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Negotiating Marketing Priorities at Early Stages: Community Spotlight on TruSTAR’s Lianna Catino Mina Benothman

Welcome to the Heavybit Community Spotlight Series, where we highlight the people that make up the Heavybit community, and the interesting projects and ideas that they’re exploring right now. This week we’re turning our spotlight to Lianna Catino, Senior Product Marketing Manager for TruSTAR, an Intelligence Management Platform that helps Fortune 500 enterprise security teams operationalize security data so that they can make better decisions faster. Lianna was TruSTAR’s first marketing hire, and has had a front row seat over the last few years in building a DevTools go-to-market strategy and product from the ground up. 

We chatted with Lianna about negotiating marketing priorities in the earliest stages of a company, how to keep your marketing team agile and why internal communications are key.

You’ve seen TruSTAR’s marketing journey from the beginning. What was the first thing you wanted to change or start doing when you joined the team?

I think that a superpower that an early-stage startup employee can bring is playbooks and processes that have worked for them in the past. They can evangelize those best practices and set expectations for employees who are wearing a lot of different hats. 

I came from a PR and marketing agency background, which is an extremely process oriented and deadline driven environment. One of the first things that I did when I joined TruSTAR was I sat down with our founders and we built a launch plan for how we were going to announce our Series A funding to our existing customers and stakeholders. Prior to TruSTAR, I consulted early-stage startups so I was able to come in and say, “Well, I know how this startup launched their series B, so I’m going to apply those same tactics to our own launch.”

As the first marketing hire, how did you tackle all of the different processes and projects that needed to happen?

When you’re working in a startup environment, there’s always going to be a lot of competing priorities. There are going to be multiple big projects that all seem very urgent. It’s important to step back and set priorities with your team, and to be really frank about what absolutely needs to get done right now and what can wait. 

I think that most people’s first impulse is to be very tactical. For example, if we have a new product feature launch — we know we need to do an email campaign, set-up in-product notifications, write documentation and a launch blog, build a landing page, etc. Before you put together your tactical to-do list, the best thing to do is pause and think about how you can approach the project strategically before you get into the weeds.

Something TruSTAR’s CEO Patrick Coughlin always tells product leads to do is to ask, “What do we want the user to think, feel, and do? What is the objective of this project?” Thinking about the objectives, user behaviors, and high-level KPIs before you dive into a project gives you a reason to say yes or no, or to push back on tactics that won’t help you reach your goals.

Finally, doing retrospectives can also be really helpful. It’s important to do retros immediately after the project ends, so that it’s fresh in the team’s mind. I think that if you wait too long, people will be more reticent to share failures because they don’t want to seem petty. Be consistent with doing retrospectives after every launch, so that your team becomes less hesitant to speak up about what could have been better.

How do you approach having multiple, big AND high-priority projects as a small team?

We take a sprint approach to marketing planning. We prioritize projects and see them through to completion and then take on something new, which has helped us move really fast as with a lean team. We focus on doing fewer things really well, versus trying to boil the ocean with all of the template marketing tactics we “should” be doing. 

Marketing is really iterative, and you never feel like you’re done. While we’re working in sprints, we’re not forcing projects into any artificial deadlines when we don’t have to. But it’s important to be able to look at a month or a week and articulate to your manager, “These are my top three priorities, anything else, I’m going to push back.”

We use the idea of tradeoffs a lot. If my CEO throws something new at the marketing team that we hadn’t planned for for that month or that quarter, he’ll say, “Alright, I’m throwing you a curveball. It’s going to ruin some of your plans. Give me the tradeoffs.” That really helps the team make decisions and manage expectations with leadership and the rest of the company because we’re able to say, “Alright, we’re taking this on, but these other things are going to change.”

What happens if there’s a project that’s constantly getting “traded off”? At a certain point do you just decide to cut something entirely because it never made it to the top of the pile, or do those things just stay on the back burner indefinitely?

There are so many of those. When there is a project that is continually getting kicked down the road, there’s usually a reason why. At least with marketing, the way I’ve eliminated projects is by asking myself and my colleagues, “Is this going to contribute to revenue? Is this a project that just seems cool and fun, and it’s a really cool top of funnel campaign or tactic?” Those get eliminated. If your team is oversubscribed, if it’s a project that doesn’t tie directly to sales or revenue, it’s going to get cut if you have to cut things.

TruSTAR’s team was partially remote before, but you do have an office in San Francisco. How has COVID impacted your team?

TruSTAR employee base is 40% remote. We had an offsite in January where we talked really candidly about building a remote culture at TruSTAR. We even brought in another startup co-founder whose team is 100% remote. 

At the beginning of the year, we had set all of these best practice goals for ourselves as a company for how we’re going to build a remote culture, like getting better at asynchronous communication.Then COVID happened. It’s actually helped us execute on all of these promises we made at the beginning of the year, and it’s given our in-office employees a lot of empathy for how remote employees have to communicate every day. We have gotten better about communicating as a company remotely. 

The marketing team is now sending campaign emails when we launch something new, with all the assets and the plan. We’re doing more brown bags as a company to brief our entire team on what departments are doing. Internal communication is often overlooked, and it’s so important. It’s good for morale and keeping everyone excited about the work we’re doing. So we want to make it easier for them to know and check in that information.

Thanks to COVID, everyone’s Q1 and Q2 plans have been thrown for a loop. But startup teams have always had to adapt to changes, to varying degrees. How do you balance sticking to those objectives and being responsive to the company’s needs as they change?

[Laughs] Early-stage company roadmaps are constantly in flux, but living with constant change has made us nimble and ready to take on exceptional situations like COVID. This is not the first or last time we will have to pivot priorities. At TruSTAR, we have our yearly product roadmap, and we have yearly OKRs that we set as a company and as business units. In terms of campaigns and tactics, we add a layer of granularity every quarter. This approach works for the stage that we’re at because the reality is, deadlines are constantly shifting. 

When our Head of Sales & Marketing Choo Kim-Isgitt joined the team, one of the first best practices she implemented was more alignment among leadership and teams. She implemented a daily leadership standup and encouraged managers to have daily standups with their employees. This practice has been a godsend as the company has transitioned to 100% remote work because standups reinforce priorities and help maintain a level of congeniality that you miss when you go remote.

Have you picked up or rediscovered any fun downtime activities, hobbies, or projects?

I’m trying not to be an overachiever during quarantine — if I make it through the day, it’s a win. But I’ve been cooking  elaborate meals with my husband and trying new things, which has been fun. We’ve also been doing more walks around San Francisco neighborhoods. When your world is smaller, you pay attention to more things.

Are there any habits that you’d like to keep when we all go back to our “normal” lives?

I think that quarantine has built some really good remote communication muscle memory across our teams. Slack, asynchronous communication, and more inclusive video calls have been amazing. I want to keep that alive and well as we go back to our normal lives for sure.

Find out more about what Lianna and the TruSTAR team are working on on Twitter, LinkedIn and TruSTAR.co.

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