Can you believe he actually would do it differently?
As HubSpot’s former SVP of Worldwide Sales — who helped take the company’s customer base from 1 to over 12,000, and revenues from near-zero to more than $100 million — it’s safe to say Mark Roberge can sell anything. Anything, that is, except vacuum cleaners.
Yes, the best-selling author of The Sales Acceleration Formula, and senior lecturer on sales at the Harvard Business School, once had a job selling vacuum cleaners door to door. To complete strangers. “The company,” he recalls, “would set up appointments, and I would take them with me into people’s homes. It was for Filter Queen, and the vacuum cleaners were $1,000 each.” And again, for the record, how many did you sell? “Zero. I quit after 2 weeks.”
Fast forward to December, 2017
I met Roberge over dinner with fellow members of the Birmingham Venture Club board (he was the Featured Speaker for the club’s annual meeting). That evening, he initiated every new conversation with the same question — “What’s your business?” — leading me to assume that here was a guy with an absolute single-minded focus. I was wrong.
“I like connecting with people,” Roberge says, “Meeting a new person is unexplored territory, something I can learn from. I know all about me, and that’s boring.” So why the same question for everyone? “It was a group of entrepreneurs — and I assumed they’d be interested in talking about their businesses.” As a matter of fact, they were. “If I met you at a wedding,” he continues, “I’d probably ask you about your wife and kids.”
Interestingly enough, Roberge earned his undergraduate degree in Mechanical Engineering — a field not commonly associated with “connective” personalities.
“I enjoyed the curriculum, but I started wishing I’d studied computer science. When I began looking for internships my junior year, I stumbled on Accenture — where they were training super smart people to write code and systems integrations.” Roberge spent that summer working with the team that wrote the early code for UPS’s Tracking Number system. “That got me into software technology, and I went back to Accenture as a full-time consultant after graduating. They sent me all over the country, and I learned to write Java.”
About a year after Roberge joined the company, ‘98 to ’99, the first internet explosion occurred. “They largely ignored it,” he remembers. “They sat on the sidelines for a long time” — and certainly, the horror stories of epic failures didn’t help.
Say hello to your future.
“When Accenture finally decided to commit to the new economy, I was sent to New Hampshire to consult with a startup company with about 200 employees. It was the first time I’d ever been exposed to an entrepreneurial environment, and I fell in love. Remember: At that time, hardly anyone thought about starting businesses — at least compared to the way things are now.”
Six months after that experience (October, 2000), Roberge left Accenture to join Vettro — a startup formed by two of his former co-workers. “We did app development for mobile phones using Java.” And yes, if you’re doing your calendar math, this was years before smartphones.
One learning experience leads to another.
During the nearly 4 years he was with Vettro, “we went from a product company to a consulting company, back to a product company — and the staff went from 12 to 100 to 12.” When Roberge saw signs the company wasn’t going to succeed, “at the age of 25, I decided to go to the best entrepreneurial business school there was, and build my brand.”
That school was MIT, where Roberge launched his first company as a class project. Ironically, Pawspot.com targeted the same consumers (pet owners) as the legendary failure that came to symbolize everything Accenture saw wrong with the early Internet explosion. Needless to say, Pawspot was nothing like Pets.com. “The business model was based on the fact that people don’t like leaving their pets in a kennel when they travel. It came out of my curiosity with social networking, and the shared economy.
A novel concept at the time
“I did my research, I was intrigued by the pet sector — and I asked myself, ‘what if you could create a network where people would sit for one another’s pets while they were traveling?’ There was a natural virality to the concept, and I raised a million dollars and hired a team.” He launched the company in 2005 — then ran it for a year while he was still a full-time student.
Roberge’s idea seems like a no-brainer in the age of Uber and Airbnb. But it was ahead of its time. “One reason Pawspot didn’t succeed is, I didn’t know how to execute on the concept. Ironically, there was no inbound marketing. I was doing Craigslist hacks, and scaling up on them. I also learned that the business was really locally-based. It required being launched on a city-by-city basis. There’s now a company called Rover.com that does pet sitting for a fee, and that’s a much better model.”
It’s complicated. Really complicated.
By the time he graduated in 2006, “I was newly married and we were living with my wife’s parents,” whose home — by the way — was hours from Pawspot’s offices. “Mondays through Wednesdays, I slept on the floor at my office and showered at the gym two blocks away. Thursday afternoons, I would drive to their place, and live with them on the weekends.” As if that weren’t enough, in 2007, when Roberge started seriously considering shutting down Pawspot, “my wife got pregnant.”
On top of all that, Roberge was working part-time pitching prospective customers on behalf of the class-project startup created by his old MIT buddy, Dharmesh Shah. Namely, HubSpot. “I’d sat next to Dharmesh in one of my classes, and he’d invested in Pawspot on the condition that I spend one day a week working with him.
Yeah, that’ll work.
“By now, I was in dire straits. I had $100,000 in student loans, and my company was nearly out of money.” That’s when Dharmesh’s partner, Brian Halligan, called Roberge with a suggestion: Why don’t you quit your startup and come work with us? “I remember thinking at the time, ‘Great I’ll stay there for 4 months and collect a salary, then move on.’” Seven years later, “I was ringing the bell on Wall Street” the day HubSpot went public with a $100 million IPO.
Remember that part about doing it differently?
Roberge says he learned one lesson in particular from HubSpot’s early days — which he’s planning to make the subject of his next book: “We had a vision, but we were selling vaporware. We made sales to test if our idea was something people wanted, then we built the product. The vision was selling like hotcakes, but it took four years to build the product.
“If you asked our early customers, most of them would tell you they didn’t like HubSpot. We were selling fast, and growing revenue, but it was a leaky bucket. I see a lot of entrepreneurs measure success by revenue growth, but that’s a dangerous strategy.”
ROBERGE’S FRAMEWORK FOR GROWTH:
1. Customer success
“In phase one, the goal is not profit and revenue — but to demonstrate the value of your idea, and prove your vision can be realized. If you sign up 10 customers, at least eight or nine of them should be enthusiastic about their decision to go with you.
2. Unit economics
“Once you’ve proven the concept, you have to prove the business is profitable. What’s your long term pricing strategy? What’s your funnel shaped like? What’s the marketing demand? How much do you pay for leads? What are your gross margins?
“The third phase is scaling. How fast can you grow? What’s your revenue? How quickly can you hire salespeople? How much do you need to invest in marketing? And can you create a ‘moat’ around your product — by which I mean a barrier to competition? That’s what I learned from HubSpot. And from looking at hundreds of companies since I’ve been at Harvard.” Which, of course, begs the obvious question: Harvard?
The road to academia
It all started when Roberge got to know Jill Konrath — a leading author in the sales arena. “She proposed that we write a book together, so I wrote a sample chapter for her. She liked it — but felt I needed to write the book myself. When it was time to publish The Sales Acceleration Formula, I wanted a blurb from an academic on the back.
“I’d volunteered for classes at Harvard, Dartmouth and MIT — and one professor I’d met was really well known in the marketing space. I asked if he would write a blurb for me. He read it, and agreed to write the blurb. Then, when I took him to lunch to thank him, he asked if I would consider teaching full time at Harvard.
“By now (2015), I’d been at HubSpot 10 years. I was already planning to leave the company and take some time off — maybe do some consulting. I’d seen how important sales execution is to the success of a startup, and I was amazed that it wasn’t being widely taught in schools. So it seemed like the perfect opportunity to teach at not only a great school, but a place where a lot of other schools look for case studies.
”Bringing entrepreneurial sales to academia, I think, will take me a while. Right now, I’m trying to codify as much as possible. I’ll probably also write that second book in the next couple years.”
Something tells me it’ll sell better than Filter Queens.
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