. That's a controversial statement. I realize it. I'm not saying humans are going to go away. I think humans just get moved up the value stack to editorial kind of lens applying true differentiation, tone, humor. Like, I don't think A.I. is going to be able to create a funny article or blog post can create good informational content. Yes. So they'll also require a rethinking of what will make us differentiated in the marketing.

We create any sort of basic informational content. I think I will take it all. So then we get to focus on a lot more of the creative side of like what truly sets our brand apart. So this is all when it comes to content creation, when it comes to marketing in general, I think a huge opportunity. We use AI to help with our planning, coming up with marketing copy, optimizing landing pages. We use AI to research prospects to generate cold emails for SDR. It's like there's so many applications of AI to our marketing stack already and we're in innings one or two out of in the in the game. So I think it's a massive opportunity.

Daniel Burstein: What about to get to an idea that optimizes is very involved in AB testing, marketing, experimentation those elements we talked about earlier running experiments with hypotheses which I may be able to do or may not be able to do, but I can certainly brute force it. So you have any perspective on AI in terms of AB testing, marketing?

Shafqat Islam: Yes, I do. And vision and we're actually executing on a lot of this. I think the hey, I can tell you what to test and actually can lay out here is ten different hypotheses because often where humans get stuck, they want to do a lot of AB testing with a hypothesis generation. It's not trivial. It's not easy for everyone to just sit around and be like, All right, what are the things they want to test so they I can actually help you figure out what items on your website or web page or any product should you even test.

Obviously, an AI that has access to historical test data. Test results, especially a large volume of results you optimize, is one of the biggest kind of what I would call digital laboratories. We've run more tests in the world than almost any other company in the world, and so we have so much of that data. So the AI is not just saying here's 1010 hypotheses that you could test or ten things on your website you can test. We can actually say based on our previous experience for customers in the travel industry who have bookings engines, these are eight tests that you should run, right? And that's where it starts getting really interesting. And again, I think it's going to be a massive enabler to the marketer.

Daniel Burstein: Well, let's talk about the marketer. So before I let you go, we've talked about so many different things in all of your stories and lessons about what it means to be a marketer today. What are the key qualities of an effective marketer in your opinion?

Shafqat Islam: A curiosity, willingness to take a lot of risk and admit when things are not working, be afraid of failure and thinking about it as learning. So I put that in the second bucket, just like risk taking and just knowing that there's only learnings and not failures. I think the best marketers can embrace that philosophy because a lot of your marketing efforts shouldn't work, but I think a lot of marketers don't feel confident enough to say that.

But the best ones are the ones who are taking risks. They say, Hey, these four things didn't work, but this one thing was a home run and we're going to do way more of it. I think being scrappy is a good thing for marketers. At least this is my bias. There's so many times and I walked into marketing here at optimizing when I took over, so much of the marketing was actually outsourced to agencies, including like writing.

And I'm like as a marketer, like, you better know how to write. Like you don't have to be the best writer in the world, but you got to know how to write. And so like being scrappy, doing stuff more in-house, writing your own copy, writing your landing pages, writing blog posts, I think that's a great trait to have as a marketer.

I thought it was obvious and everyone kind of already does this in marketing, but the more of gone deeper, both that optimizing been asked around at other companies, I think too much of marketing is being outsourced. So I think that's one. And then the final thing I'll say is you don't need to be an engineer, but you should sweat the small stuff when it comes to the numbers and actually have accountability around how we're spending money.

I look at us not as someone who should and not as a team that goes out to a CFO every year and says, Oh, how much marketing budget can we get? How do we maximize the marketing budget? I don't take that approach at all. In fact, I'd rather spend less money in marketing and have more money. Go to my companies.

EBITA What I look at is how can we be good stewards of our company's cash? And I want marketers who similarly look at it that way. If I give someone a marketing budget, don't figure out how to spend it, figure out how not to spend it, and what we do spend, we should get the most amount of our away from it. And I think it's just a very different mindset. But to me, that's kind of putting the company first.

Daniel Burstein: Nice. Absolutely. Go to product development, right? Just because it's not your department doesn't mean you have to keep that money. I love, by the way, that the guy with the engineering background said that everyone should, right? Everyone should know how to write. That's a beautiful thank you for saying that. And thank you so much for your time. So I've got I learned a lot.

Shafqat Islam: Yeah. This is awesome. You pushed me hard on some areas which I love and I love challenging assumptions. This is one of the most fun podcasts I've done in a long time.

Daniel Burstein: And thank you for being very gracious about my pushback. And I thanks everyone for listening.

Improve Your Marketing

Join our thousands of weekly case study readers.

Enter your email below to receive MarketingSherpa news, updates, and promotions:

Note: Already a subscriber? Want to add a subscription?
Click Here to Manage Subscriptions