Stella Garber of Trello – A Fully Distributed Global Team, Marketing a Horizontal Productivity Tool, and Kanban vs. Post-its

Stella Garber is Product Marketing Lead at Trello. Used by millions around the world, Trello is the visual collaboration tool that gives people perspective on projects. Stella built out Trello’s marketing team and scaled it from day one to Trello’s acquisition by Atlassian earlier this year.

Before Trello, Stella was CEO and cofounder and cofounder of matchist, a marketplace for freelance developers which was acquired in 2015. Stella also ran marketing and was on the founding team of FeeFighters, a venture backed payments startup acquired by Groupon 2012.

Listen to the Podcast

In this episode Stella tells us about the rise of Trello, including:

  • Being fully distributed and global
  • The challenges of selling a horizontal solution
  • How Trello uses Trello
  • Building corporate culture through communication channels

Read the Transcript

Automation Tools mentioned in this episode:

Trello and Trello Power Ups Platform, Hubspot, Engagio, Salesforce.com, InsightSquared, Slack, Zoom, Atlassian, MailChimp, Evernote

John J. Wall: Hello, and welcome to Stack and Flow, I’m John Wall.

Sean Zinsmeister: And I’m John Zinsmeister.

John: And today our guest is Stella Garber, VP of Marketing at Trello, a tool that probably most of our audience is very familiar with. Stella, thanks for joining us today.

Stella Garber: Thank you, guys. I’m excited to be here.

John: So, Sean, you had an article on Eric Schmidt talking about machine learning. What are you looking at on the machine learning front?

Sean: It’s always really interesting for me to follow the narrative around AI and machine learning and also the future of automation, and I actually want to marry that article from Eric Schmidt in Newsweek that he’s really talking about why people should be more excited than afraid and sort of measuring expectations. It was actually really interesting if you listened to some of President Obama’s parting interviews that he has done. He was recently on a podcast where he was really talking about when you’re thinking about jobs in America, it’s less about foreign competition and that type of job loss and it’s really more about the relentless, he calls it the relentless march of automation.

I think that when you sort of look at how we’re going to make this a balancing act, I do think there is an evolution of tools and when you think about it in a business sense, sales and marketing in particular just sort of bring it back home, is got to start thinking about what are the redundant tasks that are bogging us down and also trying to identify the impossible because I think that when people think about automation and they are thinking about AI, really it’s like at this point there’s so much data that you just cannot throw enough human bodies at stuff in order to make sense of it and so you have to have these new types of tools, machine learning being one of them, to sort of help process everything and help get after that productivity. As Eric Schmidt talks about, improving the quality of work.

He is really excited in particular from a lot of the advances in health sciences. I think if you cover anything that IBM has been after with Watson and things like that, I think that there’s some pretty exciting innovation happening on that front as well. It’s really a call to sort of quell the fear a little bit and think about the possibilities in that sort of creative disruption. But, I know that, John, that this is something that you’ve talked about quite a bit with Chris Penn who… He’s sort of beating the doomsday drum from the AI side, but I’m curious what your thoughts were having been involved in those conversations?

John: Yeah, it is funny. Christopher has definitely come from the other side of like look this is going to wipe out millions of jobs and you can see it. The one that gets me, well two that really rise to the top are driving, as we already have automated vehicles that are far safer and more effective than humans and the other one is call centers, front-line customer service. Just huge job markets that are prime for disruption.

But at the other end of it too, it does remind me of the interview we did with Justin Norris talking about you have all of these tools, but that’s not enough. You need people to put this stuff together and to work on it and then you need to create process. There’s so much work that needs to be done as far as building the process of how this data is gathered and fed and all works. It’s not all doom’s day, there is some upside to in what can be done, but it is funny, though that piece definitely smacked of PR work, like hey it doesn’t all have to be doom’s day, we can make a more positive message here.

Stella: I think that it’s a really interesting point that you brought up, Sean, about Obama mentioning the march of jobs that are leaving the US. It’s a lot easier to point fingers at large corporations and say they’re leaving, this is what’s causing unemployment to happen rather than point at robots and computer algorithms and things that people don’t understand. Whereas anyone who’s looked at data on the changing nature of work knows that AI is the future and it is replacing a lot of jobs that people have today, but like you’ve mentioned, I think that there are a lot of opportunities for people to do work that is much more strategic, much more thoughtful and it’s just different. All of this conversation smacks to me of just fear mongering because people don’t really understand what it actually is.

Sean: Yeah, 100%. The analogy I like to think about, especially using the driverless car, which is the sort of … one of probably the only technologies that I would say that is the most mature in the true automation sampling. We see them riding around Mountain View all the time, and there’s actually always a human sort of with their hand on the joystick. Even the Uber cars, they’re always going to have to be required to have a human engineer, and I think that we’re still a bit aways away of sort of being, okay lets just put the darn thing on autopilot, we can sit back and kick up our feet.

To think about the potential disasters that that would have from a sales and marketing standpoint. Obviously, probably less life and death threatening than sort of the accidental spam cannon going off, but I do think that it’s just like you’re still going to see and need those sort of operators sort of massaging that for quite some time.

But, it’s interesting to get into sort of that conversation about the nature of work and … John was talking about process, Stella, and I’d love to … dive into sort of … tell us more … for those who aren’t familiar with Trello, I would have to imagine that somebody has touched Trello or heard of Trello or at least heard of Taco at this point. Tell us a little bit about Trello and what you guys do.

Stella: Absolutely. Trello is a visual collaboration platform that people all over the world use. I think we’re up to around 19 million, probably more than that at this point, to do everything from planning book clubs and weddings to launching startups, running giant Fortune 500 marketing teams. It is the most flexible, visible collaboration tool that you’ll ever use and the ways and process and strategy and everything is really up to your imagination. The tool is designed to be a blank canvas for your team’s process to be put on the canvas.

I think one of the big advantages to Trello and why it’s grown so quickly is the fact that we really don’t force people into a process. We don’t force people to learn how to use the tool. You get a Trello board and you sort of grock how it works very quickly, especially if it’s a board that has already been set up. It’s a really flexible tool. I used it in my life extensively before I joined the company, so I love it.

Sean: I actually want to dive into thinking about project managing. This is a topic that I am super passionate about, but just to understand a little bit more about you guys business too, in terms of your marketing, Stella, sort of thinking about the landscape. What are your guy’s goals sort of mostly around hey we want to get as many people to use Trello, touch Trello? Are you guys focused on particular verticals saying hey we were trying to get the bigger enterprises, etc. to adopt us? How are you guys sort of thinking about that go-to-market strategy?

Stella: One of the really big strategic product and marketing decisions made in the very beginning was to keep Trello completely horizontal, which is sort of the opposite logic of what a lot of … especially a lot of marketing books will tell you. They say if you market to everybody, you market to nobody. You should choose your vertical and then you can speak to the customer. We deliberately said, no what we’d like to do is we would like to show people the potential of Trello and what they can do with it and let their imaginations take over. I think the way that this has sort of manifested itself is we understand that the consumer who is using Trello to plan their kid’s birthday party is the same human who turns around and uses it at work and spreads it within an IT team or a marketing team.

I think we think about our users a lot as people who have a lot of different interests and a lot of different needs and Trello is the tool that can be the glue or the tool of choice for organizing any need in their life.

Sean: With such a cornucopia of different users like you’re talking about from the parents that are planning their birthday party, people who are using it for personal and then from the business end, how do you guys go about spinning the messaging rubics cube, building those personas out with so many ways that you can use the messages? Is there a way that you ground it in how you guys are going to approach the market? I’m curious about how you guys kind of tackle that product marketing challenge?

Stella: We actually didn’t think about personas for a very long time. We only recently developed a set of personas, maybe six months ago. Before that, what our goal was just to show a user who showed up on the website something that would be universally understood. In a lot of ways, though, what we notice is that when people are invited to an existing Trello board that already has process and context set up, they’re much more likely to stick around. We, from a marketing and from a product standpoint, we thought a lot about how to make the product stickier and how to make it boost the virality, which it’s inherently viral because it is a collaboration tool.

On one hand, from our product marketing collateral, we do like to show a range of different use cases. So if you go on our home page now, I think you’ll see a handful from HR to Marketing to IT and Sales. Before that, maybe even six months ago, we had a kitchen redesign board, and it was such a funny thing to feature on a home page for a tool that’s used so broadly. It’s like kitchen redesign, if you’re a Fortune 500 company you come on our home page and you see kitchen redesign you may not think that this tool is for you, but we did want to showcase something that could be sort of universally understood.

I think I’m the app store for a long time and maybe even now, the example that we feature is a Hawaii vacation, planning a Hawaii vacation. That’s a fun one too. Of course, in different markets we sort of localize to the use cases too, whatever is appropriate for that market, but that’s a whole other animal I can get into.

Sean: Well talking about the visual nature, I’m curious because a lot of the board set up is sort of based upon that agile methodology and this sort of scrum process that sort of is nature into the sort of kanban board. Is that something that is baked into the DNA at Trello or is agile just sort of a part of what you guys are thinking about or I’m just curious about where you kind of come down on that kind of subject?

Stella: Yeah, so the real DNA of Trello is this visual paradigm of taking post-it notes … I think if you walk into most offices, somewhere in the office you will find there is a board, a check board, a wall that has columns and it has post-it notes aNd people are moving those post-it notes around. That is the visual paradigm that we really ascribe to at Trello. It’s something that people naturally understand.

I think that the technical term for it is kanban and agile sort of came out of … the agile processes and thinking came out of that basic concept. I think it’s something this is much more relatable to dev teams or people are already familiar with that terminology, but for everyone else it’s like the post-it notes on the board and people understand that.

John: Yeah, I can totally see how … the visual nature of it is just appealing. I mean, we’ve had in other interviews, we’ve had sales teams talk about how their staff uses Trello because they just like the visual nature of being able to see what’s going on with their deals and that they’ve chosen it over other tools that they’ve used.

With this focus on visual and fun, what does your sales and marketing team and tool stack look like? I get the feeling, do you even have enterprise sales? Do you have a classic sales process or is it just because it’s such a wide open set of use cases that you’re just sort of gathering new users and that’s as far as it goes? How do things break down?

Stella: Sure. We actually have a pretty large sales team for our company size. Our company is about 100 people and around 30 is the sales team and enterprise is a big part of our business. We do have that classic enterprise sales process and that is supported with a range of tools that I’ll mention in a second. Then we do also try to make sure that people can upgrade through the product, not everybody and most people really shouldn’t be talking to a sales person. It should be just a really qualified set of companies. Powering that process, which we’re always trying to make better and as a start-up we’ve sort of been making things up as we go along. We use HubSpot on the marketing automation side. We recently started using Engagio mostly for lead to account matching in SalesForce, which is obviously the CRM that our sales team is highly dependent on. Then we use a variety of analytics tools. On the sales side we use InsightSquared. On the marketing side we use Google Analytics. We just have a ton of different tools. Those are probably the main ones.

Sean: With all that technology in that stack, it would be great to sort of understand, what’s your team’s layout look like? How’s the marketing team structured and how you guys sit in the overall org?

Stella: Our marketing team, it’s on the small side for the company size. I think we’re 12. We have three folks in content, content strategy is a big part of our overall marketing strategy for Trello because we don’t do paid acquisition. Our goal on the marketing side is to educate users about all the different ways they can use Trello in addition to all of the fun little tricks and product things and process improvements that they can make. Then also, make sure that users are activated. So we do that a lot through content and email. So three folks on the content side.

We’ve got two people in product marketing. We have a community manager who focuses on social medial, online communities and a few months ago we started a slack community for the most zealous of Trello users, which has been going really, really well.

We also have an international team, so we have three people who are thinking about Trello outside of the United States. We have a growth team that is three people, three engineers, that sort of sit on the engineering team, but also sit with the marketing team. Then we have a designer. That’s how the marketing team breaks down.

Sean: Stella, I have to ask you the sort of big meta question, which is how is the Trello marketing org using Trello today? Because I think what is really interesting about using these types of tools, because you mentioned you have all of these different functions that you are sort of weaving together and you also have global units that you’re bringing in. How do you guys sort of go about orchestrating how you get things done?

Stella: Oh my goodness. This is like my favorite topic. A couple of fun things about our team is first that we’re remotely distributed. I’m based in Chicago. I have people in New York, which is the headquarters for Trello, but I only have … from out team we have three folks in New York. We have Texas. We have California. We have Canada. We have Brazil, Spain, just all over the place. Trello is really the platform we use to get everything done and we almost make a joke of there’s a board for that. Anytime someone has a question, like what do we use for this? We’re like, well there’s a board for that.

We heavily rely just on three tools for all of our collaboration, maybe four I would say. The Google Docs Suite, Trello heavily, Slack and then we also use Zoom for video meetings. Video meetings are super important because we … at the end of the day we’re all humans and we want to connect in a human capacity, so to the extent that a conversation is happening in cognizant and we feel it would be better served by hopping into a video meeting, we are pretty about doing that.

I mean, I can go on and on about how we use Trello. As a company, we are also a remotely distributed company, so I think close to 70% of our employees are remotely distributed. So everything lives in Trello. We are constantly using our product. We’re constantly running into the limitations and future requests that our user base is asking for, feeling the pain ourselves.

An interesting thing too, is our company has grown a ton, so last year at this time I think we were around 50 people and this year we’re over 100 people. So even the way that we use Trello has changed a lot as the company has grown.

Sean: I think that’s fantastic because I really haven’t seen this as I think more about project management and the sort of evolution of business, which is … I think about where we’re at here in the sort of heart of Silicon Valley, which is the Bay area is a place that is not getting cheaper last time I checked, and this nature of how to make desperate workforces really work for your business. Not necessarily from an outsourcing standpoint because I think that gets into a lot of politics. But, the truth is, is that when you’re building some of these businesses, you don’t want to miss out on all of this great talent and it’s awesome to see that Trello can really be one of those brain centers where everybody can collaborate.

The thing that I love the most is you can bring people into your board who aren’t necessarily a part of your at domain. So if I need to work with contractors who are not a part of … they don’t have at and for email addresses, it’s very easy for them to sort of enter my world and sort of see what’s going on and sort of gain that transparency. When it comes to that transparency, you guys talk about you’re constantly building out new features and different challenges.

What would you say in terms of the one challenge that you guys are sort of looking at solving in your project management that Trello really just makes it easy? Is it just that you’ve seen just like projects like from ideation to execution are just that much faster or what is sort of the main goal?

Stella: I think one of the biggest challenges that Trello helps to solve and it’s sort of might be exacerbated with a remotely distributed workforce is this idea of who’s doing what, especially from a manager’s standpoint. It’s like how do I know how people are spending their time and that the things that matter are getting done. Trello really democratizes that process because rather than relentlessly being in meetings about status updates and progress reports and seeing what people are doing, I can see it sort of passively just by having a Trello board where people are having a conversation, posting related documents that I can read through without really bugging people. Then even posting things like updates after a product to ship data points interfacing with other teams.

I think that democratization and ease from a management standpoint, also from a team collaboration standpoint, because people can jump in when they see something happening on a board where they have an opinion or they can add value. They don’t have to be in the room where the meeting is happening. They can be in this digital work environment where they’re getting the information that they need.

The flip side of that, I think there is two big challenges. The first is that there is a huge influx of information. There is sort of that fire hose that you get from Slack, especially as the company grows and more and more people are talking, and you sort of realize that the more time you spend in chat, the less time that you’re actually working.

I heard someone laugh, so I feel like that’s relatable.

Sean: Yeah, he knows first hand.

Stella: We hear that all of the time and I think Trello is a little bit more as a platform and as a tool there is not going to be sort of that … you’re a little bit more thoughtful about what you put in Trello because there’s not sort of that immediate back and forth. It’s an asynchronous form of communication. Then I think that the second downside/opportunity, but I would say definitely a challenge, is getting a team’s process together and make sure that everybody is on the same page.

We have, on the marketing team and really throughout the company, we make an effort to whenever there is a Trello board, the very first column will say something like start here and there will always be a card that says how to use this board. On that card, will be an explanation of what the board is for, how to use it, what labels are potential used for when to tag people. Because each board, it’s almost like, I don’t know, if you were going to open a binder or something and things are organized and you have to mentally understand the way things are organized and how to engage, that’s a challenge because even on different teams at the company, the way that they use Trello can be very different.

On the marketing team, we actually make an effort every quarter we have a document that’s all about communication and so we list out here are the Slack channels that we use. Here’s even abstracting away from that, we think at what points do we use Trello? At what point do we use Slack? At what point do we hop into a meeting? How does the team communicate? As our team has grown from a team of one when I started and now we’re 12, a lot of that … having that consistent dialogue about how we use the different tools and how the team engages has really helped us bond as a team, but also make sure that our productivity and our process are aligned.

John: Now normally we like to ask a lot about future plans and of course with Trello, obviously, we would be interested in what other features are coming out of there, but we do have to mention that as we are recording now, you guys have just announced recently being acquired by Atlassian.

Stella: Yes.

John: We’ve very excited about that. It’s got one of these cases where it’s two great companies and a ton of great products, so it’s just kind of win for everybody as opposed to the questions about why acquisitions are going on. Obviously, there’s things you can talk about and cannot talk about, but how about just for the future, what’s on your radar as far as stuff that you want to do and then on the product front too and the nature of work, what are you looking at?

Stella: Yeah, we’re really excited about the opportunity to work with Atlassian and be part of Atlassian. They are obviously a super product driven company and culture and we share that relentless passion. They are also really passionate about helping teams and empowering teams and thinking about the way that teams work, and that’s something that if you cannot tell, I’m super passionate about, we’re very passionate about Trello. What our users can expect is just for the product to get better, more useful in sort of every way. We’re super pumped about the acquisition.

In terms of what’s coming up, I think you can definitely … some things that you can expect to stay the same are the easy visual, your mom can use Trello. I mean my mom uses Trello and that’s saying something, even though obviously she likes to support me, but we definitely think about people who …. lowering the barriers for using workplace tools. So that’s something that’s going to continue being a huge focus for us.

Then we also are thinking a lot about how to integrate Trello as a platform. We have our Power-Ups Platform, which I think we have around 30 Power-Ups right now and those are just things that people can add to their Trello boards that make them even more useful. It can be anything from a calendar Power-Up, which lets you … that’s my favorite I think, especially if you’re doing marketing and you have an editorial calendar, you can see how things are laid out in terms of due dates on cards in a calendar format. Then we have a whole suite of integration Power-Ups like MailChimp and Evernote and Slack and Twitter. So we have a whole range of those where you can pull information from other tools and services that you’re already using and have them displayed on Trello cards or used throughout the boards in different ways.

We have … we’re expanding our Power-Ups platform. We’re really excited to get more and more developers developing on the Power-Ups platform and really make Trello as customizable as possible for different teams. Then on the marketing side we’re also thinking a lot about how we can help teams use Trello as sort of a living app where you might come on board and you might think I want to build that editorial calendar and I’m already using these five tools. On the marketing side, we’re thinking a lot about if we already know how to lay out an editorial calendar or have 10 examples of five examples of different companies and they way that they’ve laid out their editorial calendars where you could maybe just clone an existing board and adapt it to your use case. Having those Power-Ups already installed and taking it from there. I shouldn’t say installed, but having them already on the board.

So we’re thinking a lot about how to make it easier and more customizable to use Trello.

Sean: This is something that, again, I really harp on this a lot with a lot of these marketing teams where it’s like project management is one of just the unsung heroes and I think people who know me hear me talk about that a lot. I think that if you look at some of the trends out there right now with people who are trying to account-based marketing, for example, and it’s all about orchestration and all of this other stuff, and I’m like so much of that is just how to get people on the same page. These aren’t sort of new problems that we’ve created here, but the ability for small teams to do big things and increasing the quality of work or increasing the quantity of work without decreasing in quality, this is all stuff that you guys are driving that innovation forward.

I have a grab bag for you, Stella. In terms of just marketing things that you’re watching, we talked about account-based marketing is always something that’s been hot. Automation is something. In terms of just sort of forward-looking trends and things that maybe aren’t immediately relevant to the work you’re doing at Trello, but stuff that you’re following whether it’s ABM or just the future of Inbound or stuff like that, I’m curious about what are the things that you’re looking at, reading about and studying about that you’re excited about?

Stella: Yeah, I’m definitely interested … ABM is something that we talk a lot about at Trello and I think that anybody that works at a company that has the nontraditional sales model where it’s bottoms up instead of top down. We’re thinking a lot about … Trello is one of those tools that’s used by a lot of different teams at a company, so when we have someone in sales going in and trying to sell, one of the biggest challenges is knowing or even letting people know, especially at larger companies, people don’t know that there’s a thousand people using Trello at that company and that they would be much better served by using our enterprise product. We’re thinking a lot about that.

I’m always really interested in psychology. I have a degree in psychology, so I’m always thinking about how automation interplays with human behavior and how there is sort of a fine line between robots and humans, especially now where you have all of these chat bots and it feels like you might be interacting with a human, but you’re not. From the marketing standpoint, we want to be really careful because Trello does have that sort of human touch, that fun, delightful, playful brand and that’s the thing that really connects people to us. Even outside of Trello, I think a lot about how the future of marketing … you sort of marry these two ideas of automation and efficiency, but also without losing the humanity behind things like customer interactions.

John: Stella, that’s great. That’s kind of puts a nice bow on it too, having started with AI and loss of human touch kind of brought it right back to full circle there.

Stella: Yeah, oh I meant to do that (laughing). I think it really is interesting and we think about it a lot, is we’re not as, as a team, we don’t use analytics and automation as efficiently as we could be, so we’re always thinking about that. But, then, again, we always have to be cognizant of the fact that it must come across in a very relatable, human, delightful way and we cannot lose that. That is such a core of our brand that we’re very aware of. Taco, everybody loves Taco. Taco is not going anywhere, but we do have to be thoughtful about if we overuse Taco then it doesn’t work anymore.

Sean: I cannot resist then, I’m going to tack on one more question. In terms of the analytics from users and the project management analytics, is this something that’s on your guys mind or something that’s being demanded from the community? On one hand, I definitely see like if I’m managing a team, I’d love to understand where my efficiencies are and where are the blockers and things like that? But I’m curious, if that’s something you guys are really thinking about, like what is that future of data analytics and things like that or is it still sort of far away for you guys?

Stella: No, we have a few Power-Ups that focus on reporting within Trello. I think reporting within Trello is one of the most widely requested features, especially from larger companies. It’s definitely something that we’re thinking about.

One interesting thing from a marketing standpoint is that we do not look at any user generated content, so I literally have no idea what anybody is using Trello for unless I survey them or I ask them on the street and that makes sort of going back to this idea of the horizontal tool. When I first joined Trello and I was the only marketer and I was trying to figure out, what are people using Trello for? At the time, we had four million users, so it was like clearly we have a ton of data, but the big thing is that we care so much about user privacy that as a marketer I literally had zero access to anything that anybody was putting into Trello. In that way, it was sort of like a black box and I had to be creative about how to figure out the use cases. Those are sort of two separate things, but kind of related.

John: That’s great. Stella, if people want to learn more about Trello or have questions for you, what’s the best way to get in touch?

Stella: Sure. So I’m on Twitter, my handle is @startupstella. You can tweet me anytime. You can also follow Trello on Twitter for a bunch of tips and great content and use cases from Trello.

John: All right. Sean, anything on the way out the door here?

Sean: No. Just Google Sean Zinsmeister to learn about everything that I’m up to. Follow me on Twitter at @szinsmeister.com. This is definitely a lot of the topics we talked about today, I have some pieces in the pipeline thinking about the nature of work and project management and things like that. Maybe I’ll share a few screenshots of my own personal Trello board that I’ve kept for years, which is … people always see it. Like looking inside the mind of madness a little bit, but I think it would be … I think it would make for a fun piece.

John: Looking at the scramble board. No, that sounds good. We’ll see what’s going on over there. You can find more from me over at Marketing Over Coffee.com, but that’s going to do it for us. Thanks for listening and we’ll see you in the stacks.

John Wall

John Wall

John J. Wall speaks, writes and practices at the intersection of marketing, sales, and technology. He is the producer of Marketing Over Coffee, a weekly audio program that discusses marketing and technology with his co-host Christopher S. Penn, and has been featured on iTunes.

Stay Up to Date