Have fun! — While building a company is serious business, it is also an activity that occupies a huge amount of your time. You also will be asking your employees to put in a lot of extra effort to build a successful company. One way to keep everyone sane is to make sure that you have some fun along the way.
As part of my series about the leadership lessons of accomplished business leaders, I had the pleasure of interviewing Peter Mahoney, Founder and CEO of Plannuh and co-author of “The Next CMO: A Guide To Operational Marketing Excellence”
Peter is the founder and CEO of a Boston-based, venture-backed SaaS marketing software firm called Plannuh. Plannuh is the first AI-based marketing leadership platform and is used by marketing professionals to build, manage, optimize, and collaborate on their marketing plans and budgets.
Before founding Plannuh in early 2017, Peter spent nearly 30 years in executive roles at several leading technology companies in the Boston area. Most recently, Peter spent 13 years at Nuance Communications, a 2B dollars public company where he was the Chief Marketing Officer and Senior Vice President and General Manager of the Dragon voice recognition software business.
Peter is also a passionate advocate for people with disabilities and has spent much of his professional career working with accessible technologies. He currently serves as the Chairman of the Board Emeritus of Easter Seals Massachusetts.
Peter grew up in Boston, graduated from Boston Latin School and earned degrees in Physics and Computer Science from Boston College. He lives in Newton, Massachusetts with his wife and three young-adult children.
Thank you so much for joining us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
I like to tell people that I was literally born to be an entrepreneur, it just took me 50 years to make it a reality. When I was born, my first home was the world center for entrepreneurship: the campus of The Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). My dad was getting his PhD from MIT and living in a 2-bedroom apartment in married student housing on campus with my mother and four kids. Like many of his colleagues at MIT, my dad went on to start a company and encouraged me from a very early age to pursue entrepreneurship.
When I graduated from college in the late 1980s with a double major in Physics and Computer Science, I ended up getting a job in the least entrepreneurial place imaginable: IBM. From the beginning of my career, I sought out opportunities to build a company, but I always found an excuse not to pursue that path. I spent most of my career at growing technology companies, and before starting Plannuh, I spent 13 years at a large public software company as the chief marketing officer. It was during that time that I discovered the problem that I needed to solve: marketing leaders used disconnected and antiquated systems to manage the business of the marketing function, which resulted in sub-optimal performance and an inability to show the value of marketing investments.
When I decided to move on from that company, I realized that I ran out of excuses and had to jump into the world of entrepreneurship feet first. To make sure that my decision was going to stick, I decided that I had to announce to the thousands of people in my company that I was leaving to start a new company called Plannuh. I even registered the domain and built a simple website so it would feel real. I knew when things would inevitably get tough, I would be shamed into sticking it out.
Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey?
When I started Plannuh, I decided to self-fund the company until I had built the first working prototype. That approach would allow me to validate the idea and start my external fundraising with a more tangible asset in hand. I set myself a budget to develop the prototype and got to work with an outside development firm. A few months into the project, it was clear that I had significantly underestimated the scope of the project. By the time I got to the six-month mark, I had spent about five times my original budget, and the prototype still had significant flaws.
Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard?
Even though the problem we were trying to solve with Plannuh was larger than I had originally estimated, it was clearer to me than ever at this time that the problems we were solving were both large and universal. One of the most important things that you learn as an entrepreneur is that you either adapt or you die. The process of building a prototype had given me great insight into the problems we were trying to solve. But I had to adjust the scope of the project and my approach to financing. It was clear to me then that I had to seek external capital to fully realize the vision, but I also had all the data I needed to articulate the value of the investment.
So, how are things going today? How did grit and resilience lead to your eventual success?
Plannuh is doing great and growing very quickly. In January of 2020, we raised a 4 million dollars seed investment round from Google’s Gradient Ventures and Boston-based Glasswing ventures to accelerate the growth of the business. We have been successful to date by maintaining a maniacal focus on our customers. We do whatever it takes to make them successful and then fold our experience back into our platform.
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?
My biggest mistake was not asking my wife’s opinion when I named the company. As I mentioned above, I announced that I was building the company to the employees at my last company. Since I needed a website, I realized I needed a domain and a company name. After a lot of late night searching for short, unique, ownable names that were evocative of our brand, I landed on “Plannuh.”
When I sent my wife a copy of the email announcement to my former company, she asked about the name. Let’s just say she wasn’t a fan. We’ve “come to an understanding” about the name since then. I wrote about this mistake in one of our early blog posts: https://blog.plannuh.com/blog/what-do-you-do-when-your-wife-hates-the-company-name
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
Plannuh takes messy, disorganized data in marketing plans and budgets and packages it in a way that helps our customers make better decisions about their marketing and proves the value of their team. We use human-assisted AI to automate and package this information in a way that seems magical to our customers. By adding human expertise to our AI, we can solve problems that our technology isn’t smart enough to address and handle it cost-effectively because we automate a large percentage of the work.
This really hit home recently when one of our customers was being acquired by a larger company. The acquiring company was so impressed by their ability to prove the value of their marketing that they decided to keep on the marketing team and adopt their approaches. We literally saved their jobs.
Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?
When you start a company from nothing, you have to plan to spend a lot of time working. Based on that reality, it is important to make sure that you pick a business that you enjoy with customers you want to spend time with. For me, I really enjoy the process of building software and I love spending time with marketers.
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?
It would have been impossible for me to have built Plannuh without the help of many people along the way, including my advisors, investors, early customers, and (most importantly) my supportive family. But if I had to choose one person who was responsible for the success of Plannuh, it is my co-founder, Scott Todaro. When I told Scott about the idea behind Plannuh over lunch, he got so excited about it he almost jumped over the table.
From that moment on, Scott was totally committed to the idea — and committed to making me do it. The reason Scott was so enthusiastic about the idea was because he had spent decades as a marketing leader and he saw the pain first hand. Scott also spent years teaching marketing planning at the University of Massachusetts and he was passionate about the idea of teaching a whole generation of marketers how to build better marketing.
His enthusiasm for the idea was a key factor in my decision to start Plannuh.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
I try to give back to the world in three primary ways.
First, the whole idea of Plannuh was around making marketers better. I love to mentor and teach marketers how to be more effective and Plannuh allows me to do that at scale.
Second, I spend time mentoring other entrepreneurs because I saw firsthand how valuable it was to learn from others.
And finally, I have been a long time advocate for people with disabilities. I currently sit on the board of Easter Seals Massachusetts, an organization that is dedicated to helping people with disabilities live, learn, work, and play.
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me before I started leading my company” and why. Please share a story or example for each.
- Get lots of advice, but make your own decisions.
One of the most exciting things about starting a company for me was the ability to learn something new. I had more than 30 years of experience in my field, but I never started a company before. The first thing that I did was to reach out to my network and get advice about how I should build the company, and most importantly, how I should finance the company. I got an amazing amount of advice from very smart people, but the most interesting thing was the amount of variation in the advice. In some cases, I would get advice from one person who I trusted that was completely opposite from the advice I just received from another person I trusted.
How do you deal with this? What I learned was that while nobody has the exact answer to a complex question, they can provide context and information. The value of getting advice from many people is that you get a sense for the range of possibilities, but in the end, you simply need to make your own decisions.
- Diversity = strength.
Building on the value of a variety of opinions from advisors, it is also important to build a team that has enough diversity of experience and perspective to cover your blind spots. Early in my career, I was running a sales team and I had my first opportunity to hire staff. A few months into my hiring effort, I looked around and realized that the people I hired were a lot like me. Not surprisingly, they also really liked my ideas. I quickly adjusted my thinking on hiring and the team stopped looking like a family reunion picnic and more like the rest of the world around us. I quickly saw that new people brought in new perspectives and ideas that I simply wasn’t considering before.
When you are building your team in an early stage company, working hard to bring diversity into the team will pay dividends in the long run because the decisions you make at the early stages of the company have long-lasting implications.
- It’s your fault.
In the early stages of my fundraising for Plannuh, I was incredulous about the lack of interest from the investor community. I remember telling myself “they just don’t get it.” With a little perspective, I realized that it wasn’t them, it was me. I wasn’t doing a good enough job telling the story. In other words, it was my fault.
Blaming yourself doesn’t mean you have to go around depressed all the time, it actually empowers you to make the change. If you realize that you are the one in control of the company, the products, the messaging, and everything else — you also realize that you can make all the changes necessary to get a different outcome.
- Make it work before you make it efficient.
As a process-oriented person, I often find myself looking for the most elegant way to solve a customer problem, or build a new feature. For example, we spent months of precious time building an integrated e-commerce capability into Plannuh before we realized that our customers didn’t want to purchase the product that way.
Instead, we should have focused on adding other important features to Plannuh and sorting out how to get paid after the fact. We use the same approach as we develop new features. We are big fans of human-assisted AI. That means that we don’t try to solve 100% of the problem with an algorithm in the beginning. Instead, we develop our systems so that humans can assist, or validate results from automation. That approach allows us to deliver new features much faster, and then we can sort out how to make them more efficient over time. If the customers don’t like the new features, we haven’t wasted any time trying to automate them.
- Have fun!
While building a company is serious business, it is also an activity that occupies a huge amount of your time. You also will be asking your employees to put in a lot of extra effort to build a successful company. One way to keep everyone sane is to make sure that you have some fun along the way.
You are a person of great influence. If you could start 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. 🙂
We are actually working on building a movement inside Plannuh right now, based on the success of our book, “The Next CMO: A Guide to Operational Marketing Excellence.” The book is meant to help current CMOs, as well as aspiring CMOs, create more effective marketing, and ultimately prove the value of marketing. The idea came from our interest in coaching, mentoring, and teaching marketers how to be better.
Our next phase is to launch a community of marketing professionals so we can help build the next generation of CMOs.
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This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!