Jul 5, 2024
27 min
Episode 81

TOP CMO: Shashi Kiran, Fortanix - 'Strategies for Scale'

Shashi Kiran - Fortanix  00:00

Either you're making it work or you aren't, there isn't a lot to hide behind.

Ben Kaplan  00:05

This is the podcast where we go around the globe to interview marketing leaders from the world's biggest brands, fastest growing companies and most disruptive startups.

Ben Kaplan  00:20

This is TOP CMO with me, Ben Kaplan.

Ben Kaplan  00:28

Today I'm speaking with Shashi Kiran, former CMO of Fortanix, a company that specializes in providing the runtime encryption solutions for securing sensitive data during process. Shashi has more than 20 years of experience in business and technology roles. Since the start of his career. He's marketing leadership positions at companies like the Center for development of advanced computing, Euclid and AP Seto. So what's the key to maintaining a startup mindset to handle rapid market changes? And what are the most important key traits that all successful marketers commonly possess? Let's find out with Shashi Kiran. Shashi, one of the things that's interesting about your career arc is that you start at any you've had important senior roles at really big companies like Cisco, very big, but the past seven years, we've had a host of different startups, tell us about being a senior marketing leader being CMO, how that changes and how you've had to adapt your skill set from big company 10s of 1000s of employees every resource you could have to scrappier but still well funded startup? Well,

Shashi Kiran - Fortanix  01:36

that's a great question, Ben. So in larger companies, you know, there are elements of people that you take for granted with different functions, well established routes to market, potentially, the product market fit has already been met. And so you end up dealing with situations where you're constantly trying to scale the brand work with in different stakeholders internally, and then really be able to position yourself across a variety of different countries potentially having a very broad portfolio. So if I were to look back at my career at Cisco, I was responsible for marketing portfolio that straddled 11, or 12 different business units. And these were all, you know, generating multi billion dollars in revenue each. So it was a pretty broad and complex portfolio, and you had to figure out how do you, you know, take the essence of it, and work with your sales organization work with your st organization, channel partners, and things like that. And sometimes, it was very difficult to understand the output and the outcome of our efforts, because there were so many other layers between what we did and how, you know, revenue, for example, manifested itself, that it was hard to, you know, correlate. So I think, for me, when I look back at the last six to seven years in startups, and I've had different states startups, I've been in a very early stage startup with sub million dollar in terms of ARR to over 100 plus million dollars in ARR, you get to see the output and cause and effect correlation fairly quickly. And so it is easier for you to do course, correction, if required, double down where it's required. And either you're making it work or you aren't, there isn't a lot to hide behind.

Ben Kaplan  03:24

If I was gonna do a metaphor, then it's like, you know, you've got a big cruise ship that you're steering, or you've got like a small 20 foot speedboat. And so that big cruise ship, you know, it's gonna take awhile to turn around, turn the corner, know how you're doing versus that steering wheel of that little speedboat, you make one little turn, and it's gonna start veering and going off. And it sounds like that's how you kind of viewed marketing, whether it's that big ship or that small ship, and some of the benefits of being the small ship.

Shashi Kiran - Fortanix  03:53

I think that's a really good metaphor. And at the same time, if you looked at a lot of the big ships, many that have hit the rocks are those that were unable to handle market transitions, and you're seeing many, you know, go down the dinosaur way, right. And so the challenge in such companies and I used to say this, even while I was at Cisco was how do you, you know, have this body of an elephant, but move at the speed of a cheetah, which means you really need to have that startup mindset, even in a very well established business, because these market transitions happen very quickly. And I think those are the opposite ends of the spectrum that I've been fortunate enough to experience one where you're trying to, you know, navigate these large market transitions steer this big ship. Obviously, it can't do a 180 in short order. So you have to really be graded in terms of how you navigate at the same time a small tugboat is more hostage to all of the you know, uncertainties of the environment and you want to make sure it doesn't capsize. So you need to you know, make sure that that is on a steady call. Horse. And those are, you know, sort of two ends of the spectrum. And bringing those two, in marketing wherever I go has been really good and interesting experience.

Ben Kaplan  05:09

Of course, if we're going to keep going with our metaphor here on the big cruise ship or big huge vessel, you got a lot of staff, you have a lot of crew, they all tend to be more specialized into functions. When you have the little boat or the speedboat or in your words, the tugboat. Sometimes you're doing more things, and you have people doing more things. So how do you think about staffing differently, and your team differently? Deuce who you hire, is it different in the big ship or the small, nimble boat? Yeah,

Shashi Kiran - Fortanix  05:39

I think who you hire is different. Also, the order in which you hire becomes very important. So typically, you know, in larger companies, we're staffing based on the needs of the business and specialization of functions. We also want to make sure that people have well rounded abilities, because a number of these functions are converging. And the big thing with marketing is not to be siloed, but be able to connect the dots effectively. So whether it's in a bigger company or a smaller company, I always value generalists who can be specialists for a certain period of time, but are good at connecting the dots. But again, in a startup environment, you you know, you don't want to bring in a specialist upfront, especially if Product Market Fit hasn't been determined, I see a number of companies that want to go, you know, bring a demand generation leader right up front, where they haven't cracked their messaging yet, or the positioning yet, or product market fit yet. And they want to turn on the demand gen engine, that doesn't usually work. So I think understanding where a particular company is in their journey, and tailoring the marketing resource to meet that need for the here and now and to gradually scale is actually an art. And you have to understand what kind of resources you need. And when. So that's that's sort of my observation when,

Ben Kaplan  06:59

when you're thinking about marketing teams, how much do you value, the ability to learn things quickly, meaning, if you talked about the generalist, maybe they've never done this particular marketing task or channel, but they can kind of pick it up fast, or, you know, I'll give an example. I was talking with a company, and we were helping them with some email marketing. And they didn't really have that as like, experience in it. But they had some like we were trying to help them along, because they had some smart people who could pick up things faster, they could learn it, but you don't necessarily want to be learning on the job. If you have someone who been there done that they learned that the past company, they did all their learning, and you can hire them now you can just reap the benefits of that. So how do you think about do you prioritize people who are good at learning?

Shashi Kiran - Fortanix  07:43

Yeah, I think that is number one prerequisite. And learning and adaptability are two traits that I look for today, we have so much of learning resources at our disposal that you can literally learn anything on the fly, you know, it's like the matrix where you're downloading the new skill set that you want to go and into a combat situation with, I would draw an analogy like that, because it's very easy with the number of tutorials, examples that are online. And through peer led resources. If you dedicate a couple of days, you can get into a new activity fairly quickly. So that attitude is very important. And then, you know, it's also important to experiment with marketing, I don't carry the same playbook from one company to another. Because you know, every company's needs are different, like we said, unless it's a like to like scenario. So you need to be able to take, let's say, 50% of your playbook of things that work and the other 50%, you have to know how to customize. And that doesn't happen overnight, you have to experiment, get some learnings out of it, and then quickly, you know, make those changes. So that's where these two traits come most handy. And when I talk about generalists, they should have a good understanding of the different functions, but have the ability to go deep when required and adapt to the changes quickly.

Tom Cain  09:06

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Tom Cain  09:57

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Ben Kaplan  10:05

would you describe yourself? Are you a generalist? And that allows you to have an understanding of many things? Do you have a strong point, a sweet spot where it's like, you know this very well and you do other things? Where do you rely on other team members and say, Hey, this isn't my strong area. But I want to get people who know this very well.

Shashi Kiran - Fortanix  10:24

For me, I kind of look at myself, both in terms of management style, as well as learning in the shape of a tee, right? So you're broad unless you want to go deep. And I can go deep in a number of different areas. On the technology side, on the marketing side, on the strategy side, business development side, I mean, these are all different roles that I've had through my career. So that gives me a bit of an advantage to be able to see, you know, certain trends happening before they manifest themselves and to ask certain questions that, that I see, you know, in advance, and at times, you know, especially when you don't have the luxury of staffing, you need to be able to roll up your sleeves and go deep. At the same time, you have to figure out what's a good time to step back delegate and scale. And that's usually a scaling function, when you start to establish more mature teams with very well honed responsibilities, and at that time, you need to be able to step back delegate, but also make sure that these teams are all empowered to work within their respective functions, but also, you know, collaborate across different functions as well. And that's perhaps where I really enjoy my role, because then you're orchestrating a symphony. And at times, you know, some instruments go out of tune. But if you're keeping your ear out for that, it's very easily easy to discern that and course correct quickly.

Ben Kaplan  11:51

So actually, to build on our metaphor, we're on our nimble speedboat, but we're playing like jazz music, or something else on on this boat, as we're cruising the waters, we're doing that as well.

Shashi Kiran - Fortanix  12:01

As long as it's not the Titanic. It's okay. As

Ben Kaplan  12:04

long as it's not that big. How do you think about staying on the cutting edge of what's happening in marketing, you're at a company that is obviously a technology company, your mission is that you secure data, wherever it is, that's a hot button topic. That's also one where there's opportunities to market when data isn't secure, which happens quite a bit in the world we live in, what are you doing that you think is cutting edge, you know, where marketing is headed, given that you're in an industry, that is also kind of a rapid response industry, because there's a lot of breaches and other things in the news. And that's an opportunity to be a thought leader, that's an opportunity to get new business, that's an opportunity to maybe show a way that's better than the status

Shashi Kiran - Fortanix  12:43

quo. For us, I think the the marketing stack continues to evolve, right? Today, if I look at where the problems are independent of what type of company you are, it's really being able to take this mask of complexity that is shrouding a lot of customers and to find out who are the ones with the right kind of pain points for us to go target in a meaningful way. And so we do take advantage, a lot of these intent based platforms and more targeted account in terms of marketing. But when you look at a broad topic, like cybersecurity, you know, every company needs to be secured. At the same time, the security stack itself is so fragmented and complicated for us to go make ourselves relevant in that space is always a challenge, particularly when you're a startup. And I think we need to, you know, take advantage of some of these platforms that are at our disposal, but also engage in more intimate conversations, find out what patterns are working, and essentially figure out how can we partner with our sales organization to cut short that sales process. And if we can do that in a more effective way through any of these means, then that's a good metric of success for us. So eventually, for us, it's about bringing predictability, with all the things that marketing responsible for whether it be brand communications and a website's content, demand. And eventually, it's measured based on the effectiveness that you have in terms of company's business growth. And have you partner with sales organization.

Ben Kaplan  14:18

It's interesting that you mentioned predictability. I think one of the themes we've had on the TOP CMO podcast with a few different CMOs is the benefits of predictability in a few different ways. One, obviously, other folks around you like to know if I put in a I GET OUT B. So predictability helps there because it helps for planning immeasurably. But one of the things we've talked about and I wonder if this is your experience is that predictability builds trust in an organization and it builds trust because I can count on you if I talk to Shashi and he's saying, Okay, here's what I'm seeing for q3. This is what we're doing. And here's the outcomes that we think and then it actually happens, then, that builds trust and it gets easier for Other important leaders, other stakeholders to say, yes, Shashi and team, they've got this, this is what they've said, we can bank on that. And that helps a lot of other things happen has that been your experiences, I think sometimes miss that predictability is, oh, it's good because you met your number. But it's also good that you predicted your number, then met your number. And that builds trust. I

Shashi Kiran - Fortanix  15:19

think that's such an important point that you bring out Ben, see, in any organization. That's a very foundational element that we sometimes take for granted. But Trust has to be earned. It's never given. And so part of it is, you know, saying what you're going to do and doing it or exceeding it, but also the kind of relationships that you establish, and predictability doesn't happen in a vacuum numbers don't happen in a vacuum, I think we have to coordinate across so many different functions to make that happen. And I'm constantly looking for patterns. Because for you to scale, you cannot scale on an ala carte recipe, you need to figure out what is standardize what can or becomes cookie cutter that you can replicate. And that's the formula for scalability, if you can standardize something and quickly repeat that, and that doesn't come in a vacuum either. So I think the relationships that you establish internally, with your stakeholders and externally, and how you also empower your team to do that is very foundational. And that's a huge part of trust building.

Ben Kaplan  16:23

And what are you trying to scale? I mean, when I talk to different CMOs, even at our agency, you know, we're a global marketing agency, it tends to be three types of things that you can scale. One is you're able to scale people, scale teams, people to get the right organizational structure, and pods of people working together that you can scale up. Second is you scale technology. So you have some way that you have a technological advantage, you're using that technical advantage to scale in a way that other people can. Third is process scale things by systems, processes that organize things in a way that allow you to do something, and that allows you to scale. Now, if you can do all three, you're amazing, you're a rocket ship, nothing's gonna stop you. Most people can't, but they can scale parts of that. And it changes based on the stage they're in and everything else. So what are you trying to scale? Is it people? Is it technology? Is it process? Or is it something else,

Shashi Kiran - Fortanix  17:14

I think all of these are means to an end. And for a company that is beholden to business growth, you need to be able to drive growth, predictability in a predictable way. And sometimes that growth is bottlenecked by you know, people or resources, sometimes you may have inefficient processes, like you mentioned, sometimes you it may not have the right product market fit, it could be a number of these things that are plaguing the company at large, when you look at the marketing function. Look, we probably have shifted from being a cost center to being more of a strategic entity over the last decade, because you're able to correlate a lot of where the investment goes and provide a data driven output in terms of the marketing investments. And at the same time, if you want to, you know, scale business growth, you cannot be in a constant state of experimentation. It's where where do I invest $1, that you you get a multiplicity, multiplicity around quickly, is where the biggest companies that have shown this hockey stick growth, you know, that's what the demonstrate, and you have to figure out, what is your use case? Which buyer persona, is that resonating? And what geographies where's the pain point and get to a degree of coherence there that you can, you know, put more weight behind the arrow and more investment, so that many companies you know, are challenge and so there's a bit of a spray and pray and everything becomes an ala carte. So that's really what I was talking about. And the sooner you can find that fit, then you have to double down on your strengths and then figure out where the next wave is that you want to expand.

Tom Cain  18:57

Okay, so here's what I'm thinking. It's a Western with a sci fi twist but there's also a film noir plot running in the background and dinosaurs because why not right. Take the dinosaurs down a little bit. Okay, no dinosaurs. But a little bit of romance is always welcome

Tom Cain  19:32

some bees Yeah, we have to throw some zombies in there. Your vision, our craft, topthoughtleader dog calm, I don't know, kindness into the first draft again, back to the show. One

Ben Kaplan  19:48

area of growth and expansion that I know you've tackled in your career. I'm interested how you tackle this from a predictability lens is growing into new markets, particularly geographic markets, new countries, new territories, activating them. And that's interesting also, because of your background and back to our metaphor, the big ships the Cisco's, do that in a certain way. And when you're also a, I think right now you're a smaller scrap your team of a couple 100 plus people, how do you do it in that sense? And so how do you think about growth through market expansion, especially geographic expansion, either in the big ship, or the small tugboat model?

Shashi Kiran - Fortanix  20:27

A lot of that comes through focus, right. And as much as you're tempted to say yes to growth opportunities, I think that yes, must be very, very selective because it comes at an opportunity cost. And what I mean by that is, let's say we're targeting the enterprise segment, which has large, you know, revenue streams, but also lengthy sales cycles, perhaps. And then you want to shift your segment focus to something that's more downstream, but you know, they, that requires a different route to market, it requires a different investment model. And, you know, for every enterprise logo, you win, you might need 20, different logos in the mid market to get the same kind of ARR, for example. So to shift from one to another means that you're actually also saying I'm going to spread my bets across these two different segments. Likewise, are you supporting a direct model or a channel model? Are you going outside of North America into other GIOS? And if so, are you going to an English speaking country where it's easier to extend what you've done in North America? Are you going into non English speaking countries, which may be equally fertile? But then there's so much more heavy lifting that's required to mature that market? And are you getting incremental resources? Or is it getting subtracted from what you have? So I think these are the decision points that every leader needs to be very cognizant of. And what I would say is marketing is a black box for many other functions. They they look at marketing in different ways. Some, as I said, look at it as a demand gen play, some look at it as a comms function, or Brad functions or ViPR analyst function. And in reality, it's a combination of all of these. And when you invest in one area, there is a ripple effect across the other area. So what you may not perceive as a bottleneck suddenly becomes a bottleneck and the chain is only as strong as the weakest link. So as a marketeer, you have to educate others as well, and help in framing the strategy and say, hey, does this make sense for us to go there? And if yes, are we dabbling? Or are we going all in? And if so here are the ramifications associated with it? So that's really, I think, the discussion we need to bring to the table as well to make some of these expansion strategies work. To

Ben Kaplan  22:42

wrap up, how do you think then the context of everything we've discussed, whether it's the big ship, or the Nimble tugboat, how we're hiring teams, how we're growing, how we're expanding? How does that change when macro economic conditions, maybe change how we think and what I'm talking about specifically, there's obviously more uncertainty in the overall economy. But how that manifests itself is maybe this transition we're feeling now, which is from grow at all costs, to get closer to profitability in how we do this. And then way more people talking about that now, and a whole generation of marketers, maybe mid level marketers who have only experienced growth at all costs, they haven't done, they haven't been through 2008, or 2009, or things like that. So how do you take this whole framework of marketing and apply it to the here? And now? Do you change what you do if it's no longer growth at all costs? Yeah, I

Shashi Kiran - Fortanix  23:34

think we're seeing a lot of it play itself out in real time, not just among, you know, smaller companies, but even larger ones that took growth for granted and over hired people. And we've seen, you know, many of these large multibillion dollar corporations now start to shed that weight and start to think nimble, and the market is rewarding them for that. And I think it's very important to retain that sense of always wanting to be nimble, and only put on extra weight, if you think it actually helps the cause of your business. And I think the frugal mentality, whether it's in marketing or, or in business at large, as long as you have a frugal mentality, which I want to discern from being cheap, right, so frugal is where you're always trying to right size, and make sure that every dollar spent or every person hired is the right thing for the business at that that moment. I think the extra load shedding that happens will automatically get right size as well. And most businesses then look at a much more pragmatic approach to the growth versus you know, growth at all costs. And that's a philosophy I have kind of embraced. Sometimes, you know, marketing we get a lot more budget and I never end up spending all of the budget if I don't see it, right, you know, cost that I can apply it on and so and and then you know, you're not beholden to it. anybody in that instance because you're justified in in terms of your hiring spent? So that's philosophy. I would look at most businesses applying the

Ben Kaplan  25:08

and the CFO likes you as well. Yeah, it was a little bit better about that, too. If you're, if you're if you're coming back with a little funds as well, Shashi Kiran, it's been a pleasure to chat with you. And I think it's especially interesting right now, just because it's one of those moments where new market leaders emerge, smaller players suddenly become bigger ones where things change and disruption causes that are you excited about now? Is it stressful? Are you sleeping? Are you not sleeping? What is the final sense of where we're out for everyone who's in technology and otherwise, on where we're at right now, I

Shashi Kiran - Fortanix  25:43

think this is a great time to be alive. And if you're among the fortunate few that do the work you enjoy and enjoy the work you do, then all of these are part of the game. And as with any game, there'll be some ups and downs, but you really need to be there to enjoy the ride. And so for me, I'm really excited and doing something I really enjoy and the ride is very interesting. There you

Ben Kaplan  26:06

have it. Shashi Kiran, CMO at Fortanix. Thank you so much for joining us on TOP CMO and thank you for helping us get a little bit of insight into your bride and journey that you're on now.

Shashi Kiran - Fortanix  26:16

Thanks a lot, man. Appreciate it.

Tom Cain  26:22

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