Asa part of our series about “Marketing Strategies From The Top” I had the pleasure of interviewing Michael Welts.
Michael Welts has been a serial start-up professional and marketing executive for 30+ years, starting with Cabletron Systems and now with Wasabi as he helps young companies grow into large and successful corporations. He loves the pace, unique challenges and, most of all, the people who are drawn to inventing the future. It’s the ultimate capitalist experience, taking an idea from concept to consumption to making it a valuable part of people’s lives and businesses’ success.
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?
My career makes perfect sense in hindsight, one natural step and progression all along the way. I studied journalism in college with an eye towards television. I like to refer to myself as a failed anchorman nowadays and thank goodness (for everyone) that I failed. My journalistic dreams were dealt a fatal blow when I learned how little a field reporter was paid back in the 1980s. It caused me to look toward my other study, marketing, and how I could meld my passion for digging deep and telling stories into a marketing career. Instead of reporting the news, I changed my mission to making news, and projecting what will happen versus what has happened. The technology industry is the perfect setting for leveraging innovation to tell stories to our audiences, whether it be consumer or business, about investing in the future and how it can change their lives.
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?
It’s a bit long, but nonetheless fun to hear because it’s very visual and immersive, like something out of a Silicon Valley episode. Back around 1990, my company, Cabletron, was about to unveil a revolutionary new software product that leveraged AI (artificial intelligence) technology to direct traffic on LANs (local area networks). This was pretty geeky/technical software, so we had to create a metaphor for directing traffic to help the market understand its impact and promise. The product, called Spectrum, was poised to revolutionize many industries. We chose to launch the product at the networking industry’s largest trade show. We built an enormous booth with two intersecting train tracks above the booth audience sitting in the theater area down below. Two trains were equipped with a miniature camera in their locomotives so the audience could witness the trains on a collision course on the theater projection screen. In theory, Spectrum’s intelligence was supposed to kick in and redirect the pending collision just before it was to occur, directly over the heads of the audience.
Now, picture yourself in a train before virtual reality ever existed. You’re watching your train about to have a head-on collision and then suddenly (through software magic) it course corrects, saving the lives of everyone aboard. Well, recall earlier that I previously said “in theory.” In actuality, the sensors on the track that initiated the artificial intelligence failed to work and the trains collided head-on and fell 10 feet down onto our audience. Thankfully, nobody was hurt. Oh by the way, NBC Nightly News was there filming the demonstration because it was supposed to change the way traffic was controlled, not only for computer networks, but also for everyday automotive traffic. Think of it as a combination of AI meets Autonomous Vehicles 20 years before either became a reality. It was an epic failure and mistake!
The simple lesson learned here was to always be prepared for all environments and conditions, and have a great spin prepared for if things go wrong… know your market, audience and how to communicate effectively, no matter the situation. While the software worked great, we failed to fine tune the sensors to the increased heat and lighting of the event floor once it had opened. Thankfully, that story never got told on national television. Equally as important, that product went on to become the most successful product in the company’s history and eventually was spun off into its own successful company.
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?
My tipping point occurred early in my tech career when I recognized the inability of tech companies to tell their stories in a simple and human way. Great companies become great by telling great stories. Many of the greatest brands in history start with a story of simplicity vs. complexity. My success was built on my ability to take a very technical innovation and translate it into a simple and practical business application story. Nobody cares (unless you’re an engineer or competitor) how we’re making the next great thing, they only care how that innovation makes them feel better about themselves, their company, or how it makes them perform or compete better with their peers. In other words, people care about what it does, not what it is. Keep it simple so it becomes simple to consume. Simple becomes predictable. Predictable becomes repeatable. Repeatable becomes valuable. Value creation is every marketer’s primary responsibility.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
Wasabi stands out because it’s a simple and easy story to tell versus our competitors. We are disrupting the cloud storage market by innovating a new generation of cloud storage called “hot cloud storage,” thus the genesis of the name Wasabi. We’re a David vs. Goliath play except this time David has been there before (Carbonite) and beat giants IBM, EMC and HP. Our simple disruptive story is backed on three easy to remember tenets: performance and protection. We’re 80% cheaper than market leader AWS, faster than competitors AWS, Google and Microsoft, and offer extremely secure data protection in today’s increasingly challenging data protection environment. What our competitors do in six different tier storage choices, we do in just one, eliminating the complexity of determining how and where to store your data while making the cost of storing it predictable. The easiest way to describe how simple Wasabi’s solution is is to compare it to Amazon’s AWS. If you buy storage from Wasabi, it’s a simple math equation to determine your cost, X terabytes (TB) or petabytes (PB) of storage times the cost per TB equals your cost, literally producing a one line-item invoice or charge. With AWS, companies need to categorize the types of data they have, determine the best tier for storing that data, predict how frequently they’ll want to retrieve that data, and then do the math. When you’re storing petabytes of data, this adds up to incredible complexity and cost. We’ve heard nightmares from our customers who’ve had to hire full-time consultant experts to determine their costs through dozens of pages of invoices. It’s like the old days of having to dissect your telephone bill, trying to determine who in the house was making all those long-distance calls.
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
Addressing hypergrowth is our biggest project, if you can consider that one. It’s every serial entrepreneur’s dream project. Actually, there is one more big announcement to come later this year, but that’s a different project and story altogether. In Wasabi’s case, we had hoped to have 100+ customers in our first year. We closed out with 1200. Two years later, we have 15,000 on board and now have opened data centers in Amsterdam and Tokyo (besides the US) to meet global demand. Honestly, for us, our biggest challenge is meeting demand and building our footprint fast enough to meet the exponential growth of data (doubling yearly) of our customers and the market. If that isn’t exciting for our customers and ourselves, then I’m not sure what else we could do. Check that, stay tuned for later this year…
What advice would you give to other marketers to thrive and avoid burnout?
Focus. Have Fun. Fail. Repeat. We get into marketing because we’re passionate enthusiasts about making a name for our companies, our products, our customers, our people, ourselves.
On focus… Marketing is hard work, takes immense focus and understanding of many environments, challenges, conditions and opportunities. That’s a huge order to take on, so focus is critical. Like Nike says, “We’re on offense. All the time.” That takes tremendous focus.
On Having Fun… If you’re not having fun figuring out the “how-to” psychologies of marketing, then you’re not diving deep enough into the problem, the challenges or the potential for you to change the world.
On Failure… If you’re not pushing the boundaries of failure, you’re just not trying hard enough. One of my favorite quotes is from Thomas Edison who said, “Many of life’s failures are people who did not realize how close they were to success when they gave up.”
I’m a huge fan of disruption to get attention and to seize market opportunity. Again, like Nike says, “This is as much about battle as about business.” If you focus on doing each of these three things every day on the job, you won’t burn out because you’re having too much fun.
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?
There are far too many, and not any one person. Rather it’s a particular persona instead. Since early on in my career, I’ve been fortunate enough to work at the very top of executive teams and with some of the brightest innovators, entrepreneurs and visionaries in business. One thing I’ve noticed that each of them share is having a vision of where the market is headed. Sometimes their visions and brilliance are a bit out there, but surprisingly, most times, their visions can and do become reality. I think having vision is a common element in becoming successful. If you envision making something happen, you can in fact make that happen. Passion, persistence and relentless pursuit of that vision will make it a reality one day.
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?
That’s actually an easy one for me. It’s the infamous “You Will” campaign from AT&T in 1993. I like it because AT&T showed a true vision of where the world was headed from a technology standpoint, including things like electronic books, on-line ticket ordering, remote security monitoring, voice-activated software, telecommuting, movie streaming and so much more. AT&T was years, even decades, ahead of their time on almost each and every prediction. They were true visionaries and pioneers of industry. Ironically, in the end, AT&T did not deliver on these visions because they were just too big and slow, being outmaneuvered by companies who were able to execute faster. They did an amazing job of painting a vision of the world to come, they did a horrible job of delivering on that vision. Right back to that focus and execution thing.
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.
Digitalization has dramatically and forever changed the marketing world. From social networks to CRMs, MarTech tool stacks and so much more, we’re living in the age of digital transformation on every front. But one thing remains constant… at the core of every good campaign sits a clear understanding of the solution you’re bringing to market, a simple positioning and communication of that solution, and a well-defined understanding by both the sales team and the customer of your underlying value proposition. Digitization can’t change the fundamentals of good marketing. The digitization of marketing is a refined and more predictive how-to for ensuring program success. At the end of the day, the same principles still apply to effective marketing, tell a good story and deliver on its promise. People read what interests them. Give them a no-s — t moment, ok, an AHA moment, that grabs their attention and makes them take notice. If they like it, they repeat it. That’s the very essence of Word-of-Mouth marketing, a play as old as time. Of course, even that has been renamed to Influencer Marketing. Wasabi’s simple story of 80% cheaper than the competition makes everyone take notice. Their experience with our product makes everyone give notice.
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?
Every challenge in marketing is a communications challenge. In cynical times that means being authentic and true. Facebook and Google face tremendous trust issues with their users because they’re scared of how their data might be used. As marketers, we have to be truth detectors with perfect pitch. I do worry when everyone talks about disruption and scalability. It can turn out to be destructive and thoughtless growth for growth’s sake, often with negative consequences. I’m for positive disruption and thoughtful scaling. That’s worth the time and effort because it makes for a meaningful change in people’s lives.
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?
- Sales experience is key to successful marketing. — As marketeers, we think we know it all, especially coming right out of college. Marketing is cool, sales is not. Sales is a four-letter word. Before doing anything else, sell something, anything. Know the challenge, feel the rejection, learn to overcome. Firsthand sales experience is crucial to understanding what your customers want and inevitably what marketers should do. I started out selling machine tools so I could realize the customer experience and how we needed to respond as a company. From there I moved into marketing and ran the plays I learned in the field. In under a year I was running my first marketing organization. Some of my most successful marketing hires have come directly from Sales.
- You can’t do it all. — Marketing is about relentless focus, perseverance and execution. Having built many companies from the earliest stages, you quickly learn that you need to hire specialists in critical areas to execute your vision and strategies. I surround myself with field experts who have honed their science far better than I could ever achieve. Above all, don’t lose sight that your company is betting on your vision and ability to make markets happen. Getting lost in the details clouds that vision.
- Have an opinion. Stand for something. — If you don’t have an opinion, nobody will listen. Follow that opinion with passion and a desire to inspire. I recall a time when I had an opportunity to meet with then President Bush (‘41). I was so impressed that he wanted to know my opinion on how the telecom market was doing and how he as the president could do better to foster growth in the market. I told him that deregulation was key to fostering innovation and competition, especially in technology as it was at the onset of a newfangled thing called the Internet. The Telecom Reform Act was passed a few years later and the Internet and resulting deregulation transformed the world.
- Stop talking and listen. This rings true in everything in life. If you truly listen to your audience, they’ll hand you the secret to success. If you insist on always being heard, you’ll never learn a thing, and you’ll miss out on a huge opportunity. I spend a lot of time with market analysts, the self-anointed experts of the tech world. I rarely find that they truly want to listen; they’re so busy selling their agenda and services that they’re missing the true innovators that are getting things done. You’ll rarely find a market analyst who has served in the start-up trenches and met the challenges of leading a day-to-day business.
- Balance is bliss. — It might sound crazy coming from a serial startup guy who never finds time, but always makes time. As a young professional I worked around the clock literally to make an impression. I continued to do that even after my first child was born and it took its toll on my family and life. I work more efficiently and effectively today than ever before, providing me the balance I need to spend time with my amazing wife and four children, while mentoring other startups and being active in my community. Life is too short not to enjoy why we work so hard.
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?
It’s funny how the market has given names or created new categories for age-old marketing plays. Like inbound marketing or content marketing. These are long-time plays that have been relabeled and become wildly successful as a result of digitization, analytics and an ability to track their effectiveness. Marketing today is much more of a data science and I’ve found nothing more powerful than the ability of Google Analytics for inbound strategy to understanding website behavior, optimizing site visit experience and tracking the buyer’s journey. For value and optimizing spend, I think the best bet is a solid AdWord and SEM strategy. But even in AdWords, you need to hone in on your key message and build momentum around that message so that customers will search for you. Messaging and communications of that message is key.
What books, podcasts, documentaries or other resources do you use to sharpen your marketing skills?
I’ve always been a huge fan of Geoffrey Moore and his books on “Crossing the Chasm.” While it’s really aimed at technology marketers, the bell curve market adoption lifecycle is universal to every product and market going. Another favorite is “The 22 Immutable Laws of Marketing” by Ries & Trout. These fundamental laws help you to calibrate marketing reality and opportunity from fantasy and false hope. While both books are a bit older now, I still reference them frequently to measure and challenge my thinking. More recently, “Lost and Founder” by Rand Fishkin is a great read on the pains, challenges and joys of building a successful startup. I tend to listen to a variety of podcasts from “Renegade Thinkers” for CMOs to “WSJ Tech News” and “This Week In Tech.” These podcasts not only give me insights into how other CMOs succeed in today’s fast paced and ever changing world, but the tech ones give me a chance to further listen to the customer experience and that, at the end of the day is what should drive marketing. Lastly, I like to follow futurists and read many of their books, articles and podcasts. They’re the truest (and sometimes) riskiest visionaries out there. The only difference between them and us is that they don’t have to answer to an impatient set of investors.
Who is your hero? Can you explain or share a story about why that person resonates with you?
That’s an easy one. My hero is, and always has been, my dad. He taught me right from wrong from the very beginning. He showed me that people who treat others with respect will be respected in return if you earn it. He told me to never fear being authentic and honest and that it will help you in the long run. Sometimes I might be just a little too honest, but with me you’ll always know where you stand. I actually think these traits have helped me to create a strong bond with my team, my company, our customers and community. Being disruptive and bold becomes much more powerful when people know you can, and will, back it up.
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. 🙂
This is a very personal one for me. To me, the most amount of good I could do is to empower a father’s role in raising his child. As I mentioned earlier, balance wasn’t my strong suit as a young professional. My marriage at the time failed and I almost lost my child. I fought the status quo and won custody (unheard of for men back in the early ‘90s). What I learned then was that nearly 80% of men don’t fight for custody because history has shown that they won’t get it. This is truly unfortunate, not only for men, but especially for the child. I believe that a child deserves the equal love and time of both parents. Men should not fear the custody issue and should have a voice in their child’s raising. I would inspire a movement that would call attention to the importance of both parental roles, empowering men to speak for themselves and become more participative in raising and influencing their children’s lives. If both parents are willing to provide a positive and loving upbringing in a co-parenting and collaborative way, then children are further ahead in the long run.
How can our readers follow you online?
I’m on Twitter, LinkedIn and Facebook. Honestly, you just exposed a huge flaw. I’m not real good at self marketing. I spend my spare time thinking up new ventures and most importantly with my family. My apologies for not engaging the public more through these channels. Always room for improvement and learning new things…
Thank you so much for joining us. This was very inspirational.