Investing In Sales and Marketing During a Downturn

Investing In Sales and Marketing During a Downturn

In 2008, at the beginning of the largest recession since the Great Depression, I was hired at PopSugar to bring their company to market and lead their first sales efforts.  They were a Series A company that had just raised $10M from Sequoia Capital.  We weren’t even called PopSugar then, we were named Sugar, Inc.

Our story of success and scale was a long one – too long to share in a single blog post - but I want to share a piece of it now, to illustrate the importance of investing in sales and marketing, even when the economy is in a downtown.

When I signed onto PopSugar, I had agreed to deliver $12M in year one revenue.  That was our board budget, and I was confident I could hit it.  Within thirty days on the job, it was clear to me there were several investments that needed to be made for us to get there, which also included time.  After a series of conversations with Brian Sugar, our CEO, we reset the numbers for the year.  At my first board meeting with the company we shared our revenue strategy, which included a much lower target number and the downsizing other divisions so we could invest in sales.  I got lucky.  Brian trusted me and the team we were building and made the hard decision to invest heavily in my plan and the headcount needed to support it.  My strategy included hiring for geographies that had no business yet and a support team when there were no customers yet to service.  I believed deeply in our product, and how we were positioning the company, and I knew that for success to be had, we needed the people to service the clients we aimed to win.  I still look back at that moment with awe and gratitude for the trust and faith Brian had in me.  He saw me make mistakes and saw me trip many times but he supported me, and I knew this because he boldly stated it when our team both fumbled or scored.  The first five years of our company was a roller coaster ride where the strategy shifted from a geography-based sales approach to an industry-based approach, where the people that were the right people for phase one of our growth were not the right fit for phase two, and where our GTM pitch needed to be adapted because everyone was suddenly copying us.

Today I’m watching the headlines filled with layoffs and listening to CEOs grapple with how much investment to put into marketing and sales.  Playing the long game with ROI is hard and not managing cash burn can destroy a business.  The life and business lesson I took from 2008 is twofold:  First, you must lean in hard when others are holding back.  If you believe in your business, go after it.  Now is the moment to push through the pain and win.  There is a silver lining to hard times in that your competition will thin out while you invest deeper.  The second lesson is to trust your leadership.  If you don’t trust your leadership team, and don’t feel you can fully empower or support their strategies, change them out quickly.  It is critical to hire leaders you fully trust and believe in.

The PopSugar story ends with a wildly successful business and brand, that is loved and known by many, but without the early and deep investment in sales and marketing, the company would not have pulled through 2008 and thrived.  Investing in sales and marketing is expensive, and the ROI is often long, but if you believe in your product and people, there simply is no other way to win.