Community//

“Why a small business needs to think like an enterprise business when it comes to marketing dollars” With Format.com CMO Mohammed Ali

Think like big businesses/enterprises when it comes to marketing spend. It’s costly for small business to spend on marketing, and that’s all the more reason you should employ big business discipline around their spend. Measure efficiencies, continually optimize, and analyze ROI. To get marketing returns right, it takes time, discipline, and focus. Big businesses know […]


Think like big businesses/enterprises when it comes to marketing spend. It’s costly for small business to spend on marketing, and that’s all the more reason you should employ big business discipline around their spend. Measure efficiencies, continually optimize, and analyze ROI. To get marketing returns right, it takes time, discipline, and focus. Big businesses know this, and so should you. I once owned a gym and brought my enterprise-attained marketing rigour to my own small business. It helped me really navigate what was valuable in terms of marketing spend and what wasn’t. In fact, many local media partners that wanted to work with us weren’t equipped to answer basic questions around ROI that small businesses just don’t typically ask.


I had the pleasure of interviewing Mohammed Ali, CMO of Format.com. Prior to his role at Format, he served as the VP Marketing and Product at VerticalScope Inc. He also held progressively senior marketing roles at Hewlett Packard, Yellow Pages, and Intuit.


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 was always intrigued by psychology. I also always felt a need for immediate and tangible results in my work. Marketing seemed like the perfection intersection of the two for me. I took a double major in school: Information Systems and Marketing. I started out as a developer at IBM, but realized I couldn’t code worth a lick. I begged, borrowed, and stole code wherever I could — I don’t think I ever wrote a unique line of code, and quickly realized I much preferred the business/marketing side of things. I transitioned into Business Consulting at IBM, then Marketing at HP, and the rest was history.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began this career?

I started my own small business (a gym) on the side while at HP. I thought that with my enterprise experience from HP and IBM, marketing would work the same way. I was basically a smart city-slick guy taking on this small business, and while a lot of the same principles do apply, there are a lot more constraints on spend and resources. I ended up being much more careful when it came to optimizing spend because a small business only has so much money. I also realized I had to pay a lot more attention to my marketing spend and be more nimble in adjusting my ROMI (return on marketing investment). It isn’t apples to apples; for example I couldn’t test for a month like I would in an enterprise environment because that was my budget for the year.

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?

When I first started out in marketing with one of my campaigns, I didn’t realize that in order to track results you needed to change the URL for different sources. I gave all the vendors the exact same tag, so at the end of the campaign we couldn’t tell what worked and what didn’t.

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

Format focuses on creators, and our employees are also our customers. Many of our employees are also passionate photographers, visual artists, sculptors, and designers. We understand our audience because we are the audience.

When we were looking to hire an SEO manager, we discussed how important it was to find someone who understood the space. We ended up finding (and hiring) Tudor Stanescu, an extremely talented part-time photographer.

We improve Format on a monthly basis and have a deep understanding of what creators need. Helping them succeed is at the heart of our business.

Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?

We use Format Magazine to inspire and educate our audience in the every phase of the creative process, but especially those just starting out. With this focus, the magazine should serve as a useful aid to find relevant, inspirational content to start any creative project.

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?

For me, it was when I started applying a more lean/experimental approach to marketing. This meant quicker, shorter sprints with moderate gains that we used to build upon and continually iterate instead of trying to hit a homerun with every project.

What advice would you give to other marketers to thrive and avoid burnout?

Always be learning. That could be anything from listening to podcasts or running experiments to see what the results could mean for your company, to trying out a completely different role within marketing.

How do you define “Marketing”? Can you explain what you mean?

Connecting your business’ value to the right customer base exactly when they need it.

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 mother. As a single mom, she sacrificed everything for me and my sister. She worked two jobs, and showed me what it really means to hustle. New to the country at the time, she didn’t remarry because she felt it would be too awkward, plus she wanted to dedicate herself to her kids, our education.

She taught me the meaning of a strong work ethic, by not only telling me about it, but by leading by example with her actions. She taught me there are no shortcuts or substitutions for hard work.

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

Mailchimp for email marketing. Canva for design. Active campaign for Automation. Buffer for social. Survey Monkey for surveys.

What are your “5 Non Intuitive Marketing Strategies For Small Businesses”?

(Please share a story or example for each.)

1. Scale is not your friend, focus is. Most small businesses are chomping at the bit to make a big leap in their market and will often over-leverage themselves. What they should really be doing is focusing. If they focus on what makes their product or service desirable, growth will inevitably come. At a company I was once with, our newly-appointed CEO started his first company-wide address with, “Focus on our core.” We had moved into many expansion products and services, and he felt we went way too broad. Boy was he right! We consolidated and we doubled the stock price in a year and a half!

2. Think differentiation, not necessarily innovation. You don’t have to spend infinite hours figuring out how to disrupt or innovate in a market. Sometimes a simple bundling of services that already exist is what will stand out in a crowded market. Throughout my career, I’ve found that the simplest repackaging, reframing, or bundling of services can lead to differentiation and growth.

3. Think like big businesses/enterprises when it comes to marketing spend. It’s costly for small business to spend on marketing, and that’s all the more reason you should employ big business discipline around their spend. Measure efficiencies, continually optimize, and analyze ROI. To get marketing returns right, it takes time, discipline, and focus. Big businesses know this, and so should you. I once owned a gym and brought my enterprise-attained marketing rigour to my own small business. It helped me really navigate what was valuable in terms of marketing spend and what wasn’t. In fact, many local media partners that wanted to work with us weren’t equipped to answer basic questions around ROI that small businesses just don’t typically ask.

4. Build brand affinity from the inside out. Employees should be your biggest advocates. Especially in the small business space, if you’re an awesome owner/boss with an awesome product or service, that’s your story as far as your employees are concerned.

5. Don’t forget your online search presence. This is often overlooked by small businesses, and it’s a big one. Spend some time using tools like Google My Business to review your what information is available online, and make sure it’s as easy as possible for people to find you online and IRL.

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. 🙂

It would be around commoditizing the charitable and civic engagement process. Making it ultra easy for busy people to give back at their convenience.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

“We all suffer the pain of one of two things, the pain of discipline or the pain of regret.” This quote was foundational because it taught me early on to prioritize discipline and hard work in everything I did. Otherwise, the pain of regret most often outweighed the pain of being disciplined. It’s all about sacrificing in the short term for long-term gains.

How can our readers follow you on social media?

Follow me on LinkedIn

Thank you so much for joining us. This was very inspirational.

The Thrive Global Community welcomes voices from many spheres. We publish pieces written by outside contributors with a wide range of opinions, which don’t necessarily reflect our own. Learn more or join us as a community member!
Share your comments below. Please read our commenting guidelines before posting. If you have a concern about a comment, report it here.

You might also like...

Community//

“Why you need to understand the Instagram algorithm” With Brian Peters, digital marketing manager at Buffer

by Candice Georgiadis
Community//

Marketing Strategies From The Top: “What do humans want? Answers to their questions”

by Aaron Friedman

Sign up for the Thrive Global newsletter

Will be used in accordance with our privacy policy.

Thrive Global
People look for retreats for themselves, in the country, by the coast, or in the hills . . . There is nowhere that a person can find a more peaceful and trouble-free retreat than in his own mind. . . . So constantly give yourself this retreat, and renew yourself.

- MARCUS AURELIUS

We use cookies on our site to give you the best experience possible. By continuing to browse the site, you agree to this use. For more information on how we use cookies, see our Privacy Policy.