How has your strategy for company growth been working? How did you pivot plans for company growth during a pandemic? Today’s guest is Rick Carlson, CEO at Sharpspring, Inc. Sharpspring, Inc. is a rapidly-growing, highly-rated global provider of affordable marketing automation delivered via a cloud-based Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) platform. Rick and I discuss avoiding stagnation through efficient company growth. Don’t miss the gems in this conversation for your own 2021 plans.
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Disclaimer: This transcript was created using YouTube’s translator tool and that may mean that some of the words, grammar, and typos come from a misinterpretation of the video.
We made a decision early on, the first thing we needed to do is find a way not to compete, right? I’ve made sort of jokes that where we started this business, and we were up against some of the most sophisticated marketers in the world. I mean, when you think about, you know, HubSpot and Marketo, what they were doing, and again, a 10 year headstart, hundreds of millions of dollars of funding, we needed to find a way not to compete with those guys. And we focused in on working with digital marketing agencies to realize this was an underserved market. And once we made that decision, we decided to stick to it. This is the focus point. And is that a brilliant concept? No, many many, you know, folks in business will tell you focus is key. But it’s definitely one of those things like buy low, sell high, that is easier said than done. And along the way, we had so many opportunities to chase money when we needed money. You know, a big company comes along and says, Hey, you can custom develop this or that for us. You know, and this is when we were very hand to mouth, you know, really hard to turn down a, you know, an opportunity like that, and they just seem to be coming along. But we just stayed focused on on our primary customer, which is these digital marketing agencies, and it served us extremely well.
Welcome to Growth Think Tank. This is the one and only place where you will get insight from the founders and the CEOs of the fastest-growing privately held companies. I am the host, my name is Gene Hammett, I hope leaders and their teams navigate the defining moments of their growth. Are you ready to grow?
Gene Hammett [1:51]
Do you think of David and Goliath? Do you think of the big giant in your industry? Or do you think about you being the scrappy, younger player trying to scratch their way to the top? Well, the David and Goliath kind of metaphor are not just for you know, the Bible stories, but it is really prevalent inside of our industries. The David and Goliath concept of understanding how you must operate as the David in your market, and what you must do differently than others. When you’re going against a Goliath, entrenched, big competitors that have a head start on you. Maybe they’re more well funded. And today, we’re going to talk about your journey into the David and Goliath, and what happens when you actually get things right. Our guest today is the co-founder of SharpSpring, Rick Carlson, Rick and I talk about the two things that are most important for his company to be the David when he was underfunded, and late to the market and going against much bigger players. That’s the reason why we call this the David and Goliath concept. When you think about your leadership, when you are going against bigger players, you’ve got to be much better at a few key things. We talked about those two things inside this episode.
Gene Hammett [3:08]
One of the things I like most about it is the shares some of the details that you can actually mimic inside your culture. Because letting the cat out of the bag, that’s one of the most important aspects is getting the people right. And culture is a big part of that. So stay tuned to that interview with Rick. Before we get in there, I wanted to just remind you, if you are a leader that is pushing your own boundaries, and what you’re focused on next, how you must evolve that make sure you check out some of the free content, we [email protected] you can start your journey, which is a way to actually get in a conversation with me about what your next step is, map out your plan. Focus on what’s most important. If you decide to take that and work with it within yourself. It’s absolutely no cost to you. And it’s no worries that you actually do that. Because I see that as a chance for me to build a relationship with you. And it is a good fit for us to talk about coaching, then you would actually be invited to work with me in some way. We have some very interesting ways that we work with people. I won’t get into the details. But if you want to know what your next step is, in your journey to be a visionary strategic leader of your company, make sure you get a genehammett.com and start your journey. And here’s the interview with Rick.
Gene Hammett [4:20]
Hey, Rick, how are you?
Rick Carlson [4:21]
I am well. How are you doing?
Gene Hammett [4:25]
Thanks for being here on the Growth Think Tank, sharing your insights around leadership and culture. You have been the co-founder of SharpSpring tell us what SharpSpring is.
Rick Carlson [4:36]
Yeah, so we are a marketing automation company. Really, we’re right in the middle of better articulating what our value proposition is. And our platform has grown so much. But so so when I said marketing automation, I’m sort of off-track already. We’re repositioning our company as a revenue Growth platform, frankly, you know, it is a platform, a software platform that helps businesses generate more leads, once you have those leads, convert those leads into sales and revenue. And so, you know, we specialize in working with digital marketing agencies as well. And these agencies are really charged with the same kind of thing driving revenue and sales for the organizations that hire them. And so our platform helps them do their job and deliver results for their clients.
Gene Hammett [5:37]
Well, Rick, thanks for being here. When I think of SharpSpring, because I’ve had some clients actually use the platform, it’s really kind of the most people to pick different tools they have they try to patchwork it together like a little bit of duct tape, a little bit of spit makes it all work. But yeah, that actually comes to the market with a system that was that minimizes the need for extra tools. Is that kind of a fair assessment?
Rick Carlson [6:02]
Yeah, although it absolutely is. So you know, without getting too much into it, a modern marketing automation platform or revenue growth platform has got a whole host of tools in it, your email marketing, your social media, built-in CRM, or shopping cart integration forms, and landing pages and analytics. And it’s really everything you need to grow your business if you use the tools properly. But unlike point solutions, all of the individual components actually work better, because they share a unified database and tracking. So our forms on our websites, for example, our customer’s websites know whether Gene is on the website, or whether Rick is on the website. And if we already know your email address and phone number, we can ask you a different question on a form, just to give you an example. And I can give you countless examples of that. But the power of these tools is not just that they’re all like everything at one point that each of the components is actually enhanced because it’s part of the overall platform and is aware of what’s going on in other aspects of it. If that makes sense.
Gene Hammett [7:21]
I keep hearing about the future of marketing, it changes faster than a lot of things. But the future definitely will have a lot more personalization with it. And what you’re describing to me is the ability because you have you share a common database is how to personalize across these channels. I know there’s probably some of the things you’re doing, you’re probably working on a lot of the innovations in that as we speak with it with your team. Is that fair?
Rick Carlson [7:45]
Yeah, well, so that’s one of the things I hate about the term marketing automation, and why I really like revenue growth platform, marketing automation, somehow people think that means you save time, well, I hate to be the bearer of bad news. But marketing automation does not save you time, there’s so much you can do with the platform that you end up, you can do a lot more with your time. And but it doesn’t save you time. Really the benefits are just exactly what he touched on. It’s about personalization. And personalization matters because personalization leads to conversion, which leads to revenue. So again, if you know my website is aware that it’s talking to Rick, or Gene, or Bob or Nancy, then and can provide personal information. For example, if I’m coming back to the website for the second time, and on my first visit, I was interested in this specific product. And my website can dynamically bring that product front and center and provide information about it. That’s the kind of thing that you can do with these platforms today that you can do with a website or email marketing or social that is not powered by this automation and core tracking and personalization. So you’re exactly right. It’s all about personalization. And that’s where everything’s headed.
Gene Hammett [9:09]
So I mentioned all this before we get into the real heart of this message today with Rick is this is not a sponsored post, I just believe in what they’re doing. From an innovation standpoint, I wanted to have them on the show to talk about their David versus Goliath approach in the market. But if you’re curious about their platform, your agency or even your tools just aren’t getting the job done. You can go to SharpSpring.com/thinktank, set up a demo, and really try to see what’s missing and your current tool set. See what integration looks like and what’s possible. And now’s a good time to be thinking about what is your future marketing for 2021. We really want to dive into this but I just wanted to mention if you want that demo, just go to SharpSpring.com/thinktank. So Rick?
Rick Carlson [9:59]
Super nice of you. Thank you. Yeah. We’d love to hear from anybody who’s interested. Absolutely. Absolutely. So well into that.
Gene Hammett [10:09]
You’ve been invited to come on the show here to talk about this concept of David versus Goliath. So let’s just kind of get the put, you know, talk about the elephant in the room, you’re not the biggest company in this market you’re in when you moved into this space, and there were some bigger players than you. Who were you focused on? Are you open to sharing those names?
Rick Carlson [10:33]
No, I absolutely. I am. And it’s, interestingly, what we do is pretty difficult. And so the same companies that were on my business plan, and yes, I wrote one of those. I know, that’s sort of antiquated. But the same people that were on my business plan in 2012, or that were the, you know, are the same people we compete with today. So I spent a lot of my professional career in internet security. And I was actually exposed to Marchetti. And we were a customer. And back then they called it email automation. And that’s all it did, it was email. And, you know, today, the tools are just so much more powerful. But I was blown away by exactly what we’ve already talked about the personalization, I’m a marketer. And, you know, as a marketer, being able to segment customers and provide effectively one on one communication, but at scale across 1000s of users, I was just, I fell in love with it with the promise of it. And what I wanted to do was start SharpSpring, to bring it down to the small and medium-sized businesses, you know, I think we were probably paying Marchetti, several $100,000, all these technologies, you know, a start-up at the enterprise, and then the mid-market and small business segments, you know, fill in, and then eventually it gets down to even micro-businesses, right, that can take advantage of these things.
Rick Carlson [12:00]
So I started out SharpSpring with the idea of democratizing it a little bit and bringing down the cost. And it took us so it wasn’t an entirely new category by any means. Sort of originally, there were five players out there. HubSpot was one of them par dot, who is now part of Salesforce Marketo is part of Adobe Eloqua as part of Oracle, and then there’s another company out there called to act on. And so we had established players. And, you know, we wanted to be down in the SMB space. And it took us two years to develop a product. And as we, you know, develop the product, we saw some of the companies moving into that space. And we were, you know, in in, catch up mode for a long time as well. So yeah, definitely a David and Goliath. And, by the way, David was really late. Small and late and underfunded. That what SharpSpring was from 2012 to 2014,
Gene Hammett [13:10]
Well, I’m sure those listening in here probably have felt the same way in their markets. And so when you’re underfunded, you’re late to the market. You’ve got some bigger players in front of you. You got to do some things really right. I’m going back to our notes. We talked about this a few weeks ago, before, I want to make sure that we had a good conversation for the audience here. You had mentioned that focus and people were the number one and two punches that you had available to you when you didn’t have gobs of money to just deal with this problem.
Rick Carlson [13:42]
Yeah, that’s right. By the way, I do podcasts like this. And very few, I really enjoyed our previous conversation and the prep. And I think very few hosts go through as much effort to make sure that there’s a quality conversation. So I hope I live up to it after that last comment. But yeah, I think we made a decision early on, the first thing we needed to do is find a way not to compete, right. I’ve made sort of jokes that we’re we started this business and we were up against some of the most sophisticated marketers in the world. I mean, when you think about HubSpot and Marketo and what they were doing, and again 10-year headstart and hundreds of millions of dollars of funding. We needed to find a way not to compete with those guys and we focused on working with digital marketing agencies. We realized this was an underserved market. And once we made that decision, we decided to stick to it.
Rick Carlson [14:42]
This is the focal point and is that a brilliant concept? No many many you know, folks in business will tell you focus is key. But it is definitely one of those things like buy low, sell high. That is easier said than done, and Along the way, we had so many opportunities to chase money when we needed money. You know, a big company comes along that says, hey, if you can custom develop this or that for us, you know, and this is when we were very hand to mouth, you know, really hard to turn down a, you know, an opportunity like that, and they just seem to be coming along. But we just stayed focused on our primary customer, which is these digital marketing agencies, and it served us extremely well. You know, the second, the second thing, and you asked a really fun question that made me scratch my head when we were talking was, you know, is it? Is it customers? Or is it employees? How did you put the question?
Hold on for a second, Rick just talked about finding a way not to compete. And what he really means by that is, you can’t come to play the same game that some of the bigger competitors are playing. So you’ve got to find a way to not compete with them, and find the specific niche, or the specific way that you’re going to enter into the market, you’re gonna have a unique mechanism that allows you to do this. Well, how do you get there, one of the biggest things I think missing is when someone is fighting their way, no matter what, and to create a new strategy is having time to think we’ve got a new series coming up are called time to think. And it’s about optimizing your time as CEO. I mentioned that here. Because if you want to create a way for your company to not compete, you’ve got to have time to think, to be visionary, and look around the corner. Because no one else in the company is doing it, make sure you check out the series coming up on optimizing your time, with CEOs back to Rick.
Gene Hammett [16:50]
I call this the impossible question, which really is meant to write at the heart of leadership. So I asked leaders of fast-growth companies, what’s more, important customers or employees?
Rick Carlson [17:02]
Yeah. And, gosh, that’s a tough question, right? I mean, in so many ways, you need to be focused on customers. But look, at the end of the day, it has to be the employees and culture because you can’t scale yourself. And so if you’re going to meet the needs of customers, you’re going to have to do it with a team, and a team of employees and staff and co-workers. That is motivated, and, you know, also has a customer focus, but it has to start with the employees. You know, especially if, you know, we’re a software as a service business. And, you know, sure the product is, is well, it’s partially product, but service is really important. And half of what our customers find valuable is you know, their interactions with our employees. You can read about our support and all that it’s just for me, I was puzzled by the question, but it became very clear to me for thinking about it for a second it has to do with employees has to be first not so impossible.
Let me give you a little bit more context to this employee. First thing, I asked the big question, the impossible question, if you will, as a leader of a fast-growing company, what’s more, important your customers are your employees 94.1% of hundreds of companies have said its employees. The reason why they say it’s employees is that they know that scaling to the next level takes more than just their sheer work. And their mind, if you will, they need their employees to think about the problems they need their employees to be proactive. They need their employees to actually feel like owners. I share this data because hundreds of interviews with ink level companies and CEOs and founders have shown me that it’s not just about getting the work done. It’s about becoming a leader that really can engage people to think like owners and inspire them to feel like owners at every step during the journey of you get your feet on the ground and grounded in how you do that, then you have a much better chance to create the kind of company growth that you know is possible. And I say all this to you because my job is to help leaders as an executive coach become the leaders that are necessary the visionaries for their company. If you have any questions about that make sure you check out the free content at genehammett.com back to Rick.
Gene Hammett [19:41]
Well, I want to make sure we put this all in context here that one power questions the impossible question really just come out of my own curiosity as I was talking to other ink level leaders, which is a lot of the interviews we do on this podcast is the reason why they are where they are is not that they have great relationships with their customers, they have a great relationship with their employees. And those employees have great relationships with their customers. That’s right, every single out there, they’re taking care of them, they care for them. And they care for the business at large. Not just because the leader said that’s what we’re supposed to do, they’re doing it from their own heart.
Rick Carlson [20:22]
Doing it from their own heart. that’s a nice way to summarize it. I think that’s exactly right. I mean, listen, I, I remember the days I went over to Jacksonville, here, it sold our first couple of customers, right, first, you know, half dozen customers. And, and then you know, I was the guy providing support, but those days are long gone. And I just and I, I don’t get a chance to talk to customers anywhere near as much as I used to say, It’s fine. It’s fairly rare, I’m embarrassed to talk about how rare it is, I need to make more time for it. But I don’t want to give the impression I never talked to customers. But the point, your point is exactly right. And it is, it is your employees that are the face of the company, and if they believe in the company and want to support the customers and are genuine, is gold, and if they’re not, it is see-through and customers know it and sense it and understand what kind of company you have, by the interactions they have with your employees. And I think there are very few things I’m more sure of than that.
Gene Hammett [21:42]
Now, I’m going to go into an area where I haven’t prepped you, I haven’t asked you questions around this. And I know that you can probably handle anything. But is there anything that you guys do interesting when it comes to your own culture at SharpSpringthat you could share with us today that you feel like we could benefit from?
Rick Carlson [22:05]
I think there are a few things I know, some of it is not what I want to provide, I’ll spend most of my answer on things that hopefully others could replicate. But one of the neat things, so you were in a college town. And you know, there’s a certain level of bonding that comes along with that there’s you know, the anonymity of very large towns Can’t you know, once you leave work, you’re never gonna bump into an employee, well, that doesn’t happen with us. And so we’ve sort of benefited from the fact that we’re in a university town and that people socialize outside of work more naturally. And in those sorts of things that may clearly not be something that’s practical to replicate or easily replicable for your, your listeners. The other thing that we did was we really embrace the fact that we were small and late and underfunded. And, you know, hit on this David versus Goliath mentality and rallied our folks around that. And I think those two things work together.
Rick Carlson [23:19]
One of the things we always talk about, we hired from within and, you know, it’s not about making a few people in the company wealthy, it’s about creating an opportunity for everybody in the company. And so, you know, our head of product started in our support organization. I could give you dozens of examples of that. And most of our managers have come from within, and we talk a lot about the hiring, you know, we hired during the pandemic, we hired a lot of people during the pandemic. And how cool is that? And very often we’ve had people who stood up in a company meeting were hired in the last since the last company meeting, and made those people aware that the work that was put in by the previous folks allowed for the hiring of, you know, those of you that were standing in the meeting, and we’ve done that multiple times as we’ve grown. So I think rallying people around the success of the company, and what it means not in an abstract way for you know, a bunch of people who own equity in the company, but what it means for the community and your co-workers and yourselves is something that we do fairly well. And, you know, just a third, a third one here, sort of unrelated.
Rick Carlson [24:50]
We have always tried to be innovative, and this particular one was a well-timed thing. We were moving to a performance-based work week. Trying to, we call it a performance based work, we tried to break the contract that employees and employers have that are based on time, you know, the, if you get your job done then your time is yours is was sort of our mentality and whether you know, that takes you five days or four days, that’s okay. You know, if you get the work done, we’re paying you X and for Y amount of work. That’s fantastic. So we were doing a ton of work there, right as the pandemic hit. And we were moving in this direction, the pandemic hit, and we were so lucky and so easily able to transition to a work from the home environment just because of that mindset, and the thinking and the work that we have done in advance. So I don’t know, those are, those are three points that some of them are maybe easier to take on for, for everybody that others but.
Gene Hammett [25:57]
Right we can all live in a college town, what’s right access to young talent that is hungry to come to work, and but we can actually create some of the things you just talked about hiring from then, is a very big opportunity, because it signals to others that there is a career path here. And that increases your sense of loyalty and that sense of ownership. But also, you know, creating an opportunity for everyone at the company is another one. And then finally, that performance base pay like younger workers, because I assume a lot of your people are younger being in a college town. They want that flexibility. And imagine that performance-based work. If they’re performing, they’re able to have the flexibility they crave.
Rick Carlson [26:36]
Yeah, that’s right. And you know, we’ve been in we hired a bunch of college-age folks that now have houses and families. And so I think they appreciate the flexibility even more, right? You got some two-year-olds running around. It’s a thing. But yeah, that’s exactly right. Again, we were just lucky on that particular, the timing of putting those types of things, but we’ve always tried to work really hard, is social engagements and perks and benefits and things. I remember when we were able to offer health benefits. Because when we started out, we weren’t able to do it, you know, and it was a neat thing. We’ve got a month’s vacation, on top of you know, a couple of weeks of paid holidays, and so forth. So neat stuff.
Gene Hammett [27:28]
Love it. Rick, thanks for sharing your journey here, I know that you’ve got a long way to go against these Goliath out there because your work is probably just as daunting as you move forward. So it helps to have a level of focusing on the level of culture and people that you’ve created. They’re at SharpSpring, I just wanted to bring attention to that if we mentioned in the very beginning of this talking about some of the impacts that their technology does. If you’re curious about how that will take your business to the next level, you can get a demo sharpspring.com/thinktank. This is not a paid sponsorship in any way. It’s just something I wanted to do to help you guys spread the word. Talk about some of the things you’ve done to compete against the Goliath in your market because I think we could all learn from that. So thanks for being here.
Rick Carlson [28:16]
Hey, thank you so much for the opportunity. I can’t believe that time blew by that quickly. It is a lot of fun. So, appreciate it.
Gene Hammett [28:24]
Well, let’s wrap up here. Today’s episode is really looking at leadership from a different perspective than what we normally do. We’re talking to a company that knew they were going to compete against bigger companies, underfunded, a little bit late to the market. So what could you learn from today’s episode, I think that you could learn to focus on the people that are going to scale your company, maybe even a little bit more, and add some of the elements that Rick talked about. They help you be the leader that creates that kind of culture that creates the space and to stay true to your focus when you set out to do something. It’s easy to get pulled in different directions. So those two aspects of this will improve your leadership. If you want to continue to evolve as a leader, make sure you check out the free content at genehammett.com you can start your journey there, which is really a free conversation with me. So I share this with you because everyone I’ve talked to that as a CEO of a company wants more time to be the visionary and strategic you know, force behind their business but they are pulled into the day to day I can help you get clear about what those things are. And that’s really something that you need to do if you want to continue your growth. You think about growth, you think about leadership, think of Growth Think Tank, as always lead with courage. We’ll see you next time.
Disclaimer: This transcript was created using YouTube’s translator tool and that may mean that some of the words, grammar, and typos come from a misinterpretation of the video.
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