Tips From The Top: One On One With Brian Halligan, Founder & CEO of HubSpot

I spoke to Brian Halligan, founder & CEO of HubSpot, about his best advice

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Adam: Thanks again for taking the time to share your story and your advice. First things first, though, I am sure  readers would love to learn more about you. What is something about you that would surprise people?

Brian: People are often surprised to hear that in college I studied electrical engineering. I’ve been in sales and marketing my entire career, but I still like getting into the technical minutia when I can.

Adam: How did you get here? What failures, setbacks or challenges have been most instrumental to your growth?

Halligan: When I was in my mid-20, PTC sent me to Japan to open and run Asian sales and  operations for the company. We were in hypergrowth, and were making up a lot of the international playbook as we went along. In those days, you could make a  lot of mistakes doing trial-and-error but still bring in a ton of money. I learned how to open a new international office, and how to scale a new office– two entirely different exercises. One lesson I learned — the hard way — is that the first person hired in a new office is critical. It needs to be someone from the bench from headquarters to bring the way-of-working to that office to make sure it aligns with the rest of the organization. Then, after a year or  two, it is time for that leader to hand the reins to a local, homegrown  talent  to run that office to scale it. That has served as an efficient and effective model for HubSpot as we continue to expand internationally.

Adam: You led HubSpot through a PR crisis a couple of years ago. What did you learn from the experience and what is your best advice for other leaders who may face similar crises?

Brian: My co-founder Dharmesh Shah and I, part of our operating system is to solicit and digest critical feedback. It’s a painful discipline that pays high dividends.In that instance of particularly public criticism, we breathed deeply, treated  it as an uninvited opportunity, and wrote up a reasonably mature public  response that acknowledged some shortcomings.

Adam: What are three things anyone in the world of marketing should know?

Brian: Buyers  have lost faith in traditional sources, most especially in vendors’ sales and . marketing. The loudest voice in the market is not your blog or your content, it’s your customers.  Successful companies used to win by having a product that is 10x better than the competition, but now companies need to have a customer experience that is 10x better.

At HubSpot, we’ve had to change a lot about how our teams function to reflect these new realities. Over the last  two years, we’ve made a real shift in investment to emphasize the customer  experience more than ever — I personally am also spending more of my time with our customer success teams than I used to. We goal our customer marketing team and sales teams on  customer success now, not just bringing in new business. Our  product team has an NPS (Net Promoter Score) goal. All of this means that the  customer  experience and customer value are front and center for all our teams, not just the teams providing services and support.

Adam: What will marketing look like in the coming  years? What can we do to prepare and be ahead of the game?

Brian: One key  to a compelling customer experience is the ability for any employee — marketing, sales, service — to have a single, complete view of all a customer’s activity.  Marketing teams need to make sure their systems are part of a larger canvas.

Adam: What are your three best tips applicable to  entrepreneurs, executives and civic leaders?

Brian: Early in  your career, work somewhere at large scale and be exposed to the dozens of things you’ll need to know later. When you begin to hire, take diversity into  consideration at the start.  When you’re a small startup, say yes to a lot of things; when you are scaling, say no more often.

Adam: In your experience, what are the defining  qualities of an effective leader? How can leaders and aspiring leaders take their leadership skills to the next level?

Brian: A good  coach will help you get to the next level. Focus on a few things and do them well. I keep a brutally short list of monthly priorities, and I guard my time  to work on them, including a single day per week without meetings or  disruptions.

Adam: What is the best advice you have on building, managing and leading teams?

Brian: Two  mistakes I made in the early days of HubSpot were: 1) Trying to make all the decisions myself. 2) Making a decision but then reversing it at some point down the line. I don’t do either anymore, and HubSpot is better for it.

On the first point, a lot of this is just about letting go. I’d advise leaders to hire really good people with judgment that you trust and empower them to make decisions. I try to minimize  the day-to-day decisions I’m a part of so I can focus my time and energy on the bigger calls.

On the second point, reversing decisions is expensive and painful for the people involved. Slowing down the decision making process helps with this — bring in many viewpoints at the start so you’re not hearing a crucial point of view after a conclusion has been reached. Then, “disagree, then commit.” We may not always agree on the details of every decision, but once we come to a conclusion we try very hard not to roll it back.

Adam: What is the single best piece of advice you  have ever received?

Brian: Feedback  is the breakfast of champions. I (and many of our executives) undergo an annual”360-degree review,” where our peers and direct reports provide  feedback to a third party who then compiles it into a holistic summary of our strengths and weaknesses. It’s an uncomfortable process for sure, but it’s been one of the best ways I have to understand how I’m making my team’s lives easier  and harder.

Adam: What is one thing everyone should be doing to  pay it forward?

Halligan: The phrase ‘pay it forward’ assumes some of the answer: maintain the humility to recognize you did not get here by your own strength and ability.

Adam: What are your hobbies and how have they shaped  you?

Halligan: I’ve followed the Grateful Dead since I was in high school.  They gave away  “freemium” content by freely letting fans record and share bootleg tapes — and developed a dedicated base of lifetime fans. They were doing “Inbound marketing” before the rest of us discovered it, and were a  significant source of inspiration for me when Dharmesh and I were forming our  initial vision of HubSpot.

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