This week’s Founder Feature is Adam Sharp, CEO and Founder of Clevertouch Marketing. Adam has over 30 years of experience working in Fortune 500 organisations including IBM and Iron Mountain. Adam now helps businesses around the world deploy marketing automation systems that actually work.
The MarTech guru works with the leading MarTech platforms such as Salesforce, Tableau, Adobe and more, and uses the partnerships to help clients deploy the perfect solution.
Learn more about Adam Sharp and Clevertouch in our interview below.
Q: Who are you and what is your story?
A: I went to university in Wales to play rugby and study Applied Psychology, in that order. I started out in the drinks industry, but returned to study at Southampton Uni to do my MBA, and thereafter, for the next 20 years or so, I worked in large tech businesses like IBM and a few VC based start-ups. Unfortunately, most B2B businesses then were very much sales-led – marketing was much-maligned and viewed as the sales promotion, the events department, or worse, the colouring-in department. I always thought Marketing should have more influence, and so when we set Clevertouch up we were determined to be market-led and really focus on a unique position. In fact, we didn’t employ a salesperson for the first 4 years for fear of turning into another overly aggressive coin-operated sales function focused on selling too early and too hard.
Fortunately, we now have a fabulous team of 13 in the sales and marketing function; they work really well together and they find that one of our core values – “Reputation over Revenue” – actually helps, not hinders them; it means that the word of mouth referrals and returning customers are a great source of demand gen for them.
Q: Could you tell us about your company and what you’re striving to achieve?
A: Clevertouch Marketing is a MarTech (marketing technology) company, founded by marketeers to help solve the problems of complexity and an over-proliferation of poorly deployed marketing technology systems. We started as a Services company, helping clients deploy Marketing Automation and Marketing Cloud, but have now expanded to offer our own software solutions too. Our software is used by enterprise clients, including the London Stock Exchange, Coca-Cola and Fujitsu, and our services clients include Deloitte, Rackspace and Deliveroo.
We are striving to drive our mantra of ‘the Martech Spine before the Martech Stack’. That is to say that some key marketing technologies are way more important than others, so it is vital to get those connected, to manage the information flow there first, before going on to deploy other technologies with minimal impact of poor deployment. It is fair to say this simple concept of the Spine is resonating really well, especially amongst corporate clients.
Q: How are you measuring your success? What are your metrics?
A: We have financial metrics, but also non-financial metrics are key to us too. We measure revenue, EBITDA and free-cash-flow, the usual stuff.
But we look at other factors too – for example, we measure the level of professional certification amongst our employees and we have a reward and buddying system that encourages our employees to become real experts on a number of platforms, such as Adobe, Marketo, Pardot, SFDC and Tableau.
We survey the employees every 6 months, as their well-being is important to us. We have been a Sunday Times top 100 best companies to work for in each of the last 2 years and we are also a top graded 3-star Best Company to work for, based on employee experience and engagement. These metrics are important to us.
We also run an automated Net Promoter Score for all our new customer engagements, and we ‘celebrate’ 8’s and above – anything less and it needs fixing.
Q: What is your plan to adapt if your industry is completely disrupted?
A: We are a mix of both Software and Services; in the past, you had to be one or the other, but in the SAAS world you can be both, so that helps to de-risk things somewhat. The other important thing in our kit bag is that we bootstrapped the business and didn’t raise funds; that meant slower growth, but it also meant we were not beholden to investors who just wanted a big return or overly short-term thinking.
The third thing is that we think it is always better to operate in a growth market with a complexity that needs simplification and where skills and competency are in short supply. So we started in Marketing Automation, then added Business Intelligence to our capability, then CRM, then our own software capability, then Marketing Cloud, and now Sales Enablement, and together we bundle all these areas up as ‘the Martech Spine’ – a simple concept we created but one that resonates well with clients. These are all barriers to disruption, but we can never assume things won’t change – they will – so having an open mindset and reading a lot is key.
Q: How do you manage the duality between driving new business and overseeing daily operations?
A: About 4 years ago, we developed an Exec team of 4. My role entails the vision, values, purpose and positioning. Then my co-founder adopts the Company Secretary and Finance role.
We leave the day to day operations to two co-MDs. One is focused on new business and marketing and the other on existing customers and delivery. I am very close to the business but operationally I stay out of the day to day decision-making; I would add no value and, operationally, there are many more qualified to work than me.
It is the old adage of ‘do you operate in the business or operate on the business?’ – I prefer, and I am better, at the latter.
Q: What are your goals over the next 12 months?
A: This year, and into most of next year, it is all about getting back to normality.
6 months ago it was pretty scary, as we were heading into the unknown; to compound this, we had just invested in a new 12,500 sq ft office, complete with a gym and yoga studio, so it was an exciting next phase of our development. Then Covid-19 hit and we had to manage a moving beast of information and misinformation.
Fortunately, Rishi Sunak’s prompt actions gave us much needed reassurance, especially going into the Summer period; I can’t think of a Chancellor on either side of the house that would have acted so decisively – it clearly saved jobs, though, also clearly, not all jobs or all industries.
Though the debate now is what to do between October and January when the furlough scheme stops, in other countries, such as Germany and Australia, the state aid goes well into 2021. So now we are getting used to the new normal and we are seeing a pick up; we never subscribed to the U or V-shaped recovery. The ‘Nike Swoosh recovery’ that many of the American forecasters predicted seemed to make the most sense to us, and it is the model we are using for both hiring and business recovery going forward. Obviously, everyone is waiting for an imminent vaccine, but, even then, distribution and adoption would mean the end of 2021 before we are back to normal.
Q: Did you raise funding or bootstrap your startup?
A: We decided to bootstrap the business – we wanted to be in control and get rich slowly. But that was super tough – for the first 12 months we took home £400 per month and lived off savings. It was a little scary watching a 6-figure savings pool dwindle down to virtually nothing, and it wasn’t until year 3 that we started having a decent income we could actually live on.
I think next time round we could get to much the same position in half the time – it is called experience and we would hope that we would have the cash to do so. But, where possible, I would always advocate bootstrapping a business if you can. I think the family network and the concept of social entrepreneurship and backing people is a good way to go too, though it might impact family and friend relationships if people stake too much on a ‘dead cert’. It is risky starting a business, which is why 50% dream to do it, but less than 10% ever actually do.
I don’t really understand why entrepreneurs celebrate raising VC’s money as a badge of honour – they are celebrating debt. In effect, the entrepreneur has bought a really expensive loan with conditions and have given away control to do so. Unless you know you are going to get a massive valuation and are operating in a specialist area such as AI, VCs are the last option.
Q: Can you tell us who your mentors and heroes are, and what impact they’ve had on you?
A: I like to read a lot; I loved Phil Knight’s autobiography ‘Shoe Dog’. The same for Yvon Chouinard from Patagonia – both Phil and Yvon built amazing businesses, Nike and Patagonia, out of their passions (running and rock-climbing respectively). I loved reading about the honesty and humility of Satya Nadella at Microsoft; his style of leadership – being open, humble and thoughtful – is a far cry from the leadership of his predecessor, Steve Balmer, who was assertive, aggressive and combative, and it is interesting to note that Satya Nadella has now reinvented Microsoft, from infighting lost cause to the coolest brand in tech (again), and one of the most valuable too.
The bravest and most ambitious entrepreneurs were operating a few hundred years ago. A lot of brilliant businesses were established by the Quakers, as they had few options and were social reformers. ‘The Chocolate Wars’ by Deborah Cadbury is one of the best. Less values-based is the East India Company and their exploits; I am currently reading about how a Scot called Robert Fortune, funded by the East India Company, brought (actually he stole) tea and the production process back from China to India, and its subsequent impact on politics and the power of the Empire. I also can’t wait to read William Dalrymple’s ‘The Anarchy: the relentless rise of the East India Company.’ They were a business that controlled armies, took on countries and controlled continents.
Whether you compare the Microsoft of old and new, or the Quakers to the East India Company, I think both are stark reminders that business, however big or small, built on values and reputation, is way more sustainable, enduring and endearing than one built on a culture of fear and aggression.
Q: What’s one piece of advice you’d give to budding innovators taking the same journey?
A: Get some experience, find something you care about, find some cash, double it – in fact, treble it – and then do it. Back yourself and go for it. If you love business, actually starting a business will teach you so much more about business and about yourself than working in some big corporate. The end goal might be to get ‘rich’, but richness is not just a monetary term – it could extend to experience, character and to life too.
Learn more about Clevertouch Marketing and how they help deploy marketing automation solutions by visiting their website: www.clever-touch.com/