Sales Pipeline Radio, Episode 168: Q&A with Ryan Luckin @rluckin

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We were thrilled this time to talk to Ryan Luckin, in an episode called, “Balancing Brand and Demand: How to Drive Short and Long Term Marketing Objectives

After quite a bit of sports talk … we talk about balance between brand and demand…about the intersection of brand and demand and how important, I think brand has always been quite frankly, the driving of demand. But now more and more markers, more and more companies, are realizing that that needs to be a defined and measured and a prominent part of their marketing mix.  I ask Ryan, at LevelTen now for almost two years, how they are thinking about that balance that is investing in the brand but also feeding a sales organization and driving some revenue responsibility?

Ryan says “Let’s really focus on the demand generation but the brand, and I’m using air quotes, realizing nobody can see it. The brand has to be a bi-product of that. So what does it look like? What are the messages you’re actually saying? And how are you saying them?”  Listen in or read the answers below.



Paul:  Welcome back to another installment of sales pipeline radio. Welcome Matt.

Matt:  How we doing Paul?

Paul:  I’m doing good. Every week I try to come up with some obscure sport. Last week it was curling because I know you’re a sports buff here. This is kind of a dead period for me. I know there’s the hockey and baseball started and everything but I’m just looking for something to challenge you here. And I came across Esports. Are you a big Esports, do you play games and watch competitive Esports?

Matt:  No I’m old enough to wonder why Esports is a sport. I’ve gotten to that point in my life where I accept Xgames, I accept some of the more like the snowboarding. Now that they’re an Olympic sports, they’re obviously legit. But Esports is one of those where at some point it’s going to become an Olympic sport and I’m just going to shake my head like an old person.

Paul:  Wow okay. There are limits to Matt Heinz’s tolerance for sports or new sports here.

Matt:  There is. If you ask my wife she’ll think I’ll watch pretty much anything. The joke in our house is I really don’t, they’re aren’t really very many shows like TV shows that I watch except for sports so therefore it’s on all the time. No it’s a good time. We crowned a new Stanley Cup champion last night.

Paul:  Yeah.

Matt:  Sometime before the end of the weekend, possibly tonight, we’re going to have an NBA champion. Today is the first round of the U.S. Open gold tournament. Lots of great rivalries. Series, going into baseball week, it’s a great time to be a sports fan there Paul.

Paul:  And here I am searching for new sports and it’s right in front of me here.

Matt:  It’s right in front of you. ESPN.com, it’s all right there. Well anyway, enough of that today. Thank you very much everyone for joining us on another episode of sales pipeline radio. I’m very pleased to have you with us. If you’re joining us live on the funnel media radio network thanks for joining us in the middle of your work day. If you’re joining us from the podcast, thanks so much for joining us. Our numbers continue to grow. It’s exciting to be able to share with you some of the best and brightest minds of B2B sales marketing every week. Every episode of sales pipeline radio, past, present, and future, is available at salespipelineradio.com as I mentioned we feature every week some of the best and brightest minds in sales and marketing. Today is absolutely no different. We have the vice president of marketing from LevelTen Energy. Ryan thanks so much for joining us today.

Ryan:  Can we just keep talking about sports? Because that sounds right up my alley. That would be awesome.

Matt:  Absolutely let’s do it. So you pick a sport and I will ask you a question about it.

Ryan:  Oh I just had to close my laptop because I had the U.S. Open livestream going all morning and I figured that would be crashing from this call.

Matt:  Same. Yeah no well I had, not a Skype call, I had a Zoom call right before this and I couldn’t hear the person on the end of the line and I assumed it was because I’m in a hotel in Boston and so I assumed it was because of my limited bandwidth. So I had to choose prospect call or U.S. Open and that was a tough call. I had to think about do I want to hang up on a prospect or should I just close down my video feed for a while. So I’m a little behind I don’t know how things are going right now and it’s a live show but most people will hear it in recording. So it sounds like you are a gold fan.

Ryan:  I am. Like you, I’m an avid sports fan. But yeah gold hits home for me and I love the fact that we get these live streams now. Just the fact that I can sit at work and actually get stuff done but they had two or three feeds going live. You could choose. It’s kind of incredible.

Matt:  It’s pretty amazing. I don’t know how old you are. When I was growing up the TV, and this is my version of running up the hill in the snow both ways going to school. I tell our kids all the time you know it used to be like you had to, there was a time you had to sit down and watch a television show. You had a specific time you had to watch it and you had choices of maybe three shows at a time. And if you wanted to watch the other show you had to get up, go to the television, turn a knob, go to the other channel. Kids look at me like I’m from Mars when I describe this foreign, ancient world to them. And so you’re right, like now with the Master’s and with the U.S. Open and you can watch a featured group, you can watch the practice tee, you can watch specific, iconic holes. You can watch them all at once, you can watch them later tonight. It’s pretty amazing.

Ryan: It’s amazing and it sounds like we might be similar ages here because I can identify with everything you just described.

Matt:  Yes, Paul wants to contribute. We might not talk about sales at all today. We’ll find out. Paul what do you got?

Paul:  I just wanted to let you know that I’m streaming the live World Curling Championship right now here online. Watching curling.

Matt:  I don’t know if it’s the end of June, I would be surprised is that really live world curling? I thought you were going to give away a World Cup score there for second. That’s a whole other one Paul, you’re missing the women’s World Cup.

Paul:  I am, I’ll keep searching while you’re talking here.

Matt:  I mean the Women’s U.S. team apparently is scoring touchdowns not goals in their games. It’s pretty amazing. We live in a pretty amazing world and here’s my attempt at a transition. All that innovation we see and the complexity and the channels, we see that obviously immediately, we see that in sports. And we see that in marketing too now Ryan. Think about if you and I are similar ages, and I think it sounds like we both came of age in a very different world for marketing and a very different world for PR. When I came out of school at University of Washington in the late 90’s I was at a PR agency and it was smiling and dialing with the reporters, it was press releases, it was media tours. And I don’t know how much of that still exists but it feels like an ancient time. And neither of us are that old quite honestly. But so much, even in the last 20 years, it seems like it’s changed quite a bit. Talk a little bit if you wouldn’t mind, what did you see that had been some of the biggest changes in marketing in the 20 years?



Ryan:  Yeah I mean absolutely, I like you, used to man the fax machine at the PR agency I worked at in Edelman.

Matt:  Yeah.

Ryan:  I used to do all that kind of fun stuff and you’re just listening to I think it was one of the ad reads coming into the podcast from Hub Spot, think about one of the most innovative things they did at the top of funnel was the website grader. Right? Everyone was building their own websites for Mom and Pops and they would give you this score. And it was instant demand gen right? And it was one of the things that we used to talk about all the time. Like how innovative was that? And of course, it’s been eclipsed and copied 100 times over. I constantly think about all these innovations have been copied. Rarely do we see a true new channel emerge that no one has thought of that is just sky rocketing and someone’s getting all the leads. It feels like we’re at that saturation point. It’s one of the reasons why I’m really invested in brand. I think brand has kind of come back full circle where you can’t ignore those channels, you have to kind of participate in those things.

And you’ve got to be really good at them because if you’re average, you’re not going to get any of the mind share. But more than anything else, brand is kind of coming back to the top for me where my previous company before LevelTen was Bluecore. Started up out of New York and when I joined there was probably 500 competitors in that space. There’s probably 5,000 if you look at the lumascape now. If your brand doesn’t stand for something that may be the differentiator. There’s a lot of ways to do personalization these days. Someone’s going to go with the one they know. The brand they know and that stands for something that they align with. Yeah there’s been a lot of change that’s for sure.

Matt:  What you were saying, and I completely agree with you. It sounds counter intuitive like we have way more channels. Right? And so there’s way more channels in every channel. You think about just not, TV is a channel but TV has a million channels, where it used to have like three or four. And online use to be thought of as a channel but now online means a lot of different things. So there’s a lot of different ways to get your message out there. And you’re right. It seems like we are inundated with more message than ever. It seems like our channels are noisier than ever. And so therefore what a lot of companies have thought of as their demand generation marketing efforts, and from a sales pipeline standpoint we think about generating leads for the sales team. If we think we’re just going to send an email Tuesday at 10:00 and think that that’s going to do the job, we’re kidding ourselves.

And so I think to your point, this is part of the reason I wanted to have you on the show today is to talk about that balance between brand and demand. And talk about the intersection of brand and demand and how important, I think brand has always been quite frankly, the driving of demand. But now more and more markers, more and more companies, they are realizing that that needs to be a defined and measured and a prominent part of their marketing mix. I’ve been curious about this, you’ve been at LevelTen now for almost two years, how are you guys thinking about that balance that is investing in the brand but also feeding a sales organization and driving some revenue responsibility?

Ryan:  Yeah absolutely I think the last piece you said kind of hits home. When I was two jobs ago, working at Microsoft doing a bunch of work for Xbox and Surface, brand was a healthy line item with a big healthy budget behind it. And that made a ton of sense as we were trying to go after these consumers. Current job and the one before, these are venture-backed startups so revenue goals for the year, they kind of drive all the decisions, and they really should. Because if you aren’t hitting those revenue goals, you may not have a future. So I tend to look at brand is going to be an output of demand generation for any early stage startup.

There isn’t, at least I haven’t seen a lot of appetite or interest in taking a healthy chunk of my annual budget and going to buy billboards up and down 280 or 101. That’s not going to move the needle for us in terms of how am I going to get leads in front of my account exec and give them great opportunities. So for us, it’s saying okay let’s really focus on the demand generation but the brand, and I’m using air quotes, realizing nobody can see it. The brand has to be a bi-product of that. So what does it look like? What are the messages you’re actually saying? And how are you saying them? Really has to be pushed through those demand generation efforts, whether that’s an email campaign or a piece of content. Those channel efforts have to reflect what it is you’re saying that your company is going to stand for, right? LevelTen Energy is entering the energy space which is pretty old school, right? This has been dominated by 100 year old companies and they tried to make lots of transitions from fossil fuels into Clean Tech. And we have a real opportunity to say hey we think this place needs a lot of data and a lot of technology to help its scale.

So we’re seen as kind of a disruptive, young company. Well that should be reflective in the things we do. We shouldn’t talk and act like a 100 year old company. We should talk and act like a company that’s two years old and growing year over year super fast. That’s where I kind of see that the brand has to align with demand gen in that way.

Matt:  So I think there’s a tension between sometimes brand and demand. There’s also sometimes in companies, the tension between what’s needed long term to build a brand and to ultimately support pipeline growth and inbound interest from your target account. But also what someone last week described to me as the crack of transactional marketing, which is the hey we need leads now. Hey how can we invest in something that isn’t going to generate impact right away if we need to generate logos right now against the next round of funding. And look, it’s one thing to talk strategically about this balance between brand and demand, but when the rubber meets the road, when the sales team’s buying on their number for the quarter, and I’ve been in inside a company where we do this a lot as consultants, but I’ve been inside companies running marketing where that is the very real challenge is the hard thing about hard things, as Ben Horowitz says, talk a little bit about sort of how culturally and then operationally inside the company inside a venture-backed company, how were you balancing that long-term vision with still feeding the beast on a short-term basis?

Ryan:  Yeah absolutely I think obviously any marketing efforts or outbound sales efforts, in a company this size, we’re 21 people. It’s likely all hands on the deck and there’s a lot of eyes on this, you’re getting lost in the shuffle. If we run a webinar, everybody’s involved and so the success of that is kind of very apparent. People want to know, hey is this successful? So there’s almost not an opportunity to get lost thinking too long-term about big, broad campaigns that aren’t going to have true ROI driving those near term results because everybody is chomping at the bit. We are in a planning cycle, we might have 12 month plans but really we’re a quarterly planning cycle. And we need to have the availability because we’re small, to turn on the dime and do something different or if an opportunity presents itself, we can go after it. And that’s why we want to keep these tight planning cycles. I don’t want to be married to a long-term marketing objective that’s a year out or three years out just because we wrote it down on paper and said that’s what we’re going to go hit.

We have the flexibility to be nimble and we really need to kind of adhere to that and find things that are going to work. I think that goes along with, we can experiment on a bunch of stuff and we should because we’re a nimble company, we should also figure out if something’s not working and ditch it really fast. There’s just absolutely no reason to keep banging out heads against the wall if we had a good idea and it’s not producing leads or new opportunities for AEs or what have you, whatever the metric is. If it’s not working just trash it and find something new. That’s another manage that we have in terms of size.

Matt:  Well I think you brought up a lot of good points here just in terms of the investment in brand early on. Look, this doesn’t have to be let’s buy a bunch of billboards on the side of a highway. But sometimes Ryan it’s just having a good message and a consistent message. Having a message that is appropriate for the market, having a message that is consistent across your channels, that’s something that I think not a lot of early stage companies really prioritize. They want to be agile, they want to be scrappy, they want to move quickly. But then you end up with a bunch of disjointed campaigns that don’t look the same, that have different messages. Sales is saying one thing, marketing is saying the other. And you can grow that way but it creates so much friction in the process, that it just becomes expensive growth without building any real brand equity.

What I hear you saying is that building a brand isn’t about spending money, it’s about having a a good position and being consistent and applying that to the market through whatever channels you are using. Did I get that right?

Ryan:  Oh yeah I think you nailed that. We at often times try to think about how do I know if what we’re saying is resonating and working. It’s not a quantitative thing, I can’t pull up the CRN and look at the report and say this is working. It’s the comment that comes back from a conference where my CEO says so and so walked up to me and said X or it’s a feedback from a customer who came in and said hey I’ve been watching you guys for a year, I kind of knew a year ago we wanted to work with you because you were doing these types of things in the market. Those are the kind of things you kind of grab onto and say ah ha, we’re kind of working here. But it also, I think, and I’ve experienced this, as we grow as a company, we build more products, we build more features, we go into different markets, we expand and we add head count. We go from 20 people to 40 people and pretty quick, you have to be cognizant to go back and do that check, right?

Is what we stand for still kind of uniform through the company or have we lost our way? We did this at Bluecore where I would literally go talk to people and say, “Hey tell me what Bluecore does.” And if you’re asking 10 people and you get 10 different answers, you’ve lost, you’ve kind of grown out of that. You have to actually run a program with your exec leadership team and kind of roll it out to the rest of the company and say hey we’ve gotten really far away from what our vision is or our vision has changed. We need to recalibrate and get everybody else on the same page because as you said, if we’re all saying different things, then the brand becomes somewhat murky and you don’t really know what you’re about.

Matt:  I want to ask you a question about working in an old school industry, I worked at a startup years ago, we were in the residential real estate space and the idea of sort of digital transformation, the realtors at the time, especially at the very beginning of that work when, people don’t remember this, like the MOS was not public. You could not see listings online, realtors have access to a private system where all the listings existed, so merely opening that Pandora’s box, was an enormous amount of change for the real estate industry. I think there’s still quite a bit in realty that hasn’t changed in the last 15 years or so. Talk about what it’s like working within a company that is disrupting an old industry and sort of on one hand, you are sort of pushing the envelope into new areas. On the other hand, in many cases you still have to partner, you still have to rely on relationships, and partnerships, and alliances with the old guard. How do you balance that and how is that working so far for LevelTen?

Ryan:  Yeah no good point, I mean I think that’s what’s most interesting about this opportunity when looked at it I remember sitting down with Bryce, our CEO, and I just thought gosh, this feels like benefits when they went into the insurance space and just said how this place is still doing so much work in Excel offline, the spreadsheet worked at itself, like a great opportunity, and that’s kind of what LevelTen looked like to me and I think from a marketers standpoint, you go gosh, we can do so much here that is just going to be a breath of fresh air for folks who have to work in this space.

But I think on the back end, what you end up realizing is, especially with energy and kind of the rise of sustainability, five years ago, there weren’t sustainability teams. Most fortune 1000 companies didn’t have these initiatives. So the folks we were talking to are new in their roles, tackling really difficult, from our perspective, contracts and purchases. These are huge purchases and huge payments for these organizations. So they need a lot of support. So when I think about our content program, our content program isn’t really oriented towards 100% demand gen, it’s really oriented towards there’s a lot of education that has to go on. They need a ton of support, means we have some pretty long sales cycles, but they need the help and they actually want the help. I just keep thinking we are an STR team here, folks answer the phone and actually reply to emails because they really want some support which is totally a breath of fresh air, so some fresh air considering where I came from before where there’s 5,000 companies calling into the same marketing manager, you know?

Matt:  Yeah absolutely. And then I’m curious also like inside the organization, we were talking earlier about sort of old school versus new school both in terms of the industry and terms of better ways of doing sales and marketing in PR. When you venture back, that means you’ve taken someone’s money and that means you have to listen to them as well, right? So a lot of people sometimes that don’t have sales and marketing experience may have some advice on what you should be doing. Some of that advice may be good, some of that advice may be not be good. And I remember distinctly, so working in that environment in a couple different places but I’m curious, you’re experience at Bluecore, you were the first marketer there, you coming out of Microsoft, you’re experience at LevelTen, I think there are as many people in the organization that feel like they know the tech and the IT side, there’s a number of people who think they know marketing. How do you accept, especially in a business that you were, my definition, you don’t have the answer. I mean every startup by definition is still figuring out how they’re going to market. And so there isn’t a complete playbook on how to do it yet, how do you balance the advice that you get from so many different people across the organization? In some cases picking and choosing the good stuff, but also keeping yourself and your team focused.

Ryan:  Yeah you’re right. I think the saying goes, everybody’s a marketer. I certainly can’t walk over to my CTO and get some feedback from his code, nor should I because that’d be way out of bounds there. I think you’re right. I think that’s the reason why you have plans. The reason why you kind of map what any team is going to do towards some of the higher level company objectives. I’m actually okay with people coming up with hey let’s try these things. So long as it’s reasonable within budget and something we can go try. I don’t want to get stuck in the place where I’m not dogmatic about the playbook I ran at Bluecore, the playbook I ran last year, but I’m not open to some other idea. Especially in energy, I didn’t come from the energy space so I don’t have the background. We’ve got a great team here and most of the folks are a team of 20 plus people, all came from energy. I look at it as they probably have insights more than I do in terms of who our customer is and how they like to operate and where they want to be reached.

Ryan:  So I actually want those ideas. I think it’s great when folks come to me and say, “hey have we tried this?” Obviously some of them work and some of them don’t but that experimentation is kind of part of the process.



Matt:  Awesome. Well just a couple more minutes here with our guest today the VP of marketing of LevelTen energy. Ryan before we let you go and let you get back to the U.S. Open, which I’m about to do as well, we like to ask a lot of our guests just to help finish up with, just sharing a few people recommendations for others of people in your career that have been influential for you. They could be authors, speakers, writers, they could be past managers, mentors, just if you could name maybe one of two people who have been particularly influential for you and might recommend other people seek out or check out as well.

Ryan:  Yeah absolutely. I think I’m going to borrow from your guest from last week, which was Sendoso, I do the same thing where there’s some really good content on LinkedIn. And those folks are kind of great to follow those conversations and dig in with that. I think there’s also those folks that kind of in your own personal community. I’ve had a 20 year relationship with someone named Gavin Hewitt, who’s the VP of sales at a bunch of different companies. We worked together at Bluecore and he’s a great sounding board. He’s probably more of an entrepreneur at heart that’s doing VP as sales work. But he just has really broad insights and thoughts about how things could go and kind of balances my realism to a certain extent. So I think those types of folks that kind of vibe the insights that you don’t have in your nature, are the ones I really look to kind of give me that feedback and that inspiration on certain topics. LinkedIn and good mentors and people in your network are definitely vital.

Matt:  Awesome. Well last, last question at the risk of pushing that timeline here with Paul, so I just want to see him sweat just a little bit. You’re a sports fan, if you could pick one sporting event in a 12 month period to go to, which sporting event are you going to go to and why?

Ryan:  The Master’s without a doubt. Been to it once I had the lucky opportunity to go and it’s the one event I think if you watch something on TV, you think oh gosh it would be so cool to go to that. And I’ve had the lucky opportunity, I’ve been to a Super Bowl, I’ve been to a bunch of really cool stuff. The Master’s is the one event that delivers far and beyond what you see on TV. You’re just looking at this amazing, amazing playground for golf, and you’re going, “that would be really cool” and then you get there and you’re like this is so much better than it looks like on TV. So definitely looking forward to the Master’s. Do you have tickets for me?

Matt:  I do not have tickets for you. I feel the same way about it. I have not been but I have a buddy that we’ve made the commitment that 2020, this is going to be our year to finally get out there, I’m glad to hear you say that because I feel like I could, if they would broadcast the Master’s and do it on a week where they’re not playing. Just keep the camera going of the course, it is just one of the most beautiful things to see on TV so I’m excited to get out there. Well we’ve got to go. Paul is definitely sweating now. I want to thank our guest again, we got the VP in marketing for LevelTen. If you enjoyed this episode of the sales pipeline radio, you want to hear it one more time, you can check it out in a couple days. Up at salespipelineradio.com we’ll have a summary of this conversation up on our blog at heinzmarketing.com in a couple days as well. We have a time, thanks again to our guest and for my great producer Paul. This is Matt Heinz. You’ve joined us for another episode, sales pipeline radio.

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