Revenue Rehab: It's like therapy, but for marketers
Sept. 14, 2022

Secret Sauce of Data: Leveraging Product Data for SaaS Marketing Leaders

In this episode of Revenue Rehab, Brandi Starr is joined by Mona Akmal. Mona is the CEO and co-founder at ,  a  go to market  intelligence  platform  with  a  mission  to replicate  successful ...


In this episode of Revenue Rehab, Brandi Starr is joined by Mona Akmal.

Mona is the CEO and co-founder at Falkon,  a  go to market  intelligence  platform  with  a  mission  to replicate  successful  deals  for  sales  and  marketing  teams.  As a product  and  engineering veteran  with  over  10  years  of  managing  product  teams  at  companies such as Microsoft,  Zulily, Code.org and Amparity, Mona loves building solutions to technically difficult problems. She has helped build many products, businesses  and  teams  from  zero  to  scale,  including  taking  doc  in  the  cloud OneDrive and Office from 1 million to 1 billion, and from zero to 11 million in ARR at Amparity. 

On the couch, Mona and Brandi will discuss how marketing teams in SaaS companies can effectively leverage product usage data. Mona opens up to talk about how product data should be a top priority rather than being used for indexing on intent, data, and dark social.

Bullet Points of Key Topics + Chapter Markers

  • Topic #1: How Are Marketers Using Product Data Today? [7:36]: Mona discusses how the predominant usage of product data by marketing teams today is ad hoc analysis that happens once a quarter, and once every six months. In this analysis, the team reviews the most engaged customers to identify ideal customer profile traits. Mona has also seen marketing teams present aggregate dashboards in meetings on how customers are using the product. Although aggregate dashboards can be effective as  a recreational  insight, Mona believes that this is not driving meaningful  action within  the  marketing   According to Mona, this leaves product usage data on the cutting room floor when it comes to practical applications in marketing workflows.
  • Topic #2: How to Succeed at Product Usage Data Implementation [​​14:47]: Mona emphasizes how product data can, and should, be used throughout the entire product life cycle. She discusses the importance of companies getting to the vision state through the product usage data journey. Mona advises implementing product usage  data  to influence  long  term  planning: understanding  ideal customers and their most loved features to drive product marketing, content, and sales enablement. Or, if a company's primary focus is retention or expansion, product usage data can be applied towards highly personalized lifecycle marketing campaigns that enhance customer engagement.
  • Topic #3: How Marketers Can Achieve C-Suite Buy-In [20:44]: Brandi opens up the conversation to discuss the importance of product usage data being a C-suite sponsored or approved initiative. She asks Mona how marketing leaders can successfully build a case, even if they feel like they do not have internal influence. Mona offers some words of wisdom: the truth of how valuable the offering is sits within the product. To convey this, she suggests capitalizing on buzzwords, and using statistics to support your case. Mona also emphasizes optimizing customer value for long-term success, even if revenue numbers look slim at the beginning. Building a simple ROI analysis on your data stack is a useful place to start, which communicates net benefits to the c-suite on their data collection investments.

So, What's the One Thing You Can Do Today?

For marketers in SaaS based companies, Mona recommends creating an inspirational one-pager. This one-pager can include all of the things you would do with available resources, and the impact that would have on your business and on your personal career. This is likely to inspire you to put some more energy into your product usage data efforts and push it forward in your organization.

Buzzword Banishment:

Mona’s buzzword banishment is TAM  (Target Addressable Market). In Mona’s words, ‘’It's a nonsense word. It is the equivalent of a horoscope because the direction companies take over 20 years cannot be predicted by anyone. And so it's funny math, it has no scientific rigor. To  me, TAM is just a proxy for greed.’’

Links:

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Transcript

[0:06] Intro:  

Welcome to Revenue Rehab, your one stop destination for collective solutions to the biggest challenges faced by marketing leaders today. Now head on over to the couch, make yourself comfortable and get ready to change the way you approach revenue. Leading your recovery is modern marketer, author, speaker and Chief Operating Officer at Tegrita, Brandi Starr. 

[0:34] Brandi Starr:   

Hello, hello, hello and welcome to another episode of Revenue Rehab. I am your host Brandi Starr and we have another amazing episode for you today. My guest today is Mona. Mona is the CEO and co-founder at Falkon, a go to market intelligence platform with a mission to replicate successful deals for sales and marketing teams. As a product and engineering veteran with over 10 years of managing product teams at places like Microsoft, Zulily, Code.org and Amparity, Mona loves building elegant solutions to technically hard problems. Mona moved to the US at the age of 20 with an undergraduate degree, an engineering job at Microsoft, and zero network of people. And 20 years later, she has helped build many products, businesses and teams from zero to scale, including taking doc in the cloud OneDrive and Office from 1 million to 1 billion, and from zero to 11 million in ARR at Amparity. Mona, welcome to Revenue Rehab, your session begins now.

[1:52] Mona Akmal:  

Thank you so much, Randy, what a great introduction. I'm so excited to be here.

[1:57] Brandi Starr:   

I am excited to have you always excited to talk about revenue with one of the industry's newest founders. I know that Falkon was founded in 2020, which is super exciting. So congratulations on the growth within the organization.

[2:19] Mona Akmal:  

Thank you so much. It's been a scenic journey and everyday has been very challenging and also very rewarding. And I feel very grateful to be on this journey.

[2:29] Brandi Starr:   

Yeah, they always say do what you love and you never work a day in your life. And you know, I always counter that with it is technically still work but it is always enjoyable when you can do something that you are passionate about. 

[02:46] Mona Akmal:  

That's exactly right. 

[02:48] Brandi Starr:   

So before we jump into our topic today, I like to break the ice with what I call a little woosah moment called the buzz word banishment. So Mona tell me what buzzword would you like to banish forever?

[3:04] Mona Akmal:    

Hmm. Oh, my goodness, I think my most hated buzzword is TAM - Target addressable market. It is non-sense. It's a nonsense word. It is the equivalent of a horoscope because the direction companies take over 20 years is cannot be predicted by anyone. And so it's funny math, it has no scientific rigor. To me, TAM is just a proxy for greed. And so I'm just not interested in the word.

[3:37] Brandi Starr:  

And it's so funny. I mean, being a start-up in the technology industry, you will have some heads of marketing and especially like some PE and BC firms that will argue that TAM is everything. And what I'm hearing is that TAM is just kind of made up, which I can't say that I agree or disagree, but I do know that there is often some funny math that involved there. 

[04:05] Mona Akmal:  

Exactly.

[4:07] Brandi Starr:   

So I can promise, at least for this discussion. We will not talk about the TAM; we won't talk about markets in that way. Sounds good?

[4:19] Mona Akmal:  

Yes, I appreciate it. Thank you.

[ 4:23] Brandi Starr:   

Awesome. So now that we have gotten that off our chest, tell me what brings you to Revenue Rehab today.

[4:31] Mona Akmal:   

I'm excited to be here because I want to talk about a subject that's very important to me, which is how marketing teams in SaaS companies can use product data. And it comes from a place of pain honestly, which is I see, the rise of ABM and generally ABM is an amazing concept, but the underpinning of that is third party intent data which if you evaluate the accuracy of this data, it's actually pretty garbage. Most of it is wrong. And yet we've built this massive momentum around using intent data to help us prioritize which accounts to go after, which contacts to go after. And the biggest asset that most SaaS companies have is actually their first party marketing sales and product usage data, it's the best way to understand your ideal customer profile, it's your existing ideal customers, and how they use your product. And I'd love to be able to talk about how modern SaaS companies and marketing teams within those companies should be using product data, and almost thinking of it as the top of the pile instead of indexing on intent, data, dark social, and all these other woowoo data sources out there that have the promise of magic.

[6:01] Brandi Starr:   

I agree completely. And before we jump into that, I believe in setting intentions. It gives us focus, it gives us purpose, and most importantly, it helps our audience to understand what to expect from our discussions. So for our listeners, especially those SaaS marketing leaders, what do you want the outcome of our discussion to be?

[6:28] Mona Akmal:   

If I could have one thing that I would want as our intention it is to walk away from this with marketing leaders feeling inspired and curious about all the product usage data that their companies are collecting and how they can operationalize that data and put it in the hands of their teams on not just a quarterly cadence, but a daily cadence?

[6:53] Brandi Starr:   

Okay, you've given me some things to dig into there. So I want to start by jumping back to something that you talked about I you know, I think when you associate modern marketing, and really modern business in general, data driven is a term that you are always going to hear when you think about modern marketing. And there are many data sources and obviously, we can debate the validity of each of them. But I want to hone in and talk about where do you feel like the view of product data sits today? What do you feel like is the view by marketing leaders? How are people thinking about product data today?

[7:36] Mona Akmal:   

That's a great question. So I would say I classify SaaS companies into the more traditional non-BLG based companies, and then BLG companies. BLG Companies, there are like 200 of them. So it's a very small market actually. Look, I just referred to a market myself, even though I said I hate the word TAM. But the reason why I mentioned big companies is because they are on the cutting edge of how marketing teams use product data. But since it's such a small minority, I would say, the predominant usage of product data by marketing teams today is ad hoc analysis that happens once a quarter, once every six months, where we review our most engaged customers to identify ideal customer profile traits. And then a little bit of that analysis trickles into how we do lead scoring and identify which leads to prioritize. The second scenario, I've seen marketing teams, common scenario where marketing teams have access to product data is in large meetings that are cross team, where aggregate dashboards are being presented on how customers are using the product. Which again is good as a recreational insight, but it's not really driving meaningful action within the marketing team. And in my opinion, that's the current state, which basically leaves all product usage data on the cutting room floor when it comes to practical applications of it in marketing workflows.

[9:20] Brandi Starr:   

And I have worked in software before, I've work with a number of SaaS companies and the biggest complaint that I hear and have experienced is marketing doesn't have access to that product data. I can remember many moons ago where I was focused on cross sell into accounts where they were using our ERP software. And our product teams, our product marketing had made some very clear connections. If they're using this module in our you know, account any software, that means this, which means they are ripe for that.

[10:05] Mona Akmal:

That's right. 

[10:05] Brandi Starr:   

And that was great information but I had no way of getting to the data in any usable way. It was like a request from an analyst. And by the time I got it, it was like outdated as soon as I got it. And I hear a lot of companies. And I'm guessing it's been a while since I've been in that world so it may be getting better. But it seems to be a common complaint, is that they'd love to be able to use this data, but they don't have access to it. And when I heard you say daily and not quarterly, I don't know if you saw my reaction, but I was like...

[10:44] Mona Akmal:

I did.

[10:46] Brandi Starr:    

Like how does that happen. So help me understand, how are marketers supposed to --even if we see the value, and understand the importance, how are we supposed to get to where we can actually get that data?

[11:02] Mona Akmal:   

That's a great question. And I will say a few contrarian things that'll piss a few people off. So I apologize, my intention is not to do that. We actually started Falkon because of one simple thesis. The modern data stack and data warehousing and the entire space of data is the biggest racket of the 21st century as it exists right now. We collect data like hoarders, and then we dump it in a warehouse and we write a big check to snowflake every quarter, and we have armies of data engineers and analysts, yet business leaders and the ultimate beneficiaries of that data, keep complaining about the fact that they don't have access to the data. That tells you there's something fundamentally wrong. And that's the thing that we're trying to challenge and disrupt essentially. And so how you can get access, so first and foremost, access to product usage data needs to be a CMO, CFO, CRO, CEO sponsored initiative. Because unless it is that, I guarantee you, your data engineering team, and your data analytics team will spend all their time doing nerdy projects that will ultimately not move the business forward. Because no one is giving them direction on what success looks like for their team. And that should really be coming from the business teams, not from the data team in my opinion. So first and foremost, it needs to be a C-level approved initiative, that access must be available on a daily basis. The good news is all the technology already exists to make it possible. And I would generally assert that if your team tells you it's going to take 12 months to do something, you need to go back and ask them to get it done in a quarter. Because having built a lot of these systems myself, the technology has advanced so much with ETL tools, reverse ETL tools, data warehousing, data pipeline and infrastructure, that daily product usage data access to marketing teams is not magic. It's actually just very simple data engineering work that can be completed maximum in a quarter, not a year. So that's sort of the second part of the answer, is that the technology is already there. The third part of the answer is that for companies because you know, a lot of folks that might be listening and don't have a massive data engineering team and don't have analysts might be wondering, how would this even be possible? Are we going to go hire a massive team in order to do this? There are a lot of interesting solutions that are popping up that can just provide all of this for you, Falkon is one of them. So if you can't build it your own, invest in a go-to market data solution, like Falkon. Two weeks to set up and then you will have the access that you want. And it will be available to you and the tools that you want like Marketo, like HubSpot and so on.

[14:17] Brandi Starr:   

Okay, so let's fast forward. Let's say we get the data. Whether we build access or buy access, we get access to the data. And I'm the marketing leader. What's next? If I've never had access to this product data, what advice are you giving to me in terms of where do I start putting this in place so that my teams are making more informed decisions?

[14:47] Mona Akmal:   

Great question. So I think the surface area that product usage data can influence is nearly infinite, which is why it's important to not boil the ocean and start somewhere small. So I'm generally a pretty iterative person. And so in vision state, we want product usage data to influence long term planning, like our understanding of our ideal customers and our most loved features because that should drive product marketing, that should drive content, that should drive sales enablement that marketing teams are doing right down to the SDR outreach sequences that are going out. They should really be built on top of what your existing customers love and use most about your product. And if as a company, you are predominantly currently focused on customer acquisition, then the best place to start would be to understand your existing customers most loved features and the value they derive from those product features, and then turn that into product marketing content, sales enablement and outreach content, so that you can acquire more customers on those core premises of value. If the company's primary focus right now is retention or expansion, then the same product usage data can be applied towards highly personalized lifecycle marketing campaigns that are really pushing customer engagement with the product up. So that ranges from helping customers onboard in a systematic way. For instance, when I was at Zulily, we knew that our best customers had our mobile app, and they shopped at least four different product categories. So what did we do within marketing at Zulily? We essentially created an onboarding campaign that had about twelve emails in it that helped people do exactly those things. It's almost like you're creating a trail of breadcrumbs to drive customer behavior that will get them the most value out of the product. And that's essentially the next step after that is how do you find cross sell and upsell opportunities. So if the company is really focused on expansion revenue, then you can essentially harness your product usage data to identify accounts that are most likely to cross sell or upsell based on their usage. And then finally, if as a company, you are most focused on net revenue retention or churn prevention, product usage data can be used in a similar way. So I think it all really starts with what are the business objectives that we care about most as a company and then start there, focus there and eventually in vision state. You've covered all four segments where product usage has played from acquisition to onboarding and engagement, to expansion and cross sell and finally to churn prevention.

[18:04] Brandi Starr:   

So I think that is great, because what I'm hearing is the product data can be used throughout the entire cycle. And it's like identifying what is your biggest pain point? Where do you feel like the gap is. It's almost what's not working. If your man engine is going great, and acquisition is amazing but your churn is high, then that's your place to start is what I'm hearing. I know someone bans low hanging fruit in a past episode, and so I'm trying not to use that one. But it is the quick win, is another way to say that. Looking for a quick win. And I think the other thing that I'm hearing where this is a good pair, so in Episode 19, I talked to Christina around voice of customer and making sure that marketing leaders are actually spending time getting to know customers and being able to talk to customers. And in that, daily is what was recommended. That you need to have some sort of understanding on a daily basis of what customers are saying. And I think this product data feeds into that as well because it is like a touch point of understanding the customer where the customer's usage of your product is speaking to you around the voice of customer. So that is another key tie. So for anyone listening who hasn't listened to Episode 19, after you finish listening to Mona and I scroll back and take a listen to that one because I do think that I mean because Voice of Customer helps with your product development. It helps with the customer journey throughout all the touch points. So that is really key. I want to go back to something I thought about that I forgot to ask, when we were talking about getting the data, you talked about the importance of it being a C-suite sponsored or approved initiative. And I know getting resources and getting projects slated to be the highest priority can be tough. So if I'm a marketing leader and I'm trying to build that case, and not feeling like I've got the influence, how do I start to sell that internally to get the buy-in from my peers, so that we can actually make this happen?

[20:44] Mona Akmal:   

I will actually say use some buzzwords. They can be effective in some situations. I'm not the best person to provide advice on this honestly, because there's a reason why I left big companies, it's because I don't have the patience to build the case, I just want to get done with the work. I guess that makes me ideal to be a CEO. But jokes aside, I would say that 9 out of 10 companies I talked to as prospects want to be product driven. Even though they're not product lead, and they don't have a business model that will lead them to being product lead truly, people seem to be getting on the BLG bandwagon, which is that ultimately, the truth of how valuable our offering is sits inside our product. And so I would really try to capitalize on those buzzwords and say, look, the first step to being product lead, and here are the statistics on how BLG companies hit product market fit first. They optimize for customer value, love time to value, which are the durable indicators of long-term success. And they optimize for those earlier in their journey, even though their revenue numbers look a little slim in the beginning. But they get that true hockey stick growth. And if you don't get product market fit and time to value dialed in early, you struggle to get that hockey stick growth after your Series C or Series T. Things start to stall out. And that's where we see a lot of acquisitions happening. So I think we want to ground this initiative in. There is data that suggests that being product lead or product base will result in stronger product market fit, durability of business, and more revenue and more customer growth in the long run on a 10-year horizon. And all of it starts with being able to put product at the center of all disciplines, not just product management and engineering. And I've used this as a challenge when we're working with customers, and they're stuck in a backlog with the data engineering team. My ask of the C-level is just ask your data engineering team if this isn't a priority? Build a simple ROI analysis on the data that's in your warehouse right now. Let's start there. That can be an eye-opening exercise for the C suite on what the net benefit of all the money that they're spending on their data collection, data team investments are. And when they see how bad those that ROI is, these initiatives get funded like that.

[23:48] Brandi Starr:  

As I say, that's interesting, because that is one of the things that we work with clients on is trying to connect some of the marketing data. Because everybody's reporting on here's how email did, here's how ad spend is but nobody really is putting that together to paint a picture of the whole initiative. And we're working on a project now which is bringing the data into a data warehouse and figuring out how do we have an anchor metric? How do we connect these so that we can actually say what is the real influence and not this first touch, last touch attribution business. And you're right, in that there is a lot of data. And there is a lot of insight that can be gotten out of the data. But most people just get it in and it's like, okay, we got it all in and we can run some reports that are still the same kind of thing we could have pulled individually out of other systems. So I feel you when you talk about we do collect data like hoarders and we're not doing as much with it. And this is a quick win once you can get it out. So I love that. This has been really good. And go ahead and I know Falkon is a hot new thing. So go ahead and give us a shameless plug, tell us exactly what it is. I always try not to like pitch on the podcast but when I'm intrigued by technology, I do want to make sure that people are aware of what is out there. So tell me a little bit about what it is what it does, give me your elevator or escalator pitch so that I can better understand what Falkon is.

[25:43] Mona Akmal:  

Yes, absolutely. And thank you, I appreciate a moment for shameless plug. So Falkon is a go to market intelligence platform. And we essentially unify sales, marketing and product usage data into one clean format. And then we make it actionable for marketing teams, sales team, sales development teams and account management teams with one goal, which is create more revenue by spending less money. And that money is marketing dollars, sales reps, account management headcount, and so on, so that you can do more with less. And I genuinely believe that the market correction that we're seeing, the hubris of venture capitalism, that is being taken down a couple of notches, is going to help companies move towards being margin sensitive instead of growth at all costs. And we're here to help with that. Last thing I'll say is, as you know, I am in a rare camp in that I am deeply technical and I'm also a business leader. And so to me, one of the biggest things that we are trying to challenge is, to me, a lot of data teams are like going to a car dealership where you know you don't know enough, and you're going to get scammed because of it.  Getting data access is not hard. We've just been told it's hard so many times that we've all accepted it. And that's nonsense. And we're trying to essentially provide that unified go to market data in two weeks, so that you can get to doing the work that you want to do instead of spending a year building a data platform. That's it.

[27:24] Brandi Starr:  

Awesome. Well, talking about our challenges is just first step. And if nothing changes, nothing changes. So in traditional therapy the therapist would give the client homework, but here at Revenue Rehab, we like to flip that on its head and ask you to give us some homework. So for all of our listeners, especially those who are in SaaS based companies, what's that one thing, what's the one action item that you would like to give us for our listeners to take?

[27:57] Mona Akmal:   

Thank you. And I appreciate that you're not giving me homework. My therapist already gave me homework this morning so I will now just pay it forward. My one thing would be, create a one pager. Imagine you had access to all your product data. Create an inspirational one pager of all the things you would do with it if it was available to you, and the impact that that would have on your business and on your personal career. If that inspires you put some more energy in it and push it forward in your organization.

[28:29] Brandi Starr:   

I love that. I do that exercise or something similar with clients because a lot of times people think they want data. But when you really think about what you would do with that data, sometimes it's just nice to have. Sometimes it's like, oh, that would just be interesting. And it's like, well, that's great. It's like no, I want to know what you're actually going to do with it. So I like that. Our action item is to create that one pager. If you had access to all the product data based on what your users are doing what would you want and what would you do with it? Well Mona, I have enjoyed our discussion, but that's our time for today. But before we go, can you tell our audience how they can connect with you?

[29:18] Mona Akmal:  

Yes, absolutely. You can find me on LinkedIn, Mona Akmal or you can just email me at mona@falkon.ai and we couldn't afford the C so the Falcon is spelled FA-L-K-O-N.

[29:34] Brandi Starr:     

I love that. So as an Atlanta Falcons fans, I appreciate you switching the C to the K. Well, that is awesome. Thanks so much for joining me. And thanks to everyone for joining us today. I hope that you have enjoyed my conversation with Mona. Can't believe we are at the end already. We will see you next time.

[30:03] Outro:

You've been listening to Revenue Rehab with your host Brandi Starr. Your session is now over but the learning has just begun. Join our mailing list and catch up on all our shows at revenuerehab.live. We're also on Twitter and Instagram at Revenue Rehab. This concludes this week's session. We'll see you next week.

Mona Akmal Profile Photo

Mona Akmal

CEO

CEO, Co-founder at Falkon (Founded in 2020) with over 10 years of managing product teams at places like Microsoft, Zulilly, Code.org & Amperity. As a product & engineering veteran, she loves building elegant solutions to technically hard problems.

She moved to the U.S. at age 20 with a CS undergrad degree, an engineering job at Microsoft, and zero network of people. 20 years later, she's helped build many products, businesses and teams from 0 to scale:

- From 1M to 1B docs in the cloud with OneDrive & Office
- From 0 to 11M in ARR and 15 household brands as happy customers at Amperity
- From 10M to 100M students learning computer science on the Code.org platform

Falkon is a go-to-market intelligence platform with a mission to replicate successful deals for sales and marketing teams. Falkon unites sales, marketing, product usage, and third-party data, then uses machine learning to surface actionable insights based on successful deals.