Ep. 243: Sara Varni is the CMO @ Twilio, the company building the future of communications allowing you to engage customers like never before on voice, SMS, WhatsApp or Video. Prior to their IPO in 2016, Twilio had raised over $250m in VC funding from some of the best in venture including USV, Bessemer, Salesforce, and Techstars just to name a few. As for Sara, prior to Twilio she spent 10 years with Salesforce in numerous roles including SVP of Marketing for Salesforce’s Sales Cloud and CMO @ Desk.com, among other roles. If that wasn’t enough, Sara is also an advisor @ Anthos Capital.

In Today’s Episode We Discuss:

* How did Sara made her way into the world of SaaS and came to be one of the industry’s leading CMOs with Twilio today? What were Sara’s biggest takeaways from her 10 years at Salesforce seeing the incredible hyper-growth first hand?
* What does Sara mean when she says, “You have to have a creative plan to get your message to market”? Does Sara really believe that there is a playbook when it comes to marketing? How does Sara determine when to throw the playbook out of the window? What resounding question do you always have to ask yourself when thinking messaging?
* Messaging is very dependent on the customer being targeted, how does the messaging need to be different when targeting SMB vs enterprise? How does the creative plan to get the message to the target customer change dependent on SMB vs enterprise? Where does Sara see most people go wrong here?
* Why does Sara so strongly believe in the power of customer stories? What makes the very best customer stories? What would Sara’s advice be to someone who is wanting to start creating them? Where does Sara see so many people go wrong? What are Sara’s tips for creating this alignment between the marketing team that make the stories and the sales team that sell them? Where are there often points of tension?
* What does the very commonly used term, “enablement” really mean to Sara? Does it mean you can hire lower quality candidates and upgrade them? How does Sara distinguish between a stretch VP and a stretch too far? What questions does Sara find most revealing in the interview process?


Ep. 244: Ryan Petersen will share what he has learned about scaling culture, expanding globally, raising venture capital (or not), and using technology to improve legacy industries.

SaaStr’s Founder’s Favorites Series features one of SaaStr Annual’s best of the best sessions that you might have missed.

This podcast is an excerpt of Ryan’s session at SaaStr Annual 2019.

Missed the session? Here’s what Ryan talks about:

  • How Flexport grew to a multibillion-dollar business.
  • How the company broke into the $2T freight forwarding industry.


If you would like to find out more about the show and the guests presented, you can follow us on Twitter here:

Harry Stebbings
Jason Lemkin
Sara Varni
Ryan Petersen

Below, we’ve shared the full transcript of Harry’s interview with Sara Varni.

Harry Stebbings: We are back and what a week it has been in Paris for SaaStr Paris. This is the official SaaStr podcast with me, Harry Stebbings. And you can see everything behind the scenes from us here on Instagram at hstebbings1996 with two Bs. And I would love to see you there.

Harry Stebbings: But to our episode today… And you might remember a month or so ago we had Jeff Lawson, founder at Twilio on the show. Well, today I’m thrilled to be joined by his CMO at Twilio, Sara Varni.

Harry Stebbings: For those that do not know, Twilio is the company building the future of communications, allowing you engage with customers like never before. On voice, SMS, Whatsapp, or video. And prior to their IPO in 2016 Twilio had raised over 250 million dollars in VC funding from some of the best in the business, including USV, Bessemer, Salesforce, and Techstars, just to name a few.

Harry Stebbings: As for Sara, prior to Twilio she spent 10 years with Salesforce in numerous roles including SVP of Marketing for Salesforce’s Sales Cloud and CMO at Desk.com, among other roles. And if that wasn’t enough, Sara is also an advisor at Anthos Capital. And I do have to say a huge thank you to the very wonderful and former guest Leyla Seka at Salesforce for the intro to Sara today. I really do so appreciate that, Leyla.

Harry Stebbings: But you’ve heard quite enough from me. So now I’m very, very excited to hand over to Sara Varni, CMO at Twilio.

Harry Stebbings: Sara, it is absolutely fantastic to have you on the show. I’ve heard so many great things, especially from Jeff Lawson. And so I’m very excited for this one. So thank you so much for joining me today.

Sara Varni: Yeah, thanks for having me. I’m excited to be here.

Harry Stebbings: Well, that is very kind. But I do want to kick off with a little bit of context, Sara. So tell me, how did you make your foray into what I call the wonderful world of SaaS and come to be CMO at the rocket ship that is Twilio?

Sara Varni: Yeah, I mean, I actually started off my career as an equities trader, pretty unconventional to be the foray into tech marketing. But I think it was a great training ground just to deal with all sorts of stress and, you know, anything could be thrown your way and enterprise software is not all that different. So eventually, yeah, I went to business school. Ended up at a company that wasn’t as well known at the time called Salesforce.com and things just went from there. So I’ve been really fortunate to be at great companies at really interesting periods of growth and I think that set me up well to ultimately be a CMO.

Harry Stebbings: Absolutely it did. But I do have to ask because you spent an incredible 10 years at Salesforce and really saw that hypergrowth firsthand into the behemoth that it is today. So can I ask how did that experience impact your operating mentality today, do you think?

Sara Varni: Yeah, I mean, it was an incredible ride. And, honestly, I joined Twilio at a very similar time that I joined Salesforce. There was about 1,100 employees, a quarter million dollars in revenue. And I just had the opportunity to pick up so many different skills, to build new programs, and I think it was just a great place to learn.

Sara Varni: You know, if I think about some of the things that really made Salesforce special, there’s just a huge diversity of talents. You had people from all different walks of life, from all different types of background. You know, I think there’s a common denominator of being hungry and really excited about the space. But I think it just made for a really interesting and unique culture.

Sara Varni: And then, I think, also it was pretty incredible to watch how Salesforce could move and pivot towards what was happening in the industry while still maintaining a foundation around CRM and the core business. And I think that all really came down to the way that Marc Benioff instituted a planning process called the V2MOM process, which was about setting a big picture vision, setting values for your organization, and then the methods and the obstacles and the metrics that you need to lay out to achieve that. And that happened all the way from the top at his level to everyone throughout the organization. And it was really critical for us moving as fast as we were, growing as fast as we were to have that alignment to really do big things.

Harry Stebbings: Yeah, absolutely. And I’ve heard so many wonderful things about the V2MOM process. But I do want to touch on there the element that you worked on specifically at Salesforce. You know, you spent a lot of time in product marketing divisions, running product marketing teams. And I want to start on the theme of messaging.

Harry Stebbings: When we chatted before, you said to me, “You can have the most solid framework, persona market research. But it won’t matter unless you have a creative plan to get your message to market.” Can I ask – what did you really mean by this, and especially that creative plan, so to speak?

Sara Varni: Yeah, I mean I think people at points… I’ve seen people struggle in product marketing where they’re overengineering what the research and what the framework of the messaging behind a product should be. And, you know, they’ll do this persona research, they’ll go out and do focus group testing and all these things, and do a lot of kind of ivory tower work and not get stuff in front of sales, not get stuff in front of customers and get quick feedback to really build a concept that’s going to be hard hitting and that’s going to ultimately resonate. And so I think when people over engineer and go deep into the [inaudible 00:06:56] of it they lose sight of actually doing real marketing and building compelling copy and building compelling case studies that are really going to land with people and be memorable at the end of the day.

Harry Stebbings: Can I ask – when you’re in scaling teams is it the same people and those same individuals who are doing the persona building, who are doing that framework creation, so to speak, and then also doing that more traditional marketing of the creative planning and the go to market, or are they actually quite segmented functions today?

Sara Varni: I think you need a combination of different personalities and skill sets within a product marketing team. I do think you need someone that is organized and can be pretty thoughtful about the structure of a deck and making sure that your value prop up front is paid off later in the conversation. But I also think you want to make sure that you’ve got more of a corporate messaging type person on your staff, as well. Who can really pitch a big picture. Who can think about, “What is the movement that you’re creating with your product?” And I’ve found that it’s not always the same person who can do both of those types of messaging.

Harry Stebbings: Absolutely. I do agree with you there in terms of having those skillsets baked in. In terms of the creative plans itself, I had Maria Pergolino on the show recently. And she said the secret to her success was throwing the playbook out of the window. I guess kind of with the creative plan, framework, and playbook, so to speak, in mind do you think and feel that there is a playbook, first?

Sara Varni: Yeah, well first off, I love Maria. We worked way back in the day back on a app exchange when she was working there at Apttus, another partner. So someone I completely respect in this space. I think, you know, whether or not you call it a playbook, every CMO has their set of go-to things that they’re going to try and implement wherever they go based on their history and what they think worked.

Sara Varni: I think the trick is figuring out when to use what. And I know personally I’ve been here at Twilio now for a year and a half, I spent almost 12 years at Salesforce. And there are parts of the Salesforce playbook that absolutely work here and are extremely helpful. There are parts that don’t. You know, Salesforce and Twilio are different companies in the sense of who they target. Twilio is much more developer-centric. And I’ve had to make sure I use restraint and not use the typical enterprise SaaS playbook in places where it’s just not going to resonate with a developer audience.

Harry Stebbings: No, I do get you, definitely in terms of, kind of the different audiences. I do have to ask, though. How do you know when is the right time to throw the playbook out of the window and kind of get more creative versus actually keep it and stick to the disciplined processes that you know work well from maybe prior experiences?

Sara Varni: I think, again, it just takes that finesse to recognize when something’s going to work. And it might not just be your target market and what they’ll respond to. It might be internal challenges that you have within the company where it’s just not going to fit with the culture of how the company’s structured and what’s happened in the past.

Sara Varni: For example, if you look at your product [inaudible 00:09:37] and Salesforce we had very regimented pipeline tracking and analysis by product line. But that was something that we evolved to over time. Here at Twilio, while we do that at a high level, we’re not at a state where we have more departmental focus with the general manager how do you [inaudible 00:09:55] each product line? And for that reason running that playbook is a little bit premature.

Sara Varni: So I think you’ve got to figure out generally what works, what doesn’t at whatever organization you’re in. And then also is it the right time to implement this part of the playbook?

Harry Stebbings: The thing that always fascinates me, especially when it comes to messaging and when you look at companies like Twilio and Salesforce who obviously have customers both in the SMB segment and in the heavy enterprise segment, is how does messaging compare and differ when messaging to SMBs versus enterprises? How do you think about that? Are there any inherent challenges, so to speak?

Sara Varni: Yeah, absolutely. I think it all boils down to what is the motivation of your buyer? What gets them up in the morning? What keeps them up at night? And really creating content and creating copy that’s going to help get them over the hump and see the value that your product is going to deliver to them, how it’s going to help them in their daily lives.

Sara Varni: You know, I think about the types of people that we market to here at Twilio and we have a very wide, sprawling audience. We have people who are developers through and through. And for them they’re not going to download and ebook about how to transform their customer experience. That’s just not what motivates them. They want to get their hands on the technology as quickly as possible. And for me, my responsibility as CMO is to get them to documentation, to get them to our developer team as quickly as possible so they can get to what they need.

Sara Varni: But if I think about a CMO, you know CMOs definitely have a need for Twilio products in that sense. You know, going down that more traditional enterprise buyer path and hosting webinars that talk about the customer engagement experience, adding on communication tools like SMS or voice or video, you know, can work very effectively. I think that the key is just recognizing who you’re talking to and what the goals they are trying to hit are at the end of the day.

Harry Stebbings: No, I love that kind of centrality around the motivations of the core buyer and the core customer that you’re trying to serve. I guess my question, subsequently, is when we discussed it before you said, “You can never overinvest in customers’ stories. Whether it be, you know, the developers or the CMOs, the ones selling to you.” Walk me through this one. Why do you believe so strongly in the power of customers’ stories and their real potential for conversion?

Sara Varni: I just believe that customers’ stories serve so many different purposes. And they take a lot of investment, they take a lot of care and feeding. But you can get so much mileage out of them. You know, they act as brand building exercises if you can show that you’ve got an enterprise client using your product or service. Overnight you’ve entered the big leagues. They also act as great tools to enable your sales reps. Especially, I know here at Twilio where we have a platform solution, it’s not always easy for a rep to walk in and out of the gates, be able to pitch all the power of Twilio. But if they are armed with five to 10 customer stories, they can easily make it very concrete for our customers as to what the value of Twilio is and how it can make a difference for their business.

Harry Stebbings: Thinking of kind of the customers that they choose, so to speak, the question that I often get, and I’m going off schedule, so I hope this is okay. But the question that I always get from, maybe earlier stage startup founders, is how should I think about that early customer acquisition? Should I go for the big logos that everyone knows, your Twilios, your SendGrids, your DropBoxes of the world? Or should I go for much higher quantity but lesser known logos? What would you advise a founder asking you that?

Sara Varni: So I have a couple approaches to this. I think, of course, if you can find the best logo with the best spokesperson with an incredible customer story that has hard hitting metrics that’s the ultimate gold standard of the customer story. But if you can’t, I think you should maximize around the story itself. You have a really strong advocate that a customer, either big or small, have you helped them in their career? Can they speak in detail to how they’ve used their product and how it’s helped their organization? Can they give you hardcore metrics about the impact that your product has delivered? You know, those are the elements you really want to factor for. And I think in some ways having a smaller brand with all of those powerful elements can be just as powerful as having a weaker spokesperson at a bigger brand who can’t really speak in depth and comes across as having a pretty surface understanding of what your product can do.

Harry Stebbings: For sure. No, I do agree with you there. And if that’s what works, say. I’m sure you’ve seen hundreds and hundreds of different customer stories presented by many different companies. Is there commonalities in where you see some people go wrong in their presentation construction and really displaying of customer stories?

Sara Varni: I think the biggest mistake I see is that they’re not specific enough and they’re not focused enough on the story. It’s more of a readout of what the company did. It’s like you’re kind of standard situation, solution, result traditional case study. And what doesn’t jump off the page is the story itself. So I think people, you know, want to make sure that they cram as much information into it as possible and they lose sight of actually telling the customer story.

Harry Stebbings: No, absolutely, I do get you there. But I do want to ask… One item you touched on earlier, and you said that the power that it can provide the sales team in terms of relaying that to potential leads. In terms of alignment, it’s another big challenge to early stage startups, especially in scaling fast phases. Obviously the alignment between sales and marketing when it comes to messaging. How do you think about that? And where do you often find the points of tension or strain in that alignment between sales and marketing on messaging?

Sara Varni: Yeah, I think that if you’re working at a company that’s growing extremely quickly and your sales team is going in all different sorts of directions, you’re inevitably going to get asked to solved all these different permutations of what the customer said. So, you know, “I need a case study for the retail industry in the northeast and it needs to have X, Y, and Z thing.”

Sara Varni: And so my advice is don’t bite off more than you can chew, initially. Get your entire sales force enabled on three to five core customer stories. And make sure that there is solid repetition in everything you’re doing. So it’s not just about enablement. It’s about the webinars you’re doing. It’s about the events you’re hosting. It’s about your internal company, all hands. Make sure that you’re really focused on those three to five stories so that through a various set of channels, they’re going to hear it over and over and it will be repeated so much that everyone will be able to sing from the same hymnal and, you know, really have those top three to five stories dialed.

Harry Stebbings: No, I agree with you, especially on focusing on those three to five that they can really nail. We mentioned sales and marketing there obviously there… I do want to touch on the people behind these divisions. As we’re seeing the ever increasing rise of the brilliant term that is enablement. So I guess it’s kind of a loose term. What does enablement really mean to you, Sara?

Sara Varni: You know, enablement, to me, means getting your reps fully equipped to be able to present the value of your product. And, you know, that can take the form of in depth product training. But it can also take the form of softer skills like how to write a compelling outreach email, how to negotiate with a customer, how to even use your internal systems. And so, you know, I think you have to be thinking about it from a number of different fronts. Especially as you’re hiring people that are in some of their first sales roles. The softer skills and just the general selling skills are as important as how to actually sell your specific products.

Harry Stebbings: Totally. I mean, subsequent question you’ve worked at Salesforce and Twilio, two of the biggest and most successful companies in the space and seen the growth of those teams with it. I guess my question is what do they do so well in terms of training and onboarding that you think allows them to scale professionals in such a brilliant way and scale with the company? What do they do to do so well with that?

Sara Varni: I think in their earlier phases it’s all been about repetition. So making sure that you’re consistent in your message, again, and making sure that the message you’re training your sales reps on is the message that they’ll see at your user conference, is the message that they’ll see on your roadshow so that when they’re sitting in the audience at your roadshow that’s just another training event. That’s like a mini sales kickoff for them. And I think both Salesforce and Twilio have done a good job of having a consistent corporate message that is repeatable. And that a rep will hear, not just one time a year, but many times throughout their journey.

Sara Varni: And I think as I saw Salesforce evolve to go from the Salesforce it was at the time, there was probably about 400 reps when I started and now I know there’s thousands. You know I think that they started to build more customized training solutions to solve for some of those permutations I was talking about earlier. And that doesn’t mean that they cover every nook and cranny. But, you know, having more of an industry focus, having more training that’s really specialized for your inside sales team versus your field sales team. And we’re starting to go down that path here at Twilio, as well. But I think the more customized you can make your training to what that rep needs and what their core KPIs are, obviously the better off you’re going to be.

Harry Stebbings: Totally. No, I do agree with you there in terms of those core KPIs. I do have to ask. Often I speak to founders and they think that you can hire maybe a slightly lower quality candidate and rely on enablement to really stretch them. In terms of stretch VPs, the big question that I have is how do you look to determine and really assess whether a stretch VP has the ability to scale into the VP that you need or is actually a stretch too far? How do you think about that?

Sara Varni: I personally think it’s half art, half science. I always say enablement is not going to take a C player to an A. It might take a B player to a B plus or A minus. And I think you have just have to evaluate as you’re ramping a rep what is their appetite to learn? What is their ability to kind of pick up new skills and to roll through adversity if they’re handling objections in a deal? If they are having challenges kind of ramping on the product, I think you just have to evaluate as they’re coming on to the company, not just their current ability but what is their potential long-term? And it’s not always clear cut. I think you have to go case by case and figure out, also, what is the mix on your team, too? And it’s okay that your sales rep’s not an A plus player on every function, but you know making sure that they are hitting the mark on at least a fair number of elements, I think is what you want to strive for.

Harry Stebbings: No, I’m very much with you there. I guess my final one that I have to ask is this. I’m a massive geek when it comes to interview questions and assessing whether they have that potential pre-hire. What do you find the most revealing and preferred interview questions to ask in terms of really determining that potential and character potential to scale with the company? Are there any that shine through for you?

Sara Varni: I think in this growth phase I love to ask questions around how people manage feedback. How they can break through different problems for the company. I think at a company like Twilio right now that’s grown so quickly you need to be adaptable. And you know, I think you have to figure out a way around certain problems. So if you’re going to just respond to requests and say, “No that’s not possible.” I’m looking for people who are solutions-oriented, who are going to explore every option, and who are going to try and think about creative ways to get around certain boulders. Because we don’t have all the answers. Yes, there are elements of a playbook that I can bring from my past experience. But there are many places where Twilio is breaking new ground and we’ve got to define that playbook ourselves. And so I really look for people who can be problem-solvers and who can push through programs and projects without having everything laid out for them in front of them.

Harry Stebbings: Now, Sara, I do want to move into my favorite element of any interview. I have to admit it’s the quick-fire round. So I say a short statement and then you give me your immediate thoughts in about 60 seconds per one. How does that sound?

Sara Varni: That works. Let’s do it.

Harry Stebbings: Okay, let’s do it. So tell me. The biggest breakdown in the workings of an efficient funnel.

Sara Varni: Not investing in awareness. I think there’s a tendency to always lead with your product and people forget to set the table and really explain the category that they’re playing in to begin with.

Harry Stebbings: Tell me a moment in your life that served as an inflection point and maybe changed the way you think.

Sara Varni: I definitely think having kids. I have three kids under 10 right now. It’s just made me way more protective of my time and how I spend it.

Harry Stebbings: Tell me, who’s killing it in SaaS marketing today and why?

Sara Varni: I think there’s a couple different companies that I really admire from afar. I think Zendesk has done a great job of growing up from being more of an SMB and startup focused brand to making the leap to more of an enterprise player. I also think Zoom has obviously done a great job this year with their IPO and the momentum that we’ve just seen the market for them. And I think their strategy is… whereas I really admire Zendesk’s creativity and I think that they just do a great job from a design perspective, I think Zoom has just done a great job of being everywhere. I mean, you know, every plane I’ve gotten off this year has a Zoom billboard or a Zoom message and it’s very simple. So I think they’ve just done a great job of really being everywhere.

Harry Stebbings: Yeah, absolutely. They are in airports. Advice in SaaS that you most commonly hear given that you maybe disagree with, Sara?

Sara Varni: Yeah, that’s controversial. I think, you know, you always hear, “You need to lead with solutions and not products.” And I get that vision and I think, for the most part, that is the case. But I also don’t want people to lose sight of starting small and growing an account from there. I think for a rep that’s just getting started out or just joining the company, you also need to give them a set of base hits so it’s not so intimidating that they’ve, you know, got to hit a grand slam every time.

Harry Stebbings: Totally. No, I agree with you there. Tell me, what makes a truly special CMO?

Sara Varni: You know, I think the ability to work with all types of people. As a CMO you’re going to manage creatives, you’re going to manage developers, and analysts, and product people. And they all come with different backgrounds and different motivations and just different styles of working. And I think it’s really critical to be able to contact switch to understand what their challenges are and to help them through that. I think having empathy, being a person that can see different sides of arguments and different ways of thinking is pretty critical in being a CMO.

Harry Stebbings: Now this is my favorite of all and the final one. Taking yourself back to the days of pre entering the world of SaaS, equity trading and just about to make that move into the world of SaaS. What do you know now that you wish you’d known at the beginning?

Sara Varni: I mean, I think just general management advice is to always hire the best, don’t be intimidated to hire your replacement. All the things you’d probably read in any kind of Management 101 book. You know, SaaS specifically, I think you’ve got to be afraid to fail. I think marketing is so subjective on a lot of fronts and not everyone is going to love your campaigns. But you’ve got to just trust your instinct. Because not doing anything and not moving is worse than getting something out the door that maybe is not 100%, but is, you know, 90% there. Because I think this market moves fast and you’ve got to be a part of the conversation.

Harry Stebbings: Totally. No, I do agree with you there. But, Sara, as I said I heard so many great things, both from Jeff and from Byron. So it’s been such a pleasure to have you on the show today and I can’t thank you enough for joining me.

Sara Varni: Absolutely. Thanks so much for having me.

Harry Stebbings: I have to say I absolutely loved having Sara on the show there. And she’s built up such an incredible marketing team at Twilio. And if you’d like to see more from Sara, you can on Twitter at saravarnibright. That’s saravarnibright.

Harry Stebbings: Likewise, it’d be fantastic to welcome you behind the scenes here at SaaStr. You can do that on Instagram at hstebbings1996 with two Bs. I always love to see you there.

Harry Stebbings: As always, I just cannot thank you enough for tuning in. Really, it means the world to me. And I can’t wait to bring you another phenomenal episode next week.


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