Grant Johnson (Billtrust) - Intellectual Curiosity
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Vincent Pietrafesa: Welcome to The Marketing Stir Podcast by Stirista, probably the most entertaining marketing podcast you're going to put in your ear. I'm Vin, a producer here at Stirista. The goal of this podcast is to chat with industry leaders and get their take on the current challenges of the market and we'll have a little fun along the way. In today's episode, Grant Johnson, chief marketing officer at Billtrust, chats about how taking risks can disrupt the market and yield bigger results than settling. Give it a listen. Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to another episode of Stirista's The Marketing Stir. I am your host, not your co- host today, we'll get to that reason in a moment, your host, Vincent Pietrafesa, the Vice President of B2B Products and partnerships here at Stirista. It is great to be talking with you. Thank you to all our listeners. We never thought we would have listeners to begin with and yet so many great ones. We really do appreciate it, and thank you so much for coming up to me at trade shows and conferences and just telling me how much you like the podcast. That really is great. That's why we do it. We don't do it for advertising. I talk about Stirista for like 12 seconds, that's all, and then we don't talk about it again. Who are we? Stirista, we are a marketing technology company. We own our own business to business data, our own business to consumer data. We help companies access that data through email, through display, connected TV. We help companies get new customers. There's the elevator pitch. There's the podcast pitch. Who can't use new customers? That's all, ladies and gentlemen, but it is great to be talking with you. My co- host, my CEO, my commander- in- chief, as I call him, the San Antonio Slayer, we haven't brought that one back, but here it is, he can't be with us today. He is in a board meeting. Ugh, does that sound fun? But what does sound fun and is fun is my next guest. I already met this guest. I already chatted with this guest, not in person. You hear me say it on the podcast all the time. I love meeting people in person. Maybe we'll make it happen. Some of the guests I do meet in person, but we're very happy to have him and his knowledge as a marketer. Ladies and gentlemen, the chief marketing officer of Billtrust, Grant Johnson. What's going on, Grant?
Grant Johnson: Hey, Vincent, great to join you here today.
Vincent Pietrafesa: It's great to have you. I was going to say, I discovered Grant. No. Grant is always out there talking about some of the trends in marketing and the things that he loves, and we've seen him on some other podcasts. It's like, we have to get him on. Grant, talk to us first, Billtrust. Let's get it out there for our listeners. What is Billtrust? Obviously you're the CMO, but walk me through some of your day- today as well at the company.
Grant Johnson: Billtrust is in the B2B accounts receivable, all otherwise known as AR, automation and digital payments. Very simple value proposition as you were talking about, we help companies get paid faster so they can focus and their staff can focus on more important matters. Who doesn't want to get paid faster?
Vincent Pietrafesa: I love it. I love it. Exactly. Who doesn't want new customers and then who doesn't want to get paid faster, right? That's the moral of the story. Your role within it, so you've been a chief marketing officer for many years, for a long time at companies, which is a testament to how good you are, but you're also starting out new at Billtrust. Talk to us about how it's been the past few months. Talk to us about your role. What have you been helping them do?
Grant Johnson: Two- part answer. The company responsibility is the chief marketing officers. It's global marketing. It's all the things you would typically see in B2B marketing leader. There's revenue marketing, often called demand gen. There's product marketing. There's what I call strategic communications, internal comm, public relations, analyst relations. There's the MarTech stack, which gets bigger every day trying to orchestrate these different technologies to support the marketing mission. Of course, there's digital and web marketing, other things that support those what I call levers. Really the first few months, I've been at Billtrust now four months, the first few months is all around setting the agenda, forging strategic working relationships, getting to know my team, embarking on initiatives, putting some points on the board, what we all like to call a low hanging fruit. One of my sidelines, I wouldn't call the side hustle, but sidelines, is I write a blog at cmomentor.com. I mentored probably 14 another CMOs of my career. I'll do one or two at a time. I wrote about the first and the next 90 days. A lot of people had written about the first 90 days. But as I've been a CMO a few times, I felt it's really important. You survived the first 90, congratulations. But just like sales, what have you done for me lately? What's the next quarter like? You also have to renew. You may have an annual plan, but each 90 days we're in very dynamic markets. We're facing macroeconomic headwinds. What's working now? What's going to work next? Working on those things that I've really been focused on over the first few months.
Vincent Pietrafesa: Yeah, absolutely. You're just getting started, but you do have your hands full there. Grant, let's take a step back. We ask this question to all of our guests. How'd you get started in marketing?
Grant Johnson: I would call it the accidental discovery. I was a political science major. You do a lot of things with that major. Liberal arts, right? I got a job out of college. Like a lot of folks, you try a few things. I got this really interesting telecommunications company and they had this fantastic approach which was called rotational assignments. Like interns might do, but even though you're working full- time, you'd spend a couple months at different departments. I was in the production area for a while and in finance area, and then I got into what was called sales and market. They were combined in this company. And that's where the light bulb went on and the lights started flashing. We were doing advertising, going to these trade shows, meeting people in the physical world, unlike our virtual existence these days or largely virtual. I said, hey, this is really captivating and motivating, and I just leaned more towards marketing than sales. I did some sales. And that's really how it started and just got ultimately on a career path to run a marketing organization.
Vincent Pietrafesa: I think we can call about 75% of our episodes the accidental marketer. There's so many people who are like, " I was this. I was philosophy and I did this. I was political science." I always tell our listener, I was one of the rarities. I actually had studied mass media and communications and marketing and a minor in theater. I guess you can take the podcast and all this other stuff that I do as like, wow, you're actually doing everything you've studied in college. I guess that's the rarity, but we're glad you chose this path. Grant, talk to us about your experience. You have experience transforming global companies from growth stage to multi hundred million enterprises before this, Emburse, Cylance, Pegasystems. Talk to us about that, your strategies to help organizations grow and succeed.
Grant Johnson: It's a great question to bridge from the last one, right? You've got to figure out how to get it off to a fast successful start, so you can validate what a good hiring decision, the CEO in this case for CMO, whoever the hiring manager, was made. But I really try to immerse myself as much as I can in the business that the company's in. I happen to be in a lot of spaces that are related. You might call them business process automation or work automation or just automation in general, digitally transforming companies to do business more effectively through the combination of people, process, and technology. As I immersed myself, really need to understand we all did it, whether it was in college or since then, SWOT analysis, strength, weakness, opportunities, and threats. There's this old adage, the best way to kill a mediocre product was with great communications because the world will find out, and then they'll start telling everybody how bad it is. It doesn't compare. You really have to play to your strengths. You could certainly as a company evolve over time through M& A and innovation. I like to understand first the capability, and then develop actionable strategies and what I call a phased approach. Our current CEO likes to say grand vision delivered incrementally. I love that phrase because if you just try to raise the temperature 10 degrees at once, it's not going to work. Set these iterative goals, measure and iterate. I'd like to think about the marketing campaigns that we do that we test. We learn and we iterate. The iterate might be we stop doing it because it's not working, or we do it a little differently, or we do more of it because it is working well. The other thing that I think is key that I've found is this cross- functional alignment. A lot of companies don't intend to have silos, but you've really got to bring together sales and marketing first and foremost, but also a marketing product, a sales, marketing customer success. The more we can get cross- functional alignment orchestration, the better we can serve customers. I think we can have more opportunity to outgrow our competition because we're working together. The minute you're fighting internally, your backs are to the customer and your competitors' taking them.
Vincent Pietrafesa: I think that's great advice. Right before we are talking now and recording this, I sat on a panel, Grant. It was called Coffee and Conversions. This company, Focus USA, put on this webinar and it was great. It was bridging the gap between marketing and sales. You bring up a great point there because it's the age- old story, right? Well, it's like, you don't get us enough leads. Well, you're not closing the leads, for example. But having a seat at the table, marketing and sales together, is so important. I think if you all have the same goals and you're keeping the same score as opposed to separate scores, it's not never going to work. If you're keeping separate scores, that means you're competing against each other. You're not in the same team. I love everything you said there. Staying on that, Grant, staying on your experience there, those marketing professionals out there, what do you think the most important skills that a person should have as a marketer? Is it creativity? Is it patience, testing? Talk to us about that process.
Grant Johnson: In my view, there's not one skill. I suppose everybody can have their superpower, which is good too, but you really need a range of skills. That's one of the reasons. I've probably hired hundreds I've mentored now I've count. Just the last person who worked for me who was one of my high potential, promoted her to SVP at my last company, Emburse, and she's now a CMO. Person 14, if I'm correct. Almost like one a year. I've been doing it for 14 years at the CMO level. I think first of all, to me, intellectual curiosity. I'm a lifelong learner. I think now's the best time ever, and we'll talk about ChatGPT I'm sure, to be in marketing, but I felt that way when I first started. To me, it's very energizing. You also have to blend, as you've talked about with other guests before, the critical thinking skills and the creative skills, the analytical skills, as well as the brainstorming capability. Because if you just do what your competitors do, you're going to stand out. I think you have to be very personable. I really felt COVID was... We all know it changed the world, but I think it changed the dynamics between staff and managers and leaders, which is being empathetic, understanding how challenging it is to manage work- life balance and take care of folks that need help. I think that's key. But also one of the things I've learned, and again, things that are in the CMO Mentor blog, I try to encapsulate learning that happens over not just a single project or company, but over multiple years, is taking more risk. You have to just do it in measurable ways. I'm not saying do bet the company type things. If you're a startup, you might have to do that, but I always say I don't mind making five and$ 10,000 bets. I don't want to make a lot of 50, $100, 000 bets, whether it's my personal portfolio or the company's money, which I treat like as my own very responsibly. But if you don't take risk, again, you're just going to get incremental. You're not going to be able to disrupt the market. That's something that it takes an emotional makeup that you can handle failure. I mean, that's the worst thing is the fear of failure rather than learn from when you fall short. That and probably today more important than ever because we've got all the tools to measure and all the digital vehicles is being results oriented. I mean, if it delivers results, great. If it doesn't, do less of it or don't do it at all. Put the dollars where you're going to get the best return.
Vincent Pietrafesa: Yeah, no, I agree with you there. There's two things that you said there, Grant, that I want your opinion on. We'll get to AI in a moment. We'll keep the listeners on edge there because I'm sure a lot of people are interested in hearing about that. But you said you're new yourself there, right? You're a CMO. You also hinted about the remote work. Hybrid environments and hybrid work policies are kind of here to stay. What's the best way, do you think, to boost morale in a virtual environment? How can organizations preserve the company culture remotely? And especially you, you're just starting. You have a team. Talk to us all about that.
Grant Johnson: Yeah, there's a lot of things that you can do. We have a cadence at Billtrust. We have a monthly connect. Some companies only connect quarterly. I think frequency, more frequent is better. We have something we call the Billtrust Blast, and we have a video component. In the last several weeks, each of the executive leadership team have shared little three minute highlights. Hey, what's happening in marketing? What's happening in customer success? What's happening in finance and sales? I think those are important. It's also to live your values. We have, like many companies, Billtrust values are on our website, but anybody can have values on their website. What's more important is we actually recognize and reward individuals who live the values. It has to be a nomination. It has to be reviewed by a committee, and it has to really talk about the essence of what was done and the impact that it had on our customers, because that's one of our values, right? To deliver customer success. I think that's key. You can see your values in action in meetings. You can see them on the Slack channel. We have a shout- out, like a lot of companies do. I think you just have to use a myriad of things. Myself personally, especially when you're coming on board, as I've tried... You have 40 folks in marketing, and I have six direct reports. There's a lot of people that I don't interact with hardly at all, certainly not daily or weekly. I've been doing what I call quick connect, 15 minutes, hey, where do you live? We have this, as you said, this hybrid workplace. We have certainly offices, but where do you live? What's your family situation? How are you getting the tools you need to succeed? I find that they really appreciate, my teams, that because I genuinely care about people and I'd like to see them contribute and on their own career path, learn and grow and achieve. I think you have to do it. But I will say, and this is more so in the last year as we've navigated COVID, try to find opportunities where you can get together in person. There's nothing that replaces, as you've talked about, trade shows you go to. I did a product marketing team meeting. I'm going to join the vertical sales team next week. It happens to be somewhere I can drive to, but I'll fly. Those opportunities. Our executive teams been meeting monthly in person as just part of getting a cadence going. Mostly virtual, find things that work, but also when you can, find opportunities to meet in person. There's no substitute.
Vincent Pietrafesa: Yeah, I totally agree. I was just telling some of my teammates, I said, look, it's spring everywhere. In the US, the weather is getting better. Get out there. Me, I have the luxury of living in New York City. It's a place people want to be, and there's a lot of companies here. I'm having two meetings tomorrow in person. Someone I met, I was like, a call? I'm like, no, let's get a coffee. Let's meet up. That's just the way to do it, I think. You can't replace that. Grant, you talked about some of the tools that you need to be an effective marketer, and you talked about keeping up with the trends. How do you stay up to date on the latest trends? Let's talk about AI. What are your thoughts about AI? It's all over the news. People are using it even more. Love your thoughts on it.
Grant Johnson: Yeah, no, staying up to date, it goes back to having intellectual curiosity. I love learning things. Like a lot of folks, I have different feeds that come to my inbox. I have probably 100 CMO peers over the years. I've been part of several CMO peer groups, both in person and, especially since COVID, virtual. We have monthly huddles. The CMO Huddles is one group I'm part of and we document the discussions. If you missed one, they count. It's someone who say, " Hey, this is interesting." There's Slack channels that say tools you can use or check this out. That's why I first, I can't say it was early, but it was last summer, I was understanding ChatGPT, at least it was a few months before it was on national TV. I would've felt like, my God, I really missed that one. It was on CNN and NBC one day in my home and I happened to flip channels. Oh man, this thing is really... And then the website crashed the next day. I tried to go look at it again. I do that. And then my team, I've always been fortunate to be at companies... I've been at startups and billion- dollar companies. Mostly they're in the 100 to several hundred million. I've got a decent sized staff. They share ideas, and there's always a few people that love to test things out and try things out. That helps me stay up to date. That's the up to date. The AI thing, you mentioned Cylance, that was a company that was a pioneer next prevention and software. I started thinking about it several years ago. I did a blog in 2000. I just figured everybody makes prediction. I made the prediction that 2023 is the year of predictive marketing, and that's what AI's going to help us do and the machine learning. Right now we have hypothesis about, hey, digital will be good here, events will be good there, webinars will help. You need multiple channels. But if you can measure, ultimately, you get enough data in your dataset, you can start predicting outcomes. There's this age- old thing I've heard now that I've been the CMO a few times is like, well, what's the return? Well, if I go to the board, speaking of board meetings, and I say, " Look, I'd like another million dollars," they're going to say, " Okay, so what's the guaranteed return?" I said, " Well, I can guarantee$ 5 million." They're going to get interested. If I ask for even$ 100,000 and they say, " Well, what's the return?" I don't know. " Next question." I mean, it's not going to work. I think that's one of the ways you should help marketers prove the value. That's one of the things we've often all struggled with because marketing can be very subjective. But if you can make it quantitative, speak the language of CFO, make sure that your peers understand what you're attempting to do and the results you're achieving, then it's a more objective conversation. You have a chance of succeeding more often.
Vincent Pietrafesa: Grant, you talked about in 2023 you talked about predictive marketing. But you think in the next few years, does that stay on track as the most significant marketing trend or development, or do you have some others in mind? I mean, I think a lot of people talked about the cookie going away, the IP solution, big data many years ago. There have been a lot of trends. Now ChatGPT AI. What do you see in the next few years?
Grant Johnson: I mean, I think generative AI... I felt you're right. It was data, and it was analytics, and it was insight for a period of time, big data. All these things, they come and go. They wax and wane. But I think that this one is a tectonic shift. In fact, it's so powerful that you're starting to see... I won't name the individual, but somebody recently left from one of the major companies starting with a G. They're concerned. We have to be very responsible. We have to have some governance and guide rails. I'm not worried about taking over human life, but that it doesn't go beyond what society thinks is acceptable. But I think it is extremely powerful. We have three I'll call them experiments. I'm sure many companies have that or more, but we want to do controllable experience with generative AI and find out where it can lift productivity and speed automation. Just like our overall value proposition to automate the accounts receivable process, get you paid past their free up time, I mean, I want that to happen to my marketing staff so they have more creative thinking time. They can work on projects more systematically versus one and done. I think that is going to be a pretty important trend. There may be something that supplants it, but as I look out the next year or two, I think there's a lot more that's going to happen there. I've noticed that some of the MarTech stack companies are putting into their products. One of the most exciting I heard about was if you're a SDR or BDR, I'm sure a lot of the marketers you talk to are working with these organizations hand- in- hand, you give them your target list of customers and they tell you exactly what order to call them in and what to say to them, because they've combed the websites, which I think sounds really powerful.
Vincent Pietrafesa: That is powerful. I know my BDRs, SDRs would love to do that. We get a lot of companies that listen to this podcast and tell us all this... Because there's a question coming up later, our signature question LinkedIn, that really helps their SDRs and BDRs. No, that's great advice. I think you're spot on with that. I've been hearing a trend. Now it's the retail media. Retail is becoming an explosive category. Every trade show I've been attending lately is just retail marketing, retail media. This is everything which I guess needs some strengthening to keep boosting the economy here. Grant, you yourself have been at other similar companies, like you said, so obviously there's some competitors out there. How does Billtrust separate itself from its competitors?
Grant Johnson: For us, there's a couple things that we do. We're a company that covers everything from the initial order through getting paid the cash, order cash we call it. We make getting paid radically simpler. I think it's really the elegance and simplicity and integration of our suite of solutions all around AR automation and payments. Maybe you might call this the breadth and depth and technology difference, but the other part that as I've gotten to start to know some of our customers and learning about why companies choose Billtrust stay with Billtrust, some of them been with us 10, 20 years, is that we have a culture that focuses on customer success, on positive customer outcomes. At the end of the day, if a company buys your product or service and they don't adopt it and don't realize the business benefit, the business value they envisioned, they're not going to stay with you. They're certainly not going to grow their investment with you. We've never lost sight of that from the founder to the new CEO, my boss Sunil. We never lose sight of the customer is why we exist. As you might recall from the most famous quote of Peter Drucker, purpose of the business is to get and keep customers. Getting's not easy, but keeping is not easy either. If you keep in mind both of those, you can grow and succeed. I think that's what makes us different is how we serve customers.
Vincent Pietrafesa: Who would you say is your ideal customer, who are you mostly working with, who you'd like to work with?
Grant Johnson: We actually are a horizontal solution, but we found that if companies have lots of customers themselves... Think about it, if you've got five customers and you get good payment terms, a lot of our customers have thousands of customers. I'll just give you a few of the verticals that we happen to really have a lot of depth, equipment suppliers, the distributors, building supply or industrial supply, medical, lots to do with medical, transportation, manufacturing. Again, you have a lot of customers and you want to make sure that you... Because we not only simplify the payment process, we also help our customers have good experiences. If I'm one of your customers and you harass me about payment, you don't make it easy to go to a payment portal and see the status of payments, then that's not good. We want to improve our customer's customer experience, and that's just another benefit of doing business with Billtrust.
Vincent Pietrafesa: Those industries definitely make sense. Let's talk about that question I was going for earlier. This is a staple question. This is our Marketing Stir LinkedIn question. People ask me mostly about this question when they see me in person. You're a CMO of a company. You're probably getting solicited all the time, Grant. What's a message that resonates with you and what's a message that you just hate, don't respond to? You could see why SDRs, BDRs love this question because it's like, oh, that's how I should be reaching out to people.
Grant Johnson: It may change over time, but I'll tell you that the standard ones that the BDRs and SDRs, the ADRs, whatever the different companies call them, is I know you're busy. This will only take a few minutes and that's a quick delete. If you can't get a little more original than the 4, 000 messages I've already deleted, I can delete a message in less than one second.
Vincent Pietrafesa: It never takes a few minutes, Grant.
Grant Johnson: No, no.
Vincent Pietrafesa: It never takes a few minutes.
Grant Johnson: Or if you write paragraphs and you say it's only take a few minutes, like nah, there's some cognitive disconnect here. One that I broke through recently was, and I said, look, I only answered one in a thousand, is somebody had done some research, which is always a good idea, about our company, my background, and had a provocative statement about the benefit and had a case study of somebody that I respected had received benefit. A lot of times I'll get a message and it says, we're in B2B, some B2C company, we've done all this great stuff. I don't care. I mean, I've been in B2C myself. I'm in B2B now. You have to be relevant, distinct, succinct.
Vincent Pietrafesa: Exactly. It's being direct to the point, succinct. The ones you hate are the general ones. That's the theme. Come up with something that's going to help my business. Come up with something that's personalized. I always say, and this is a message to the PR firms out there that hit us to get their clients on The Marketing Stir, for which we only select very, very few. We go after our own guests. But if you are listening, PR agents, here's a way to get people on The Marketing Stir. Tell people you listen to the podcast. Tell me that you like the podcast, and then go into your spiel. Make sure all the fonts are the same. I don't want this to be blanketed, and then we will see if we get your client. But just things like that. Even when I'm being solicited for something as well on LinkedIn where someone reaches out to me. Get my name right. Not the last name. I get it. I have a long last name. But Vincent, Vince, Vin, come on. Come on. Grant Johnson, you should get Grant right. Come on. Grant, let's get to know you personally here. What do you like to do for fun? What are your hobbies? What are some of your favorite things out in sunny California?
Grant Johnson: Well, look, I like spending time when I'm not working, of course, with my family. I like cooking. I like traveling. I have a daughter who's asked me if we, now that she's in advanced placement French and I lived in France, can we go to Paris? I guess I'm going to working on that for this summer. Hopefully that works out. But I think I shared with you before and your CEO and I share a passion for tennis. I play a couple times a week. I'm very fortunate, I've been to the national championships three years in a row at my level. 32 people from around the US based on how you're playing, winning percentage, tournament, so forth. I like to compete. It's fun. As you've done it a few times and work within your own division, you find there's a lot of camaraderie. Nobody's getting paid. We're hoping that we get home injury free, that kind of thing. But I just find it's a great combination of mental focus, physical exercise, and fun.
Vincent Pietrafesa: AJ is going to kick himself from missing this one because I remember your love and passionate for tennis. He has sustained a few injuries, and we talk about the injuries a lot on the podcast. But yeah, he loves it. There's a whole team out there in San Antonio. They go to nationals. They do this. But that sounds like you're doing really well at it, so that's awesome. Grant, a closing thought you want to leave to our listeners, a parting thought about your experience, marketing, anything.
Grant Johnson: I've been asked this many times, what's the best advice I can give to a early stage or sometimes even middle, mid- stage career person is to be intentional. I contribute my success, I mapped it out. It may not have happened exactly at the time in the order I'd like to run a marketing organization. I've done it multiple times, but I've had some people say, "I'm not sure how I got here." Like you, you're utilizing, Vincent, all your talents. You'll have more that you'll utilize over time. But I really think that if you set a goal and you have concrete steps to get there and you're intentional about it, you're certainly going to increase your odds of arriving at the ultimate destination that may be for you as an individual.
Vincent Pietrafesa: That's great advice. Be intentional. I love that. I think that's a first for the podcast here. Grant, I know you're doing some mentorship with CMOs, mention your blog one more time for our listeners.
Grant Johnson: It's cmomentor. com.
Vincent Pietrafesa: Cmomentor. com. Nice and very easy and simple. Thanks, Grant, for spending some time with us, all the work you're doing there at Billtrust, and mentoring other CMOs. Ladies and gentlemen, that's the chief marketing officer of Billtrust, Grant Johnson. I'm Vincent Pietrafesa. AJ Gupta is not on the tennis court. He is in the boardroom. He'd prefer to be on the tennis court. This has been another episode of The Marketing Stir. Thank you all so much for listening, and we'll talk soon.
Announcer: Thanks for listening to The Marketing Stir podcast by Stirista. Please like, rate, and subscribe. If you're interested in being a guest on the podcast, please email us at themarketingstir @ stirista. com. Thanks for listening.
Grant Johnson, Chief Marketing Officer at Billtrust, chats about how taking risks can help disrupt the market and yield bigger results than settling.