Entrepreneurship7 August 20207 min

Partner Insight of the Day: Top Lessons on Navigating Crisis

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As per usual we’re dishing up delightful insights to support your startup success from our terrific partners. Today we have an interview with Brian Halligan, co-founder and CEO of HubSpot, who talked to Techmag about the future of marketing and adapting in times of crisis. Here’s his advice on managing a company through difficult times:

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#1 Don’t be afraid to make decisions

When the going gets tough, the tough become true leaders. Brian has certainly seen himself step up to the challenge in times of crisis. “If you look across the 14 years of HubSpot, I think some of my better moments were during the worst times,” he says. “During steady state when it’s running pretty well and there’s little small problems going on, I get a little distracted. I have trouble really focusing and keeping things on track…but when there's a real crisis, I kind of wake up and I get energised and I do some of my best work."

The need to act quickly and decisively during a crisis gave Brian the freedom to try new ideas and a stronger leadership style. “I find myself being much more decisive and much more, kind of top down than I normally would be in the day-to-day life of HubSpot.” Of course, he can’t deny the impact of this unprecedented crisis. “You can’t prepare for these things,” he says. “In a crisis, you just kind of got to go and you got to make decisions that, you might be right about some, you might be wrong about some, but I was unusually decisive and directive in the beginning of COVID.”

#2 Stay transparent and humble as a leader

Chaos and uncertainty call for a strong emphasis on transparency and communication towards employees. Brian knew that his employees were nervous about their future, so he upped his communication game. “I’m usually pretty transparent and available, but I did a weekly Ask Me Anything with employees and I’m still doing that,” he explains. “I was posting in the Wiki much more regularly, and I was on Slack much more regularly. I just upped my transparency and availability to employees, and it just felt like that was the right thing to do. To kind of calm the troops and get people focused and moving towards their own personal new normal.”

While he believes strong leadership is called for in uncertain times, Brian also acknowledges that nobody has all the answers. That’s why he thinks good leaders also dare to be humble. “There’s no more room for ego in this industry,” he believes. “We had a COO who was a terrific guy who said, ‘Great leaders absorb uncertainty and pass down clarity.’ Good leaders are able to take very complicated things and shrink them down into very simple concepts and to get the organisation behind them.” Brian himself is humble enough to still suffer from Imposter Syndrome even after years of running his own company, while challenging himself to step up and be in charge: “I have a little expression at the very top of my to-do list: ‘Be the adult leader that HubSpot needs to scale.’”

#3 Remember that culture is your second product

Brian says that in addition to your product or service, every company has a second product: their culture. “If you build a great culture for your employees, that’s like a magnet that pulls great employees and keeps them around for a long time. So, I think every business now is a people business. It’s really key to get your culture right and think about it in a similar way that you think about your product,” Brian says.

Company culture is very different from what it was 10 years ago. Employees have their own personal brands which they carefully curate, while companies are more mission driven and value-oriented. Brian stresses the importance of reflecting the values that are important to employees. “What companies need to think about is ‘How do I make my culture unique relative to the competitors?’ and ‘How do I build it in such a way that it will really scale?’

In the wake of the international Black Lives Matter movement, HubSpot was called upon to examine their own culture more closely. “We’re going to pick diversity and inclusion as a major topic for us to be very active internally and very active externally,” says Brian. “To try to not just talk about diversity and inclusion but walk the walk and really become a leader on that and really invest in it and really talk about it.”

#4 Prepare for the new era of marketing

The corona crisis is reshaping the future of marketing, forcing a lot of companies to change their approach overnight. “This is a major shock to the system for all marketers who are having to adjust and really go online for marketing,” says Brian. He predicts that by 2025, marketing will be roughly 85% online. Brian says the traditional marketing “funnel” is fast becoming obsolete. “I’ve been using funnels since 1990 and the funnel is broken in a bunch of ways,” he says. “Word of mouth is the main driver of a business and the funnel doesn’t capture it. It doesn’t give it any credit to your best channel.”

So what will companies use instead? Brian says the new funnel is the flywheel. “You’ve got a visitor, a lead, a customer, and then a delighted customer. I like a flywheel because the more delighted your customers are, the more your visitors you get, the more leads you get, the more customers you get.” The flywheel also helps promote the idea of ease and usability. “When [customers] want to evaluate a product, they don’t want to evaluate it on their own. They expect stuff to just work and just be explanatory and that’s pervasive across everything. And so, the lighter your process, the lower your friction, the faster that flywheel will spin.”Major companies like Amazon and Shopify have already started to follow suit and embrace the flywheel model.

#5 Keep your feet on the ground and focus on the future

Brian’s favorite band, The Grateful Dead, has a quote that he says perfectly describes his experience up until now: “When life looks like an easy street, there’s danger at your door,” he cites. “In other words, things are going perfectly well and there are no problems, get ready, cause something’s going to go wrong. Frankly, that was this year! Things were never better and then, wow, this major change happens.”

Brian reassures himself by looking at another quote, from Eleanor Roosevelt: “Keep your feet on the ground and your head in the clouds.” “Entrepreneurs need to kind of stay grounded in reality,” says Brian. “There’s no company that doesn’t have tons of problems. Don’t over-index on the optimism of the future or over-index on the sales and pessimism on what is happening today. I think that’s key.”

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