Chief Marketing Officer at Loop54
I first learned about Vanessa Meyer at a Stockholm Entrepreneurship meetup. Held at Norrsken House, I had heard all the hype about the new space but yet to explore it myself. The event ran like most others, with a panel of three speakers and a host but in hearing her insightful responses, I knew that I had to ask Vanessa to lunch for Eat 52 Lunches. Lucky for me, and for readers, she agreed without a second thought.
With about 10 years experience, seated in a leadership role, and a Canadian that now calls Sweden home, Vanessa is the embodiment of a Boss Lady that this blog is founded on. I wanted to understand how this Boss Lady had catapulted herself to success so quickly, and in a country that was not her first home.
Over the better half of a decade, Stockholm has borne some of the most talked about technology companies in the world. It is a hub with a reputation that’s growing just as much as its population. Whenever I’m abroad the mention of Stockholm brings wide eyes and a nod of understanding. The word is quickly spreading that we build cool shit here and people want a piece of it.
To discuss her place in the tech scene, I met this Boss Lady at a place that, in the summer, doesn’t feel like you’re in Stockholm at all. Perched atop the hill on Kungsbron lies a strip of cafes and restaurants that exudes a bigger city feel rather than the small-town feel Stockholm usually emanates. The same street shares its address with a casino; adding to the feel that you’re not really in Stockholm. It’s also the block where Google is headquartered. We grab a table outdoors at SEN Street Kitchen to soak up the the sun.
Being the first marketing hire
Vanessa is CMO at Loop54, a company that builds personalised product search through machine learning. She explains that to me in layman terms as the engine that generates the search results when you search on ecommerce sites. If you’re browsing a Swedish fashion site for example, there’s a good chance that Loop54 is the one generating the results when you search ‘chelsea boots’.
We share a common experience of usually being one of the first English speakers to join a company and also the first marketing hire. I ask what her general experience has been as that catalyst.
That first year of the marketing role, when you are a first marketer, is isolated
“That first year of the marketing role, when you are a first marketer, is isolated. My experience with founding teams is that, unless there is a really good marketer or someone experienced working with the marketing team in the founding team, they usually have a very narrow understanding of what marketing does.”
She continues to explain. “They have mixed expectations or inflated expectations of what they would get from it. They usually have way over the top expectations but they know they need it. They know it is important. They have a vague idea of what it is; it’s leads, it’s acquisition, it’s advertising, it’s PR.”
While this concept of marketing is not wrong, it’s important to know what the expectations are when stepping into the role. Vanessa describes her process where she usually breaks things down into year-long milestones that set the expectations but also get the marketing machine working.
“I am trying to (as best as I can) meet some of those expectations and get a foundation for the most commonly associated tactics of marketing – which is that acquisition part of it – or get part of the engine going.”
“In the second year I can sort of lift my eyes a little bit because the engine starts to work, inbound comes in, there are clients, there is a good positioning, we start get that top of the funnel stuff going.”
More money means more problems
One of the wrestles you have as first marketing hire is when to bring on the next team member. As a startup, budget for recruiting is almost always restricted and while that might feel suffocating for the vision, Vanessa points out that it can also be a blessing.
“More money is more problems; more management, more responsibility, and more things to measure, spend and coordinate.”
What governs her thinking is whether or not the acquisition part of the marketing engine is functional enough for her to lift her eyes towards mid-journey activities.
More money is more problems; more management, more responsibility, and more things to measure, spend and coordinate.
“The thing with acquisition and the top of the funnel, is that you are so limited by your budget and your resources. So at a certain point, there is only so much that you can do. Then it becomes optimising and trying to get more bang for the buck.”
Once the game changes to optimisation, that’s a great time for the team to grow. Vanessa describes that second role as taking on “demand, working closer with sales and that side of it so that I can turn my eyes a little bit and go a bit more mid journey. There would be more of getting into that overlap of customer success, which is really about refining the customer journey, the growth model, and how you move people from level to level.”
A big part of marketing’s role in a startup also feeds into product management. Regardless of team size, Vanessa is always striving to work closer with product management answering questions like “What is the product that we need to build to position ourselves competitively in the market and to appeal to a certain segment of the market?”
Decisions aren’t forever
Like many from abroad, myself included, Vanessa’s reason for staying in Sweden is because of love. But it wasn’t her sole reason for moving in the first place. The opportunity to gain an education for the fraction of a price compared to her home city was just as appealing. While she admits that being from Quebec means that she did have access to lower-cost education compared to other regions and neighbouring countries, gaining degrees in her home city paled in comparison to gaining them in Stockholm.
Given that she sits in a leadership role here, does Vanessa think she would have experienced a similar journey in Canada? It’s a hard question to answer and she reflects on her journey for a moment before answering.
“I was so nervous when I finished my master’s degree and I was like ‘Damn. I do not speak Swedish.’ In Stockholm in particular, it has changed a lot and the corporate mentality in terms of hiring foreigners and non-Swedish speaking has gotten better because there is a shortage of qualified labor.”
Continuing to reflect, she says “I think the timing was good. When I graduated, that shift was starting to take off. When I first got here in October 2008…that did not go well at all. I had no recognisable Swedish university degree. I had done my bachelors in Canada and they did not recognise the school. There was the financial crisis and I did not speak Swedish and I couldn’t get anything so I ended up waitressing and learning Swedish.”
She goes on to add that this challenge gave her the opportunity to let personal relationships flourish. “My relationship with my Swedish husband; we needed that time because everything was expedited. When you are a foreign couple and you make that plunge to move in together, you are all in. You learn to live together and it wasn’t a soft launch. It was like ‘We love each other, let’s go!’ and so we needed that time to get to know each other.”
I don’t know whether the similarity to my own experience is uncanny or simply common for all couples with one Swede and one foreigner. When I first moved to Stockholm, I felt like I was trying to stay afloat in a pretty wild sea. Having just graduated, entered a new relationship, and moved to a new country, there were times when everything just felt really chaotic. Accepting that chaos and giving the time it needed to pass allowed me to focus on the new constant in my life; my relationship.
Vanessa and her partner had only been together a few months before they decided to make the move. While moving to a new country for love is a big milestone, Vanessa points out that she never took it as a forever decision.
“If things did not work out, I would just get a degree and go on back home. It was a safe bet but luckily my relationship worked out and I stayed.”
I laugh at the familiarity of her thinking; I too took the opportunity to move to Sweden for a new relationship. If it failed, I could just move back to Denmark or Australia. Nothing ventured, nothing gained was my motto.
Vanessa adds “I was a bit nervous about finding work and what I should go into because this marketing thing can take you into a lot of different areas like consulting or agency. I could have gone into more of a consumer brand or start my own but I always had an affinity for technology. When we were doing our master’s, we had a bit of an emphasis on technology marketing and technology commercialisation and I kind of had a feeling that I wanted to stay, at least in digital, whether it would be in media or software technology.”
Chase the problem, not the title
So how did Vanessa land her first job in Stockholm? As many of you have likely experienced, it was thanks to a friend. “I just got lucky. I had a friend that I started with and she joined a start up after we finished. She joined Wrapp and then asked me to join them.”
Vanessa recalls that she didn’t know what her job was called only that she knew what tasks she liked to work on. ”It was like, this is exactly what I wanted to do.”
It’s a bit of a common theme that surfaces at most Boss Lady lunches; the experience of not knowing the job title you want to have but knowing the kind of tasks you want to work on. But instead of assimilating to the titles of an industry, Boss Ladies continue to chase the problem to solve rather than the title.
Vanessa goes on to describe her path before joining Wrapp. “I was actually working at a market research/software company. They had a digital product, a website for recruitment, and I took over product management. That was when I was in school finishing my masters and I really enjoyed that role. I was dipping my toes into product management, working with the development team and then when I joined Wrapp, I was working with the product development team but in a B2B marketing role.”
Software as a service from a marketing front brings consumer marketing tactics into the B2B side.
“I realised that this is exactly where I want to be. I went further and further into B2B as my focus, just because I like SAAS and it is usually more B2B.”
What’s so exciting about working within B2B technology? “I like bigger transactions. I like the complexity of the scale, and I just enjoy it. Software as a service from a marketing front brings consumer marketing tactics into the B2B side.”
“It is a lot about thinking about how to do things.You cannot acquire customers the way that you are used to with enterprise SAAS anymore so you have to think like consumer marketing to bring that price down and I enjoy that transition and that overlap, I think that is really fun. It feels so default for me because that is where I my career took off. It feels so logical and so obvious like, yes this is how you sell and market SAAS. People who came into software a little bit earlier, worked in IT and you can tell that not everyone’s mind is there yet.”
Find your champions
When you’re a first marketing hire, much of what you’re trying to change lies not at an operational level but rather a management level, and their endorsement for your marketing vision. But it’s not easy. It helps when you’ve got people on your side, buying into your plan.
Vanessa describes what keeps her motivated through this process. “I think I get reenergised when I find a counterpart internally that shares the vision. Often, as a startup, you have got so many things happening at multiple times. And with people often being quite junior at a startup, they do not necessarily know how to prioritise everything.”
“If I find someone internally that shares the vision, I will sort of get together with them, start to brainstorm, start to sort of build our own vocabulary about the change that we are trying to affect and then it is frankly starting to make the plan. Then slowly and inevitably, you get people organically bought into it because it is exciting and you sort of get people under the umbrella and get enthusiastic about it.”
How do you go about finding a champion? What skills do you need to be using? She explains that “Ideally you can articulate the context on why we are building it this way and why we think this is important. If you can get at least two people, three would be a critical point to really come together, articulate and clarify the vision for why building a product in this way and building a functionality is important and should be prioritised. You should get together and spec it out and sort of internally sell it and build the internal marketing language. Then it sort of all goes from there.”
Vanessa goes on to share a recent example. “I have been on a mission to prioritise the developer experience because we are an API. I understand the primary buyer (an ecommerce manager) and although they are are a mash up between technical and marketing people, they usually swing one way or the other. I was like we really need to make the DX experience better; the documentation needs to be better and we need more code examples that they can work with. No one wants to look at a blank canvas. I understand that we are customisable and optimisable but it doesn’t matter – you need standard functionality, things people can go like, ok I get the basics of this, I can build on it, I can tweak it from there.”
With the team behind her, the challenge becomes about when to do it rather than if. “If you find people who share that vision, you strengthen your articulations with that person, so that when you get into the meeting, when you are debating prioritisation, positioning or development, you are not the sole voice, you have somebody else to second you and the scales start to tip especially after that. Particularly because most people at the table are confused as to what we should do and so when two people are really like ‘I believe in this initiative’, everyone else can kind of, unless they have a really strong counter be like ‘ok, that sounds good – at least you are making a decision’.”
Fuelling your identity
After a year in the role of first marketer, the effects of a “run fast” mentality can start to show. It’s easy to take unrealistic expectations and turn them into your to-do which leaves you susceptible to burnout. Usually the first symptom is a dip in motivation. How does this Boss Lady maintain motivation past that first year?
The first year is the ‘worst’ and I cannot say that I have any particular strategy for dealing with it. I just try not to bring it home so much.
“The first year is the ‘worst’ and I cannot say that I have any particular strategy for dealing with it. I just try not to bring it home so much. Of course I am always on my phone looking at emails at all sorts of hours but my office right now is not too high paced in that way; there is nobody really pressuring us to work like that in that sort of high stress and so it has been okay.”
“If I think the office culture is becoming more high paced, I think I wouldn’t feel much more stress because that is the person that I am. I want to keep up because I am intense in my approach.”
A common thread with all Boss Ladies I’ve lunched with so far is that they either share some level of intensity in their personalities, or they don’t sweat the small stuff. Perhaps it’s a borne personality trait or it’s a skill they learned along the way. It’s difficult to ascertain the combination but at least for this Boss Lady, it seems an equal split between intense personality and letting the small stuff go.
Vanessa goes on to explain an experience at a former employer with a close colleague. “(We were) very intense, all in and we fed off each other and I think to some extent we exhausted each other.”
Though it wasn’t in a bad way, Vanessa is wary about finding herself in a similar situation at all employers, current and future. “Right now I haven’t sort of identified anyone that fuels my identity yet but there might be a hidden gem somewhere in there that we are waiting to find each other.” She says with a smile.