Mike Leyden of Nitro – Managing and Scoring an Overwhelming Number of Leads

Mike Leyden - VP of Global Inside Sales at Nitro

Mike Leyden, the VP of Global Inside Sales at Nitro talks about their tool stack and how to deal with the champagne problem of too many leads at the top of the funnel.

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John Wall: Today’s guest is Mike Leyden. He’s the VP of Global Inside Sales at Nitro. Mike, thanks for joining us.

Mike Leyden: Thanks so much for having me, guys.

John: Now, Mike. You and Sean have worked together in the past. Right? We have to put up some disclaimers or line things up before we get into it …

Mike: Absolutely. I call Sean a friend as much as I do professional guide in these matters. I had a great pleasure in working for Sean for, I’m going to say, two to three years over here at Nitro where he led our marketing efforts, in particular how he led our demand gen efforts, which we’ve continued to grow upon and learn a lot from Sean. He continues to guide us and actually our stack here at Nitro to be sure.

Sean Zinsmeister: I’m going to jump in here and join the lovefest for just a minute because Mike and I have gone back a ways. Gotten a chance to work with each other, but I’m going to have bring my A game on the podcast today because definitely, this is one of the sharpest revenue minds that you will have both from an ecological standpoint and strategic, so I’m very excited to dissect some of these things with you, Mike. I almost feel like we should have been recording some of our lunch conversations anyway.

Mike: Absolutely!

Sean: Minus some of the inappropriate comments, which none of us are ever guilty of.

Mike: It’s amazing how we can solve the world’s ills over a couple of wines at lunch.

Sean: At least two.

John: Now, Sean, you’re throwing … and this is good we’ve got a sales guy on. The article that you’re throwing out for the news today was VentureBeat talking about Einstein. They’ve shown some of what they’ve got going on for that. Obviously they’re getting ready to put on the big show at Dreamforce. Is Einstein going to solve everything for them this quarter, or what’s going on?

Sean: Well, what we have is a new acronym that’s going to be the hot thing. It was ABM in the sales and marketing world, and now we’ve shortened it to two letters, and now it’s going to be AI. You are going to hear a lot about AI. What I am anticipating seeing is a lot of vendors now starting to be very reactive in positioning towards artificial intelligence and what that is.

I do think this makes perfect sense for Salesforce. They have been in need of one of those big tectonic shifts in their business to carry it forward, and I think that they’ve made some very, very smart acqui-hires to lead them. I know Benioff years ago was saying that it was cloud, and now it’s data science in the future, and how they can start to add AI into our workflows to essentially increase productivity, effectiveness, the customer experience.

What I think is going to be very interesting is how the market actually gets educated about what is AI and what is not. There’s actually a lot of great articles out there. I encourage people to go look up Ray Wang of Constellation Research, he has written a lot about artificial intelligence. The idea here is that there are lots of different flavors of artificial intelligence.

You and Christopher Penn on Marketing Over Coffee a couple of shows back were talking about this, this idea that predictive analytics is a form of artificial intelligence. It’s just distilled as a score. There are other things out there that are certainly algorithmical and that are intelligent, so I think it’s going to be … It’s an umbrella term, and certainly for Salesforce, it’s an umbrella platform that they’re going to be sprinkling AI into all their different pieces to move this thing forward.

I think I want to loop Mike into the conversation, especially from the sales side, because when you look at these trends, I think it’s really exciting to see what AI can do for the front line salesman. I’m just curious, you see all this … There’s obviously Dreamforce is wonderful at positioning and making these things feel big, but what’s the reality looking like for you, Mike? I mean, you’re on the front lines with global reps and things like that. What’s your take on it?

Mike: Very excited in general. I’m just very excited, and the one thing I would say is there’s always a lag time between what we’ve seen in press releases and think tanks and those wonderful engineering brains that came out of small and large organizations. There’s always a lag time between what is being conceived of and what we can see in the future to what is being applied here and now on the front lines, so it’s worth nothing that we’re always a little bit behind.

I’m particularly excited about the developments happening in AI. Fundamentally, the sales department is a particularly resource heavy, inefficient place. At the risk of sowing the seeds of my own redundancy in the next ten years, I sort of am. When we think about the sales department, we think about people. When we think about people, we think about their space. We think about their rep times, they turn off at 5pm every night. They don’t speak natively all languages. Obviously they’ve got their own cultural and economic bias when they converse with a customer, so they’re overlaying their own strengths and weaknesses, and that doesn’t always result in a customer problem meeting with the perfect solution.

AI, I feel like, will be that shortcut between precise, planned messaging between the solution at hand and the problem at hand synchronizing at speed perfectly over time. I see the future of sales, particularly front line sales, sales development, inside sales, some of that particularly, those access functions sales department, I increasingly see them becoming redundant over time. Because think about it. The infinite scale of technology versus the slow and steady pace of building headcount. It’s not even a fair fight.

Going back to that delay between the future, the thought, and the design of the future, where we’re at right now, we’re still heavy human capitalized. Yes, we use wonderful things like predictive technology and we’re a customer of Infer in full disclosure, and we use that to create a shortcut between our target personas and our key conversations after a conversation of what the sales person has as their tool of choice to move things forward. We’re trying to create shortcuts now, but it’s a long way away from that instantaneous marriage between a problem and solution.

Sean: I think anytime … The marketing always seems to be at least a few steps, maybe even I would say, a couple of years ahead of what’s actually being released. I think following on that idea of form following function, I think that it’s also going to be very interesting, especially when a big body like Salesforce enters the arena in the world of AI. But how hard is this stuff actually to adopt?

I mean, essentially when you’re talking about artificial intelligence, you have to cannibalize everything you’ve done before, and we’ve actually seen this equation play out on the traditional lead scoring model. Now we’re using machine learning and data science to essentially rebuild what those models are doing. I think the success side and the adoption side is going to be very interesting to watch, and I think that it is going to force a lot of reinventing of process.

I think it’s interesting that we can almost sort of segue the conversation to diving into the stack. Mike, what are some of the key tools, especially from the sales side, we get a chance to talk to a lot of great marketing leaders, but from the sales side, what is in your stack?

Mike: Before we get into the stack, let me just give you a bit of a sneak peak on how we acquire our prospects and customers because I think that will give a little bit of background when it comes to the decision making when it comes to investing in new technology.

We’ve got a bit of a flywheel approach when it comes to customer acquisition. Through our online, our self-serve customers, and our SMB segment, we very much use a freemium approach. Lots of viables in our online properties. Very slippery engagement with our application. Then we progressively profile and we do application discovery and we bring them forward to monetization.

Then we flip the switch a little bit with our mid-market and enterprise segments where we do much more account based sales development and account based marketing where we’ve got a set number of global companies that fit our model perfectly. They look like our customers. They look like people with problems that we solve. Then we go after them in an intelligent, resource-light … resources are allocated, but concretely to go after them and bring them forward into an opportunity where we can build and defend our value.

With that being said, it’s an interesting combination. We’ve got one foot in inbound, and one foot in outbound, so our tech stack has to be not only flexible, but focused, and that sort of is in conflict almost. It’s a bit of a contradiction. How we’ve done that, as obviously we’ve build our platforms based on Salesforce.

On top of that, we have heavily invested in a database. We use DiscoverOrg from a data enrichment side, and then Infer becomes our bridge between who’s accessing our content properties and forms to who looks like our customer base. Infer has the flexibility that it can actually help our inbound model, but it also, from a behavioral standpoint, can help our outbound approach as well, so we’re lucky to partner with them in that regard.

Moving forward, we also use DemandBase. DemandBase is data enrichment when it comes to form submissions. Also it helps provide the right content when people land on our website, and that’s been good too because obviously inbound, we enrich the form data, and from an outbound perspective, when we’re creating awareness when some company lands on our homepage, we deliver company wide content that’s very much tailored to their industry, to their needs, the persona in question.

That’s pretty much the complete stack. I’m going to probably someone from operations tap the other shoulder after this and say, “You forgot three of them.” They’re definitely the primary ones that help us create a shortcut between prospect and conversation.

John: That sounds good too. Back up a bit. Tell us about Nitro. What do you guys do, and what are your customers looking for?

Mike: A great question. Nitro, we’re a digital document company. You probably know us as the first and leading alternative and replacement to Adobe Acrobat. Our informal mission is to make working with digital documents suck less. That whole notion of turning that whole digital transformation notion that we all started throwing about ten years ago, it still really hasn’t come to pass. We believe that time and indeed the organizations is such where we’re at the forefront of doing it right now.

Nitro works not only …. Our primary document format we work with is PDF, but we also service the creation and making sure that information workers or knowledge workers stay in that digital space rather than come out to the physical analog world where there’s security problems, there’s sustainability problems when it comes to consumption of paper. Also we work with advanced document workflows just to make sure compliance and streamlining is right on in any sort of function or line of business, and indeed when transferring information between internal and external roots.

Nitro itself was founded in Melbourne in 2005. We relocated headquarters to San Francisco where I now live back in 2010. Got to get my facts right here. I was there for it, so I should remember. You know, we’re delighted to call our 600 thousand customers our partners, and indeed of that, 50% of the Fortune 500 call us partner too. We’ve got a really wonderful, broad base, and trying to solve some problems that on the surface of things aren’t so acute, but when you look at it from a macro level, all information workers across a large organization can become quite profound. We really try to challenge our customers and prospects to think about their environment on a much more holistic way. We really try and help drive that transformation.

Sean: Mike, you … and I’m going to lead the witness a little bit here. I hope that’s okay, but you have held a number of revenue leadership positions while at Nitro, and now in the VP of Global Inside Sales, what does that team makeup look like for you? What are the things that you own? What are the big goals that you chase after? I’d also love to explore in that role how are you working with marketing today?

Mike: Absolutely. It’s an interesting role right now for me. I’ve got full ownership of the organization, so I consider myself to be a steward of company funds and a driver of profitability whilst making sure that we’re spending what we can and growing like a weed. It’s a kind of of a little bit of a mixed position.

How I work with marketing in that perspective is making sure we have clear transparency around all our funnel metrics, how our (to use marketing parlance) ToFu and MoFu health checks are. Then working with sales development to make sure that seamless handover between the customer experience from our marketing nurtures and that funnel experience transitions into an internal engagement where they’re actually speaking with humans. It’s making sure that we’ve got clear lines of visibility into each step of that, and making sure that all of our drop off areas are well monitored, well organized, and we’re delivering value to the customers at speed.

Interestingly, in the context of this conversation around AI, it’s very difficult for us to make sure that we involve human only at the appropriate time to move conversations forward. We don’t want to interject them into someone’s evaluation of us as a company or as a solution too early because we can push them away, but interjecting at the appropriate time to bring them forward. It’s always a bit of a balancing act.

We also work with marketing in terms of our outbound function because with my ownership in mid-market we got up to about five thousand employees, so very much outbound as well. We work with them around how we do account based sales marketing, so air coverage for our sales development team. How we identify and communicate to the right service and the right verticals at the right time using applications like Terminus, and making sure demand base is really tuned in. We’re getting that highly structured, highly targeted marketing and coverage to create, or at least compliment, awareness we’ve done through the sales development to ensure that your conversation aren’t a surprise, they’re by design, and we can build consideration and move forward into our general sales cycle.

Sean: Nitro has a bit of a champagne problem because I always like to refer to Nitro as the biggest company that you’ve never heard of because of the volume that Nitro gets, how popular the software is, and the fact that you guys are spanning all over the world selling. Tell us about what that funnel structure looks like, and then I’d be interested in hearing … Because you talked about you want to add AI into the right place, but how do you go about sifting all that? How are the technologies helping you guys organize and solve that problem?

Mike: That’s right. It’s true. We’ve got a self-described martini glass funnel. We’ve got enormous volumes at the top, and sort of a little skinny stem down the bottom. Now, we want to make sure any challenge for marketing and sales is to expand the width of the funnel down the very bottom where it makes the biggest impact to customer acquisition.

For us, it’s making … we need a whole lot of technology, or at least a whole lot of scalable insight to look at the people that engage with our properties both online and offline and determine who are the best people to communicate, and when is the best time to communicate with them? In what form? In what language? Because it is very much a global place. It is very challenging.

It’s very challenging. We are in a constant state of evaluating technology whereas sort of we have to take a lot of intellectual curiosity to this problem. We’re always looking at organizations or startups or established companies that are bringing at you services to help us look at these millions of individuals, these hundreds of thousands of organizations and filtering and prioritizing them for us so that we can communicate to them appropriately and at that the right time.

Timing, I can’t overstate the importance of timing. Because we are going against a very large incumbent, the moment of transition is very important for us. Think about when you’ve got an incumbent coming up for renewal, you’ve got to really strike whilst business owners and project leads are thinking about, “Do we continue on with this existing solution, or do we look for an alternative that can lower up our structure?”

Timing is impeccable. It really is incredibly important for us. Always looking at things that can filter and prioritize us and deliver those signals that we require to engage at the right time.

Are you feeling that?

Sean: Absolutely. How about at the sales and marketing interface too? How do you guys work together? Is it a matter of are they a customer of yours and promising X number of marketing qualified leads, and when the idea of adding tools or subtracting tools comes up, what kind of discussions happen around that?

Mike: The line of demarcation between marketing operations and sales operations is pretty slight. It has to be a system. It’s very much a collaborative team effort. For example, we run biweekly operations meetings where I lead it, but very much our sales operations director and marketing operations lead, they come together and they do … we’ve got a predefined view of our funnel, and they come together, and we’re the bad news bears.

Identify only those things that are trending down, and we immediately debate, deliberate, and have a course of action to in order to impact change on that in the next two weeks. Also we look at the positive trends. How can we put a positive trend on steroids and push that forward?

Marketing operations dips in marketing, sales operations dips in sales, but the actual prioritization of time and projects is done collaboratively and together under a revenue owner. The way that it’s … We use revenue as our single currency, as our one version of the truth. It does help drive coordinated actions that way.

In the spirit of that too, if we evaluate a piece of technology that has, or can has, a direct path into revenue, we come together and we run the process together. Sort of one man, one boat. Everyone gets a shout. We take it from there.

Sean: Mike, a lot of people are always … Sales and marketing alignment is always a topic of conversation in every single business, but one thing that I’m actually curious about is around sales and finance alignment. This is something that doesn’t get talked about a lot, and I’m curious-

Mike: Who’ve you been speaking to? (laughing)

Sean: Every salesperson I’ve ever met (laughing). I’m curious about two things. One, what does that alignment look like, and interested if there’s best practices that you can comment on? Also, is there technology that’s helping that relationship? Because somebody always reports to somebody in an organization, and I think that this is a partnership that rarely gets talked about.

Mike: It’s interesting, and I laugh, Sean, only because we’re coming up to … We run a calendar year, so we’re coming up to the end of quarter, and I’m having multiple conversations with finance everyday. Delighted to say that I have a good relationship with finance. You always have to have a good relationship with finance, but it does make me laugh anyway.

There’s two things about that. One we might think is … When I think about finance, I’m not sure if this is going to answer your question directly, Sean, but when I think about finance, it’s sort of the financial operations planning side and then on the deal construction financial compliance and approval side. One’s sort of system-wide, and the other is maybe customer specific on the front and back sides.

On the front-end side, we have, in terms of especially in ongoing strategic planning for periods to come, we have financial operations involved as part of that wider marketing and sales operations dialogue. Why? Well, we use historical data and modest or conservative projections to influence how we are then putting money or numbers to targets in the future.

Finance actually has a seat at the table where we look at … In the context of this conversation, stack and flow, if we’re looking at a new technology, finance will have a seat at the table and say, “Well, if we invest in this, can we expect a return on this, and I can put that into our future targeting and our future budgetary plan?” The answer is yes because that’s why we’re investing it and we build a consensus around that. Even though it’s not a dialogue that happens weekly or biweekly in the case of marketing and sales, it’s certainly a frequent conversation had with finance to make sure they’re in line with what we’re doing.

The other side of things is much of a case-by-case where it’s not technology driven, it’s not process driven. It’s to develop actions, “Here’s our specific problem to solve, let’s sit down and do it. That’s sort of the separate that-

John: Yeah, I like how there’s – you have to make that commitment of,”Well, if you’re going to buy the tool, what are you going to put in the pipe three, six months down the road.?” Are there things now that you’re looking to automate? What are your pain points? What are you looking to fix next?

Mike: That’s a really good question. There’s so much opportunity for … we’ve got so much volume in terms of customer communications. There’s a whole ton we can automate, particularity on the growth side of things, and that is the communication and the growth of our existing install base. We’d love to communicate, automate them, particularly around feature releases, things we’re active in market with like marketing events, webinars, your thought and leadership pieces.

Right now, we’re very much driven by a, “Let’s build a segment. Let’s build the content. Let’s push it through marketing automation. Let’s see the read rate, the click rate, and then let’s respond in kind to maybe a followup call to invite him or her to the event,” or whatever it might look like. It’s a highly considered, highly laborious process.

Whereas, if we could automate that to the extent that CIO X moved to Company Y and all of a sudden, that triggered an automated flow to invite them to an event that we’re having in the Nashville area where one of our product leaders is speaking about the future of Nitro in healthcare, and all of that was seamlessly done based on external signals that were feeding into our customer database, and triggering a whole bunch of predetermined content. That’s where I’m getting a little bit of a tingles up my spine because that means I’m leaving at five o’clock everyday.

Sean: On the flow side, I have to ask about data in particular because you guys have another unique challenge when it comes to data in that you have to keep data hygiene for several different parts of the world, not just a company that’s focused on North America, and I know that that can be very challenging. What are some of the strategies that you guys are thinking of? Both at a high level, is there a data strategy, and then, two, how does that expand to your global strategy? Because I know that there are a lot of pain points there as well.

Mike: Yeah, that’s really interesting. I’d say that’s a real problem for us, not only as you mentioned we’re a global organization. We’re dealing with different cultural paradigms in Australia, in San Francisco here in the US, in Dublin, Ireland, and Russia and Eastern European, all this sort of stuff. Everyone has a different level of commitment to making sure the data is clean. That’s from an internal data quality perspective, and then externally, there’s no one-stop-shop when it comes to raising a hand and saying, “You know what, Sean? I want all the demographic information of companies with a hundred or more employees.” There’s no single entity that can do that. If there is, can someone please send me a link to it?

Obviously, add to that, there’s no single source, and then overlay on top of that, it’s dynamic. The buyers we communicate to change. They’re not lifers at a given organization. They’ll go to different organizations. There’s new titles that we haven’t even considered that are starting to pop up or that will pop up in the next six, twelve, eighteen months. It’s really difficult to stay on top of that. The idea of staying on top of it is we just make our communication, we make our efforts more efficient.

It is a real problem. There’s no simple answer to this I believe except to say we do try and put into best practices when it comes to individuals putting data into CRM, like every experience should be a clean experience. Every day it should be an update. We try and partner with who we believe are the best in class data providers whether from a static or dynamic perspective that can give us insight into the markets where we enter and the markets we sell into.

John: How about when you’re adding new tools to the stack, and you’re adding new stuff? Do you do big bang and roll it out to everybody, or do you have certain teams that you roll it out to to test? How does the adoption go?

Mike: It definitely depends on the solution, on the technology that we’re actually about to roll out, and indeed during the evaluation stage as well, but normally, and this is what we’ve built into our processes, there’s a small test group that will be the main users of a solution where we create a little user acceptance testing paradigm, and they come in and look at how they’re currently working. They use the application in real life situations for a given period of time, provide accurate feedback. That’s during the evaluation cycle, so we then use that to help inform our decision on purchasing or partnering with a piece of technology.

Then we also during that time try and deal with an adoption process. Salespeople are bloody awful, and I’m a salesperson, so if it’s not making me money, you can have it. I don’t care for it. So during that roll out stage, the business context has to be delivered really clean to our sellers. How is this going to make you more effective? How will this help you get to target? How will this help you make more money over long-term? That gives us context followed up by a series of trainings, and then sort of we measure adoption from that.

It’s not a once and done to be sure. Anything like this, it has to be done through … There’s a sort of elegance to repetition and discipline to drive adoption, and we certainly have to do that here. We take more like a six-months adoption plan, and we measure success by percentage adopted over a given period of time, normally three to six months.

Sean: One question that I’m curious about that also plays into the future of what we’re seeing with sales. Sales tech is booming right now. All sales people almost have their own versions of mini marketing automation systems in front of them. Is sales getting more of a dedicated budget? More independence from marketing? Because I think the traditional model is that sales makes the ask and it’s taken from the marketing pool. Are you guys having your own dedicated budget, or actually even more so, if not today, do you see this becoming more apparently in the future? Not just for Nitro but for other organizations?

Mike: With this sort of transition of sales owning more of a budget when it comes to deciding on sales and marketing technology, I think it’s being really led by this not only sales creeping up the funnel and having a little bit more insight and ownership over territories that have always been the domain of marketing, but SaaS has been a major driver of this. Software as a service and the resulting selling of such a solution has really changed that historical notion of how sales people interact with buyers. It’s not just about acquisition anymore. It’s about delivering consistent value over time to ensure that your a customer at that next period of subscription or at that renewal period.

Sellers are not just about, “Hey, John. Hey, Sean. I’ve got a deal for you.” It’s about making sure that they deliver solutions that are applicable now and are then applicable long into the future. I think that’s been a shift in the way we’re acting and the way we’re thinking that has come into again a little bit of the exclusive territory of marketing as well. Is this to say that sales owns that air coverage, that brand development, that awareness creation? Absolutely not. But I do think that it’s much more we own more of the stack, and we have a bit more control of the conversation than we had otherwise.

John: Mike, that’s great. We could go on. Between AI and everything in the stack, there’s just a million topics we could run with, but we have to be respectful of your time here. If people want to find more about Nitro or want to talk to you about sales type of stuff, what’s the best way to get in touch?

Mike: Absolutely. Anything company related, please go to gonitro.com, G-O-N-I-T-R-O-dot-com. Hit me up on LinkedIn, Mike Leyden and or @LeydenMike, which is my Twitter handle, which Sean Zinsmeister actually made me set up because Sean was like, “You’re an idiot. Your social presence is ridiculous given the fact that you’re actually quite good at what you do,” so thank you Seany for helping me become this burgeoning social person.

Sean: Well, more to come. We’re going to have to have … This is a multi-series. There’s more episodes to come I think. We’re going to have to have you back.

Mike: Absolutely. John, Sean, absolutely delighted. Thank you so much for your time today.

John: Thank you. I’m John Wall. You can find out more about me at marketingovercoffee.com. We’re always talking marketing tech over there also. Sean, how about where can folks get in touch with you and Infer?

Sean: Well, you can always use the old Google and type in Sean Zinsmeister. You’ll find all my stuff there, or I’m on Twitter at @SeanZinsmeister. I tend to be pretty chatty over there as well. You can find all of the good stuff that we’re doing at infer.com.

John: That’ll do it for this episode and we will see you next time in the stacks.

Mike Leyden

Mike Leyden

Mike Leyden is in charge of leading, growing, and mentoring the enterprise sales team at Nitro as they help solve the document challenges of their business customers.

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