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Eric Nalbone of Drum: “From an econometrics/statistics professor”

From an econometrics/statistics professor: “Nothing you observe reaches statistical significance without first passing through a period of being statistically insignificant. Figure out how long that period is likely to be before you start.” Example/Impact: So this my inner statistics geek talking, but it’s actually really important. Much as we wish it were different, we don’t get […]

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From an econometrics/statistics professor: “Nothing you observe reaches statistical significance without first passing through a period of being statistically insignificant. Figure out how long that period is likely to be before you start.”

Example/Impact: So this my inner statistics geek talking, but it’s actually really important. Much as we wish it were different, we don’t get information in ways that allow us to draw instantaneous conclusions or generate divine insight with a few clever formulae or pivot tables.


As a part of our series about business leaders who are shaking things up in their industry, I had the pleasure of interviewingEric Nalbone.

Eric Nalbone is the Head of Marketing for Drum. He has previously led Marketing for Bellhops, a tech-enabled moving company headquartered in Chattanooga, TN, and held a variety of roles with Kabbage, eBay, and General Electric. Eric resides in Atlanta, GA.


Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?

I have taken a little bit of a roundabout path to where I am today, but the two themes that I’ve generally embraced have been being open and available for every interesting opportunity that comes my way and moving earlier and earlier in the business lifecycle.

Starting my career at General Electric (back when GE was still the powerhouse it used to be) in corporate finance, then moving to a late-stage public technology company (eBay), mature VC-backed company (Kabbage), growing VC-backed entity (Bellhop) and then to seed-state companies has been at times both fortuitous (most of these opportunities found me … I didn’t find them) and intentional (I knew I wanted to get closer and closer to the generation of new ideas and the creation of value where none previously existed).

As far as why Marketing, it’s an incredibly interesting job insofar as my responsibility is ultimately to get into the minds of my customers — the diversity of customers and situations makes that an endlessly compelling problem no matter what company you work for or what industry you’re in.

Can you tell our readers what it is about the work you’re doing that’s disruptive?

Every company is focused around the notion that a problem that real people (or businesses) have doesn’t need to be a problem, or that there’s a better way to solve it. At Drum, we’re very focused on the idea that word of mouth marketing has historically been a) unscalable and b) limited in scope. We believe there’s a better way.

We’re also pushing back against the idea that aggregating more and more information necessarily makes you smarter. We believe that the right information makes you smarter — in the same way that more spreadsheets don’t help business executives make smarter decisions, three thousand reviews don’t help you understand whether you’ll like a product — a personal recommendation from a person you trust carries significantly more weight. The challenge we’re embracing is to make that scalable.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

No mistake is funny at the moment you make it — we all know that sinking feeling when you realize something has gone wrong, but there are at least some I can laugh at in retrospect. During my time at eBay, we used internal systems to manage astonishingly large sums of money being spent per day — think six figures, sometimes rounding to seven figures, per day.

I once raised my bids on Google’s platform by 100% one evening when I intended to adjust it by 1%, based on misplaced decimal points. I spent a week’s worth of advertising dollars in the hours between midnight and when my alarm went off the following morning, which is a very difficult conversation to have with your boss.

The lessons though with every mistake are pretty clear — they happen, and you can move forward if you take ownership and responsibility. The faster you communicate what’s wrong and the faster you get on top of an action plan to fix what’s on fire, the better.

We all need a little help along the journey. Who have been some of your mentors? Can you share a story about how they made an impact?

I’ve had many, but two that stand out are an early manager during my time at GE and the individual that brought me into both eBay and Kabbage. My GE manager is one of the hardest-working individuals I know, but has his priority structure absolutely in order — he showed me what it looks like to buckle down and work hard when hard work is needed, but how to balance that with the things we’re actually working for — family, community, and quality of life.

The woman who brought me into eBay and Kabbage is probably the smartest person I’ve ever met, and showed me what it looks like to bring a high level of analytical/intellectual talent to the table but do so in a collaborative manner instead of exclusionary or combative way (we’ve all met the smart but obnoxious coworker, and they’re no fun). She was a great model for how to do the hard work of proving things analytically, advocating for your position, and doing so in a way that builds consensus instead of creating conflict.

In today’s parlance, being disruptive is usually a positive adjective. But is disrupting always good? When do we say the converse, that a system or structure has ‘withstood the test of time’? Can you articulate to our readers when disrupting an industry is positive, and when disrupting an industry is ‘not so positive’? Can you share some examples of what you mean?

At least in the tech industry, I agree that ‘being disruptive’ has earned a positive connotation, but disruption is absolutely not all positive, all the time. For example, whatever legitimate gripes people may have had about the taxi industry, real people who were taxi and limousine drivers had their lives turned upside down by Uber, even if they were able to transition into driving for the company.

Going a little bit further back, it’s taken a long time for the music industry to come to grips with the impact of technology (starting with Napster and culminating recently with platforms like Spotify) where many artists absolutely weren’t appreciative of what was happening. That was a 20-year transition before some level of normalcy was finally realized.

As we try to build the solutions of tomorrow, I think it’s ultimately incumbent on us as builders to do so in a considerate, equitable fashion. I’ve spent the last several years of my life deeply invested in what it looks like to build gig-work style companies, which is a timely conversation given what’s occurring in California with Uber and Lyft. I think the good-faith requirement that companies have is to create mutually beneficial systems that put gig workers and companies or consumers on the same side of the transaction (we all win together) — vs. exploiting individuals (a company exploits a group of people for profit).

That’s easier said than done, but it’s something we all need to take very seriously.

Can you share 3 of the best words of advice you’ve gotten along your journey? Please give a story or example for each.

From my grandfather: “Everyone sweats at their own level.” 
Example/Impact:Whether you’re a summer intern struggling with a difficult project, or a CEO wrestling with a highly-sensitive staffing decision, all of us feel stress. The intern actually probably feels similarly to the same way the CEO does in that moment — unmoored, confused, stuck, nauseous, fidgety, motivated, energized, you name it.

This has been particularly helpful to me as a colleague, manager, and friend, though it’s very hard to do — when someone comes to you with a problem, even if you might blow the problem off as trivial, it’s critically important to the person you’re speaking with. Take it seriously, try and be empathetic, and afford it the gravity that the other party feels it deserves rather. As I mentioned — easier said than done (my wife will tell you that I unequivocally have not mastered this skill, but I’m trying!).

From an early-career manager: “Be happy and eager to solve problems related to growth. We don’t want to solve problems related to laziness, ignorance, or not doing what we said we’d do.”
Example/Impact:This is pretty self-explanatory, but a really good way to categorize problems. We all have our jobs to continually solve problems — not to just punch the clock and watch things be perfect— but some problems you should be excited for and some you should be in a panic about. After all, if we didn’t have problems to solve we wouldn’t have jobs!

Sort them out, and make sure you assign the right level of stress to when you’ve absolutely failed at something you should have done, but smile and embrace those problems that are associated with growth. They are exciting, not stressful.

From an econometrics/statistics professor: “Nothing you observe reaches statistical significance without first passing through a period of being statistically insignificant. Figure out how long that period is likely to be before you start.”

Example/Impact: So this my inner statistics geek talking, but it’s actually really important. Much as we wish it were different, we don’t get information in ways that allow us to draw instantaneous conclusions or generate divine insight with a few clever formulae or pivot tables.

The real world parses information out over time, and to make good decisions, you need to both have some idea of how much time you’re going to need to commit to gathering the data you need, and how impactful a decision could potentially be if you make that investment.

I see people *all the time* get fixated on good ideas that are simply impossible to prove or so time consuming that their level of impact makes them realistically impractical. It’s one thing to identify a problem and it’s another to commit to fixing it, especially when you’re limited by time, money and resources. This is particularly important in early-stage, high growth companies.

At eBay, it was a win if we fixed a problem that made our world 1% better — the company was growing low-single digits annually and that 1% would be a *really big deal.* They’d also been around to have tried a lot of really good ideas, and there just weren’t that many step-change ideas left that tens of thousands of smart people hadn’t already tried at least in some form or fashion!

During my time at Kabbage and Bellhop, by contrast, a series of 1% ‘wins’ gets you fired, because the expectation is to grow ~100%, not ~10%. It means your ideas have to be an order of magnitude larger (again, don’t mess up the decimal point)! That’s a really important concept for people at all levels, and it’s hard to be intellectually honest with yourself and say ‘I’ve found a problem, and it’s frankly not a big enough problem for me to spend time on.’

Lead generation is one of the most important aspects of any business. Can you share some of the strategies you use to generate good, qualified leads?

This is so business specific — it’s hard to generalize. But if I had to sum it up, I’d say ‘media is cheap, people are expensive.’ When you’re talking about lead generation for sales teams, the limited resource is really people time — wasting sales teams’ time on calls with unqualified leads has a tremendous financial impact (paying people for useless work) and opportunity cost (we could have called a better customer).

So Marketing and Sales departments need to work very closely to make sure that what Marketing is passing to Sales as a ‘qualified’ lead really is that. Lead quality and conversions are shared objectives, not a number that Marketing hits and Sales complains about (or vice versa). If leaders on both sides of that conversation aren’t in lockstep, it’s very damaging to an organization.

We are sure you aren’t done. How are you going to shake things up next?

I think the excitement and beauty of my career is that I don’t know the answer to this question. I’ve made a habit of following very interesting people from experience to experience, and it turns out that interesting people find interesting opportunities. One of the things I constantly tell people who ask me for career advice is the simple phrase: “Say yes!”

We’re so early here at Drum that I don’t think I’ve yet made the impact I want to yet as we build our company, so the immediate future clearly looks like bringing our product to market and trying to fully realize our vision, but I don’t know what the period beyond holds, other than that I’ll continue to see out interesting, underappreciated problems.

Do you have a book, podcast, or talk that’s had a deep impact on your thinking? Can you share a story with us? Can you explain why it was so resonant with you?

I can go a couple different ways here. If you’re looking for a podcast, I’d suggest The Knowledge Project by Shane Parrish. He runs the Farnam Street blog (www.fs.blog) and I was introduced to him through his writing on Mental Models. His podcast is published weekly, and is quite long, but it’s the best 60–90 minutes I spend listening to non-fiction content each week.

Moving to books, I read a lot of fiction. Particularly as a Marketer where the challenge is to understand what will make your product appeal to a broad and often nuanced customer base, knowing your product is only half the battle — knowing your customers is the other half. Fiction is a great way to inhabit the headspace of others and offer a way to empathize with context, culture, and situations that I’d never encounter in my own life. A couple I’d recommend would be The Overstory, by Richard Powers or A Little Life, by Hanya Yanagihara.

If you want to go the non-fiction route, I spend a lot of time in biographies and memoirs for the same reason — trying to immerse myself in others’ perspective. A particular favorite of mine this year has been Sea Stories, by Admiral William H. McRaven, famous for his 2014 University of Texas commencement address (“Make Your Bed”). It’s an engaging story of an incredible career with nuggets of wisdom that are broadly applicable to nearly anyone. I highly recommend the audiobook version, read by McRaven himself — hearing a person’s stories in their own words is a powerful experience.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

From above, “Everyone sweats at their own level” is high on my list. At its core, every company is about solving problem, and every job in that company is about solving a problem the company has.

It frankly doesn’t matter if you’re the CEO of the largest company in the world or the janitor, you’re solving somebody’s problem, and if we can all spend that much time solving each other’s problems, it stands to reason there are a lot of them in the world. You can do a lot of good for the world by finding someone who is sweating and helping them. Rinse, repeat, and scale and you have a company.

As it has impacted my life, I think it’s mostly shown up in my choice of companies and career path. I started my career in a manufacturing business because even though my job (corporate finance) didn’t involve heavy machinery or working on factory floors, I understood what came off the line at the end of the day and how it added value to the world (vs. trading derivatives and moving money around on Wall St., which is a whole lot more removed from tangible, physical problems, for example).

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

I’ve love to see a reform in the way we think about housing, particularly in the United States. This means more development (of denser housing … more cities should look like Manhattan than like San Francisco), incentives for companies and individuals to NIMBY’ism combined with gentrification in so many major American cities has this weird effect of simultaneously displacing (or pricing out) entire swaths of our population while similarly giving them nowhere to go.

It creates this incredibly taxing (literally and figuratively) situation where burdens are shifted at the personal, local, state and national levels away from people who could help solve those problems and to those who are fundamentally incapable of tackling them. Then we rely on government entities to fill gaps. You’d think if someone has 100 problems, finding just a single one that’s easy to solve would be pretty straightforward, but that actually isn’t true, and solving any one of them actually matters less (because you still have 99 problems, which combine to make your quality of life still just pretty poor in general) .

That’s a really difficult problem to solve, but it stands to reason that denser cities allow for a larger range of our economic strata to coexist, share resources (schools, transportation networks, police and fire departments, etc.) and it’s going to be important if we want to preserve what it is that we love about so many places in the country and the world.

How can our readers follow you online?

The best place is probably LinkedIn!

Find Drum online at: https://www.drum.io/

This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!

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