This AMA is an abridged recap of a session from our private community.
Yi Ning Lim is currently a marketing leader at Entrepreneur First, previously at Amazon, RedMart and Forrester. With a career that’s spanned B2B, B2C, startups and enterprises, I always enjoy learning from Yi Ning because her diverse background gives her a unique perspective.
Here’s what you’ll learn from her AMA:
- How marketers can maximize their impact in a large org
- How startups can win partnerships with much bigger brands
- How marketing leaders can successfully influence internal decision makers
When you join a new company, what do you do in order to orient yourself and make sure you’re up to speed as quickly and efficiently as possible?
I asked this question to one of the VPs at Amazon before and this is what he shared with me.
“The first 90 days are the most important as it sets the tone of how you’ll be perceived at the organisation and also influences your ability to drive change, directly or indirectly.”
To help me navigate my priorities early in a new role, I start by building four checklists:
- Business orientation checklist – Access to product information, financials, strategies. This can be as basic as checking the website or looking at what the press has to say of us, but also all our key internal docs (annual, quarterly planning docs, budgets, product roadmaps, internal memos etc)
- Stakeholders checklist – Who does what? Who decides on X? Ask your boss, your team to introduce you to key people. Check the org chart. Start scheduling these meetings early if they’re not done for you. Ensure you build vertical AND lateral relationships. In addition to your peers, remember to connect with dotted lines if you’re in a matrix org.
- Expectations checklist – Schedule a conversation with your boss to align on expectations (eg. what should I achieve in the 1st 30/60/90 days)?
- Culture checklist – Start building your understanding of culture as this is the driving factor behind getting things done. Identify allies people who could be your cultural interpreters. Do check-ins with your boss, peers etc after 30 days to see how you’re adapting and any feedback so that you can course-correct or adjust.
Who does Entrepreneur First compete with? Is it accelerators like YC? This seems like a reputation-driven industry, so how does marketing contribute to growth?
Entrepreneur First is a talent investor, where the core idea is that it’s possible to identify and fund great founders before they start a company.
We seek out future founders, back them pre-company, support them to find a co-founder and build a company from scratch on our platform. It’s a new model of venture capital pioneered by our founders.
So, as far as competition, it’s like what Clayton Christensen proposed in The Innovator’s Solution. When you have a new model or disruptive idea, your biggest competition is actually non-consumption!
Hence, our marketing strategy focuses on building awareness amongst first-time founders who may lack the networks and knowledge to found a company. Marketing plays a key a role in telling stories and choosing which channels we use to tell those stories.
Marketing has to amplify the message that EF helps founders de-risk by matching them to co-founders with complementary skill sets, access to world-class mentorship and accelerating their personal and professional growth.
Marketing is also the voice of the customer. We ensure that our team knows the pulse of our customers, so that the whole experience stays on point: from product, to marketing and implementation.
This means I have a responsibility to call BS on things internally. If our customers hate something, or they’re not responding to it, my role is as a marketing leader is to identify ways to improve and change the way we communicate it, and hopefully also be in the position to distill these customer insights to improve our product.
As for YC, fun fact: a few companies that graduated from EF went on to join YC and are doing extremely well. It’s a solid validation of our product and our ability to increase the supply of great entrepreneurs.
In the early days of RedMart, brand awareness and comfort with online grocery was probably an issue, so you likely relied a lot on partnerships. What can you tell us about how startups can successfully pitch and work with bigger brands?
Any successful partnership always starts with you understanding your target audience.
- What do they want out of it?
- What do they have that I don’t, and what do I need that they have?
- Why am I in the best position to answer that need?
- How can we make this win-win?
- How can I make this as easy as possible for everyone to say yes?
A few kinds of partnerships I worked with in the early days were 1) vendors, 2) banks, and 3) other startups.
Our vendors (think P&G, Unilever) were fantastic partners in the early days. We had internal allies that were keen to experiment with e-commerce and at that point, we were already selling some products but wanted to unlock more categories. We were keen to launch the frozen category and at that point, we pitched to Unilever to launch their Ben and Jerry’s products on RedMart. It was attractive to them – they could then say that they were the first to launch ice-creams online in the market, their team has budget to do experiments like these that they can co-invest, and most importantly, we could help them potentially drive their topline.
Banks are always keen to grow their transaction volume and they saw that e-commerce was starting to grow. We could position groceries very attractively because it’s highly repeatable (you always need to buy groceries), sticky (we had XX repeats, frequency), and it was growing rapidly. We also knew who our customers were and these were millennial/digital native (oh the buzzwords I used in those days!) that banks were keen to have share of wallet and be their first card on file. So it was actually a pretty straightforward sell.
I worked on a pretty fun partnership with Uber in 2015 where we delivered ice cream via drones. It was a publicity stunt which got us lots of press coverage!
What really worked for us was that we could move fast. Our partnerships could be turned around in 2 weeks and it got faster once we figured out the process after the 1st time.
We turned around the Uber partnership in 10 days. It was quite insane, but that’s what you get with startups. Quick decision-making and speed of execution. This is great for brands to show quick wins.
How do you make sure your marketing team is working on the right things?
My main mechanism is to always ensure that whatever we work on ties to an organisational goal where the work we do has clear and measurable outcomes.
If you’re in a demand generation function – try to simplify your goals. If you’re looking at driving new customers, use that as a lens to evaluate your activities and tie it to an outcome.
Let’s take the example of a partnership with a bank. What do we think such a partnership can drive? 200 new customers, 2k new customers? In a week, In a month?
Thinking to this micro level then helps you and your team understand whether you’re setting yourself up for success:
- Do you have enough resources? What resources do you need and do you have them? Developers, creative, design?
- What is your confidence level of pulling this off? For example, if 2k new customers from the bank partnership is 50% of your overall target, you better make sure this works – and have contingency plans if it doesn’t. Going to this level and being transparent about it can also be used to unlock resources from other teams.
- When do you expect to see impact? You’ll probably be able to map this to daily/weekly run-rates, and if this is a big new initiative you’d probably be reviewing these numbers in your daily standups with your team, and figuring out if it’s working or not, and what interventions to apply.
On a macro level, this also means that we say no to things.
If there’s a suggested activity that we can’t tie to a team outcome we are measured on that ultimately contributes to an org outcome, we can choose to deprioritise or dedicate less resources to it.
How do you think about branding and the softer, less measurable side of marketing? How do you set goals for that or allocate resource/budget for that?
Something that I’ve grappled with in many organisations so you’re definitely not alone there!
Context – most organisations I’ve been in are performance marketing first and foremost, so this sets the tone. If I can’t drive clear, measurable outcomes, I definitely get the heat.
I’ve found that a big piece of customer education internally is the customer funnel. It may sound very intuitive to marketers, but you’d be surprised to learn that many senior-level folks not in marketing need time to navigate this!
When you use the customer funnel and their buying journey as a starting point, it builds the appreciation that not all marketing activities are equal. It’s easier to understand that some are top-of-funnel and can’t be compared apples to apples.
I used a couple of hacks in the early days when I didn’t have the budget or approval to look at brand marketing.
I would explore partnerships with vendors that are familiar with branding – and can invest on my behalf. FMCGs in particular were good in that they usually had dedicated brand marketing budgets, and I would always have that conversation upfront to secure some of their brand marketing budget. Over time, we could also use these as examples to convince internal stakeholders where we showed brand marketing drove a certain level of impact.
Another approach I had was to always try to dedicate 20% of my marketing budget towards experimentation – this could be new channels, including more branding type of experiments. At the same time, I would make sure the 80% I invested were in tried and tested channels that could reliably drive the performance to hit my targets.
Finally – I would run regular surveys to understand how my customers know about my brand and the channels they came from. This really helped in the early days when people were much more skeptical of the impact of Facebook ads; hard to believe, comparatively speaking to today. With surveys, we could show that a good % of our customers first knew about our product via FB, which is an example of how would justify marketing investments.
And surveys are not complex to run. You’d be surprised what an email + survey tool (think SurveyMonkey, Polldaddy) can do. That is honestly all I had in the early days to track things like NPS surveys, customer awareness etc. Of course, you’d then need to spend some time processing the survey results, but it’s not too hard with some excel pivoting!
If you have some $$$ and you want to spend time talking to a considerable batch of non-customers as well, you can use tools like YouGov which can run blind surveys on your behalf. They can also run surveys on your own customer base if you so choose.
How do you talk about the customer funnel to people within your team who might be unfamiliar with the concept?
I like working from outcomes first and foremost:
What do I want out of this conversation with person X? Is Person X a key decision maker approving my budget (maybe he’s the finance head?). What are the 2-3 things s/he will need to know in order to say yes?
Rather from sometimes being eager to dump the entire customer funnel on the person, maybe you just need them to understand the overall funnel briefly, then zoom into a key area that connects to their work.
The outcomes approach keeps me from going off-topic, and I use it to sense-check if the person has the info they need.
We are a B2C company that is still really early in building out our CRM & lifecycle function. Could you share advice around best practices or common mistakes to avoid?
First, know your customer journey very well. Spend time with your customers to really make sure you understand it.
What are their pain points, when do they drop off? Do they use your mobile website or desktop more? If you have an app, is the journey similar or different? What usually enables them to move to the next stage?
Knowing the above, you can then design the interventions. Not sure what B2C industry you’re in, but examples of interventions could include: sending someone a reminder about the value proposition of your product / service, sending lapsed customers a coupon code after x weeks, sending new customers a coupon code if they have transacted X days/weeks after signing up. Pushing them a notification reminder in-app etc.
Customers are interacting with you on multiple platforms; what you show on your website, app, emails all feed into their lifecycle journey. So design with an integrated approach in mind, and don’t design them in silos. If a customer is a repeat customer, don’t bombard them with a new customer offer on the website or app.
1) Build vs Buy – you’ll probably encounter this decision fairly early, do I build my CRM software or do I buy off the shelf? There are pros and cons to both and it’s worth spending time talking it through, thinking about resources, costs, building new features, timelines etc. In order to help in Build vs Buy decisions, it’s really important to know what’s out there, which means doing research – what are companies like mine using? Why are they using it, how do they find it?
2) Are your decisions one-way or two-way doors? I’ve found that for very early stage startups, let’s say you’re just a marketing team of 1-2 people with no product/engineers on your team, you may have no choice but to buy a software to use. This is not a one-way door decision in the sense that you have to stick it to the bitter end. For example, maybe you can sign up for a 1 month trial and see what you do with it at the end. But oftentimes when you do decide to build something internally, you can’t just “cut it off” tomorrow.
What are some beliefs about business and marketing that you’ve changed as you’ve progressed in your career?
One thing I’ve learnt is that it’s less about being right than building win-win outcomes to then get to the right outcome. The process really matters!
In the earlier years of my career, I (probably naively) believed that as long as I focused on what was right for the company at that point in time, everything else would follow/make sense.
At Amazon, there’s this leadership principle called “Disagree and Commit“, which means that if you disagree with something, it’s your responsibility to argue respectfully, using data to support your arguments. The second part is “Commit”, which means that if you ultimately give in/compromise, you are committed to the decision. No passive-aggressiveness there. There are going to be many times that you will disagree with many decisions that come your way, but you always have a choice in how you respond to it.
You might’ve noticed these beliefs aren’t “marketing beliefs” so to speak. Regardless of what function you’re in, if you can’t be a team player, work with empathy and respect, it doesn’t matter how good a marketer you are, it’ll be hard to make your impact meaningful.
Can you share some experiences around the biggest failed marketing programs you’ve run, or “bets that didn’t turn out”?
When I was at RedMart, I recall a marketing experiment that we ran with influencers together with a brand many years ago when influencers were still fairly new.
The brand wanted to roll out a new product which had a low price point and was keen to get influencers to promote the product. Their hypothesis at that point in time was that the influencers would be able to directly influence the bottom funnel (e.g. drive conversions).
We saw things a bit differently. When we worked through the experiment with them, we recommended them not to set “order” targets for the influencers as it was unlikely that customers would be willing to just order that 1 product. Instead, based on our understanding of shopper behavior, it might’ve been a better strategy to focus on “add to cart”or “bundling” actions – while the influencers could focus more on brand awareness.
We stuck to their original plan (influencers driving orders), but long story short, they spent 5 figures on the campaign but had very low conversions.
Now, we could’ve left it there but I felt that we needed to treat this as a partnership where if they succeed, we succeed collectively.
So my team focused on driving add-to-cart initiatives on our website and bundle activities. These were much more successful in getting customers to trial the new product!
It ultimately had a happy ending, thankfully because we had this contingency plan built out (which we funded on our end). The brand also took our advice the next time around they had a marketing campaign to run, and that time we got them onboard with our plans (and their budget!).
You have worked both B2C and B2B, which do you prefer and why?
I don’t have a good answer to this in the sense that I didn’t choose to work in B2B or B2C because I liked either more or less at that point in my career. I’m someone who’s attracted to the intellectual challenge at that point in time, and also aligning with the company’s values.
(Maybe) a better way to think about it is what problem am I solving in company X and why is it interesting to me? What skills can I get to build?
So for instance – in my first marketing job, I had no experience in any marketing and I just wanted to learn and build a frame of reference.
At RedMart it could be the experience of getting into performance marketing (this was in 2013) for the first time. At Amazon, I would have to take on the role of building out the team, plus learning to work in a matrix org. At EF, it’s a completely new industry for me with it sitting in the VC space and I’m so inspired by the ambition behind these world-class technology companies and the privilege to have a front seat to witness their trajectory.
What are some resources / books / podcasts that you highly recommend?
Traction, Gabriel Weinberg and Justin Mares – this is a pretty good book for starters when you’re thinking about customer growth for an early stage startup. I especially like their templates around constructing your marketing mix. A lot of my thinking about building confidence levels, not putting your marketing eggs in 1 basket crystallised with this book.
Obviously Awesome, April Dunford – very helpful book around thinking of product positioning and marketing messaging around it. Quite critical for early stage startups.
Hooked by Nir Eyal – I spent some of my time on CX and Product as well so this was really helpful in building a lot of my fundamentals around designing for customer engagement. I used to have really good conversations with my product and design colleagues around this when it first came out in 2014!
The Hard Thing about Hard Things, Ben Horowitz – Startups are not glamorous, it’s very hard work and some days are incredibly tough. I’ve found this book really helpful in centering me many times.
Brian Balfour’s Reforge: I personally found this very helpful when I first took the programme as it helped me build out the frameworks and thinking I had around growth. You don’t have to sign up and pay for the programme, their articles are pretty standout. See The Racecar Growth Framework and Scaling Data: Data Informed to Data Driven to Data Led. But if you are willing to invest (or if you’re able to get your company to invest in you!), their programmes are solid, and well worth your time.
What are some strong beliefs you have about business or marketing that you think are uncommon?
Not sure if they’re uncommon, but I definitely learnt these earlier in my career.
You can’t do good marketing if you don’t understand the product.
Spend time with your product and engineering teams. They usually have a good reason for designing things the way they do, even when it frustrates you, but when you build empathy, you can drive change for the better.
We are not our customers.
Spend time with your customer, see them use your product in action and also build empathy with them. It’s easy to hide behind a screen and think that you can “guess” how they’d respond, but the reality is, when you see it in action, you’ll realise why they didn’t see that CTA button that you thought was so obvious.
If you have a sales team, spend time with them and build empathy.
There’s no point designing a whole ton of stuff that they won’t use, so it’s good to build understanding two-ways!
Every engagement can be framed as win-win outcomes.
I’m sure many of us would agree with this, but unless there’s a “partnerships” word somewhere in the project title, we tend to forget this.
It doesn’t mean that you’re a pushover, but conversely, don’t be an a**hole either.
Yi Ning Lim is the Head of Global Marketing at Entrepreneur First. She oversees marketing activities at EF relating to EF’s brand, product marketing and content strategy for its founder and investor audience.
Outside of EF, she is an angel investor and advises startups on their growth strategy. Prior to EF, Yi Ning was the first marketing hire in Southeast Asia for Amazon’s consumer business and launched their e-commerce, video streaming and Prime verticals in Singapore. She was also a key early marketing hire at RedMart and Forrester Research, working on brand, communications and growth.