Marketing Strategies To Grow Your SaaS Startup With Jackie Hermes

This week on Digital Conversations, Billy is joined by Jackie Hermes, who gives us some insight into optimal marketing strategies for SaaS startup. Jackie is the Founder & CEO of Accelity, a fast growing B2B marketing services firm in Milwaukee. Jackie has 10+ years of marketing experience, and has started several of her own businesses. Connect with her on LinkedIn here!

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Billy: Alright, everyone, welcome to Digital Conversations. I’m your host Billy Bateman. Today I am joined by the great Jackie Hermes, founder and CEO of Accelity. Jackie, thanks for joining me today.

Jackie: Yes, I’m so excited to be here. Thanks for having me.

Billy: Yeah, it’s gonna be really good. We’re going to talk about a lot of different things. But before we get into it, just tell us a little bit about yourself.

Jackie: Oh, that is a big, open ended question. What do you want to know? So let’s see, I started Accelity seven years ago. It’s my second company. I actually owned a vegan cookie company for two years before that, which was a really, I honestly, almost like, forget that that part of my life even existed, because working in the food business is super hard. And it was really hard work.

But it taught me so much. And our team, I mean, it’s like COVID land right now, we’ve had a really wild ride this year, we started the year with 16, we’re down to 12, just through a number of different things happening. Like we lost 40% of our business at the beginning of the year, when COVID had now we’ve been able to get it back. And I think we’re actually more efficient and working better than ever.

So we’ve had a lot of lessons. They were tough lessons, but it’s been it’s been a really interesting year for us.

Billy: Awesome. Well, I actually want to hear how did you get into the vegan cookie business?

Jackie: Oh, gosh, um, well, my kids dad, my ex-husband actually was going to go to get an MBA. And then he decided that he wanted to try to start a business and just like get a practical MBA. And we worked on it together. So we found this woman who owned a restaurant in New York, it wasn’t the city, it was something I forgot, it was like near Buffalo. And she had a restaurant that she was selling.

The one part that she wanted to sell separately was these cookie recipes that she had, and they were no-bake gluten free vegan cookies. And that was 10 years ago, before a lot of that stuff was like, big. And so there was a lot of skepticism around the product. So we actually went out there, bought the recipes, and then just like tried to turn it into a company.

I remember like creating labels in Microsoft Word that, in hindsight, probably looked horrific, like printing stuff on Vistaprint looking for packaging online, standing in grocery stores as like the demo lady trying to hand stuff out. We did end up getting like a distributor and co packing agreement where someone was making and distributing, distributing to I think we got up to like, 12 restaurants before we sold it. And by sold I mean, we’ve maybe got back what we spent on the recipes, but we definitely learned a ton.

Billy: Yeah, I mean, I’ve had businesses where I’m like, I started it and I was like, Okay, this is gonna be great. And then I’m like, let’s just break even and get out of this. But you learn so much when you just are like, I’m gonna do it, you know.

Jackie: And you know what, the money that we earned along the way. I mean, it wasn’t easy earned money, but I was able to stash away money to use as seed money for Accelity. So it’s kind of like all’s well that ends well, in that situation. Yeah.

Billy: Well, then tell us a little bit about Accelity and how Accelity came to be and what you guys do?

Jackie: Yeah. So while I was running that cookie company, I was actually working full time managing the marketing department at a software company. So when I started there, it was about a $40 million company, and it was private equity owned. And while I was there, we grew to about 80 million via a number of different acquisitions. So I mean, it was really a cool situation, because at private equity owned companies, they’re trying to make the company as attractive for sale as possible.

And so sometimes they put people in leadership positions that maybe you wouldn’t get at another company, right? Like, I mean, I was 20, 24. I had no business managing the marketing department at an $80 million company, to be totally honest, right. I mean, I really, that’s where I kind of cut my teeth. And it was just trial by fire, and I got to figure everything out.

It made my career being part of that company. And so when I left I was looking around at different jobs, or figuring out whether I wanted to consult or freelance and I really, I mean, I had no idea what I wanted to do. I always say, freelancing to me at that time sounded like a really good way to get poor because if you can’t sell you don’t have a business.

on LinkedIn its all about being really specific about who you want to know startup

But I took a shot at it anyway. And started I think I started hiring employees, I don’t know, a year, a year and a half in. And that’s the whole story.

Billy: Great. And what kind of companies do you guys work with at Accelity.

Yeah, so we work with b2b software companies, mostly, we work with some b2b service businesses as well, we kind of evaluate them on a case by case basis to see who we’re going to work best with. And those are from pre revenue startup that have raised a certain amount of money where it makes sense to invest in outside marketing resources. Up to I think our largest client right now is about 30 million. And it’s private equity owned. So we have a few private equity owned companies in our portfolio as well.

Billy: Great. So I wanted to talk about a few different things with you and some of the tactics you guys are using for startups, because it is a lot different running marketing for a startup that maybe is just building that audience, versus that company that’s been around for 5-10 years, and people know who they are and, and what they do. One thing in particular, was testing for startups. Because everybody, as marketers, we’re like you need to be testing, you need to run your split test to figure out what works for your conversion. But one of the challenges for a startup is do they even have enough traffic on a website to start running testing, so I wanted to get your thoughts on that, and, and what you guys do for your clients?

Jackie: Yeah, it’s interesting, we talk about A/B testing, and when it’s a fit for clients on our team, but we usually don’t do it, especially for our smaller clients. Because it’s like, if you’re just gaining an audience, if you have 10 people look at something, it doesn’t matter if you split test it or not, right, because the sample size is so small, you’re not going to get any information on what’s really working and what’s not. And in addition, we’re working with companies that are selling mostly enterprise type software.

So some of our clients are a little bit higher volume, or they have contracts of 10 to $50,000 a year. But when those contracts get above like 50 to $100,000 a year, it’s not a volume game. And we’re not A/B testing top minds, it’s like looking for getting individual buyers through the door, and it becomes a completely different ballgame.

For example, one of our clients sells lease accounting software into only the top 400 CPA firms in the country. So they only have 400 prospects. And so that’s a much different game than when you have 10,000 or 5000, or however many prospects to deal with.

Billy: So, I agree with you, they’re totally different depending on how big your market is. What do you think is the minimum audience size you need to start running test if you’re going to?

Jackie: Yeah, so split testing on the website, I think can happen once you have maybe a few thousand visitors? I mean, you could do it with less than that. And I mean, there’s a lot of different ways you can split test, right? You can split test landing pages, if you’re even using landing pages anymore, that’s something that we’re talking about moving away from, you can split test emails. So I think it kind of is a case by case basis.

But I wouldn’t even be talking about that until you have a few thousand website visitors, 1000 subscribers in your email or whatever. I think it’s just a case of looking at your messaging, you have an email that doesn’t perform well like, what part of your messaging is not working? If people are opening, but they’re not clicking on anything, then there’s something wrong with the inside of your email, right? Yeah. So it’s the format. It’s the length, it’s, I mean, God, I see emails that don’t work. And I’m like, well, this header is gigantic. There’s nothing to click on here.

There’s way too much tax, the links are way down in the email. So maybe we are a few weeks later, or trying something that is a lot shorter that has links up higher in the email. So in those I think it’s just a matter of evaluating effectiveness case by case versus testing against another variable. Does that mean?

Billy: Yeah, yeah, that does make sense, until you get the traffic. It doesn’t make sense. It will take forever to get enough volume that statistically, you could say this version of the homepage converts better than that version. And the time period, I think would be so long, that it doesn’t even make sense, like things have changed in the world even you know.

Jackie: Yeah, well and just one more thing to think about how long it takes just to get one version of everything approved within a company, right? So if you’re doing three versions, and you don’t even have enough traffic to get good data on what’s working, it’s just going to take longer to get that out there, I’m a lot more of a fan of getting your message out, even if it’s imperfect, like get 90% done, get it out. And if it doesn’t perform well understand why for your next message that’s coming out.

Billy: Yeah, that’s a great point. Now, I want to circle back to something you mentioned earlier, doing away with landing pages. I mean, we use them all the time. But I would love to hear your reasoning, why they may not be a good fit.

Jackie: We’re really in the early stages. So I don’t have a lot of good advice, but follow up with me in three months, and I’ll have a lot better idea of what we’re doing. I think that it’s, this is the thing, what marketers consider good results, and what sales or business considers good results, are two totally different things. And I think that when marketers use landing pages, marketers are still to this day, gating content that they shouldn’t be, like, we could still be educational content. Some of our clients do it, some of them don’t.

But I still see companies that are putting forms in front of case studies. Like, who wants to convert on that, I don’t want to give you my information so I can see if you’re good at your job. Right? It just doesn’t, it doesn’t make any sense to me. But I was starting to look at a lot more like conversation ready leads versus what marketing thinks is good metrics, like downloads, or traffic or anything like that, all of those vanity metrics. It’s a cool indicator to marketers, like, hey, what we’re doing is working.

But that doesn’t matter to the business. You can’t go to the CEO of a business and be like, our web traffic is up. And they’ll be like, cool, what came of it? Right? So yeah, three, three months. And I love to have a conversation on what happened with our testing of getting rid of landing pages. My hypothesis that we’re testing is that if we ungate everything, we have so much content on our website, one, it will reduce the amount of work that our team has to do it getting out new content.

I think something with startups we fail at taking a step back and really looking at the bigger picture

And it will reduce the new subscribers that we’re getting into our database. But it will increase the number of people that want to have conversations with us. That’s a hypothesis and we’re gonna test and try to figure out whether that’s true or not.

Billy: Okay, I am going to call you in three months, please. I will do a follow up podcast to this because that is super interesting. Okay. So let’s talk about this, then. Marketers, we sometimes we focus on things that really don’t matter to the business. How do you get that alignment between your team and your clients? And what do you suggest for other people and focusing marketing on producing the things that matter to the bottom line of the business?

Jackie: Yeah, I think a big part of it is buy-in, and it’s getting buy in from the start, we have a client that we’re resigning after the first year right now. And we looked back at the last year, and we said, we got a lot done. But I think we had a lot more buy-in at the beginning of the year, because now we see that there are certain stakeholders that are starting to question certain things about what we’re doing. And we’re like, okay, now we have to go back and get buy-in again.

And that’s from the CEO from the head of sales. It’s not just saying like, here’s our plan. And here’s what we want to measure. Are you cool with this? And then I’m saying, sure, it’s what matters the most to you? What are the company’s goals this year? How much are you looking to grow? And what are the indicators that you want to see on a weekly, monthly quarterly basis that show you that we’re moving in the right direction.

I think marketers make the mistake of just like, especially as an agency, we work with other marketers that hire us, and we cook up all these strategies, and then we report out and it’s like does this matter to the business or not? I think sometimes we fail at taking a step back and really looking at the bigger picture in that way.

Billy: Okay. I like it, um, so I’m gonna hit you with a couple kind of rapid fire questions here. And let’s just go through it. So for all of these, it’s going to be for b2b SaaS company, if you were to recommend one tactic that everyone should be using for marketing, and it could be, it could be to drive traffic or to engage traffic on their website. What would you say everybody should at least be giving a shot right now?

Jackie: I would say LinkedIn, probably it’s getting to the end of the effectiveness of LinkedIn, in my opinion. So it’s time to get on it if you’re not there yet.

Billy: Okay, so get on LinkedIn. Okay. The next one would be, if you were running a marketing team, what’s the one budget item that you would not cut? You’re like, I’m never gonna cut this.

Jackie: Good software.

Billy: And then let’s dig into that; what software? What’s your stack? What’s your preferred stack? What do you like?

Jackie: We use HubSpot. We use databox for some clients that want a little bit more in depth reporting. And then I mean, outside of that we use things like Slack to make make more efficient. We’re implementing click off right now. But yeah, that’s about it.

Billy: Okay. All right. And then the last one here on just the rapid fire questions. What’s your secret sauce?

Jackie: Whoo. Whoo, good question. I think that mine is doing the legwork. I think every marketer is looking for the hack, and what’s gonna make my conversion rates go way, way up. And to me, it’s doing the legwork. Like people ask me how I got to, I don’t know, however many followers on LinkedIn. Well, I figured out who I wanted to connect with, I connected with them. I built relationships. It’s not just like, I pushed content, and it appeared in front of people. It’s doing the work.

Billy: Awesome. Awesome. I think a lot of people do, we always look for the hack we want to use. We, we all start there. And those connections most likely aren’t going to be that valuable to you. So on LinkedIn, let’s talk about that for a second. Because this is something I’m pretty interested in. When you’re targeting people, growing a LinkedIn audience, what’s advice you would give anybody trying to do that? What would you do if you were starting over today?

Jackie: If I were starting all over today, I would identify the kinds of people that I want to connect with. And so for us, that is CEOs, executives, and other stakeholders, within SAAS companies of a certain size, I would make a list of the 50 companies that I want to work with, I would find all of their executives and like those people that I just mentioned on LinkedIn, and I would go and start commenting on their stuff. If they’re posting on LinkedIn. I would look at what they’re commenting on.

And I would respond to their comments. I would make them know my face, and then request them as a connection. And just build that relationship. Like people do that to me all the time. And it’s so cool. Because they’ll comment on my posts for three months and send me really nice messages of encouragement.

And then they’ll say, hey, I’d love to record a podcast with you, or I’d love to get on the phone with you for 30 minutes, you can give me feedback on my product. And by the time they’ve done that, I’m happy to do it. So, to me, it’s all about being really specific about who you want to know, and then going and getting to know them.

Billy: I like it. That’s, that seems like the right way to do it.

Jackie: That’s not a hack.

Billy: But that is not a hack. That is not a hack, for sure. But I’m sure that doing it the right way, I think always pays off. it doesn’t pay off as quick. But it always pays off.

Jackie: So that’s, uh, my mom used to tell me that about cleaning the bathroom growing up. Do it the right way the first time, then you wouldn’t have to do it over again. I think it’s like, burned into my brain. And now I find myself saying that to other people. So there’s the takeaway.

Billy: Okay. Now before I let you go, I’ve got two more questions for you, Jackie. The one I forgot to ask at the beginning of the podcast, and we always that I always ask everybody this. But if we were gonna look you up on social Jackie, and try to figure out who you are and what you’re about, what’s something we wouldn’t know about you from looking at your social profiles?

Jackie: Ooh, I think that I look really, really confident on social media. And I mean, I’m a fairly confident person, but I also really struggle with imposter syndrome. That’s something I probably don’t talk about as much as I should. And I think a lot of people struggle with that, just not not knowing what to post or like, why would anyone take advice from me? Or are people going to interact with or like this message? And what if people don’t like it? So that’s probably something.

Billy: Yeah, no, that’s a that is a real thing. For sure. I’ve I’ve struggled with that myself, like, Why do people care what I have to say about this, but they actually, you just have to put yourself out there. I think a lot of people struggle with it. Thanks for sharing that. And then the next one would be, is there anything that that I didn’t ask you that you’re like, if this Billy guy was smart, he was have asked me about this and we should talk about it.

When Marketers use landing pages they are consistently gating content that they shouldn't be startup

Jackie: That is a good question that I am unprepared for. Yeah. Gosh, I don’t know. I mean, there are just a million things we could talk about in building a business and like making the right hire and just the importance of the people that you put around you. I think it’s huge. It’s a little, it’s a little off the path of marketing that we’ve been talking.

Let’s talk about it. We’re hiring a lot of people right now. So I spend seems like every day, a couple hours interviewing people. So I’m interested to get your takes. How do you go about hiring people?

Yeah, we, we use the process that’s outlined in the book “WHO” by Geoff Smart, I never know how to pronounce it when it’s spelled that way. But it’s, uh, I mean, it’s a pretty intensive process, where there’s like structured interviews where you, you ask questions that you just might not normally, where you have the the person you’re interviewing rate their last three to five bosses? And then you really get to see like, are there patterns here and how they worked with peers or bosses? How do they talk about other people?

And that, to me, is a big important thing like, do you have the integrity, even if you didn’t have a good experience to find the silver lining, or make sure that even if your boss had a low rating, that you’re talking about it in a positive light, because I think, especially this year, people are really struggling with like, being glass half empty, and that negativity, and that’s not something that I can surround myself with.

And then the other part of the hiring process that I really like is, we don’t ask for references, we tell the person that we’re interviewing who we want to talk to, because you went through that interview, and you got to know who their last five bosses were, and you got to ask them about some of their peers. At the end of the process, we say we’d really like to speak to this person, this person and this person, can you check with them and make sure it’s okay that we give them a call.

So you’re getting a little bit more like honest feedback, then, God, I’ve had friends who are like, can I say I worked at your company? And can you be a reference for me? And how many people do that? Right? It’s like, any reference, you call for a company or a person is going to be like, wow, they’re the best person ever. Where I think we’re kind of looking for a little bit more truth in the process. So it’s been working well, for us. We’ve been doing it for maybe two years.

Billy: Awesome. What was the name of that book? Again?

Jackie: “Who”, Geoff Smart

Billy: Okay. Yeah, I’m gonna that’s very insightful. I’m gonna try that out. Yeah, I agree with you the positive attitude, you, if they don’t have a positive attitude, it’s not gonna work. I feel like you’re almost doomed from the beginning.

I agree. And in a small environment, one negative attitude can poison the whole well. It can like, it can really spread quickly through the company. And so I really, that’s something I really, really focus on now.

I couldn’t agree more on that. So. Okay, Jackie. Well, thank you so much. This has been great. And if people want to get in touch with you and continue the conversation, what’s the best way for them to reach out?

Probably LinkedIn. So I’m the, Jackie Hermes on all platforms. I actually deleted Facebook like six weeks ago, so I’m not there anymore, but my brain feels better. So LinkedIn, and then Instagram too, is like where I post a little bit more personal, family type content. So hit me up on either of those platforms.

Billy: Okay, well, thank you, Jackie. And we’ll chat later.

Jackie: Yes, thank you so much for having me. I appreciate it.