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Many marketers (and founders who are ready to get more serious about marketing) are eager to pick Jaleh Rezaei’s brain, and it’s not hard to see why — she’s got impressive chops. The CEO and co-founder of Mutiny, a B2B personalization platform, previously cut her teeth as an early employee and later Head of Marketing and Business Development at Gusto, where she led a team of over 20 marketers.

More specifically, marketing leaders often pepper her with questions about the latest winning tactics or must-use channels. But Rezaei has learned to steer the conversation in another direction, doling out what she thinks is some much-needed advice. "When I started in marketing, I was similarly obsessed with channels and tactics. After years of experience (and a lot of mistakes along the way), I’ve come to learn that marketing leaders need to spend less time obsessing over tactics, and instead turn a careful eye to developing a winning culture,” she says. “People have plenty of different definitions for excellence in marketing — structured thinking, results-oriented, working well with the sales team, a great brand, to name a few. All of those attributes are important, but I believe that speed is the single most critical — and most overlooked — characteristic of a winning marketing team.”

Rezaei started to redefine her own marketing team’s success as Gusto’s Head of Marketing — nudging her reports to adopt that same “move fast and break things” mantra that often serves as a startup rallying cry, yet doesn’t always trickle down to other departments beyond product and engineering. “A lot of product orgs have done a good job of optimizing for speed — they recognize they can’t spend months building a product without getting it out into the market to test. They build MVPs and validate hypotheses with their users. But marketers have a harder time adopting this mindset and are more campaign-driven,” she says.

Jaleh Rezaei, Co-founder and CEO, Mutiny

The opportunity to create a playbook that can be replicated again and again came into sharper focus when Rezaei stepped into the driver’s seat as co-founder and CEO at Mutiny. “I realized there’s not a ton of content or frameworks about moving fast as a marketing org, so that’s when I started codifying this so I could teach it to other people on my team in a more structured way,” she says.

In other words, everyone talks about wanting to move quickly, but the brass tacks of how to do it and build a culture around speed are often lacking. That’s why Dave Girouard’s article on Speed as a Habit from a few years back became an instant Review classic. There’s a hunger to put it into practice. Rezaei tailors this very same ethos to the marketing org, and the framework she’s formulated dives impressively deep.

In Rezaei’s view, speed isn't just about executing quickly — cranking out blog posts and email marketing campaigns — but also an ability to turn the ship around rather than get stuck in a sandbar. “To find the one program that might be a real game-changer, you probably have to sift through 10 other ideas. Maybe some of the marketing strategies sounded brilliant on paper, but when you get into the execution, you realize that many assumptions were incorrect. You need to focus your team’s energy on nurturing the seeds that have the most promise — and divest from the ones that don’t,” she says. “The programs that end up having a sizable impact on the company are typically massive and can take one or two years to build, with plenty of micro-iterations along the way. The faster you make those iterations, the faster you’ll course-correct to a truly impactful program.”

In marketing, there’s lots of trial and error before finding programs that work. If it was as easy as pulling out your credit card to use AdWords to grow a company, that’s what everyone would do — and soon drive the ROI and scale in that channel down to nothing.

In this exclusive interview, Rezaei walks us through the key differences between sluggish and speedy marketing orgs, outlines the six strategies she’s developed to add a motor to your team’s rowboat, and answers some of the common misconceptions about what it really means to move fast. Whether you’re a marketing leader tasked with netting new leads, or a founder looking to light a fire under the marketing department, Rezaei offers a wealth of wisdom for rethinking what this powerful org can achieve.

TO GO FASTER, START BY UNDERSTANDING WHAT’S SLOWING YOU DOWN

“A common misconception is that speed is associated with sloppiness, lack of thought and low quality. But speed is not the same thing as running around like a chicken with its head cut off. Real speed is moving fast towards impact and learning. It’s moving as fast as possible towards the most important thing, based on clear directives,” says Rezaei.

If speed is the yin, the yang is prioritization. You can’t be fast if you don’t know what’s important.

You might think you're moving fast by putting a plan in motion and getting things out the door, but wasting time on initiatives that don't pan out is the biggest drag on startup marketing teams, as she’s seen firsthand.

“Early on at Gusto, we built a new content marketing program and made a big bet to focus the content on how small businesses could create a strong company culture. We spent months building out the blog and writing articles, but we weren’t really getting the traction that we wanted,” she says. “We started talking to customers and what we heard was an emphatic, ‘I’m just running a small cupcake shop and I don’t know anything about HR — I want to find answers to my questions and to avoid big mistakes,’” says Rezaei. “It became clear that we had wasted a whole year on the wrong content strategy. From that point forward, we started to incorporate more short, Q&A-style tactical HR topics that could rank high for SEO. It was a huge learning experience for me.”

To act as your own team’s mechanic, look closely at Rezaei’s “check engine light” signals that point to a poky marketing department:

Move faster by getting out of the basement — especially if you don’t feel ready.

Consider this example that might sound familiar: “Let’s say you want to create a new partner program. The team members start by doing analysis to come up with a marketing plan — creating a list of potential partners, studying existing partner programs, looping in finance for in-depth TAM projections, designing decks. I call this going into the basement — you hole up and suddenly three months have gone by before you’ve achieved any important learnings,” says Rezaei.

It’s hard and uncomfortable to do new things, which tempts us to spend months of planning and creation in isolation to get it right. But you don’t learn anything in the basement.

“My guess is that if you asked anyone in this marketing org if their team moves slowly, they would say no. After all, look at all the web pages, decks and Excel models they’ve created! But what happens after six months if the program isn’t gaining the right traction?” says Rezaei. “The team is going to have a much harder time pivoting or divesting completely from the program. Now they’re bogged down with projects that are going nowhere — everyone knows it, but few are willing to cut their losses and pull the plug.”

Slow marketing teams are like revving a car that’s stuck in neutral — you’ll hear plenty of noise, but you’re not going to be able to move anywhere.

To dive even deeper, she introduces us to the six points of her playbook for injecting more urgency — some around rethinking the philosophy of your marketing values, and other specific tactics for reinforcing this behavior to make sure it sticks.

BORROW THESE SIX STRATEGIES TO SPEED UP YOUR OWN MARKETING TEAM

“When you’re in a market with lots of competitors, if you act fast, you get to lead the market. Your competitors are in this perpetual reactionary mode where they're trying to slowly copy your tactics and you’re always five steps ahead. The value of that can’t be overstated,” says Rezaei.

But with a topic as broad as speed, it can be tricky to pinpoint the tangible elements that position you to own your category. To do so, Rezaei crafted her own framework you can implement that puts this philosophy into practice.

“I adopt this approach for new marketing strategies we think are going to generate a significant amount of revenue on an ongoing basis for the company,” she says. To demonstrate each point of her framework in action, rather than painting with broad strokes, Rezaei continues our previous example of building out a new partner program.

1. Put on your black hat to break down large problems.

“The first step is a 90-minute meeting with the core team to define the program and the unknowns that stand in your way. Ninety minutes may seem like a lot of time up front, but if you’re going to spend the next two years working on a new program, it’s a rounding error,” she says. “Start with defining one big, inspiring statement. For example, ‘In one year we will have 5,000 partners that are selling our product to their customers.’”

But like a jockey conserving the horse’s energy at the beginning of the race, you may need to temper your team’s instinct to bust out of the gate full-speed ahead. “At this stage, everyone will jump in and immediately ask, ‘How do we make this happen?’ But right now, you’re headed for potholes. In reality, this inspiring statement is just a composite of hypotheses — there are things you’re right about, and others that may miss the mark,” she says.

To uncover the hidden assumptions that might steer you wrong, Rezaei uses what’s called the “black hat" technique, which centers around asking one really tough question: “Let’s assume that it’s one year from now and we’ve failed at our goal. What went wrong?” If this approach seems counterintuitive, consider it from an alternative lens. “This question creates a subtle shift from a very optimistic mindset to triggering the team’s problem-solving neurons. It points them in the direction of trying to articulate the things that we don’t know yet,” Rezaei says. “The aim here is that you want to get to a list of five to 10 major assumptions implicit in achieving the long term goal.”

Continuing with the partnership program example, Rezaei lists a few of the potential potholes that her team captured after some “black hat” prompting:

You wouldn’t set out on a river rafting trip without knowing where you’ll run into rapids, and you shouldn’t start working on a new program without first outlining the bumps that may throw you off course.

“The next step is flip the negative statements into positive ones and reframe them to include the key levers that will make the program work. These are your core assumptions that must be true for you to hit your long-term goal. Instead of: ‘There weren’t enough partners in the market,’ you would say, ‘The market is large enough, with enough partners of our ideal profile that we can go after,’” says Rezaei. To make this statement even more crystal-clear, she attaches a metric: “There are at least 50,000 partners in the market if we think we can get a 10% penetration rate to hit the goal of 5,000 partners."

2. Lean into motion goals to get into that “ship it” mindset.

You may be nodding along so far, but Rezaei cautions that this next point in her playbook is where most marketers tend to get uneasy. “Instead of spending all your time building the perfect plan, the best thing you can do now is to try to ship something within one to two weeks,” she says. “This is probably the biggest shift in the way marketing teams tend to operate.”

Here’s why: “I love this analogy for thinking about teams that are executing on new programs: If you’ve ever tried to push a really big box, when you first try to push it, it’s really difficult. But as soon as it starts to move, it gets significantly easier to push. This is not an illusion — static friction is a lot higher than kinetic friction. Once it’s set in motion, everything is easier,” says Rezaei.

To jump-start that kinetic friction, she sets motion goals to get everyone moving. “An example of a good motion goal could be to sell the program to one partner this week. Your first instinct might be to cringe a bit. You think, ‘We just came up with this program, we haven’t done any analysis, we haven’t built anything around it. How could we possibly start selling it? We need to do research first.’ But it actually doesn’t matter if you hit that goal of selling it to one partner in a week; what matters is that it forces you out of the basement and helps you get real data,” she says.

“Think about it — if you want to try to sell the program to one partner, you have to figure out which partners to start with. So you find a list of partners. You have to reach out to them, so you create your pitch for the outreach. You have to talk to partners, so you have to outline your value propoposition at a high level,” she says. “But at this stage, nothing that you’ve created is so precious that you’re going to latch onto it and insist it’s a pillar of the program. You’ve only been working on it for a week! Yet it gets you moving and testing the mechanics. Where am I experiencing the most friction? What seems to be the hardest thing that we need to figure out?”

It should take six days, not six months to get in front of your target audience with a marketing concept.

So how did this play out when the Mutiny team’s own partner program was in its infancy? “In the first week, we had 10 conversations with potential partners — no slides, just an initial 30-minute conversation. We pinged our networks to help make strategic intros, because if we can’t get on someone’s calendar with a personal connection, we’re in trouble — no cold campaign is going to be more effective than relationships,” she says.

“We outlined what we were looking to do with the program, asked questions about the profile of companies they sold to, and tried to validate if they had at least three companies they could approach about Mutiny today. Within one week, we were able to confirm that there was a lot of interest in the program, and started unearthing the types of partners that would be a natural extension, versus others that weren’t a good fit.”

3. Obsess over weekly targets.

“The biggest light-bulb moment for me was switching to weekly goals in every single program, no matter how new it was. Quarterly goals are important, but they also leave a lot of whitespace, and you have no way of knowing if you are on track. What can you do every single week to move the needle?” says Rezaei. I pick the goal that's the furthest down the funnel that can still be impacted every week and create a consistent execution rhythm for the team. If you have a quarterly goal to lock in 12 new partners, you should be signing one new partner a week, not 12 partners in the last week.”

If you only think about goals on a quarterly basis, your learning and iteration cycle is dramatically slower. A marketer with weekly goals has 12x more at-bats than someone who is only lifting their head up and evaluating quarterly.

Rezaei captures these goals in a dashboard, shared beyond the immediate marketing team. “You don’t want to invite too many questions when you’re still validating hypotheses and excavating the unknowns. But in my experience, that protectiveness can be really detrimental — it just keeps you in the basement longer,” says Rezaei.

Here’s an example of a dashboard the Mutiny marketing team sends to its cross-functional partners. “Make sure they’re incredibly simple and easy to digest so that anyone can pick up on the most critical information, even if they’re not sitting in the meetings,” she says.

She highlights another key point here. “Tracking the difference between ‘actual’ and ‘target’ is a really important part of your dashboarding process. My team jokingly calls this delta ‘the shame,’ because that’s what drives them to reflect and iterate.”

4. Establish a biweekly learning meeting.

“I borrowed this idea from an awesome growth product leader, and it works really well for marketing. Every two weeks host a meeting where you try to codify learnings across the team. You articulate what people have learned that they didn’t know two weeks ago,” says Rezaei.

If you don’t know where to start, Rezaei outlines a simple prompt you can use, continuing with our partner example:

“The learnings don't always have to come from a statistically significant A/B test — qualitative directional learnings are just as important,” she says.

But if you’re looking for a more data-driven example, Rezaei’s got that, too: “For our partner program we had KPIs around acquiring a certain number of customers. And we were doing a great job of signing partners, but we weren't selling to their customers. The team was tripling their top of funnel partner acquisition activity to make up the gap on the low customer conversion rate in the timeframe we had set,” she says. “What we learned was that the partners felt like they needed time with our product before they felt comfortable recommending it to lots of customers. This learning helped our team pause their top of funnel goals and shift focus from partner acquisition, to going deep with two to three key partners to uncover what they needed to successfully recommend Mutiny to more customers. This transformed our post-acquisition partner onboarding.”

5. Pick the right tools — not just the shiniest tools.

“Technology is a hugely important, yet underrated, aspect of being fast — it’s the biggest enabler for speed once you hit scale,” says Rezaei.

Before you start looking for shiny new toys, Rezaei cautions against jumping the gun here. “At the beginning of any new program, I keep it low-tech because otherwise that just contributes to the sunk cost fallacy — if you spent a ton of money on a tool specifically for a new program, it's going to much harder to divest later.”

But as the program continues to gain traction and buy-in across the org, it’s important to consider how you can use marketing automation tools to give your engine a tune up — as long as you’re prioritizing the right functionality. “Decide on your program's goals and the top five workflows you need to speed up before you start taking demos. Any one tool is only as valuable as it is simple and enables quickness. When adding to your marketing stack, prioritize technology that has ease-of-use and removes repetitive workflows for your team, not old school enterprise tools that technically can enable a workflow if you bring on an army to operate them,” says Rezaei.

6. Make a decision on whether to go forward

“If after one quarter of iterating, you keep missing goals and just can’t get it right, honestly consider if you should abandon the program. Can you problem-solve your way out of it, or is it a waste of time? It takes gumption to pull the plug,” she says.

Rezaei’s advice on when to consider a program’s longevity? “Our goal by the end of that first quarter is to make a decision on whether what we’re building is going to scale, as opposed to spending six months tinkering — otherwise, you have to live with that inertia as a company,” she says.

Looking back, the root cause where things go awry is often the same, according to Rezaei. “When I’ve needed to pull the plug on a program, it usually comes down to having the wrong assumptions about the customer’s desires and capabilities. We want them to be one way, and it would be really convenient for us if they were good at X, but they’re not. Maybe they have less time than we thought they did, or we’re less important to them than we thought,” she says. “Sometimes you can validate it with research — such as market size — but sometimes you have to start getting out there and trying to make it work before you realize you’re facing a dead-end and have to cut your losses. That’s okay — that’s what moving fast is all about.”

TROUBLESHOOTING FROM THE TOP: ANSWERS TO MARKETERS' THREE BURNING QUESTIONS

Rezaei has seen her fair share of quizzical looks when she doles out her prescriptions for speeding up your marketing. Here, she tackles three of the most common questions she’s heard from marketing vets.

1. How do you get comfortable with mistakes?

“Mistakes are never going to feel good — but they’re a byproduct of speed, and you have to accept them. That doesn’t mean you won’t feel terrible and cringe when they happen, but it’s all about perspective,” says Rezaei.

If nothing ever goes wrong, that means that you are not learning fast enough.

Rezaei’s got her own hard-won lessons on this front. “Early at Gusto, we changed our strategy from more broad-based cold email marketing campaigns to a very personalized approach. We planned to reach out to companies at different incubators and give them a custom offer — for example, YC companies would all get the YC discount and see examples from other YC-companies using Gusto,” she says.

“In the spirit of moving fast to validate the hypothesis, we sent our first batch of 100+ emails to the YC community — and all the emails went out with {INSERT CUSTOM BLURB HERE} instead of the actual personalized offer. I immediately got probably 30 angry replies. One particularly memorable reply said, ‘Oh, apparently that Stanford MBA didn’t teach you how to send an email right.’ I had to individually apologize to each person and my team was mortified,” she says.

But in the long run, it didn’t matter. We learned from it, added more checks and balances on email sends, and in the end, it turned out to be one of our most effective email campaigns. Sure, it was a total disaster for one day, and I had to spend three hours on a Saturday one-on-one apologizing to all these YC founders, but it didn’t impact our bottom line. In fact, most of the people with angry replies loved how we handled the mistake and ended up converting. Now it’s just a fun story to tell.”

Rezaei isn’t advocating for carelessness, but to put on your customer hat. “We have a very micro-view of what mistakes actually mean in the long run. The reality is that the market has a significantly more zoomed-out view of your brand, so those mistakes you see on social media or the blog just aren't as apparent to them. The brand is the sum of all the interactions that somebody has with your company: your product, your customer support, all of the different content that you put out there,” she says. “It's important to ask ourselves whether not making any mistakes and being ‘perfect’ is worth the cost of becoming too risk averse and not being able to move quickly and iterate."

The biggest mistake a marketing team can make isn’t throwing up an ugly landing page or sending an email without a subject line — it’s having five people work on a program that should have been shut down a year ago. Those are the mistakes that matter.

2. How do you align on speed across silos?

“Marketing has shifted to a point where, without technology and engineering, it’s almost useless,” says Rezaei. “But marketing, product, and engineering are very siloed from one another, even though these cohesive partnerships are critical to moving quickly. There’s a few different ways that you can tackle this in terms of team structure, such as creating a sub-team within product and engineering dedicated to marketing. If you can put engineers directly on the marketing team, that’s even better,” she says.

At Gusto, Rezaei struck up a compromise. “While those resources didn’t sit on the marketing team, I had the head of the growth EPD pod sit in my staff meetings, and we created shared OKRs and an agreed-upon list of projects,” she says. “If the Head of Marketing owns the revenue and leads number, they need unmitigated access to design, analytics and engineering,” she says.

“I was lucky that Gusto’s product team was incredibly growth-focused, so getting their buy-in wasn’t hard. If you’re the new VP of Marketing, or even if you’ve already been at the company, have the conversation sooner than later. You want to choose your battles carefully, but trust me, this is a battle you want to pick. One trick I’ve found helpful is to trade marketing headcount for dedicated growth engineers,” she says.

If I was interviewing for a CMO job at a startup, I would never join a company without having pre-negotiated either engineers on my team or a dedicated team that I have full hiring power over. There's this weird precedent that marketing and engineering are separate, and I think that's BS.

3. How do you hire for speed?

When sifting through hordes of candidates for marketing roles, speed is not necessarily something that leaps out from a pile of resumes. Over the course of her career, Rezaei has fine-tuned her radar for hires with a speed-first mindset. “We always do case-based interviews. I ask a lot of questions like, ‘We want to get to 1,000,000 blog subscribers in 12 months. How do we do that?’ Or ‘We want to come up with a new scalable event model that’s going to help us acquire 5,000 customers by the end of the year. How do we do that?’”

She’s quick to spot a few key signals from marketing managers. “How scrappy are their ideas? Can they quickly put pen to paper and ideate? Obviously they will have to research things and they don’t have a ton of context, but if every answer always starts and ends with, ‘I would talk to other people' or 'I would do research on this,’ that’s an early indicator that this is someone that’s prone to going into the basement,” she says.

And don’t be afraid to dig deep into their skill sets with your follow-up questions. “If they say they want to launch a new site, I might ask, ‘How would you do that? What tools would you use to get that done in a week?’ You can also push on how scrappy they really are by shortening the implementation window for their ideas — I’ll say, ‘That’s a great suggestion, now I want you to do it in one day. How would you get this out tomorrow?’ I listen for their ability to prioritize and find an 80-20 way to get to the same impact. I also probe at their ability to uncover hidden assumptions by asking things like, ‘What might go wrong? What must be true for this idea to work?’ and when they list their hypotheses I ask them how they can vet them in a few days.”

BRINGING IT ALL TOGETHER: HOW FOUNDERS CAN KEEP THEIR MARKETING TEAM MOVING QUICKLY

For founders, especially those without a robust marketing background, this function can feel like a black box. “I think a lot of founders see marketing and think, ‘Woah, I don’t know anything about this,’” says Rezaei.

“They either try to outsource it to the CMO entirely and aren’t engaged, or they try to micromanage it, especially if their growth expectations are not being met. I’ve seen trust evaporate between first marketing hires and founders all too quickly, and I think this tends to contribute to the short-lived tenure of marketing startup leaders," she says. "My biggest piece of advice for founders here is that it’s okay to light a fire under marketing and expect results — but make sure you’ve given them the backup they need to achieve those goals. If you are a SaaS leader and you aren’t willing to give your in-house marketing team access to engineering or analytics support, then you may be the problem.”

To close us out, Rezaei offers a few more specific pieces of advice for founders looking to pump up the volume on their marketing team:

As a CEO, you need to help the marketing team get the technical support and budget they need. Otherwise it’s like asking them to run a marathon without shoes.
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