Entrepreneur

Rackspace CMO to vendors: ‘Be smarter than me!’

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Debbie Landa is the CEO of Dealmaker Media/Under the Radar.

This is part three of a five-part series sponsored by Under the Radar aimed at helping innovative startups attract the attention of C-level executives. Meet Suaad and hear how he manages technology at Under the Radar 2013, May 22-23, in San Francisco. Register today using special discount code VentureBeatVIP.

Debbie Landa: We live in Silicon Valley, where there must be thousands of companies and VCs pitching you to consider their products and services. How do you manage this?

Suaad Sait: I regularly get pitched by startups and VCs because I live in Austin, Texas, another hub of startup activity, and also because Rackspace is known for mentoring and supporting early stage startups in the Bay Area and in other markets.

These days, there are quite a few social media and Big Data companies pushing to get their products in front of chief marketing officers (CMOs) and marketing departments.

My criteria for taking a pitch are simple: If it’s a referral from one my VC friends or a Rackspace customer, I make time. For example, a friend at Mayfield recommended that I speak with a portfolio company working on a Big Data and predictive analytics product for B2B marketers. The technology was relevant to our immediate needs and it was a referral, so I took the meeting.

Landa: What are your big pain points?

Suaad: My number one pain point right now is mining the massive amount of data we are accumulating each day. As a CMO, I want to use objective metrics to make effective marketing decisions, but the data dimensions are staggering. All of the data — which shows what kind of companies are finding value in Rackspace and how they are buying and consuming our services — creates a very interesting analysis opportunity.

Interpreting this data and forming a thesis about the things we want to find out about our customers and prospects is problem number one.

The second problem is creating the right kind of reach — as in reaching the right people in the right business with our messages. By that I mean the industry constantly goes through cycles of email fatigue. One day, email is a good vehicle for marketing, and then suddenly it’s not a good vehicle for marketing.  Similarly, we go on again, off again with industry trade events. So one dimension I think about a lot is how to identify the most effective, modern method of communicating and how to reach the audience types that we want to talk to on an ongoing basis.

It’s content marketing, social media, PR and direct marketing — a variety of things.  But what is relevant where and to whom? How do we tailor our programs and messages to buyers? This is a problem we are constantly trying to solve.

Landa: What is your vetting process?

Suaad: First, they must pass the “referral test” so that I know they’ve been vetted — there’s nothing more valuable than a trusted referral.

Second: they must be top of mind and address a business problem we’re actively trying to solve. The predictive analytics company I referenced earlier is a good example; we’re a cloud-based company with over 200,000 customers and lots of data, and I’d like to be able to examine that data in a variety of ways to optimize our marketing. So it made sense for me to engage in a dialogue with this particular company.

I always take calls from Rackspace Startup Program customers that are building (or have built) their applications on the Rackspace open cloud when they reach out. It’s our duty as good tech citizens to be part of the vetting and mentoring process for startups that are using our very own infrastructure.

Landa: What is the last company you bought and implemented?

Suaad: The most recent marketing-focused vendor we selected is Spredfast, a social media marketing platform.

We spend a lot of time and effort trying to understand the influence and impact that social media has on Rackspace brand awareness and our sales funnel, and Spredfast provides metrics and measurements around our social media campaigns to help us evaluate and optimize our programs. Getting this visibility has been in the back of my mind for some time.

When we originally spoke with Spredfast, we weren’t ready as a company to digest this technology because we didn’t have resources to devote to social media marketing in a decisive, measurable way.  It’s become higher priority because social media is one of the top ways our prospects and customers interact with us.

Landa: What are your challenges in adopting early stage companies and what’s the sales cycle?

Suaad: This is an interesting question that hits close to home for me. I personally have been an entrepreneur and have launched early stage startups. Rackspace itself was a startup not too long ago, so we absolutely want to give startups an opportunity.

If a startup is part of a well-known accelerator or backed by a well-known VC firm, the probability of us doing business with them is higher because other smart people have screened the team and the technology.  We do worry once in a while about some of these startups not being around for the long haul.  If we’re experimenting with their technology then it’s not a concern.  If we’re going to bring these solutions to market from a technology perspective, we think about that.

There is no typical sales cycle. It depends on several factors: Whether the product addresses an immediate need, how quickly we can test pilot, and if we have resources to adopt the new product.  It can be 30 days, while others have lingered for 6-12 months.

Landa: Advice for startups pitching you?

Suaad: Nail your positioning and messaging.  Make it simple and elegant, but tell me what makes you unique and valuable to me. I talk to a lot of startups and it often takes way too long for them to explain what they really do and the problems they’re solving.

Landa: Worst pitch you received?

Suaad: I’ve seen a lot of bad presentations, so I won’t single anyone out. I would have to say the biggest mistake I see is around lack of focus and specificity.

I’ve worked at enough startups to know that every startup is only going to be able to do one thing really well. However, I get a bunch of pitches that include a couple of paragraphs of messaging, which basically claim that using their technology will accelerate revenue, improve productivity, reduce operating costs, and lead to total world domination. Sometimes the messaging is just so generic that I can’t determine what’s special about the company.

Any pitch that fails to provide a clear one-liner about what the company does, I’d classify as a bad pitch.

Landa: Best pitch?

Suaad: The best pitches are always the ones that are laser-focused on Rackspace and our markets, delivered by someone who is a whole lot smarter than I am about how to address my problems. That’s what makes the information relevant and engaging to the person or company you’re pitching.

The best way to get my attention is to tell me something I don’t know about my own company. Recently, someone asked me whether I knew that there were 6,348 social media conversations about Rackspace across these three channels in the last 30 days. Immediately, I was engaged and giving my full attention to trying to learn more about what these conversations entailed.

Landa: What value do you get out of attending conferences like Under the Radar?

Suaad: Under the Radar is a valuable face-to-face vetting mechanism or filter. It’s a condensed opportunity to see the best of the best emerging products and speak to the entrepreneurs who are so passionate about solving the big problems we struggle with every day. It gives me a good lens to find the most promising solutions to our challenges. Rackspace actually ended up acquiring a company that recently presented at Under the Radar.

I also look at the Under the Rader event as a really good way for me to network with others in the industry and to learn about what’s on top of their minds.  I think of this in multiple dimensions.  One is technology I can use in the business. But from a macro level, I’m also thinking about Rackspace and our go-to-market strategy.  Specifically, what things are my peers seeing? Are there disproportionate growth inflections in markets that they may be observing?  Overall, the event is an opportunity to network with peers that are thinking about markets in maybe the same or in different ways than I am.

Suaad Sait, RackspaceSuaad Sait became the first Chief Marketing Officer for Rackspace Hosting in January 2012, having been a consultant to the company since May 2011. In this role, Sait leads the company’s global marketing and branding efforts. Prior to joining Rackspace, Suaad was the founder and Chief Executive Officer of Reachforce, a venture-backed B2B marketing-data services startup, where he continues to serve as chairman of the board.

Top photo credit: Rackspace


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