Can Boston Become the Silicon Valley of Marketing?How Brian Halligan, CEO of HubSpot, hopes his fast-growing company can help shift the balance to beantown.
October 26, 2010
by Drew Neisser
Brian Halligan is nothing if not a dreamer. In his dream, the Redsox win the pennant every year, hundreds of thousands of small businesses use HubSpot and Boston becomes the epicenter for “modern marketing” that eschews traditional media in favor of his highly digital, “Inbound” approach. And while Halligan can’t keep his beloved Sox off the Disabled List, he is well on his way to realizing at least part of his dream, building a company that has taken small business marketing to a new, more cost-effective place.
How Halligan and his compatriots at HubSpot have gotten this far is a potent reminder of the need to think big while minding the store, blending a Puritanical work ethic with an Aerosmithian will to “Dream On.” Whether or not HubSpot and Halligan can transform Boston into the Silicon Valley of marketing, which will require an entire community of like-minded marketing services providers to take a ride north on the Metroliner, my interview yielded several location-neutral insights for any entrepreneur.
The future is coming, the future is coming
With Paul Revere-like clarity, Halligan is quick to warn of the impending doom of traditional marketing. Noted Halligan, “My whole thesis in life is that the way people market their products is broken, that TV/radio/print and interrupting people with spam messages and cold calls [doesn’t work].” “I actually think that Madison Avenue is going to crash because no one is watching those ads they’re making anymore and I want Boston to be the next generation Madison Avenue,” explained Halligan, who helped to organize Future M, a conference in early October that focused on “modern marketing,” and featured 50 or so Beantown marketing innovators.
The company on a hill
When John Winthrop famously declared Boston the “city on a hill,” he certainly anticipated the fervent city-centric loyalty of Brian Halligan. “I’m from Boston and I’m a little pissed of that Silicon Valley has out-innovated us in the PC revolution and then the Internet,” exclaimed Halligan. Sharing Winthrop’s evangelistic bent, Halligan noted his desire to “revive the area in terms of the Internet and around marketing,” building as big a company has he can that maintains its New England roots. Even though Halligan aspires to a West coast-style company like Google or Amazon, he makes it clear he has no interest in selling out to one of these giants and seeing the company leave town.
Not the same old song and dance
Sometimes referred to as “the Bad Boys of Boston,” the band Aerosmith made its mark by blending elements of pop, heavy metal and R&B to create their own unique sound. So too has Halligan and his team created something new by blending a number of tools “into one simple relatively easy to use package for businesses to take advantage of.” Designed to address “a massive shift in the way modern humans shop and learn,” the HubSpot platform includes software for blogging, social media monitoring, marketing analytics, email and lead nurturing. To prove HubSpot has a hit on their hands, Halligan noted that they have about 3,500 customers today up from 1400 a year ago while revenue has grown to $20 million from $7 million over the same period. And that’s got to music to Halligan’s VC backers if not to the rest of Boston.
Ask not what you can do for your company, ask what your company can do for its customers
JFK’s famous call to action inspired an entire generation to lead by doing. This notion is at the heart of HubSpot’s success, enabling and encouraging businesses “to create remarkable content that becomes like a magnet to pull people in.” Halligan calls this approach Inbound Marketing, an approach he preaches about in a book and on a blog of the same name while practicing it religiously at his own company. Noted Halligan, “we create tons and tons of blog articles, we create eBooks, we create webinars, we create a weekly TV show” all designed to draw people into HubSpot often by way of Google without having to buy keywords. Explained Halligan, “a webinar works for years and years whereas with Google ads, you just throw money at it month after month.”
Good grade hunting
Boston boys Damon and Affleck took Hollywood by storm with their Academy Award-winning debut. HubSpot generates good will and great leads with it highly praised “grader” tools. These free tools rate a company’s performance on keyword search, website, blogs, Facebook and even Foursquare. Offered Halligan, “if they get a crappy score, they say, ‘who are those HubSpot guys?’ and they end up in our funnel,” watching a demo, trying the software and ultimately buying. The idea according to Halligan is to “free up as much knowledge and content as you possibly can and use that knowledge to pull people into your business and try to convert them into customers.” Halligan also noted that their customers see meaningful results in 4-6 months, averaging 13% increases in sales leads that compound on a month to month basis.
More than a feeling for culture
The band Boston exploded onto the rock scene in the mid-seventies but after two multi-platinum albums, management issues got the best of them. Halligan is keenly aware that rapid growth brings its own set of problems and works diligently to keep the band together while bringing in fresh blood. Explained Halligan, “when you grow this fast, everything breaks—many of the systems you put in place break and you are constantly revolving and reorganizing.” Not wanting to be “just another band out of Boston” that imploded, Halligan and his cohorts put extra effort into clarifying and cultivating their corporate culture and mission. “When we do annual reviews of employees, the culture is part of that review—there are seven points in our culture and we grade them [on each],” noted Halligan. It is little wonder both employees and clients seem to sing the praises of HubSpot.
Final note: With over 80% of advertising still going through traditional media channels and a sizeable percentage of that flowing through New York-based agencies, shifting the epicenter of “modern marketing” to Boston won’t happen overnight, if at all. That doesn’t bother Halligan who has accepted this mission as his “life’s work,” and whose accomplishments to date justify further consideration. As such, I’d encourage you to read more of my interview, as I am in the end a New Yorker, too busy weeping over the Yankees’ demise to belabor this further.