In our kickoff episode of the Banzai Pipeline Podcast, we kept it close to the cuff. Banzai CEO sits down for a real-talk interview with Sergei Dolukhanov, our superstar head of marketing and customer success. Sergei dons these two huge hats with grace and intention, so we wanted to know the inner workings of his process. Our conversation brought out the goods. Along with Sergei’s tips for personally excelling in the whirlwind of startup life, he shares how to push a new company forward. He offers insights on:
- The major differences between process within big-company and startup environments
- How to stay organized in the fast-pace of a startup
- The importance of teamwork to small company development
- The value of face-to-face meetings
- Why few (highly intentional) team meetings is the way to go
- How good people are the key to success—and the qualities to look for
With almost a decade of startup experience under his belt, Sergei reveals the advice he’d have given his 2010-self (like poo-pooing naysayers). His is a valuable story in how the marriage of marketing and customer success is critical to business growth. Listen to to the Pipeline podcast with Sergei’s podcast here. Follow Sergei at @sdolukhanov and connect with him on LinkedIn.
At Banzai, we help professionals like you build and host B2B events across the globe—and this includes webinars! If you’re looking for experts to help build and register the right audience for you next product or service webinar, connect with us today.
You can read the full Pipeline Podcast transcript below:
Joe: Welcome to Pipeline. This is the series that we’re doing at Banzai where we’re going to share insights on marketing leadership from some of the top people in B2B marketing around the world, and our first guest today is Sergei Dolukhanov. Sergei is the head of marketing and also head of customer success for Banzai, so a natural first choice for this. Sergei, thanks so much for joining us today.
Sergei: Hey Joe, thanks for having me.
Joe: Sergei, one of the first things I want to ask you is about your experience working at a bunch of different sized companies—and we’ve worked together at what, three or four companies now? Some have been pure startup, very small. Some have been pre-IPO to IPO companies like Avalara. What insight do you have on the major differences between working in small companies versus working in a bigger company? And how does your experience at Banzai fit into that?
Sergei: In a bigger company, there’s usually a lot less flexibility. You have to get a lot of opinions from different people. Obviously, there’s leadership that you go to for the most important pressing decisions, but then you also have teams all over the company that have various levels of input—and you have to take their expertise into consideration. With a smaller company, you can move quicker. You can come out with proprietary content that maybe someone has never thought of before because you have to. Otherwise, you get squashed by the big fish. There’s more flexibility versus being part of a big juggernaut. But at the same time, you can get things done in both styles of company.
Joe: So, in some ways, maybe there’s a need to be more flexible in a small company just to stay alive, to make yourself relevant?
Sergei: I would think so, especially in markets where there are bigger players. You definitely have to move quickly in a smaller environment. You have to be more flexible, and you have to do things that are proprietary that the big guys haven’t thought of, otherwise you’re going to get squashed.
Joe: One of the things you mentioned was this need to work across multiple people. How has teamwork played into your experience in bigger companies?
Sergei: Teamwork is incredibly important. It’s trusting those around you to be able to achieve certain goals together. In a smaller company it’s very important. In a bigger company, sometimes you can even have too many voices. Remember the Amazon 2-pizza rule? You want a team that you could feed with two pizzas. That’s the optimal number of people that you want input from for any given project.
Joe: That depends on how much pizza everybody eats.
Sergei: Yeah, yeah. I’m a two-slice guy myself.
Joe: That’s a good insight. So, when you’re in a smaller company, when you don’t have access to so many resources—you don’t have a dedicated PPC person, you don’t have a dedicated SEO person—how do you handle that?
Sergei: You start with the bigger picture. Look at everybody in the room and ask what’s really important. You start at the top and figure out what’s most important for the business. Obviously driving revenue is a huge thing for any business start with. Then you focus on tactical objectives from your big macro objectives, then you drill down from there. You start with revenue and what’s going to drive your revenue. Is it going to be a PPC? Probably not for a little bit, right? Is it going to be organic content marketing? Most likely. You go with what’s going to move the needle in marketing, and then obviously for sales you want to go out find people to buy your stuff.
Joe: You have kind of an interesting job at Banzai because on the one hand you’re doing marketing and on the other you’re doing customer success. Walk me through what a day in the life looks like for you with those two roles?
Sergei: Well for me I have to make a priority to answer any possible problem or issue or question from any customer. So, I have to keep my inbox open at all times. I keep my cell phone lines open. I have a dedicated cell phone just to answer people’s calls just for work. I have another one for personal life.
Joe: Do you find that helps you keep organized?
Sergei: It’s so helpful. I don’t even have a single app on my work phone that I have on my personal phone. I actually split everything up by apps. I have all my logins separate so if I want to log into Banzai Twitter, I’ll login on my work phone. If I want to log into my personal one, I’ll log into my personal phone.
Joe: So back to the day in the life. You’re sitting there, you’ve got two cell phones, you’ve got your inbox open. What else?
Sergei: I go through all my e-mails first, answer any questions that anybody has. Once that’s all clear I actually check my inbox again and actually put to action any items that are longer than five minutes. I’ll do the first task, I’ll go through the inbox and I look and see how many things I can get done under five minutes. I’ll do all those right away. And then anything that’s like greater than that will just stay there. Then I work through all of those things until it’s empty. Once it’s empty, I can actually start doing outreach to all the clients. I try to find new clients within the same companies. Then there’s an entire marketing portion of my position, as well. Thankfully now Corrine has come and saved us, so I can work on all the good bits. All the nice projects. There’s really a lot going on. I would say 75 percent of this summer has been focusing on customer success. And then 20-25 percent has been the marketing bit, thanks to Corrine.
Joe: And the reason for the divide has really just been moving towards revenue urgency?
Sergei: Anybody that’s asking me a question, I feel like that needs to be answered first. Anybody that has questions about our product or company, anything like that, we want to maintain that brand integrity because it’s really important for me not to lose any customers.
Joe: You made an extremely strong stance of using 75% of your time really focused on customer communication and working in the trenches with customers.
Sergei: At this point, we’re a bootstrap startup. Every customer is gold to us. It’s our lifeblood, right? If we maintain all those relationships, who knows where we’ll be in five years. I think it’s on a really good path.
Joe: Relationship building and constant communication—do you find that it helps you do things in marketing more effectively? When you decide on strategy? What kind of content to create? Things like.
Sergei: I think so. I’m maintaining a pulse on all the people interested in reading and hearing about all of our products. When Corrine wants to create an article about—let’s say—event marketing. Okay, who are we going to ask first? Who knows things about event marketing? Obviously. our clients. Anything we put out that is interesting to them, they’re going to want to consume that content. If we have our pulse on all these different clients and all their problems and all the ways that we can help solve them, we’re going to have a much better idea of how to put out the next readable piece for them to consume. It’s a lot easier to create it once you already know what kind of problems people are having on the market.
Joe: You’re spending a lot of time not just on e-mail and on the phone, but you’re spending a lot of time out in the field, actually sitting down with customers in their offices, too right?
Sergei: Yeah, it’s kind of amazing that you can have an hour-long conversation on the phone and you’ll still just talking. You kind of talk about day-to-day kind of things. But then once you get face-to-face with somebody, all of a sudden, they have like 30 partners they want to introduce you to. It’s one of those weird things. Meeting in person, you get into these side conversations. You see facial expressions. That social, face-to-face interaction promotes people to open up to you. Being out in the field, it’s probably the number one trust builder. We talk about branding and word-of-mouth and people giving a good rep, right? The biggest solidifier is meeting people face-to-face, establishing that personal relationship. From there, you get things like, “Oh hey, I gave your info to this company, this company, and that company,” and that stems from that personal relationship.
Joe: Taking those insights from these relationships, these customer meetings that we’re having, all these conversations, how have you been getting that stuff from customers success into marketing? How does that work?
Sergei: Well luckily, we have some really rock star people that we’ve hired. So, communication is not an issue because they’re very good at it.
Joe: Because everyone’s communicating all the time.
Sergei: Yeah, I’m totally cool with that. I love communicating in this way. I think for a remote business, which we are, it’s very important to keep it all on the table and open. We’ve done a great job of hiring people that are very open to listening. It’s so vital to not close your mind to other people’s viewpoints, because you never know what kind of insight you’re going to get.
Joe: Give me an example of like how many times a day or a week or whatever, of how often you talk to Lindsay who is on customer success or Corrine who’s on your marketing team?
Sergei: As often as necessary. I don’t berate people, so I’m not going to constantly message people. My style isn’t necessarily a micromanager. I’m not going to sit there ask you what you’re doing every 20 minutes. But I care about the big stuff, you know big developments, big movements talking about big projects like the webinar product we just released. I love this whole thing. I personally think daily is great. I could do hourly. I just don’t like to micromanage. Make it conversational, whenever there is something that we really need to work on. You know I love that sort of correspondence, but I’m not a big meetings guy.
Joe: How many meetings do you have? Do you have a formal meeting with those teams?
Sergei: Yeah, we do a weekly. I’m not like a huge meeting guy in the sense I’m not going to waste your time for 30 minutes just talking about the sky. But if we have big developments, let’s chat about it. I love it. Joe: So, you’re spending maybe one weekly meeting, and then maybe you talk to everybody else however they want to be communicated with—once a day at a minimum? Maybe a couple times a day?
Sergei: Exactly. I try to set it up on a case-by-case basis.
Joe: Let them drive how often they want to be communicated with?
Sergei: Exactly. The bottom line is that we’re all busy, we all have a job to do. If you’re a self-motivated person, you know exactly what to do to be successful and for the company to succeed. It’s all in the hiring process. As long as we hire the best possible talent, they’re going to drive themselves.
Joe: So, when you’re looking for people for the team, what are you looking for? What are the traits of characteristics you are looking for?
Sergei: Well self-motivated is probably the number one. Especially since we’re working at a remote company. You have to be able to just get up and do work on your own. I like people that listen really well, that are considerate of other people’s time. I look for people that are kind. That’s a really underrated trait. Not enough people in business are kind. I think there’s a lot of jerks out there for no reason. It’s not necessary.
Joe: So basically people who are hard workers or self-motivated workers, who are not assholes, and who are smart.
Sergei: Yeah exactly. That’s very hard to find.
Joe: It’s surprisingly hard to find.
Sergei: Yeah. They don’t just grow on trees. You have to get them when you can.
Joe: The last thing I want to ask you is: Do you have any advice that you would share with yourself if you had the chance to go back? When did we start working together Sergei, what was that?
Joe: So going back to that time like eight or nine years ago. Obviously, we’ve come a long way, but what advice would you give yourself at that time?
Sergei: So the number one tip I would give is: Don’t listen to when naysayers tell you not to do something, even if it seems like it’s a very difficult thing to do. I would say do it and fail, because that’s more valuable than any experience you’ll get from a book or a classroom. That’s the number one thing.
Joe: Get into the game you know and get in there.
Sergei: Yeah if you want to be the next Carnegie, you’ve got to start by selling a doorbell somewhere. Right? That’s definitely my number one. Put your head down and work. Go try and fail. That’s the number one thing. The number two thing I would tell myself is: One penny doubled every day is $1.3M for 31 days. So definitely do not underestimate the power of compound interest.
Joe: Yeah. If you’re growing 10% per month or whatever, after a few years that’s going to be a big company.
Sergei: That’s right. One penny, what is it, 200% a day? Boom.
Joe: Well, I think we all wish we could grow that fast.
Sergei: Yeah exactly. That’s the goal.
Joe: Along with compound interest, maybe there’s a lesson there about just being patient? Waiting for that interest to compound pay dividends any given day? Maybe it doesn’t feel like we’re making that much progress, but when you turn around and look at where we were two years ago even, it’s like a totally different ballgame now.
Sergei: Yeah. My favorite is looking at Andy’s face when the subject comes up, because he’ll always be like, “Yeah, I mean, I can’t believe where we are now. Two years ago I was doing this…” And you’re like, “Man, you really have come a long way.”
Joe: Yeah, two years ago, it was me and Andy talking on the phone five times a day and trying not to dip into our savings to pay our rent and stuff like that.
Sergei: It’s so crazy. It goes from zero to 100 really quick. As long as you put in the time and put your nose down work hard, it comes.