With Heather Kernahan, President at Hotwire
Don’t sell, instead help — As a small business owner, when you have to focus on generating revenue to keep the company alive, there can be a hard focus on selling to your customer. Instead, shift your orientation and focus on how you can help them, that will unlock more customers.
I had the pleasure to interview Heather Kernahan. Heather is President, North America for Hotwire and a member of the Global Leadership Team. She has spent her entire career immersed in technology, and joined Hotwire from Eastwick Communications after its acquisition in 2016. Heather spent most of her career in marketing, brand and business leadership positions at global tech companies and high growth startups. At Autodesk, she focused on integrated brand communications and led the development of the company’s first sustainability report and ran marketing for Enphase Energy’s successful IPO and aggressive expansion into Europe.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
I’ve had three interesting career paths. I started out in comms and PR because I loved the news cycle and loved helping companies tell their stories. That was the early part of my career — I spent a lot of my time focused on that discipline.
When I moved to SF and joined my first tech company, one of the first things I noticed was that the marketing people, and in particular, the CMO, were one of the few people sitting at the table with the CEO helping make the business decisions. At that point, I knew that what I wanted was to eventually be the one helping the CEO make those big decisions, so I transitioned to a marketing role at that company and got as much experience as I could — brand marketing, product marketing, demand generation etc. Around that time, I also got started on my MBA because I knew that there was a lot that I still needed to learn about business. And that was the second part of my career journey.
As I was finishing up my MBA, I was in a finance class where the teacher was discussing how to read the financials sheet as a CEO. I had a lightning bolt moment then and said, “excuse me?” To which he replied, “If you don’t want to be a CEO, then why are you in this class?” That’s when I realized that I could be a CEO and learn how to run a business. And at that point I started at Eastwick which allowed me to put those skills into practice and do just that.
My career now is the perfect combination of using my business training to lead the Hotwire business but also help our clients identify their business goals and use strategic comms and marketing to help them achieve those goals.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began this career?
I would say that working at a Pre-IPO business was a very interesting and memorable time for me. It was a super high growth solar company and we were entering new countries every few months. I was working with a management team that was readying to be listed in the public markets. It was a time when solar and all cleantech companies were having a hard time in the markets and I had a firsthand view of how a board of directors determines whether to take a company public and what is involved in the process of taking a company to the next level. I was head of global marketing and part of the run up team to the IPO, and got to be a part of the whole thing from day one up until the ringing the opening bell at NASDAQ. I’d say that not many companies make it to that level or even have the aspiration to do so, so to be a part of that was incredibly special.
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?
I wouldn’t say it is my funniest, but it is certainly a mistake that I learned from.
I used to work at a tech company that specialized in 3D special effects. Our animation software had been used in the Lord of the Rings series which was just coming out so it was very high profile. Because of that we had received special permissions to use certain imagery in our marketing. The image I wanted to use was not one that was included in our permissions set. Our CMO was out of the country and I couldn’t go through him to get permission, so instead, I went to the client directly.
When the CMO came back he was absolutely red face and screaming at me because they had negotiated every single image right, and there had been so much back and forth about it, that the client was just done. For me to come in with a new ask was not the right thing to do.
I hate getting in trouble still, but even more so earlier on in my career. It was a bad mistake, I owned it. But that was the best way to diffuse the situation, to take 100% responsibility for my mistake and remain calm in the face of it. A week later the CMO came back to me and apologized for his reaction, the client hadn’t gotten upset. That was an important lesson for me, that even in the most tense situations the power is in remaining calm and choosing to react how I want to, that I don’t have to escalate the problem, but instead help to navigate it, if it’s mine or someone else’s, and just help to get past it.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
We work hard to be what I call a challenger brand and create a limitless environment for our staff. This is very important to me because in my past experiences at other companies, I felt like I was always in a box. I wasn’t encouraged to take on projects outside of my scope of work or empowered to take the initiative to push myself further in my career. We provide an environment for our team where they feel empowered to design the career they want without bounds, the feeling that “hey, I’ve got a day job but if I want to do something bigger here it is 100% possible.”
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
We are currently working to formalize our program around diversity and inclusion. This has always been a part of our culture, and because we have always had strong women driving our leadership team, we tend to attract candidates with diverse backgrounds. Right now, we are moving into a place where we are formalizing it more and we’re setting up different partnerships to test how that works for the partner and for us.
One example is that we have never had interns that were part-time and still going to school. We’re doing a beta test now with an organization called America Needs You and we have an intern in NYC doing 20 hours a week in addition to her schooling. We are hoping to expand that to many more students next year.
There’s also another org called BrandLab that we are starting to work with that connects companies with high school and undergraduate students to encourage and educate them about a profession in marketing and communications.
Are you able to identify a “tipping point” in your career when you started to see success? Did you start doing anything different? Is there a takeaway or lessons that others can learn from that?
The time I was almost fired. That was a big tipping point for me and it happened early on in my career. I was a year into my first job in the tech industry and thought I was doing really great. As I sat down with my CEO for my review, he proceeded to tell me that they only wanted to work with people in the top 10% of their profession and we went through all the areas of my job and how I was not meeting the expectation. What stuck with me most was how he phrased the feedback — he said it in a way that gave me the option on whether I wanted to improve or not. He said, “You know if you don’t want to be in the top 10%, that’s okay, this just isn’t the place for you.”
The hard part was that he didn’t tell me how to get there, and I didn’t understand what it took. But it put me on a journey to understand myself better and get really involved in reading about business, fine tuning my writing skills, and improving in the areas where I wasn’t doing well. This gave me a different orientation to my work and always had me thinking — I’m going to do what I’m being asked to do, but how can I do a little bit more? It completely transformed my brand with my boss and my skillset. After that, I just knew that I was up and running — I could get promoted, I could move up, and I had tapped into an ambition that I hadn’t known before.
What advice would you give to other marketers to thrive and avoid burnout?
I work intensely and have been close to burnout many times over the years. To do your job well you have to be inspired. So I make sure I find ways to be inspired a couple times a week outside of my job. I like art so that can mean going to a shop to look at posters, or working reading into my schedule everyday even if it’s just two pages while I brush my teeth. Right now, I’m reading a book called the Artist’s Way. It’s a workbook for artists that gives you activities to inspire and reignite your creativity. It has been a great way for me to do things outside of my day to day job that make me feel better and inspire me.
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?
My old boss in Toronto, from the story I shared earlier. After the incident, he brought me a garbage bag of Tony Robbins CDs and assigned me to listen to one CD a day and turn in a 1 paragraph summary of what I learned to him the next morning by 9am. Listening to those discs taught me a lot about what it means to up my game and kick into the next level of my career.
What are your “5 Non Intuitive Marketing Strategies For Small Businesses”?
(Please share a story or example for each.)
- Don’t sell, instead help — As a small business owner, when you have to focus on generating revenue to keep the company alive, there can be a hard focus on selling to your customer. Instead, shift your orientation and focus on how you can help them, that will unlock more customers.
- Not every customer is the right customer for you — At times, you may feel desperate for revenue, and wanting to add as many customers at a time as possible, but that’s very rarely the right move. You shouldn’t want all customers, you want the ones that are going to be a match for what you have to offer. The wrong customer will lead to more problems and more time, and ultimately will distract you from what you really need to do to grow.
- Behave famously — Most people are inclined not to brag or boast about what they are doing day to day but being able to confidently talk about your business and put yourself where your customers are is a strategic move that will fuel you for the future and bring in more of the right customers for your business.
- Find time to be heads up, not heads down — Many small business owners have to constantly put their heads down because there are so many tasks and to-dos every single day. But you have to carve time to go heads up every week, even if it is just an hour to survey the landscape, connect with people outside of your daily grind, and get yourself out there to behave famously.
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. 🙂
There is already a movement underway that inspires me and it is one that I would like to continue to support. It’s the movement of bringing courage and confidence to women at a younger and younger age. Figuring out how to unlock that confidence so that young women believe that they can truly do anything and be anything. To have a point of view and be impactful in the world and that they don’t have to shy away from any interest, passion or career choice that gives them purpose. For 18 years of my life, my mother always said to me that I could do whatever I wanted to do in the world, and so I believed it. Not everyone has that and so I want to help influence and reinforce that message for other young women.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
It’s a quote I recently read from Estee Lauder, and it is my new favorite because I feel that it captures my philosophy toward growth: I never dreamed of success, I worked for it.