How can marketers drive full funnel impact with revenue systems?
My guest Ahin Thomas is the VP of Revenue Operations at LeagueApps.
In this episode, he’ll share his guide to revenue systems, including:
- What is revenue operations?
- How to determine which campaigns will drive revenue
- The model that has the most impact for 98% of companies
- And more
Mentioned in this episode:
Voiceover: This is Performance Delivered, Insider Secrets for Digital Marketing Success with Steffen Horst and Dave Antil.
Steffen Horst: Welcome to the Performance Delivered Insider Secrets for Digital Marketing Success podcast, where we talk with marketing and agency executives and learn how they build successful businesses and their personal brand. I’m your host, Steffen Horst. The topic for today’s episode is driving full funnel impact, the marketer’s guide to revenue systems.
Here to speak with me is Ahin Thomas who is the VP of Revenue at LeagueApps, an operating system and community for youth and local sports leaders that provides them with the technology and professional network they need to succeed. Ahin is the GTM lead that drives success through the system side of the discipline. The last two outcomes were a Cloud Storage IPO and a Deep Dish Pizza PE Transaction. Ahin, welcome to the show.
Ahin Thomas: Thank you for having me. Pleasure to be here.
Steffen: Well, the pizza thing kind of made me hungry all of a sudden, I have to say. Anyway, before we talk about how to drive full funnel impact. Tell our listeners a little bit more about yourself. How did you get started in your career? And what led you to, you know, running revenue at LeagueApps?
Ahin: Yeah, oh, it’s revenue operations. But I like to think of it as that. That’s the important thing. I got bad news. We’re gonna talk more about pizza. So I got started in my career as a songwriter, which is obviously a total natural and when you’re arc to revenue operations and SaaS. I was a songwriter, and was writing pop music and loved the art of storytelling. That’s what drove me. Unfortunately, as I progressed in that field, I realized what didn’t drive me is working with musicians.
So I thought to myself, okay, where do I get a chance to tell stories. And a mentor of mine, his name’s Pat Connolly was the founding CMO at Williams-Sonoma. So I thought to myself, I should go be the CMO at Williams-Sonoma. I’ve been in his many fine homes. And so that’ll be a great job. So off I go to business school, to get into retail to go become the CMO at Williams-Sonoma. Which was my literal essay. I did end up going, I went to Wharton, went to Sears Holdings after that with Pat’s help, and then started a direct to consumer data co-op for the wine industry.
And so it’s there I’m figuring out okay, retail ecommerce, I get to tell stories, it’s about brand. But then I needed to sell these ad tech tools to the wine industry. And at that point, I realized, wait a minute, kind of if you’re selling frying pans to a cook, or you’re selling ad tech to a small winery owner, you are fundamentally trying to understand someone’s problem and tell them how your little widget or thing can solve it.
So then I realized, wait a minute, b2b, b2c, it’s all very similar from that storytelling standpoint. And that was interesting. And frankly, at the time, not a lot of nerds were going into SaaS. So now fast forward a little bit at that startup, we made it until our series B. And then didn’t make it further. We talk about it in the past tense. It’s called the Vintner’s Alliance. And then started going into infrastructure, first at a commerce platform, and then a cloud storage company called Backblaze.
And the insight there was okay, you’re using storytelling to help people solve their problems. Backblaze was a great, great, I was the first non founder executive of Backblaze, cloud storage company. I was running marketing there. Great success story competing against Microsoft, Amazon and Google in the core cloud storage market. Bootstrapped, and we took Backblaze public in 2021. So that was a lot of fun. And then I reflected on that, the successes we had there. Nilay Patel is my VP of Sales.
And I realized the revolutionary idea that would really help us drive success. And at Backblaze at the time, 90% of our revenue was from inbound and content marketing. But then it was a sales assisted motion. And so it was synchronizing the go to markets is what really drove our success. It turns out, I’m not that good of a marketer. And so that gets me into the revenue operations.
This idea of I want to, if I can synchronize the go to market motion to tell the story of what we think we can solve in the customer’s life, good things will follow. I’ve since applied that at the frozen pizza company, because cloud storage, frozen pizzas, again a total natural transition. And by the way, Lou Malnati shout out. And we’re at league apps now, which I’m thrilled to talk about, but I’ve done a lot of talking. So let me pause and ask if that all makes sense.
Steffen: It totally makes sense. Yeah. Now for people that are not so familiar with what revenue operations is, can you dive a little bit deeper into that?
Ahin: Yes, well, for your audience that is not familiar with revenue operations, I would say congratulations, you win. Because it is a completely made up profession, or discipline. And depending on who you ask, it will mean different things. It can, on one end of the scale, it is sales operations has rebranded to revenue operations. Which is fine. And I don’t begrudge them because sales and revenue usually go hand in hand.
At the other end of the spectrum, which is where my definition lies. It is the operations for your sales, marketing and customer success team. Breaking that down even further, it is the technology systems that are ultimately involved in those operations, as well as the data and insights. Because in the end to run holistic full funnel analytics, the systems all need to be talking to each other.
So my definition of revenue operations is that idea. Whatever you would define as your revenue organization, let’s take their tech, the data insights, centralize that in one place. You get some scale in your org design. But I think more importantly, it’s a way to force alignment across the revenue teams.
Steffen: Yeah. Do you start off with defining processes and work streams before you look for systems, or do you go the other way around?
Ahin: Other way around. I find, you know, this is funny, you know, for any fledgling revenue operators out there, here’s the secret to getting the job. You talk to the CEO, and you say, or the CFO, and you say, I think we over engineer our systems and processes. And as a recovering marketer, I’ll be pejorative of my marketing colleagues. When a marketer says I want to do ABM, that actually doesn’t mean anything. And it surely doesn’t mean and, you know, look, Jon Miller at Engagio and before that Marketo, he’s done amazing work.
But it doesn’t mean I need to bring both on this massive SaaS automation solution on top of my marketing existing one. So it’s all about what are we trying to do? How are we trying to do it? And you know, in this way, the revenue ops discipline is engineering product centric in that, tell me about your problems. Let me figure out how to solve it. As opposed to leading with I went to this great sushi dinner, so now we need to sign up for a year subscription of thing X.
Steffen: Yeah, I like the idea that the operations part goes across sales and marketing, because I think a lot of times, sales and marketing are not properly communicating with each other, right? They use different systems, they don’t pass information back and forth. And by looking at it, looking at the operations side, across both, you kind of align both. There’s already a communication happening from a system perspective. And I would assume, when you do that, you also get the sales and marketing teams to communicate better with each other.
Ahin: That’s right. I mean, you know, there’s the old stereotype, sales and marketing where like cats and dogs. As a marketer, I can’t believe my sales team can’t close all these amazing leads I send them. And as a sales leader, it’s like, you know, if I could just get a friggin good lead every once in a while, we could really do something. But everyone is fundamentally motivated. You come from a place of we want the company to succeed.
But as you said, that coordination and the metrics that most teams guide to actually are not helpful. Picking at the top of the funnel, you know, marketing might say, listen, we’ve generated 1000 leads today. And it turns out 990 of those leads were some campaign gone wrong, that has nothing to do with your customers. So what sales sees is I only got 10 inbound leads today. And of those 10, one of them is actually a whale.
And one of them came maybe from the AdWords campaign, a non-brand campaign we’re running. The other, all these other ones are complete trash. Well, if marketers don’t get that feedback loop, they might think the 990 was what drove the revenue. And, you know, there are plenty of versions I can give from that. The sales standpoint too. Both have to be true.
Steffen: Yeah, I think you just made a good point. It’s that kind of, I see that quite a lot when talking to clients that you talk to marketing, it’s like, well, we’re looking for leads. And then when you start a conversation with sales, you get a different view or get a different voice, basically. And at the end, it’s about what comes out at the bottom right?
How many opportunities, how many sales are you generating out of the leads that marketing sends to them. You know, you can overwork the sales team by spamming them with a lot of crap leads, and then they still need to be qualified, which takes time. Or you can fine tune your marketing activities in a way that you focus more lead generation on the type of leads that actually have a higher likelihood of converting.
Steffen: For that you need information from the sales side in order to do that.
Ahin: You need information and you need common information. Because now let me add more complexity to our lives. It may turn out that lead generation is not a problem, conversion is. And by the way, you know, we put the full power of a marketer’s mind, their storytelling, their ability to syndicate the content. By that I mean, yes, I’m going to send an email, but I’m also going to coordinate my banner ads and YouTube retargeting and all that good stuff. You put that in the mid, I’m picking on an enterprise sale, on the mid funnel, when you know, right around when the BDR is trying to get the demo scheduled, your conversion rates are gonna go up.
Steffen: Of course.
Ahin: And that two days worth of effort may mean more to us than an incremental 10 leads that are coming down a leaky bucket. And so if you can get the leaders in the same room, at the same time, looking at the same metrics, then again, we all frankly, if the company succeeds, our equity goes up, we’re all gonna get paid. So let’s just do that.
Steffen: Yeah, yeah. Now, I mean, look, I quite often I’m in a situation when we start working, we drive less leads, and then they start to freak out. It’s like, well, before we had 100, now you’re driving 50. And then we’re looking at what happens with the leads. Actually, well yeah, but out of the 50, you have two or three times as many sales, right? Isn’t that better instead of having to increase your sales force, because you all have the leads that need to be worked, but they are actually a very small likelihood of converting. So now you get leads that you can focus on and you can work hard and that at some point become a sale.
Ahin: That’s right. And you know, look, activity based metrics, have a kind of volume based metrics have a purpose. Don’t get me wrong. But I love that example. Because you’re like, I’m sorry, did we want more form fields today, or did we want more customers? And we actually need to decide which one we’re optimizing to.
Steffen: Now I wanted to talk about full funnel impact today. What systems are required to drive full funnel impact?
Ahin: That’s a great question. So I think, you know, let’s do the obvious ones. And then we’ll see how far you’ll let me nerd out on data infrastructure. So the obvious ones are, you know, if we’re, if I’m thinking about a SaaS context, and these are generally applicable, but I’m gonna need some sort of web analytics. Google and GA4 is a whole, GA4 and the privacy centric world brings a whole host of challenges. So for as another quick vendor shout out, I love fueled.io, which is, you know a GA4 implementation that helps you go first party on the scripts.
But you need web analytics. Those web analytics generally are going to go into some marketing automation system, which candidly, I prefer to call the email machine. And you know, then your sales team is going to need a CRM. I actually, from a product standpoint, have a lot of criticism of Salesforce, but it’s kind of irrelevant, right? Because if you make a decision to not go with Salesforce as your CRM, then you’re making decisions about how you even are able to hire and train sales reps.
Most companies, you know, certainly through the growth stage don’t want to deal with that. The one thing on the, and then you know, on the there’s actually way more choices on a support level, but let’s just call it Zendesk, because that’s similar to Salesforce. Probably what you’re gonna choose. The one big caution I make when selecting systems is your marketing automation and sync to your CRM is going to be very complicated and hard, no matter what selection of vendors you choose.
And there are technical reasons, but behind that it has to do with relational databases. But in the end, even if you stay inside the Salesforce ecosystem, this kind of marketing to sales sync is very, very difficult. Totally solvable. But you know, the idea of well, I’m going to stay inside the Salesforce cloud, it’s going to make my life easier. In practice, I have not found that.
Steffen: So there’s always a discussion around should you have one system that can do a lot to make that integration part disappear, right? Because if you, let’s use HubSpot, for example. You know, HubSpot gives you CRM, gives you a sales system. You can do content, you can do social, I mean there’s so many features the system has that basically makes the integration part almost disappear because you’re connecting already, you know, organically or automatically with each other. Where are you? Are you in favor of having a system that can do a lot so that you don’t have so many different systems? Or are you rather looking at what systems are the best to achieve my goal, and then I find a way to kind of connect them with each other?
Ahin: The latter. I start from what systems are best to achieve my goal. And obviously, you know, if you all else equal, having one less system is better. But the reason I try to optimize from what is best to achieve my goal is kind of fundamentally one, because I believe that’s most likely to grow the company. But probably more importantly, two to have full funnel impact, you actually have no choice but to deal with the integration problem.
And this gets to your data infrastructure, because actually the HubSpot marketing automation to their CRM is probably I’m imagining, you chose that for a specific reason. Which is probably the one thing that comes closest to satisfying kind of marketing and sales needs. It actually does sync. But you still need to be able to pipe in both information from the web, even if you’re using the HubSpot forms.
And the real gotcha is you’re going to need to have some sense of information coming from your billing system. And so at that moment, you have to make a decision about your integration and data infrastructure architecture. And as you make that decision, I’m happy to talk about how I think about it, then you’ve crossed the chasm into well, I need to pipe data from one system to another. So now, the barrier to having two to three systems is much lower.
Steffen: So how do you think about that?
Ahin: I think about it, and I think the vast majority of companies should think about it in a hub and spoke model. There are many buzzwords and jargon and approaches to this data mesh, the hub and spoke, hybrid, all of them are valid. But in the end, 98% of successful companies, I can talk about the 2% are best off going with a hub and spoke model. And this is one of the big secrets to having full funnel impact. It’s an ego question, because it turns out the hub is none of the systems.
Your hub is your data warehousing infrastructure. If you keep your hub as an independent system, your data warehousing, then that becomes the source of the truth. And you can federate the truth across any number of systems using out of the box technologies. And, and again, more importantly, I think on the marketing and CS side and the sales side, vendors come and go. The best in class for solving a given problem changes every three to five years. And then your problems might actually change every one to two years.
So there is no permanent answer. Having an architecture based around hub and spoke makes your switching costs incredibly lower. It creates a world where your data actually is unified. So as you bounce from system to system, you get the same revenue number, which is a profound on law. And it’s reliable in that you don’t get this scenario where oh my gosh, this thing broke six weeks ago, and no one noticed. And now we have this, we have a gap in time.
Steffen: That makes sense. Now, once you set up your system, and once you identify the systems that you need for your new gig, once you set everything up, when the processes are in place, how do you as a marketer, figure out what campaigns are actually driving revenue, especially keeping in mind the privacy issues that we’re going to face a year from now, two years from now?
Ahin: Yep. Today.
Steffen: Or today. Yeah.
Ahin: So I would say, you know, my decision tree, I guess the first decision is, am I getting actual revenue feedback in the place where I have kind of campaign level information. And for the purpose of this conversation let’s overly simplified down to just UTMs. If I do not have a place where I can fundamentally join that information, I kick off a work stream as quickly as possible to make that happen. Because in the end, that is the only way you’re going to find out if your campaigns are working.
Now, life isn’t perfect and funding is certainly imperfect, even in companies with a ton of cash. So when I walk in the door and I’m trying to figure out what campaigns are working or valuable, I just think about the signals that I have. I look at, for the sake of the example, let’s say our sales cycle is something like 30 days. Kind of a lower ticket. Then I can look at our revenue months. You know, what months has revenue come in. And then I look at the campaigns that are running. You look at things like Google Analytics.
Listen, like, where was the traffic coming in? What do the UTMs say about the traffic in the months where we had revenue spikes? Does it correlate, even eyeball correlate, to what I’ve been paying for, for my campaigns? You know, that’s an example of a very simplistic kind of direct response type campaigns. But let me pause, I can go further there, or we could take a turn elsewhere.
Steffen: Yeah, that’s, I mean, the question I have here for you is, as we’re talking about a full funnel impact, right, and there are media activities or marketing activities, not to kind of just focus on media, marketing activities that touch different parts of the funnel. How do you approach identifying the value of something that happens on the upper funnel, mid funnel, and lower funnel?
I mean, lower funnel usually, you see kind of, oh, there’s a conversion happening from the paid search ad, right, which is kind of easier to attribute. But how do you look at what happens before when people are discovering a brand? And then the products and the services, compare it, etc? And it’s not directly a sale, a lead attached to that? How do you look at that? And how do you associate value of that? Assign value to that?
Ahin: Yeah, yeah, that can you know, it goes from oh, well, you just come up with a metric. What information or interaction can I capture at this moment in time, that’s the best case scenario. Or in the worst case scenario, you have something like what we did at Backblaze, which is, let me describe this motion to you. So I left Backblaze in 2020, end of 2020. So that last year, and all this information is public, we drove 3 million unique visitors to our blog, storage focused blog.
Zero of it was paid. And there’s this mysticism to our funnel, where you see these blog visits. And then months later, you get a big deal. And you’re listening to the gong recording. And you hear oh, yeah, I’ve been reading your blog for six months. Okay, how did that happen? Or we were on Reddit with you. Wow. And so I simultaneously, I approach all my campaigns with an incredible level of skepticism. I’m going to assume this is not working, and I’m looking for indicators that would change my mind.
The second part of it is I do look at those interaction points, and try to create tests. So what does that mean? You know, in a content focused world, one thing we started doing is we said, okay, we don’t want to be intrusive, we’re not going to put our content behind a gate. Of course, we’re asking for an email when you read it. But we also don’t want to get in your way. So then we start bucketing the types of content we published.
And we look at, okay, this content was focused on media storage, and of all the blog posts in the last year that we’ve had on media storage that we then can kind of trace oh, here’s some email capture. Long run, when we close the deal, we ask how did you hear about us? Those kinds of metrics. Here’s what those blog posts that worked, so identifying something that worked, here was their traffic in the first 24 hours after publication. Here was the time on page and the first 24 hours after publication. And so those are the metrics I could grab.
And I had to admit to myself, look, these are leading indicators. But if you ask me a week into what’s fundamentally going to be a three month campaign, it’s the best thing I got. And that lets us start looking at some quantifiable metrics of how it’s going. And then we look at a lot of qualitative. One of the best ones is go to the AEs that are relevant for that vertical and for that target audience. If you write with an audience in mind. And you just go to your AE, you hand it to him and say, Is this something you think you would give to one of our customers?
And if you’re, when your sales team says anywhere from, yeah, it could work or interesting, that’s basically the best compliment a writer can ever get. But more often than not, what I found was I’d get feedback with a lot more color and salty language that was this appears like you’re writing to ourselves. Why don’t you listen to one of my demo calls and find out how our customers actually talk and what their actual problems are.
Steffen: Yeah, I mean, I think the blog part or developing content is always something that is hard to tie back to the bottom line at the end of the day. And I think what you said is indicative of it. It sometimes can take quite a long time, till you see whether a piece of content actually contributes to the bottom line.
Because you might not convert someone on the first touch when they need to get warm, or they need to, they need to discover you as a company. And then how you talk about things, how you think about things to feel comfortable reaching out, and starting that sales conversation at the end of the day. That might take longer than just the, you know, the 30 day sales window that you have.
Ahin: That’s right. And you know, another trick, air quotes, air quotes on the trick that I like to use is, this kind of gets in the world of brand impressions and brand campaigns. A big thing is I miss this again, more more centered on marketers, be plain about what success is. And so one another area, Nilay and I found success. Nilay, the VP of Sales at Backblaze is we would sit down, look at our campaign calendar, look at the content calendar and actually collaborate on that. And we would flag moments when we could both agree, hey, we’re doing this for brand reason x.
And the test we use, we call it the prison interview. That if our CEO would ask either one of us, why are you doing this? Would we explain it in the same way? And at that point, when you do that, when you have that kind of alignment, you do the brand campaign, listen, some days, you’re gonna find out, hey, that was horribly wrong. But the goal isn’t a high bat percentage. The goal is listen, if we are, I think, if we are all executing on the same coherent plan at the same time, in the long run, that’s going to work out.
Steffen: Yeah, that makes sense. Now, what best practice do you apply to tie a lead to a dollar, to sale at the end?
Ahin: Yeah, well, it depends how complicated you want to get. So at LeagueApps, we fundamentally still use software to manage your sports organization. And that can be in a SaaS sale, where you have multiple decision influencers. The person that was the initial lead that filled out the form or downloaded the white paper, often is not the person whose name is on the close one deal. And this is the relational database problem.
So at that point, you need to ideally, you need to be able to join, hey, listen, the person who filled out the lead was named Matt. But Matt’s boss is Sarah. Sarah made the decision. Do we have an account record with both of those contacts on it? And can we look at the account level? That’s what I think of as the right answer. Because in the end, it is. There are more simplistic ways to do it.
One step down is parse the email domain and look at your customer list. One step down from that is particularly kind of lower volume SaaS scenarios. You know, when you’re talking about a couple 100 deals a month, just make a spreadsheet and do a monthly review of the deals that closed versus the 500 leads that came. You know, it’s two hours of your life you’ll never get back. But you’ll end up with the answer.
Steffen: Yeah, yeah, that makes sense. I mean, what you just said is obviously one of the most, I would say common scenarios. The people that will use your software are not the ones that sign on the dotted line, right? Those are the champions that that do the legwork and identify what solutions will be perfect to help them in their day to day, and kind of you have to sell to them. But you also have to give them information so that they can go to Sarah and can say, Sarah, this is the software solution that we want. I looked at A, B, C, none of them compared to them. Have a look. And then basically sell.
Ahin: Yes. And admit our limitations or shortcomings. So yes, we’re trying to close the Sarah’s of the world. And cultivating the Sarah’s really means getting Matt to make a pitch. And so yes, we look at the blog posts, and the Reddit interactions, and the tweets and all that good stuff. And the minute in the Backblaze case, we thought of it as our social team.
The minute we could get them to articulate their process, how they approach it, okay, there is a deliberation here. Then it’s much easier to say you know what, we are allocating in the end 15%, X percent of our resources to this cultivation. And other than looking at how many form fields resulted the next month, I’m actually not going to interrogate. You know, why did we host that AMA? I don’t know.
But they’re delivering their numbers, I trust them on a portfolio level. And they’re delivering their output numbers. And getting that last mile on tracking interactions on Twitter is, you know, incredibly difficult for anybody. And certainly anybody that short of you know, that has massive, massive data engineering teams that can focus on that kind of stuff.
Steffen: Ahin, unfortunately, we’ve come to the end of today’s podcast episode. I still have a few questions on my list here, but I think we’ll run long if we go through those. Thank you so much for joining me on the Performance Delivered podcast in sharing your thoughts on driving full funnel impact. Now, if people want to find out more about you, about LeagueApps, how can they get in touch?
Ahin: One, thank you for having me. This was a ton of fun. Appreciate the opportunity for the self promotion. With a name like Ahin, I’m an easy guy to find. So, Ahin Thomas on LinkedIn on Twitter or in my inbox, I’m old school that way. Ahinthomas@gmail, or athomas@league apps. You know, and then how do you find out more about LeagueApps, leagueapps.com.
And I would say if you are a particularly for those in the audience that are parents, youth sports is coming your way. That is an inevitability. And so then there’s a question about the software and the network you tap into. And is that network caring about the experience of the athlete? Which for what it’s worth, is the LeagueApps’ angle. Or is it a profit maximizing thing in a massive high margin industry, which I’ll paint many of my competitors with that motivation.
I would encourage you to check out LeagueApps. We do great, great access work. We have a nonprofit that we dedicate not only 1% of our revenue, called fun play, but also perpetual licensing to our technology and a number of volunteers from the company. So it’s a great place to be if you are interested in the experience of kids in America.
Steffen: Perfect. Well, as always, we’ll leave that information in the show notes. Thanks everyone for listening. If you liked the Performance Delivered podcast, please subscribe to us and leave us a review on iTunes or your favorite podcast application. If you want to find out more about Symphonic Digital you can visit us at symphonicdigital.com or follow us on Twitter at Symphonic HQ. Thanks again and see you next time.
Voiceover: Performance Delivered is sponsored by Symphonic Digital. Discover audience-focused and data-driven digital marketing solutions for small and medium businesses at symphonicdigital.com.