When HubSpot was in the early stages, I accepted almost everything: new features, new initiatives, new ideas. This allowed my team to move quickly and achieve their goals. I was proud to be a man who always said yes. We worked hard to adapt the product to the market, so anything we could do to get more customers and find the right mix of resources was a critical learning opportunity.
A central and popular feature of our product was Website Grader (site classifier). Seeking to expand our reach and impact, I soon said “yes” to Twitter Grader … and the Foursquare Grader (yes, it was fashionable at the time) … and the Press Release Grader. If anyone had an idea for a Marketing Grader, I would probably say “yes.”
He said “yes” to a lot of fun and creative videos.
He said “yes” to the HubSpot All Star Leaderboard, which mediated and posed customer interactions with our product.
By the time we got to a couple of hundred employees, all this dissipated energy began to produce diminishing returns. “Brian, this business of ‘the man who always says yes’ worked in the startup phase,” said Lorrie Norrington, one of the board members. “But it’s being counterproductive in the expansion phase. You have poorly designed projects everywhere. You need to add the word “no” to your management vocabulary. ”
Lorrie had followed the path of a startup to the big company firsthand on eBay and Intuit, among others, and I valued her opinion. Borrowing a little from the wisdom of HP co-founder David Packard, she warned me that “more businesses die of indigestion than of hunger.” Lorrie was right: I had a serious problem of binge eating.
I adopted three practices to balance my yes and no diet:
Put on paper
The best all-around tool I’ve found to help me stop being the CEO who only says yes to a startup is a one-page document we call MSJOV. In it, we express our Mission, the People we Serve, the Throwings we will make in the year, the plays we are going to Omit, and how we will check our progress.
The most painful part of this document is the omissions. Painful, because they are generally excellent ideas with high potential, but must necessarily be omitted because it is better to do few things very well. One of the most agonizing omissions I had to do was postpone the opening of our first international office for a year.
There was no doubt that internationalization was a good idea. At the time, in 2011, we already had more than 300 customers in more than 30 countries outside the US, which accounted for about 10% of our business. In addition, international customers were particularly pleased, with a much lower cancellation rate than in the domestic market. Everything indicated a complete international expansion.
When you internationalized it was another matter. In addition to internationalization, it had also decided to focus entirely on our new target buyer. We had two personas to represent the buyers: “Ollie, the owner,” a small business owner, and “Mary of Marketing,” marketing director of a midsize business that needed to turn site visitors into potential customers. I decided to reorient all product development, sales and marketing efforts to the marketing director.
Can you do both at the same time – align the company around a single market and also do the international launch? We had enough momentum for international expansion, and some executives, who were already preparing to take the lead, planned to move their careers and families to London.
In the end, I decided that internationalization would have to wait another year, when we would be on the verge of full product alignment, marketing and sales. I added “international office” to the Omissions box of our MSJOV and we made sure that the decision was disclosed internally:
I really want to internationalize the company, but I want to put HubSpot’s energy into its main economic engine next year and make the machine run really well. We will arrive in Europe, but I want every extra dollar in my P & L to go to Marketing Mary, and Europe will be a great initiative that will not help with this.
The only thing I regret about this decision is that I have passed behind [certain individuals]. I feel terrible about that. I’m confident that I’m doing the right thing for the business, but in the process I’ve done the wrong thing.
When “No” is “No”
We are a fairly flat organization and give the floor to all kinds of different opinions. Generally, we are very good at reaching a conclusion, and everyone involved mobilizes to put it into practice.
Sometimes, however, enthusiastic advocates of a rejected proposal came to me to defend their argument again, sometimes with additional data or a more effective spokesperson. And often, in the absence of the whole team, I saw the sense of the repaginated argument, and gave them a half green light. Inevitably, this led to a new meeting with everyone involved, which often resulted in concessions made without much conviction.
The decision to “put every dollar left in my P & L in Marketing Mary” was made after many of these concessions made to go after both Mary of Marketing and Ollie, the owner. By continuing to serve two masters, we compromise our marketing efforts and slow down the development of our products. Finally, by saying “no,” in writing to Ollie, the Owner, the post-decision lobby in the hallway is over. As everyone knew that the hammer had been beaten, it became easier to disperse the dissatisfied ones who sought to revise the decision – just remembering MSJOV.
Say yes with conviction
The other parts of the MSJOV deal with the consumers we are going to serve, and what moves we will make – with conviction and without looking back.
In the startup phase, we could make quick decisions, and it did not necessarily matter if the decision was right. We could examine the results, and if they were not promising, we were agile enough to adjust them, change course or, if necessary, reduce our losses and eliminate the problem. Remember the Foursquare Grader project? First we accelerate, then we leave behind.
This entrepreneurial mindset and willingness to say “yes” was key to adjusting the product to the market. However, in the expansion phase, the virtue of keeping options open and changing gear according to new information is disruptive and costly.
When we committed to Mary’s move to Marketing, we could not go back. Of course this entails the risk of doing the wrong calculation. But in the expansion phase, we have accumulated sufficient data and experience to feel secure. And that security energized the whole company as we pursued our goal with energy.
As HubSpot began with a startup and grew into a big company, the discipline of saying “no” paid big dividends. We launched HubSpot 3, our Mary Marketing move, in September 2012. By the end of the year we have increased our customer base by 42% compared to 2011. And in the spring of 2013 we opened our European headquarters in Dublin.
Brian Halligan is co-founder and CEO of HubSpot, a marketing and sales software company based in Cambridge, MA.