The Journey of a New CEO with Jen Spencer (Part 1)

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In this special two-part episode, we’ve got Jen Spencer with us. Jen is the new CEO of SmartBug Media, and is joining us to share her journey to becoming the CEO and how she is leading the organization. Join us for a raw conversation about leadership, organizational alignment, and how the marketing landscape is continually evolving.

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If you missed episode 206, check it out here: Turn Your Marketing Department Into a Revenue Generator with Kathleen Booth

Looking for Part 2? Head over to this link to listen: Friday Fundamentals: The Journey of a New CEO Part 2

What You’ll Learn

  • How Jen became the CEO of SmartBug Media
  • The balance of keeping things the way they are with instituting new direction
  • What marketing tactics are and aren’t working anymore

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Show Agenda and Timestamps

  1. About Jen’s journey to CEO [2:45]
  2. What it’s like being a CEO [06:52]
  3. Organizational realignment [11:21]
  4. Strategies for talent acquisition, retention, and inclusivity [14:50]
  5. New marketing innovations [19:14]
  6. Sam’s Corner [23:31]

About Jen’s journey to CEO [2:45]

Sam Jacobs: With me is my friend Jen Spencer. Give us context Jen on what SmartBug Media is and then talk to us a little bit about your journey.

Jen Spencer: SmartBug Media is an intelligent inbound marketing agency, full service, all things digital agency. We are a HubSpot Elite Partner of the Year. We sell and service more HubSpot than anyone really in the world. We’re close to 200 employees. We’ve got over $25 million in revenue. I hired SmartBug in 2013, running marketing at a SaaS company, there were 10 employees. When I joined as VP of Sales and Marketing in 2017, I was employee number 28. So there’s been some fast growth recently.

Sam Jacobs: Talk to us about the journey to CEO. What’s different? What surprised you?

Jen Spencer: My journey to CEO is interesting because there was sort of a master plan that I was just not part of. When we were acquired by private equity, and we were going through due diligence in the fall of 2019, those investors were meeting with key people within the organization, I was one of them. They were looking for who is the future leader. Because of that, there were a lot of questions that were asked of me about what is my career path. What I appreciate about my former CEO is we constantly talked about that. Before I became CRO, he actually started to talk to me about potential succession planning. So I said, “Great, I’m so glad we’re talking about this. I would like to be our first Chief Revenue Officer, and this is why. Let me paint this picture for you.” He’s like, ‘Wow, I can’t believe you just converted” and offered later at some point to become CEO. You converted that into a promotion for yourself right now.

What it’s like being a CEO [06:52]

Sam Jacobs: What’s it like being CEO?

Jen Spencer: I felt very prepared to step into the role, but the biggest thing that surprised me is that I’m in charge. I have to make the decisions and make decisions quickly, and trust my gut and gather data. That was a little bit shocking to look around like, “This is really my call. Okay, this is my call.”

The thing that was probably most shocking and upsetting or frustrating for me was that not everyone was going to like me. I’m used to being a fairly well liked person on my team, an inspirational leader of sorts. So, when you start getting into the employee pulse kind of surveys and stuff… I’m a very accountable person so it’s very easy for me to accept that as my responsibility. I’m responsible for helping ensure I have a positive, safe, and healthy growth environment for my team. I cannot be responsible for anything in their lives. So that’s been something I’m learning.

Sam Jacobs: What’s the onboarding process been like?

Jen Spencer: We’re a very visible organization. Very transparent especially at the executive level, and there were a lot of conversations with our board. They wanted to make sure I understood the business mechanisms. When they presented an offer to move into the CEO position, it also came with a couple of supportive items. One was that our founder would stay on board in a consulting type of capacity. I meet with him for an hour every Monday. I have him accessible

The other thing that the board presented me with was an opportunity to attend an executive development program at Wharton at the University of Pennsylvania. That was so helpful in giving me a clean slate. I became CEO officially February 1st and then left for two weeks and went to this program. It allowed me to come in and reset.

Organizational realignment [11:21]

Sam Jacobs: How do you think about beginning to shift the trajectory, the culture?

Jen Spencer: The vision of the organization hasn’t changed, and it won’t. The tactics and the things we do on a daily basis, the operations of the organizations are evolving a bit. But it’s also with our growth, we think about how we’re growing so quickly we cannot continue to do things the way we have always done them. Everyone’s on the same page about this. Even meeting with our board and talking about some organizational realignment, I can present that business case. What I’m seeing, why and they trust me.

If you’re familiar with HubSpot, they’ve really grown up market and we’ve grown up market with them. It’s been exciting to see. As an example, when I started at SmartHub, we were selling marketing retainers for around $5,500, $6,000 a month. Now, our average is $14,000. So, we’re providing more services at a higher premium to a larger customer. Once you do that, you might have to start to think about who is delivering those services because our product is our people. We recognize that by conducting listening sessions with our team. What is their career path? What are they looking for? What do they love about their job? What would they rather not do? We identify there might be a better and smarter way to organize ourselves. That’s what we’re in the process of looking at right now.

Strategies for talent acquisition, retention, and inclusivity [14:50]

Sam Jacobs: How do you think about talent acquisition? What are your strategies for acquisition, retention, inclusivity?

Jen Spencer: Talent retention and growth is a really important part of our strategy. Being able to grow people and create those career paths is something we’re investing quite a bit in. So things like once you hit a director level in our organization, you are now eligible for a fully funded Pavilion membership. I’m looking at how we create these value drivers for people that are going to make them stay and grow within our company.

We’ve always been a fully remote organization since the beginning of the history of the company for 15 years. There’s work life integration, true flex time. There are other factors that are really important to us. Talent acquisition is the hardest part of what we do, and capacity planning and alignment is one of the hardest parts of what we do. So we want to be able to grow people internally as best we can, and we also want to use our people as cultural ambassadors for our organization to attract others. Where we get our people from are word of mouth referrals from other SmartBugs. Ensure that you’re creating a really positive environment for people to grow and fulfill their own dreams.

Sam Jacobs: Is the strategy geographic diversity, hiring people from all over the country as opposed to just concentrating in the major city centers?

Jen Spencer: Yeah that’s always been part of the strategy. We’ve had people in Bismarck, North Dakota, and Manhattan, Kansas. We have people that are exceptional talents and they just don’t happen to live in New York, San Francisco, L.A. There are a lot of really good people who live on farms. As long as you’ve got the smarts and an internet connection, you’re golden.

New marketing innovations [19:14]

Sam Jacobs: What things are working for your clients now that weren’t working before? Or what things have stopped working that used to work?

Jen Spencer: Inbound marketing has changed. I feel like we have been a part of that story of helping evolve that. We’ve branded ourselves as intelligence inbound because for us, for inbound to be successful it’s more than just exactly what HubSpot said to do. There’s other things… Getting into revenue operations before it was called operations. Layering different kinds of paid media, public relations. I can’t run the same play I ran back in 2013. If I did that now I would have diminishing returns on that effort. The market is naturally evolving and changing.

One of the biggest things that changed is the pressure cooker that revenue leaders that marketers in particular are in to get instant results. We’re to blame a little bit for it as marketers. As we have more responsibility, there’s obviously more light shown on us. I’m worried about marketing leaders. I see clients come in and they’re in “Hail Mary” mode and thinking we’re going to throw some content together and everything’s going to change. That’s just not the case. There are unrealistic expectations more and more put on marketing. Part of that is also there’s so much technology which is great, really cool but it also comes at a cost. You’re constantly looking at when am I going to get the ROI of this?

Sam Jacobs: Are there specific strategies or tactics that you think are particularly useful right now?

Jen Spencer: If you think back to early days … if you know who your buyer is, and you understand what their pains are, and you create value for them however you create value — whether it’s through content, those conversations, going to events — that’s where you’re going to find success. I’m still staying the course on, know your people, take a psychological approach on who you are trying to attract and engage. Be human to them, and do it at scale, and if that means you’re leveraging certain technology, do that at that scale. But none of this is a magic wand. There’s no silver bullet, let’s say.

Sam’s Corner [23:31]

Sam Jacobs: Hey folks, Sam’s Corner. That was part one of my conversation with Jen Spencer, CEO of SmartBug Media. Recorded live from Los Angeles at the Santa Monica Proper where we held the Pavilion Elevate Roadshow.

One quick takeaway. Preparation creates opportunity which creates luck. Jen invested in herself, she made sure she was ready and she advocated for herself to take that leap from CRO to CEO. Initially the advocacy was to go from VP of Marketing to CO. But the board in the company that she had invested in herself and prepared. That created the opportunity.

Thanks so much for listening. We’re going to do part two of this conversation this coming Friday.

Don’t miss episode 208!

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