A conversation with Anna Belous of Competera

For almost four years, Anna Belous has been Head of Marketing at Competera, a software development company offering award-winning pricing software for enterprise retailers. Having started as an intern at Volvo Trucks, Anna has grown into an established expert in marketing SaaS products, with particular experience in enterprise sales. She has helped Competera grow into a […]

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For almost four years, Anna Belous has been Head of Marketing at Competera, a software development company offering award-winning pricing software for enterprise retailers. Having started as an intern at Volvo Trucks, Anna has grown into an established expert in marketing SaaS products, with particular experience in enterprise sales. She has helped Competera grow into a global player with some 100 customers like Lego and Acer across 28 countries.

Anna is an experienced speaker. She was recognized among the top three speakers at the Saas Nation conference in 2018. This March, Anna is going to speak at Shoptalk in Las Vegas.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would love to learn a bit more about you. Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

Thanks for interviewing me 🙂 I’ve come to marketing from a wonderful world of finances. As a trained financial professional, I found the logic underpinning financial processes fascinating. During my career in finances, I have worked for two major international corporations, including Volvo, at the department of corporate finances. But then I got involved in one of the projects which had this marketing side to it. That was the moment when I realized that there is something even more captivating than finances — marketing, a perfect blend of science and art. And I am a big fan of art.

At that point, marketing was a complete terra incognita for me. But I was feeling that I needed to get the hang of it, to master it and grow in it. Luckily, I got hired by a digital agency as a media manager with no prior experience whatsoever. But the man who hired me gave me that chance — and became my Yoda. He taught me so much — from the art of making decisions to the science of building a strategy, and a million other truly valuable things.

That’s how my marketing career got started.

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

Sure. For starters, I have to say that making mistakes is an essential part of education and growing as a professional. What counts is what you do afterwards. Your mistake can be an expense or an investment. If you can learn from your mistakes quickly, then you are worthy of this investment. That’s why experienced professionals have higher salaries — some companies they have previously worked for have already paid for their mistakes.

Ok, going back to my story. Together with one of my previous teams, we were launching a big offline marketing campaign as part of an international campaign for a major brand. I remember having approved several billboard ads to support a series of offline events without having checked them before they went to print. Of course, it went according to Murphy’s law: these ads displayed a wrong address. I almost had a heart attack, to put it mildly. Together with a brand manager, we found a solution: to patch these ads with the right address. I paid for it.

After that, I always re-read my emails or anything I write like presentations, landing pages or anything before making them public.

The bottom line is the following: never be lazy to check it one last time.

Are you able to identify a “tipping point” in your career when you started to see success? Did you start doing anything different? Are there takeaways or lessons that others can learn from that?

Yes, I remember that moment quite vividly. It was my first marketing job. My task was to place digital ads across various platforms manually. Two months went by and I got to know that the campaign I was supervising was so successful that my client’s business was growing and this client was hiring people to enlarge his team. It was then that I realized I was doing something which was changing the lives of people for real.

I got a confirmation that being focused, meticulous, and curious always pays off. I understood that you need to spend much time just getting the hang of things and have your result in mind all the time.

I have another anecdote to share (it taught me a lot). One of my clients needed me to be a pro of Google Analytics — and I knew very little about it. So I asked my boss if I should take a Google Analytics course. His answer truly surprised me: to know how to navigate Google Analytics, you should work with it. It was a tremendous insight for me. My boss was 100% right in that situation. Did I make mistakes? Yes. Was I slow? Yes. Did I do everything perfectly well right away? No.

Surely, I took that course a bit later. But this time I knew exactly what I was looking for and what questions I had. I got much more ready for the course.

That’s why I always say: if you are just at the start of your career, experience comes before education.

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

Let me take a step back and tell you a bit about our company Competera. In a nutshell, Competera offers cloud-based pricing software for enterprise retailers.

There are several things which make our company stand out. They are outstanding technology, new approaches to managing products (which are arguably the main tool for revenue generation in retail), and extensive expertise of our team both in data science and retail.

What we are offering is cross-assortment pricing management. You may wonder what it means. Let’s imagine for a second that products are alive and can communicate and check which pricing optimum will lead to the balance of profit and sales across the whole product portfolio.

Imagine you can always know what effect this particular price of a water bottle will have on the sales of juice. In a nutshell, the technology goes through all the possible pricing options for a product until the whole assortment confirms that this price will not lead to a sales/profit disbalance.

It goes without saying that it’s an extremely simplified image of how it usually happens, but I hope you get the idea.

How did we get here? The shopping experience rules today’s retail. The companies that offer the best customer experience win. And at some point, we realized how much the price of a product influences the shopping experience. We fully “disintegrated” the whole process of pricing and came to the conclusion that we boost not only the financial performance of retailers (our technology can bring a double-digit uplift in profit and revenue), but directly contribute to making buyers happier. The thing here is to find this balance between helping retailers earn more and giving customers what they want. Our technology plays a crucial role in it.

We are offering a “technological octopus.” It processes up to 60 factors influencing the price and suggests many combinations of pricing decisions which take into account every product in the portfolio and the portfolio as a whole. Then it chooses the most optimal combination which allows for both maximizing the financial effect and ensuring the best customer experience. Finally, it assesses the results and “punishes” itself if a certain pricing decision was wrong. It’s worth mentioning that these results are being recorded forever, including millions of successful and unsuccessful decisions to learn from.

Our clients wanted us to create a button for them to hit their financial goals and maintain the right price perception. I believe we’ve created this button.

Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people? What advice would you give to other marketers to thrive and avoid burnout?

What excites me today is our Product Development Team and the product they are creating. Our technology benefits two customer personas. The first one is the buyer who sees the price of a product. We want this person to have so much more than just buying something. We want them to get everything there is to get from shopping and stay connected to the brand they buy from. It is essential for us!

The second person is the end-user of our solution, namely a pricing, product or category manager. We are witnessing how their careers are going up thanks to partnering with Competera. They are innovators within the companies they are working for. I share the vision of our company that Competera is becoming the tool to build the strongest career in retail. It truly inspires and fascinates me!

As for your third question, I think that a marketer has two major tools: curiosity and active listening. Curiosity is your crucial superpower and driver. You need to cultivate it. Without it, there is nothing to do in marketing. Curiosity pushes you to learn new things, get new skills, be better.

Active listening is what makes you the most effective in your job. The department of marketing is a place collecting all the information from the CEO, product teams and the market. It is a grandiose data system which you need to know how to manage. It’s necessary to group the data the right way, set priorities, etc.

Both these qualities also help you be responsive to feedback regardless of whether it is positive or negative.

As for avoiding burnouts, I share the methods I use. Some of them may be helpful to you. Working in an intense environment and being responsible for many important things in your company means you are required to create a certain “infrastructure” to support you and help you maintain your mental and physical health. This infrastructure may include couches, your team, sport, yoga, meditation, the right nutrition — everything and anything that keeps you balanced.

Another trick is avoiding multitasking. Focus on one thing at a time. Otherwise, you’ll be in constant distress and get closer to your burnout.

The last but not least is the ability to deal with conflicts — or better use conflict as an instrument. It’s a critical part of interacting with people.

To sum up, I have a specific range of tools and an “infrastructure” to support me and let me stay resourceful all the time.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

Sure, there is such a person. I’ve mentioned him at the beginning of the interview. His name is Dmitry Bulakh. He taught me to ask the right questions. He taught me to start with the things which cost the least. He taught me to think out-of-the-box (sorry if it sounds cheesy) and made me realize that the most straightforward solution is not always the best one.

Thanks to him, I understood that to thrive, you need to be with the right people who inspire, support and challenge you. There has to be some energy in your relationships with these people. You need to feel alive.

Ok super. Let’s now shift to the main part of our discussion. There are hundreds of memorable marketing campaigns that have become part of the lexicon of our culture. What is your favorite marketing or branding campaign from history? Can you explain why you like that so much?

I love everything that Pornhub does. They work in a very sensitive business segment. And yet they manage to raise extremely important questions like equality, sexism, climate change, cancer, etc.

I am a big fan of Salesforce and their extravagant methods of marketing. I know they had strikes during major conferences, called out their competitors and even got in trouble with the police. I love that they believe in their product which gave them the courage to take some unconventional steps. I also loved how much time and effort they’ve invested in building relations with journalists — and how well it has paid off for both parties.

Another great example is John Lewis (if we go beyond marketing campaigns per se). The company launches fabulous creative campaigns. Their best ones are those launched before Christmas. My favorite video is one featuring Elton John.

It fascinates me when marketers use unconventional channels to reach out to their audience.

I think the recipe for success today is the combination of the temperament of your brand, its message with the right channels. You need to learn to work with it, scale and measure it.

If you could break down a very successful campaign into a “blueprint”, what would that blueprint look like? Please share some stories or examples of your ideas. Companies like Google and Facebook have totally disrupted how companies market over the past 15 years. At the same time, consumers have become more jaded and resistant to anything “salesy”. In your industry, where do you see the future of marketing going?

Analyze, plan, execute, measure, repeat — that’s a pretty basic, but very effective algorithm.

Before doing anything you and your team need to analyze if this is what you really need, whether it is the right time for this initiative (should it be postponed), whether it will contribute to reaching your goals. From my experience with my wonderful team, at this stage, you say “no” to many projects in favor of those truly benefitting your business. I believe my point here is the following: prioritize and focus.

Then you plan your projects, their stakeholders (who will be making everything come true, who will be responsible for the results, who will be involved in the project (both from your team and outside), success criteria and deadlines.

Then goes execution. Sticking to a plan is great, but do not be afraid to be a little bit more flexible. Check if you are on track and what should be changed in these particular circumstances.

Then you measure your results and go back to analysis. That’s pretty much it.

As for not sounding “salesy,” creating a narrative, a story is still, thousands of years after the first story was told, the best key to the hearts of people. In humans, any decision-making process looks like that: emotion, motivation, logic and selection. Reaching emotions — this deepest and the most vulnerable layer — is crucial. But finding a story which can resonate with people on that level, particularly in B2B, is extremely challenging. But very rewarding, too.

Can you please tell us the 5 things you wish someone told you before you started? Can you please share a story or example for each.

Here’s my list:

  • Relations matter. The ability to build professional relationships is key.
  • Communications matter. Very often, companies underestimate the importance of the right communications. It’s always better to “over-communicate” than “under-communicate.” In case your team does not understand the task, its vector and business priorities, while you think that everything is clear, wait for it to go wrong, because it will. If your job is to assign tasks, you need to describe everything in terms which are clear to the person you are assigning this task to. This may sound commonplace, but it is still very often and easily forgotten.
  • Stick to your priorities. Check if you are on the right track, surrounded by the right people, aligned with your company’s goals all the time. Make sure that your priorities are right.
  • CEO is the main marketer in the company. Not you. That’s where your active listening skills come in handy. Your task here is to listen to everything they say and transform it into a story. Therefore it’s important to stay in touch with your CEO, particularly if you are a growing business. I know that in big companies, corporations, the marketing department may lose this vital connection.
  • Keep learning. Always. You should cultivate one or two of your core talents. But you should also expand your horizons. Learn copywriting, coding, front-end, website design. You may not go too deep, but at least know your way around.

Can you share a few examples of marketing tools or marketing technology that you think can dramatically empower small business owners to become more effective marketers?

They may be different for digital and offline marketing. Personally, I’ve been mostly focused on digital marketing. For me, the must-haves are analytics systems like Google Analytics, CRM systems, Data Studio, etc, regardless of whether you write articles or are a specialist. You need to analyze if what you are doing is good enough.

Then go any automation tools which make your life easier, help you fasten and streamline processes. Task managers are helpful, too. I’ve tried several of them — like Asana, Trello, Jira — but, surprisingly, my go-to tool is Google calendar. Every Sunday I spend three hours planning my week — and I love it. I always have something big which I have to finish every day. It usually takes most of my time and is marked as “Focus time” in my calendar.

At Competera, we have 6-week cycles. It means that we plan for two weeks and then execute everything during the next six weeks. I love this approach as it lets you see your progress almost immediately.

What I also recommend is a personalization system. Anything which helps you make your ads, content, etc more personal is a must if you want to reach your target audience, boost your conversion, etc.

To sum up, there are dozens if not hundreds of tools you may use. It all depends on your task. Do you need to launch an advertising campaign, manage your team, personalize content, launch emailing, etc? You’ll need different tools for that.

For me, key things are the ability to automate my work and set up a reporting (analytics) system to quickly identify what’s going right and what’s going wrong.

What books, podcasts, documentaries or other resources do you use to sharpen your marketing skills?

I won’t be talking about marketing books and podcasts only. I believe that being versatile in your reading and watching preferences makes you a strong professional. I’ve just finished “The City of Girls” by Elizabeth Gilbert. Before that, I read“The Interestings” by Meg Wolitzer. The year of 2019 was the year of biographies. I was captivated by the biography of Churchill and Napoleon. By the way, I believe that every marketer should read Churchill’s biography. It shows you how to build your team, overcome failures, plan strategically, and a million other things. Another great book is “Do No Harm,” a memoir by English neurosurgeon Henry Marsh. The main insight I found there is a metaphor about the importance of being focused. Do you think it’s possible for a surgeon to operate on several patients at once? No. Then why do you think that you are better than a surgeon in this regard?

As for podcasts, I listen to Masters of Scale and Freakonomics, among many others. I go to Netflix to watch documentaries like “Greatest Events of WWII,” the one about Bill and Melinda Gates, “Explained” and “Abstract.”

Who is your hero? Can you explain or share a story about why that person resonates with you?

Winston Churchill. If I had a chance, I’d have a glass of whiskey or something and a cigar with him. I’m impressed with him being an adventurous, highly intellectual and smart, and multi-faceted person. I love people who are not afraid to take risks and make mistakes. And he had the talent to attract talented and smart people. Another person is Joanne Rowling because she has created something which has had a global effect, something truly fascinating. She’s made the whole world read. And I love the reality she has created. I’ve always seen myself as Harry Potter, by the way.

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’d start a movement to support diversity. “You can be anything you like” — I think it’s a message worth spreading.

How can our readers follow you online?

Say “Hi” to me on LinkedInFacebook and Twitter.

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