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Episode #113: Building a Community of Visionaries, with Jeremy Epstein

Grad Conn

April 9, 2021  •  25 min read

I’ve never met a CMO who isn’t resource constrained. Whether you’re a startup, or a Fortune 500 company, we’re all being asked to do more with less. Today, Gtmhub CMO Jeremy Epstein shares his unique perspectives on being a CMO at early-stage startups. We talk about how building communities of like-minded people can help you break out of the pack, and the magic of micro-experience moments that can enhance your brand.

You can find Jeremy on LinkedIn, or sharing his marketing thoughts at Never Stop Marketing.

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PODCAST TRANSCRIPT

Grad Conn
All right, welcome back. As always, you’re right, it’s the CXM Experience. And I’m Grad Conn, CXO at Sprinklr. And today I have a very special guest, Jeremy Epstein. He’s currently the CMO at Gtmhub, which is a results management system based on OKRs, and he’ll talk about that for a minute or two.

But I met Jeremy originally when he was CMO at Sprinklr. Jeremy and I have a similar DNA in ourselves, similar experiences. Although for me, my experience came later, and to a large extent, came very much as a result of the amazing work that Jeremy did. So I want to start, Jeremy, by saying thank you for doing such an amazing job as CMO of Sprinklr. Because if you hadn’t, then I wouldn’t have been able to come and join Sprinklr later on. So I really owe you a great debt. So thank you. And I’d like to talk a little bit about that. But let me frame up today, overall. You’re doing a really interesting job where you are right now. You’ve done a really interesting job at Sprinklr. You can talk about some other experiences you’ve had. But you’ve got a unique perspective on being a CMO to a very early-stage startup, Series A, B, C, D, that kind of stage.

There’s going to be a different set of things that you have to do at that stage than if you’re at a later stage. And it’s, I think, a lot tougher at the stages that you’re at. So I’d like to firstly introduce yourself for a second, and then let’s talk about that. And let’s just sort of see what it’s like being an early-stage CMO and what are the key things you need to think about?

Jeremy Epstein
Yeah. Well, thank you very much for the very kind words. I wish I could take as much credit as you’re giving me. But it’s a real testament to Ragy, and the team, and the great product, and all of the great people at Sprinklr. I like to say everybody’s in marketing, it’s just that some of us know it.

Grad Conn
That’s good.

Jeremy Epstein
And marketing is really the aggregation of all the great work that the product and the success teams do. That basically leads into sort of my philosophy of marketing, which is, at an early stage, when you’re really trying to break out from the pack, the thing you want to do is start building a community of people who are like-minded. And that’s where you and I first met. Because you were a visionary at Microsoft when we first met. You saw the future that a lot of people didn’t see. And so I just saw it as my job is to find people like yourself and others at other enterprises we were serving, especially in the early days, and just help bring those people together and connect them. Because we were all out there on the cutting edge of this. Now it’s obvious that social media has changed the landscape. But back then, it wasn’t so obvious to many people.

And when you’re an innovator, it can get lonely. And that’s what we saw at Sprinklr, and that’s what we see at Gtmhub as people are really trying to change the way that organizations consistently drive results and using OKRs as the best methodology ever invented to do that. But it’s tough to change the culture in a lot of these organizations.

So all we try to do is, let’s find those people, let’s bring them together, and then let’s provide them content to help them do their jobs better. So for me, the only way I know how to do it is build community, provide content to that community, and drive word of mouth to start getting that flywheel started. Because as much money as you raise, you can’t spend your way into giant market awareness. You have to do it. That’s the augmentation, not the primary driver. So that’s basically the approach.

Grad Conn
Yeah. I love that philosophy. So I want to dig in on that. And you made a good point. Sometimes people say, “Well, if we just raised 30 million, or 150 million, or a half a billion…” whatever. All those numbers are tiny, tiny numbers versus what you actually need to build awareness. So you’re right. Almost at any stage, community and word of mouth is super important. I think about, say, Google. This is something, I remember…I don’t know if I’ve told this story yet.

Jeremy Epstein
I’m eager to hear it. Bring it.

Grad Conn
Well, I don’t have this…See, I’m not prepared. Because if I was really prepared, I’d have this person’s name, and this would be a true full revenge story. But this would just be a partial revenge story.

So when we were… I was doing one of my startups, and we were admiring the way that Google, and this was like the late ’90s. We admired the way that Google did its intro. And I don’t know if you remember this. But the way Google did its launch is they didn’t have a lot of money, and they went to CIS admins. So they went to the IT CIS admin open-source community, and they spent a lot of time talking about their algorithm and what they’d kind of invented in terms of linkbacks. And that got everyone really excited because it made so much sense and it was so brilliant. And so CIS admins at that time were doing a lot of configuring on computers and offices. And so they’d go to an executive’s desk, and they would be using AltaVista, or Ask Jeeves, or whatever.

Jeremy Epstein
Right. Right.

Grad Conn
Oh my God, AltaVista. And then they would say, “No, no, you should use Google.” And that’s how a lot of how the groundswell of Google started, was at that base level. So I was sort of admiring this Google strategy for a company I had called OpenCola, which took a very similar strategy. And I actually made a fair amount of headway using that strategy. And we did something slightly different, which is we invented an open-source soft drink to go along with our software.

Jeremy Epstein
Nice.

Grad Conn
And some days I think maybe we should’ve just been selling the soft drink. Whatever, it doesn’t matter. Got a lot of attention. And we were telling our VC at Intel, he’s no longer there. But we were telling our VC at Intel that we really love this strategy that Google had taken and we wanted to copy it and build community, all the stuff you’re talking about.

Jeremy Epstein
Right.

Grad Conn
And he goes, “Whoa, dude.” He goes, “Google never made any money. It’s never going to make any money for any of its investors. Anyone who put any money into Google is going to lose it all. And use Google as an example with me one more time, I’m never going to invest in your company.” So there you go. Not everybody knows everything.

Jeremy Epstein
Not everybody can see the future. That’s true.

Grad Conn
And then Salesforce did the same thing. I think Benioff did a brilliant job in the early days of really kind of contrasting himself to Siemens…or Siebel, excuse me. Not Siemens, Siebel.

Jeremy Epstein
Siebel. Right.

Grad Conn
Contrasting himself to Siebel, talking about cloud CRM versus CRM, and made a lot of noise, and built a community around a product that was still early stage. So how do you do it? Those are big examples that worked really well. For every big example, there are 100 examples that don’t work well. How do you actually find community? What did you do on Sprinklr? What were the early days of Sprinklr, finding people like me? Because I don’t know how easy we were to find.

Jeremy Epstein
Well, I mean, it wasn’t as difficult as you thought because the community at that point was not particularly large. So we actually relied very heavily on the influencers in the space. One of the first tactics that we employed was what we call our social at scale ebook, and we invited 30 of the biggest names in the industry to participate and share their vision of what’s social at scale, which was an idea that we had coined.

It took us about eight or nine months after I got there to kind of get to that point. And we had some great input from a lot of people, including Jeremiah Owyang, who was very instrumental and one of the early influencers. And we invited them, and we said, “Look, I don’t want you to talk about Sprinklr. But I do want you to explain to the people out there, what does the arrival of social mean for large enterprises?”

And we invited them into a collaborative ebook. And then once you know it, they all promoted it to their fans and followers. And that helped us uncover a lot of the people. Basically, to sound grandiose about it, we knew we were starting a movement. It was a movement of people who believed that the arrival of the empowered customer was going to change the face of enterprises. And so what I say is: who are the people who share this belief? Who share our worldview? Let’s figure out ways to uncover them.

And we’re basically running the same play at Gtmhub, of people who believe that in a world of knowledge workers, that’s knowledge economy, that you want transparency, you want focus, you want alignment, that OKRs are the way to do that. But basically you need to have cultures of collaborations around this. Not everybody’s prepared for that. But we’re trying to uncover those people and then bring them together.

They sort of say, “Look, I can see this is a brand that cares about the things that I care about.” We used to put on events that we called social at scale events.

Grad Conn
Ragy still talks about those.

Jeremy Epstein
That’s awesome.

Grad Conn
Yeah, but admiringly; not in a bad way. In a very good way. He still talks about how awesome those were and how amazing you were in getting people out to those.

Jeremy Epstein
Thank you.

Grad Conn
Usually when he’s yelling at me, he’ll go on at length about how awesome you were.

Jeremy Epstein
I’ve been on the tail end of Ragy yelling too. I don’t have all glamor stories from the Sprinklr days. Got my butt kicked on more than one occasion. I give Ragy a lot of credit for understanding the value of this, though. Every marketer out there is not always blessed with a CEO who understands intuitively what was trying to happen.

Grad Conn
Yeah.

Jeremy Epstein
He said, “Look, no one really cares what we say. They care what people say about us.” So that was what we tried to take into the event. I would kick it off for five or seven minutes, just sharing our worldview. And then the rest of the time was all basically user-generated content. We invited customers, we invited prospects. And I even, once or twice, I invited people who were using our competitors’ products to present at our event.

Grad Conn
Really? Wow.

Jeremy Epstein
And the greatest compliment that I could ever get was people saying, “Jeremy, this was one of the greatest corporate events I’ve ever been to. I learned so much from my peers. I feel like I’m not alone. I saw what other companies are doing.” He said, “The only problem is you didn’t show me your product.” And I was like, “You’re welcome. That’s not the point of this event. The point of this event is to connect you with other people. It’s to build trust. It’s to help you understand that Sprinklr genuinely, passionately cares about this particular movement. And that’s what this is for.”

And so I always loved that. And that’s why I wasn’t afraid, like, “You’re using one of our competitors? I don’t care. We’re here to educate the audience.” And that’s the kind of thing that builds trust when they get up and say, “We’re not using Sprinklr, yet,” that kind of thing. And it was just a great experience and people love learning. Because you’re just empowering people through education. You’re not ramming demos and ramming slides down their throat. Nobody likes that. I always say, I would never put on an event that I wouldn’t want to go to myself. And I don’t like boring events.

Grad Conn
Yeah. That’s a great philosophy. It is interesting. I do think that part of the fall of marketing automation, I mean, it’s still sort of hanging in there. But I think a lot of the philosophies of marketing automation that were sort of formed in the early part of the 21st century are really kind of disintegrating. Like you see B2B marketers right, left and center just not able to hit the goals they used to hit with white paper downloads and gated content, and all that kind of stuff. And I think part of it is that people are just tired of being sold to.

Jeremy Epstein
Yeah.

Grad Conn
And it is rare to find a company that’s got the, let’s say courage, to just have a conversation with someone and not necessarily try to sell them something. It’s like, you want to try to create a relationship versus try to make a sale. I think we understand how to make relationships in the real world. But somehow, I don’t know what happens, we go online, and it’s like, “You want to buy a watch?” It’s just, it’s instantaneous. We go straight to the sale. And I think people back off from that. It’s too scary.

Jeremy Epstein
Yeah, no. There’s a little sort of a flip remark I’ll say, is that the difference between sales and marketing is, sales is when you call them, marketing is when they call you.

Grad Conn
Nice.

Jeremy Epstein
And I like to quote Peter Drucker. He says that marketing and innovation are the only two things that drive the business forward. But he says, “The purpose of marketing is to know the customer so well that the product or service sells itself.”

And so I always view that as like a challenge. It’s like, how do you build the relationship to the point where the prospect feels like you understand their problem so well that they just call you up. And sort of part two to that demo story is, I’d say, “Look, one day, you’re going to wake up, and you’re going to say, ‘Wow, I really need to do social at scale.’ And on that day, you’re going to call me. And then my account rep will be more than happy to give you a demo of the software.”

So it’s just thinking in terms of treating people the way you would want to be treated. It’s not that hard when you think about it. But you’re right, we put on our marketing hats and let’s just ram you with all kinds of stuff. And look, I have moments where I’m guilty of that. I definitely fall into that on certain activities. But generally I try to stay away from that, because I believe over the long haul, that’s the way you’re going to win, especially in this market.

Grad Conn
So you’re a CMO to an emerging company. It sounds like things are going great, which is awesome, and I’m super happy for you. But you’re still resource constrained.

Jeremy Epstein
Oh yeah.

Grad Conn
And you will be for a long time. I mean, it’s not a knock against the company. It’s just, you have to be very thoughtful about how you spend your money.

Jeremy Epstein
Right.

Grad Conn
And, quite frankly, even when I was at Microsoft, I theoretically had a lot of cash available, but I still felt resource constrained because there were so many things to do. I always had to make choices. So, just for people who are listening, let’s say someone is a CMO at a Series A, Series B startup, they’re like, “Boy, is this really tough.” How would you help them think about prioritization? Top three, key trade-offs.

Jeremy Epstein
Yeah. It’s a great….It’s funny. As you may recall, I also worked at Microsoft once upon a time. And I always tell people that no matter what business you’re in, you feel resource constrained, even when you’re at Microsoft when you think you have all the money in the world.

But you’re right. I mean, I think it’s a series of trade-offs. I think it’s never forgetting that there’s a person on the other side of the screen. I think that has to be the first thing: how do you invest in experiences? I know you’re the chief experience officer. And I think that that role, everybody needs to think that way: what is the experience? And it’s all these little micro-moments, that together either enhance the brand or detract from the brand. So the first thing is to invest in communicating that. Like I said, everybody’s in marketing. I think we’re up to about 120, 130 people in the company now.

Grad Conn
That’s great.

Jeremy Epstein
Excuse me. There you go. That’s authentic. You get a little Pellegrino burp there. That’s just trying to keep it real. Ragy would be proud. You told me we’re just taking one take in this thing.

Grad Conn
Yeah, we don’t edit this thing, man. It’s all in. It’s all in.

Jeremy Epstein
Hey, real human people occasionally drink Pellegrino and stuff happens.

I think it’s like, I’ve used the all-hands meetings that we’ve had over the last couple of months to try to communicate what the brand stands for and how we should work. I think still on the wall at Sprinklr today it says, “People never forget how you made them feel.”

Grad Conn
It’s on the sleeve of every single hoodie we have.

Jeremy Epstein
I remember the day we sort of took that and made that our term. And I still fundamentally believe that the Maya Angelou quote is something that should be a guiding for everybody. So, number one, as a CMO, I’d say, “Look, you don’t have to do this by yourself. You can leverage every single other person in the company if they understand that what they do affects the marketing function.” So, that’s number one: how quickly the support team responds, how easy it is to sign up for the software.

Grad Conn
True. Yeah.

Jeremy Epstein
All of those things are marketing moments. You don’t need a lot of money for that. You just need to be effective at articulating that. So, that would be number one. Number two is probably being clear about what you actually stand for, getting clear.

And that’s a hard process. I mean, it took us another eight months here at Gtmhub to kind of get to a little bit more clarity, and it’ll probably take us another eight months to even get better clarity. And then, like I said, the community and content. It doesn’t take a lot of effort to get people together. What it takes a lot of effort to do is to resist the temptation you just discussed: putting an event on without trying to ram stuff down people’s throats.

It’s just putting an event on or creating an experience where people say, “Wow, I actually got a ton of value out of this. This was something that helped me learn and do my job better.” Because when you’re in an early-stage category creating an environment and you find these advocates, these champions, these community members, they are out there on the cutting edge. So I view our job as just helping them be successful. I said to our customer success person, “Our goal shouldn’t be NPS. Our goal should be how many of our clients get promoted.”

Grad Conn
Mm-hmm affirmative. Love that. Wow. That’s awesome.

Jeremy Epstein
That’s really what we could do. At one point, we studied this. We did an analysis of people, of sort of our earliest customers. And I remember, like a year later, 65% of our sort of top 30 customers had been promoted within the past year. I said: that’s awesome. We’re helping them.

Grad Conn
Wow. That’s awesome. Yeah.

Jeremy Epstein
That’s a real partnership in my book.

Grad Conn
Well, it’s funny that you say that. I’ve never thought of thinking of that as a KPI. That is brilliant. But I’ve glanced off the edge of it, because I tell people all the time that I think people forget that B2B is a much simpler category than people think it is.

Jeremy Epstein
Mm-hmm affirmative. Mm-hmm affirmative.

Grad Conn
Because people are buying one thing, they’re buying career success.

Jeremy Epstein
Right. Right. Well said.

Grad Conn
And with a kind of an underlying risk around, will this purchase get me fired?

Jeremy Epstein
Right. Right.

Grad Conn
And so, to me though, the bar for career success, these are really long. And the bar for career firing, career ending, is usually short.

Jeremy Epstein
Right. Right.

Grad Conn
But it’s a very unusual category because emotionally you’re appealing to the same thing in almost every category, which is people are making decisions that will hopefully make them more successful in their jobs. And that’s what they’re looking for. And I think a lot of companies forget that because they think about speeds and feeds, and all that kind of stuff.

Jeremy Epstein
Mm-hmm affirmative.

Grad Conn
Okay, well, Jeremy, you’ve been really gracious with your time. I do have three last questions. Two are really easy, and then one just a little bit harder.

Jeremy Epstein
Bring it on.

Grad Conn
So I’ll read the harder one first.

Jeremy Epstein
Okay. I’m ready.

Grad Conn
If you were going to change one thing about what you did at Sprinklr—and the answer could be I wouldn’t change anything because I did a perfect job—but if you could go back to my DeLorean and we could go fix it, what would you change?

Jeremy Epstein
I would have spent a hell of a lot more time developing my people.

Grad Conn
Oh, really?

Jeremy Epstein
I don’t think I was very good, I was a mediocre people manager, developer-of-talent leader. I was new. I was so focused on the strategy execution that sometimes I forgot about that. So, I would have invested a heck of a lot more in the career development of everybody on my team. And we had amazing team members. And I think they’d say they learned a lot, and they developed a lot. But I definitely would have spent a lot more time helping them grow in their careers.

Grad Conn
Wow. Awesome answer. Okay. Okay, next question. A little bit easier. Spice Girls are reuniting.

Jeremy Epstein
Okay.

Grad Conn
But without Posh Spice. Are they still the Spice Girls?

Jeremy Epstein
I’m going to say yes. Because 80% is still significant. That’s filibuster-proof there. I’m with it. They’re still good friends. I’m good with that.

Grad Conn
All right. Okay. Okay. Good. Okay, good. Good. It was a five-person band. Okay, good. All right. And then last question, and this is actually a serious question for some people.

Jeremy Epstein
Okay.

Grad Conn
Is a hot dog a sandwich?

Jeremy Epstein
Yeah. Actually, this came up the other day. I’m going to have to go with no.

Grad Conn
No? Okay. All right.

Jeremy Epstein
Yeah. I’m going to have to go with no. Not really so.

Grad Conn
Are you a big hot dog fan or mediocre hot dog fan?

Jeremy Epstein
I’m vegan.

Grad Conn
So not a hot dog fan.

Jeremy Epstein
Well, I mean, they do have soy hot dogs. Those are good. But yeah, no, not a huge hot dog fan. I mean, average.

Grad Conn
Okay. Good. Okay. We’re tabulating these responses, so we just line up at the big table at the end.

Jeremy Epstein
Is this like an infographic that’s going to come out later, that’s going to be gen activity for you guys?

Grad Conn
Yeah, most CMOs think that hot dogs are sandwiches, that kind of thing.

Jeremy Epstein
There you go. Hot-dog-eating CFOs lead companies more effectively than non-hot-dog-eating CFOs. There you go.

Grad Conn
There we go, right?

Jeremy Epstein
I love it.

Grad Conn
Something like that. Someone’s out there doing that.

Jeremy Epstein
That’s right.

Grad Conn
Well, Jeremy, this has been great. Any last thoughts, words, or questions for me?

Jeremy Epstein
Wow. Well, I guess, when you think, I mean, when you think of the role, how do you explain the chief experience officer role to people who may not necessarily intrinsically understand what it is or its value? How do you explain your mission?

Grad Conn
That’s a great question because I’m still figuring it out myself.

Jeremy Epstein
Fair enough.

Grad Conn
So if you have any thoughts, throw them my way. But what I’ll do, and when I talk about what I do, is that we have a philosophy that experience is the new brand, and that potentially is part of your coinage as well. And so in that type of a scenario, I need to think about and look at what kind of experience our customers are having with us.

So I spent actually a lot of time with customers and talking to them, working with them, telling them about what Sprinklr does, but also seeing what Sprinklr does. And where I think I bring some interesting advantages is that I’m a heavy user of the platform.

Jeremy Epstein
Right. Right.

Grad Conn
So I’m in there kind of messing around and sort of looking at it. And so for me, it’s always about how do I think about the experience that’s landing across the board? And so I’m talking to engineering, I’ll be talking to sales, talking to broad groups of people.

And it is a very interesting role because I am able to cross over many of the silos that exist in an organization. There are not a lot of CXOs out there. It’s becoming more common. There are CDOs and CXOs, which tend to be a bit interchangeable. But typically, organizations will set up these roles to try to help unify the silos and create a better collaboration environment to land a better experience with the customer. And ultimately it’s that experience that is going to keep someone coming back, buying more, or trying it for the first time.

Jeremy Epstein
Yeah, experience is the brand. I like that. That makes a ton of sense. People never forget how you made them feel, right?

Grad Conn
That’s for sure. Well, this has been great. I’m going to say thank you and sign off, and let’s connect again. Where do you live? What’s your hometown?

Jeremy EpsteinI live right outside of Washington, D.C.

Grad Conn
Okay. Well, I kind of go by there every once in a while. So next time I’m in the D.C. area, and once…I’m probably vaccinated as of tomorrow.

Jeremy Epstein
Nice.

Grad Conn
Fully vaccinated. So when you’re all ready to go and we’re kind of out in public again, let’s get together face-to-face and have dinner or something. I would really enjoy that.

Jeremy Epstein
I would like that. Thank you.

Grad Conn
All right, well, for the CXM Experience, my guest today has been Jeremy Epstein. He’s the CMO at Gtmhub, and esteemed CMO, and alumni of Sprinklr. And I want to thank Jeremy for being on the show today. And for the CXM Experience, I’m Grad Conn, CXO at Sprinklr, and I’ll talk to you next time.

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Grad Conn

Chief Experience Officer, Sprinklr

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