Ardent War Story 5: The Best Marketers Are Engineers

At Ardent we were building personal supercomputers to sell to scientists and engineers. (Context here.) While the last post was titled “You Know You’re Getting Close to Your Customers When They Offer You a Job“, this post should probably be titled, “You Know You’re Getting Close to Your Customers When You Offer Them a Job.”

I would discover that there was a more effective alternative in building a marketing department than hiring traditional marketers with MBA’s.

Building an Advisory Board
In my travels outside the building I kept my eyes out for articulate and visionary scientists and engineers who had expertise we lacked, and were willing to help in an advisory capacity. I set up an advisory board as a vehicle to get these industry experts engaged with the company and product. Some of these advisors from the academic community would work with our of VP of Engineering and help us solve specific technical problems.

Other advisors provided marketing with industry-specific advice in our initial vertical markets (computational fluid dynamics, computational chemistry, finite element analysis, and petroleum engineering). They gave us input on 1) features our system needed, 2) what applications we needed to have, and 3) how to sell to people just like them. Of course we also hoped that in listening to their advice in how to build the perfect computer for customers just like them, they would actually buy one of the first computers.  Since some of these advisory board members were leaders in their fields, we knew they would tell their peers about our company. Our company’s stock was an inducement, but all of them were in it to help us build a better computer.

Velvet Painting Period - MFLOPS Poster

Velvet Painting Period – MFLOPS Poster

Engineers as Marketers
There was one other reason I was talent-spotting our advisors and potential customers. In most other companies a product-marketing department was responsible for the pricing, positioning and promotion of the product. Yet in our case the product, the machine as delivered from engineering, was a blank, featureless computer with just an operating system and compilers. The hardware held no interest for our target customers until it had become a “whole product,” – that is not until the computer had the complete suite of applications appropriate for a scientist in their specific vertical market – i.e. all the applications to run computational fluid dynamics or finite element analysis.

While I had learned a lot about our target markets in the first few months, I would never know as much as people who had spent their careers in these fields. Since the universe of people who were great marketers who also understood these esoteric applications like finite element analysis could be counted on one hand, (and were all working at Cray, the market leader) my choices were limited. I could either hire smart MBAs who were generalists and try to get them up to speed on these simulation applications, or I could hire some of the most articulate domain experts and teach them how to be marketers.

I chose to hire engineers from within each of our target markets and set up “Steve’s one month MBA course for engineers.”

At the time this was a pretty controversial decision. These hires were definitely not your standard marketing types. We hired a PhD in computational fluid dynamics from Duke who had worked on helicopter design. (Years later he would become a venture capitalist at Sequoia Capital.)

Our head of finite element analysis came from General Motor’s Chevy division, where he headed up one of their analysis groups. (He would go on to be a co-founder of two mechanical engineering software companies.) The rest of the vertical marketing recruits had similar backgrounds (and similar careers.)  (I never could find one from the petroleum industry so I wore that hat along with the VP of Marketing title.)

Few of them had ever seen a data sheet or a price list let alone written one, but they were domain experts, they knew their fields, and they could communicate the benefits of owning a machine like ours to run their applications. They knew which applications were critical for their markets and which were nice-to-have. And they were responsible for helping our 3rd party software group reach the right application providers to port their software to our computer. Since these marketers knew what publications their peers read and what conferences and trade shows they attended, they led our presence at the right shows and conferences.  They knew the technology trendsetters in their fields and got us in front of them. In short order they learned how to transition from being customers on the receiving end of a sales pitch to giving one. To a person they became passionate evangelists and effective marketers.

Technical Marketing
Years later in my career I would realize I had simply reinvented what the early pioneers in Silicon Valley knew and did – hiring engineers who were domain experts who could talk as peers to customers and communicate effectively with their own company’s engineers.  (Back in the 1960’s and 70’s no sane MBA’s would work for a Silicon Valley startup.) While MBA’s have a ton of useful skills, what they don’t have is what most marketing departments lack – customer insight.  I found that having a senior marketer responsible for business strategy surrounded by ex-engineers and domain experts makes one heck of a powerful marketing department.

A quick diagnostic I now use for marketing departments: if you are in a startup selling to a specific set of customers and/or industry and your marketing department doesn’t have any people from that industry, your tenure as a VP of Marketing has passed its half-life.

Lessons learned:

  • Advisory boards with domain experts get you connected quickly to customer needs
  • In specialized markets, hire domain experts, and teach them to be marketers

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12 Responses

  1. Thanks for the fascinating blog posts.

    English oops:

    “You Know Your Getting Close to Your Customers When Your Offer Them a Job.”

    should be:
    “You Know You’re Getting Close to Your Customers When You Offer Them a Job.”

  2. Thanks for the insights, but I have one question — do you have any articles or blog posts that talk about what’s in “Steve’s one month MBA course for engineers.”

  3. I wholeheartedly agree with your advice. As part of a small web dev shop, it’s harder to explain to the business people why XYZ can or cannot function as they want when they don’t understand my area of expertise, but it is easy to explain to the client why our products will help them do their job better because of my domain experience. I think it’s something our business people realize, as they are actively reaching out to the web development community and attending meetups and conferences in things they don’t have any knowledge of, but give them a taste of what our job is like every day.

    I look forward to your future articles, probably the most insightful reading I’ve done all year.

  4. Yep, we did exactly that at Multiflow.

    We basically had a retainer with one of the pioneering folks in computational chemistry, who ported and tuned his company’s application for our rather radical architecture, and also acted as a marketeer for us in that (then quite nascent) field.

    Mutliflow is now long gone (along with all these minisuper/personal supercomputer companies), but these chemistry folks are still going strong. 😉

  5. I believe the MBA was originally developed with the idea of helping functional experts move more smoothly into upper management ranks. Unfortunately it became a gatekeeper degree of a sorts allowing all sorts of folks to sidestep real business experience. Your approach here makes much more sense, but I imagine requires more management effort overall and risks honest, unvarnished appraisals reaching sensitive ears. In all a good thing.

  6. […] Ardent War Story 5: The Best Marketers Are Engineers […]

  7. Steve – who was the fluid dynamics PhD that you helped turn into a Sequoia VC?

  8. Yup. On the VMware Fusion team, we required anyone on the marketing team to a. be a user of software (for the consumer use case). The team had to live in Office 2007 for Windows, running virtualized on their Macs. and b. had to know how to administer Mac IT environments and Windows IT environments.

    If they didn’t know how to talk to an IT guy who had 100 Mac users needing Outlook, but needing Active Directory…well…they couldn’t be on the team.

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