Hey Paul, thanks so much for joining me today on the SaaS breakthrough podcast. Excited to have you and FreshBooks here. How are you doing today?
I'm doing great. It's it's great to be here as well.
Yeah, I'm super excited to have you, someone as experienced as you, with so much knowledge to share . Before we get into our conversation on FreshBooks and on marketing, why don't we just kick it off, you can explain a bit about FreshBooks, when it was founded, who your customers are and what you're doing uniquely in the marketplace.
Yeah, of course. So FreshBooks, we've been around for about 15 years. We were founded in 2003, I believe. And so we're a cloud accounting platform. We really focus on helping small business owners manage their books and their finances and their business. And, you know, people might be familiar with other folks in the category like, like QuickBooks or Xero or other folks like that. But the real differentiator between us and our competitors is that we've really focused on the small business owner. So other platforms in the accounting space often really kind of focus on, on the accountant and making sure that their platform is really built for them where ours is, is really specifically tuned to make sure that the owner can kind of manage their books and and not have to be a financial manager.
That makes a lot of sense. When did you actually join the team?
I'm a year and a half in and into my role. So fairly new, but it feels like a lot's happened over, over that amount of time.
Some stuff has happened, right?
Yeah, of course. So, so it felt like I've dealt with a few different lifetimes so far being in the chair.
That's fantastic. Coming in as the CMO, what was the major pain point that the company was hiring for having been so established for so long?
Yeah, for sure. So, you know, whenever there's like a CMO hire, it's usually kind of indicating that something in the organization is changing. And, and so of course there was. So we were trying, the company was going on focused growth effort. So, you know, we've done really well. We're growing a fairly sizeable customer base. We've really done well in North America as our, as kind of our home. Most of our customers are in the United States, some in Canada, and then we've got customers across the world in about 160 countries, but we're concentrated here. So, so our focus was how can we, how can we take what we've done here and continue to kind of dose it in gas and light it on fire, but then also go into, into these other markets as well, and and really kind of drive a fairly focused growth effort across the company. So I came in to really kind of help help do that, help get some of the new channels that we were lighting up with a direct sales force, making sure our self-serve funnel was optimized as much as it could be. So did a lot of effort and activity around that in terms of doing the standard CMO things like reorging, right when you get in the door.
So it sounds like there was a major expansion in the US and international, it sounds like you also had, you know, very strong product market fit already here in the US evolving, probably that customer ICP internationally, just because of the international users there. But I guess, the major question that comes to mind is how has FreshBooks won in the SMB industry. Like, you know, it's just, it's a hard industry to be in. It's small businesses. There's a higher than average churn. You're probably dealing with customers that may have gone out of business last year or struggling, how have you guys been able to figure out how to stay competitive in a marketplace when the user base is just, it's just a harder user base to be.
Yeah. SMB is tough. And we kind of focus on the smaller edge of the SMB spectrum. So, you know, like, like most products we grew out of a pain point. So Mike McDermott, who's the, was one of the founders? He had a problem where he overwrote an invoice and think way back to early two thousands, there wasn't cloud software. And there wasn't like lots of tools for us to use the, the market was dominated a lot by enterprise software. And so, you know, he was of course using like Excel or something to do a lot of his tracking and stuff. And, and so he had a pain point and said, Hey, I, you know, there must be a better way. Right. So, and then, then built FreshBooks out of that. So it started off on customer pain points.
So I think one of the, one of the things that's been very core to what we do is being hyper-focused on the customer and, and really making sure that as we're kind of looking at the evolution of the company and we've of course evolved to go from like an invoicing platform to supporting lots of different types of jobs that customers are doing to, to helping provide accounting support for them, it's always been centered around like, how can we evolve it based on the needs and the business workflows that owners are specifically focused at. So I think one of the main things that we've always done is have that kind of hyper customer focus whenever we've been doing anything. So that's one of the key things. So really is, it's driven, driven a lot of the success. You know, there's been lots of different changes over the, over the years in terms of how the go-to markets have been done or, or how we're acquiring customers and all those types of things. But you know, that thread through it is is just making sure that we're building things that actually are meeting pain points that people have in their day-to-day lives.
It makes marketing so much easier, right? When the product and the organization is aligned to that specific target market. So, you know exactly who you're talking to, how to talk to them, you can build those features, your product board gets so much better and easier to manage. So, yeah, I think that's, that's a great answer. I do want to dig into brand. Obviously you kind of came in over the past year and a half, looked at the org, but I know you guys also looked at a possible rebrand that lately. Talk to us a little bit about, you know, how you look at brand values, especially in today's market and why you implemented a rebrand in the company?
I mentioned the first cliche thing that a CMO does, which was do a reorg. And I did the second thing as well, which is a rebrand. I didn't come in and say, Hey, we need to do a rebrand. I came in and there was already a two year effort that had been in place, really a grassroots initiative that was driven by a brand council. And they were looking at, you know, a couple of things. One was like, what do we represent? So they didn't start with like, Hey, we need to do a new logo and have some new colors. They started, they started out with, are we actually still living the values and, and the promise that we've made to our customers. And so this effort was already going on. And I came in and I was like, Oh my God, it was a month in to the job.
There was a big brand fair. Where the entire company was mobilized to look at, like, what are the things that we can be thinking about? What are the moonshots that we could be taking to help really kind of hone in on the challenges that small business owners were having? And, you know, there was, there was a whole bunch of research that was done. We really kind of fine tuned the emotional area and the challenge that owners have in terms of going through their journey of growth and really wanted to make sure that everything we were doing as a brand was answering that. So all the hard work was done. Like the hard part of rebranding is around the corporate change management. It's not about like how you take it to market and, you know, the logo that you put into market, it's really about making sure that the experiences that you're creating are matching what you you're saying that you want to actually stand for.
So when I came in, like, really my job was to be the catalyst to help push it over the goal line. So we'd gone down the whole field and we were right there at a foot out from the end zone. And I just had to kind of keep us moving and keep the momentum going so that we could actually then take it to market. So I needed to do all that awesome work that was done internally by the team and just start telling those stories externally. The biggest challenge was like, we weren't telling our customers why we were different and we weren't telling the market what makes us unique to other people. So, so really that was, that was the impetus for what I really needed to do.
You said you started to test that and talk about it like to customers and stuff like that, but how do you test that before you launch it? Like you get alignment from executive leadership, you have the design, you have the field, now you have to test before you release it. Like, talk to me a little bit about that. Like, what does that process actually look like? And, you know, when is there enough feedback to be like, okay, maybe we shouldn't launch this.
A couple of things that we did there. So, so one was like all of the lead up work. You know, we had engaged an agency partner called Son & Sons around a lot of the, a lot of the support work to help work with the brand council in terms of getting the strategy kind of nailed down. I came in to help really kind of fine tune the strategy and get it down into a nice concise format. And, and you know, we made sure like, Hey, we've got all that alignment. The next stage again, was like, I engaged another agency partner called Ostrich and run by a gentleman named Pat Citizens. And one of the kind of interesting things we do as well is that, you know, we don't go to big agencies. We go to people who kind of fit our target segment as well.
So we kind of lean, as I mentioned to the smaller side of the SMB market. So, you know, Pat runs an agency of 10 people, based up here in Toronto Canada, where I am, and Son & Sons are based down in Atlanta. Again, they're kind of like a 20 person shop down there. So, so we, we really kind of make sure the people in the partner network that we're working with also kind of lives in and understands the mindset, of our customer, which is immensely helpful. But then we, you know, we develop all the creative, do all the stuff, build the logos, do the brand palette and color and work and make sure everything works across all of the integrated activity that we're doing. And then we take it to market. So what we did was we ran a test down in Texas that launched kind of late February and just took it to market, had ran it in Houston, Dallas, Fort Worth and Austin, and just made sure we had a couple of different tracking tools.
We were using partnering with Google and Facebook, as well as running our own studies so that we weren't getting anything that might be somewhat biased and just looked at all of the different levers across the business. So, you know, we're a very, we play a heavy attrition funnel game here at FreshBooks. So, you know, we're all about just driving that top of funnel traffic and making sure we can convert it along the way. And we looked at how our core measures performed. So, you know, not, not so much just looking at things like, Hey, did they like what we were saying? But we wanted to dial in a little bit more on, like, if we're saying this stuff, are we actually going to be moving the dial in terms of generating that kind of like early indicators, that we're going to get the pipeline that we actually needed.
So, so we looked at all of those factors, we got the brand lift that we're looking for. You know, we got all the top indicators that, yeah, it was resonating with the audience. People understood what we were telling them. They saw it as being credible and from a company like us as well. But more importantly, we actually saw like a lift in terms of our search volume in the Texas area, as actually search volume was decreasing because COVID started to hit right at that time, we were actually improving all of our results. And we were getting more people like signing up for trial accounts and all those types of things. So, you know, over the month that the initial campaign ran, we got all of the indicators that it was, it was the right move to take it to market. And then, and then of course COVID and lockdowns and all of the pandemic activity that happened really just kind of pushed off when we were going to do that. So we were originally planning on doing it in May, and then we just kind of push it off till the fall, when, when there was a little bit more stability in the market, and we knew how, how our business would actually be trending.
That was obviously a very tough time for your customers, obviously for you guys serving those customers too. So I'm sure there was a lot of unknown, but that was a great answer. I appreciate you explaining that. And that's, you know, really talking a lot about data. You guys are obviously looking at data a ton to make those decisions. And I like how you kind of try to remove as much bias as you could to really understand what were the functional items that made sense from this brand lift. But I know you guys have also done a shift where you've started to use internal data. Like, I don't want to say individual customer data, but customer trends in your business, as you know, a part of your marketing strategy. I would love to know, you know, how an experiment like that was created and why, and maybe the results.
Yeah, of course. So, you know, I think most companies have like this raw material that they have, that they're not really exploiting for marketing purposes. And, when I came in, we started looking at things that we had that existed. Like I've got a customer base that loves to network with each other. Whenever we put them in rooms, they always, they always talk to each other. We've got other stuff like invoicing and expense data. So we would be able to reveal those things back to customers if they, if it might be helpful from their business planning standpoint. So, so when we were looking at this stuff, we said, Hey, you know, why don't we do something with this and be able to surface it back to our customers so that we can actually help them run their businesses. So, you know, in last, it was probably in the summer we then were also approached by one of the governments in up here in Canada.
And they were saying, Hey, can you, how can we work together to be able to get a pulse of what's happening within the small business sector? So, so those two things kind of were the main driver of us starting to go into our data and, and look at it to. And what we did was build a health index for how is the small business economy actually running. So we looked at, did people have a downturn through all of the lockdowns? Looking at all a bunch of factors, like, you know, the income that they were they were recording in our platform. We looked at their expense data and the types of expenses that they had. We looked at other indicators, like, are they adding new clients into the platform as well? So there's all these different things to kind of give us the ability to understand how small businesses are actually fairing.
So, you know, one thing we were helping provide it back to the government so that they could inform their stimulus packages and what they should be doing. And, and at what levels were, were small businesses being affected. And then we can, you know, obviously then divide it up by sector and by region as well. So look at the differences, like in different areas of the US or over in the UK or up in Canada, or over, in some of the APAC countries as well. So, so it was, it, it was amazing because like, you know, then we started getting excited about it and going like, okay, how can we spin this data and look at it differently? And what are some of the insights that we can come up with here? And, and we found other things like, you know, what were women-owned businesses doing versus male owned businesses?
And, and, you know, we found out things like, Hey, women-run businesses were affected more than male ones. And they had, they took three times longer to recover. And they didn't recover to the same levels. So, so all of these pieces are something that I'm like very excited about and want to kind of double down on, because one, this is a content magnet. If I'm able to help other businesses understand where they stand and how are they tracking and trending versus versus where their books are telling them, then all of these things are incredibly powerful for our customers or prospects or anybody in the SMB space to be able to understand, like, how is their business going to fair and how are they managing their cash and their cashflow. And what should they be preparing for.
I am absolutely blown away. I think that's a great story. First of all, with being able to provide the value to the government and also with the stimulus packages. So really a huge impact to the country, to businesses there, but there's so much raw potential with that content you have, I'm excited to see how you break it down. I can just visually see all the different elements from infographics to videos to explain tutorials to, like you said, like having some way to have a public way to like, just segment the data, to see where you rank against other businesses. Like, you guys have so much potential there and a really just good marketing idea on how to utilize your own data to inform the marketplace that you're in. So that's fantastic. Have you guys launched anything yet with it?
Well, a couple of reports. So, you know, what I want to do is just make it so what we are doing is we're working right now on a tool and, which should launch in the next month which will be a resource for people to go and play with the data and be able to analyze it on their own. In the meantime, on our site, just on freshbooks.com, if they go to the resources section, they'll be able to find a couple of reports that we've produced, a general report, as well as the women's report and a trade specific report. I'm pumped about it. Cause I think like these are the types of things where, you know, just purely from a marketing standpoint, yeah like I know that I'll be able to go and gate the content, bring people in collect a lot of email addresses, building up like our primary customer database of prospects, as well as trialers and customers, is hugely important as we're moving into the deprecation of third-party cookies.
So, so just like the marketer in me is, is like, knows that this is super important. But then the other side of me, like the data side of me is like, Oh, what are the things that I can, like, how can we like dig into this and be able to get into the data? Like, how can I tell, like a graphic designer in North Dakota, how much they should be billing for their billable rate based on all the other people who are billing within their area as well with, against those types of customers. So there's so many, like really kind of cool things that we would be able to reveal in the data and ways that we'd be able to help businesses. The one thing that's like, kind of, you know, going back to the brand conversation is really kind of important to us is how can we help people at a grassroots level? Like how can we just help them with their business and run their business every day, as opposed to just being like, you know, the big SaaS provider company, that's just like, you know, providing them with this tool and then is a utility in their life. We really want to be meaningful in the lives of our customers.
Is that like an educational center? So the way I kind of see is like, you could do run an ad for that specific person. Like you said, like for all small business graphic designers show, you know, the data of the graphic designers, get their email address and then create like a small free course that walks them through how to optimize their business as a designer.
Oh yeah, totally. Like we, there's areas that we obviously help in terms of whether it's growth areas or, you know, ideas on how they can scale their business up. But when we get into like this invoicing and expensing data, there's, there's so much richness in terms of being able to provide texture around how someone should be, could be running their business and what they can be doing. I just see this as like a huge opportunity for us to be able to say like, you know, there's, there's not a lot of sexiness in accounting or, or double-sided accounting. And so, but if we're able to kind of make it a little bit sexier by helping people optimize their spending or figure out how much they should be spending or providing them with more value back by through perks or other things, because we know that how they spend or what other like people spend like them, there's so many things that we get to be help providing to people. That's that's the part that gets really kind of interesting to me.
I'm super excited. I think this is, this is going to open up so much opportunity for some really unique marketing ideas, concepts, content. I can really just see it in my head, how all this can play out. But yeah, I agree. It's like some of these things in B2B are so hard to make sexy, and then you find these, these little gems and these little moments, and you can really have something unique that stands out. So it's always exciting when you find them. Now, I know one of those things that you probably saw when you were looking at that data over the last 12 months was, you know, just how businesses have started to look at marketing spend, advertising. I think last year when I was doing this podcast, I kept hearing the first thing that was getting cut in most companies, marketing, advertising, really cutting that back. I know you guys have also been experimenting with, you know, scaling spend. You've seen a lot of that data. Talk to me a little bit about that. What, you know, what does that look like when you guys start to scale out advertising?
The challenge is always, how much can you put into the machine from a cash standpoint, but, and what does that curve look like and how do you maintain efficiency? So, you know, this past year was a really challenging one because we had no idea what the baseline was. And so we started spending more, like if I looked at what happened in the months following like all of March, when in April, when a lot of the, a lot of the countries went into a lockdown period ,you know, if I could go back in time, I would like double down on the amount of money that I was spending there. Everybody exited the market. There was just like a huge amount of inventory. There was a lot of people that were still looking for software and solutions to run their business. We were like massively effective and it was great.
And it was a period of time where we're just so many companies exited the market and were so unsure as to what was happening. They were just holding on to their wallets, making sure that they weren't going to be spending inefficiently. Our biggest challenge right now is, is like, as we keep wanting to grow, how do we do it in a way that is gonna make all of the metrics make sense? So we look at key like KPIs like CAC, like most companies, we look at our LTV to CAC and what those ratios look like. And, and how do we make sure that we're not going to blow those things up as we're starting to go into market and increase our spend? There's different spending profiles by region, by customer type. It's very, very difficult. You need to make some assumptions all across the funnel. And then, and then be on top of everything that's happening from like a cohort conversion basis to make sure that on your month one conversions are happening, your month two conversions are happening, your month three. And just, and just being on top of your numbers to make sure all of those assumptions are tracking. And if they're not then quickly re forecasting or fixing something within your funnel to make sure that you're improving your performance or making the numbers that you need to make.
How do you solve that quickly, like on a day-to-day basis, or is that more like a week-to-week basis? And you're just making new changes every week?
Well I wish I had annual targets only, but that's unfortunately not the case. We have like, you know, I've got to deliver the numbers and I think the, you know, the biggest challenge is like, if we don't convert the gross new MRR that we wanted to, or that we want to in January, the knock on effect of is going to be felt in compounds every month following that. So and, and conversely, the more that we deliver, the better the year will end up looking like. So, you know, I think the balance with all of this stuff is like, how do you make sure that you can, you can address the short term tactical things that need to be done to help conversion, whether it's building campaigns that are taking folks that had not converted and just being fast and running specifically targeted programs or, or running win-back campaigns for people who may have churned or doing some specific things within, within your onboarding experience to try to help help drive activity, and balancing that with that long-term view as to what's going to be like those fundamental shifts that will do stuff like help your conversion rate with specific segments and making sure you're still doing your long-term product roadmap to address all of those issues while you're still playing that kind of short game.
Yeah. That's a good answer. I think the hard part still is like on a day-to-day to your point or a week-to-week, like with all of those moving pieces of the funnel, all the moving pieces of your experiments, how are you personally weighing, okay, this is going to be my focus this week. This will be my focus next week. As you look at that, because like you said, unfortunately, it would be so much easier on annual goals, but, you know, typically you're on quarterly or monthly and that's so much harderto look at.
I just look at how the business is tracking. If the things that are working are working, then I don't have to focus there. If there are things that aren't working, then I obviously need to jump in those areas. So that's how I can very easily manage, manage my focus. And so if I've got a problem like conversion, and that's not, not hunting really well, maybe I need to do a few things like reorg the department, so that we have like a specific focus on that event, or create a tiger team across product and marketing to just, you know, work on growth hacking initiatives, to be able to solve that. So, so like my role, you know, I'm not the one who's pulling the levers every day is really about what do I need to create from a prioritization standpoint? Cause I can control that and then a people standpoint. So how do I get people focused on those specific priorities? So if I can, if I can help the team deliver against those two things as well as making sure they have a little bit of money to be able to execute on what they need to do then then that's what my job is to do.
I love that. And when you fight for that budget, are you just preparing what you think is needed in the budget and explaining it to your executive team?
I'm in a really kind of great spot where like, my CFO wants to constantly, and CEO, wants to constantly give me money. Like they're like, can I get like, like believe me, I have to, I have to make sure I'm delivering on it. So it's, it's, it's not just a blank check. They, I still have to give them back revenue in return, but they're like, how much more can I give you? How much more, when do you hit your ceiling? When do you hit your ceiling? And so we're constantly playing with that. So, I'm in a, in a good spot there, the harder things are really around like, so just purely from a marketing standpoint, we can do it with the team. You know, I'm, I'm really focused on making sure we have like pretty confident model, ROI models in terms of money in and money out.
And my team is, is really, really focused. And they're, they're a super smart crew who just gets that. The more challenging thing is when you're trying to run across and run a bigger play that might be, you know, incorporating along that longer term view as to like, what's going to really kind of transform the business from a product and a marketing standpoint. So if we're going to build like an experience that is going to leapfrog the competition, that's obviously a way bigger bet that has to, has to go through a separate process. So, so those are the ones that are a little bit harder and take obviously a lot more, a lot more of winning the hearts and minds of everybody around the organization.
Yeah. That definitely makes sense. Well, over the past year, year and a half, as you've been there, any hard lessons learned or, missed opportunities, you wish you could go back and redo?
Yeah. Well, I mean, the one was what I was alluding to before, like in the summer. Just like wish I spent more, wish I spent a lot more money in those summer months. Cause cause those were good times. And you know, there was, there was obvious businesses that were working in the e-comm space, but there was just a lot of companies that kept going, like, you know, the data that we've analyzed has shown us, like the construction industry dove down, they actually were more effected, but then they rebounded fast and they went to like historic highs. So, so it's really about like, you know, using, you know, I wish I spent more like kind of on these areas that I had the data and I did that analysis a little bit earlier so that I was able, I would have been able to kind of run some vertical plays a little bit earlier in the year than we actually got to.
It was a tough year. There was so much uncertainty, no one knew, I mean, stock market, same thing. Right. We saw that huge drop in the US stock market I should say, but like that huge drop and you know, this quick rebound and a lot of woulda coulda shoulda I think across the board but you just don't know.
Cool. Well, what I want to do now is flip over to our lightning round questions. Five quick questions that you can answer with the best first thought that comes to mind. You're ready to get started?
Yeah, yeah, let's do it.
You got this, Paul. All right. What advice would you give for early stage SaaS companies starting marketing today?
Solve problems that people have. Don't build a solution and try to find a home for them. I'd give a second one, which is invest in growth. So make sure you're investing in marketing and sales and not trying to get perfect product-market fit. Invest in growth equally as product.
I love that. And utilize that feedback from the growth to inform the product right? To build the problem better.
What skill do you think is vital for marketing teams to improve and build on today?
Customer understanding. I think it's the, one of the biggest problem areas that marketers have today. Lots of people who are experts within a subject matter area, whether it might be like ABM tools, MarTech solutions, performance media, but I have more conversations with people that lack customer insight and lack how to, how to actually create amazing creative that will appeal to people.
Is that lack of empathy or lack of just doing interviews and being in with the community?
Probably a little bit of both. I think, I think it's you know, making sure that systemically you've got programs that bring people back into understanding their customers. At FreshBooks, we have a four week program that everybody does when they onboard, but we're working on additional programs to bring people back to do more frontline work with with customers and chat with them a little bit more.
That's a really good idea. Have like a customer workshop that you go through. I love that. I'm going to steal that one.
What about a best educational resource you'd recommend for learning about marketing or growth?
I would say just doing it. Using the tools and learn by doing it. that's kind of something that I've always done in my career, whether it was like you know, just learning how to use Facebook and building ads there very early on in the day when custom audiences were 20 people, you can have a lot of fun with your friends, targeting ads at them. But just getting your hands dirty and learning the tools then going deep into, into like reading some of the articles around all that stuff. I'm just a big believer in going deep into specific subjects and learning them pretty, pretty hard and doing a crash course in them and then kind of pulling myself out of it.
I love it. All right. Next question. What about a favorite tool you can't live without?
That's hilarious. That's actually a good idea. Just get as many cookies as you can from your competitors, right. And get free advertising.
And then click on them a whole bunch to (inaudible). What about a brand business or a team that you admire today?
Yeah, like I, you know, as being a good Canadian, I like the sport Canadian companies and I think Shopify has been killing it. I was a user of Shopify a couple of years ago when I was, when I started a company in the food space. And, you know, it's just great to see a company that's been able to one kind of be able to fulfill like small business and mid-market, and large or enterprise company needs. And to be able to do it in a way without having a customer set kind of dictate your product roadmap. So I really like seeing just how that company has been able to keep kind of driving forward and not letting kind of like the tail wag the dog from a customer standpoint and build a really amazing platform and marketplace.
Yeah. It's a great, great business. They've been absolutely, you know, amazing both on their valuation and just their growth over the years. I think they're a really good example of a company that does SMB and Enterprise and mid-market, but you know how they did that really well, they focus on great product. And I think that's awesome.
But Paul, that wraps up our time here. I just want to say thank you so much for jumping on with me today for sharing the knowledge. I can just tell, just listening to you how experienced you are, and how knowledgeable you are. So I appreciate you just coming on and taking the time, sharing it with us. It means a lot.
Awesome. Thanks a lot, David.
Thank you, Paul. And we'll talk again soon.