Brian Shilling, VP of Sales and Client Strategy at TSL Marketing, shares his team’s commitment to “renewing their vows” with HubSpot and the partner program. What does this mean for TSL and their team? How does this change the way they source and manage talent? Brian shares the approach, the early results, and his recommendations for new partners.
Hi, everybody. Welcome to Agency Unfiltered. I'm your host Kevin Dunn. And Agency Unfiltered is a biweekly web series and podcast that interviews agency owners from around the world about agency operations, growth, and scale. Episodes can be found on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, or wherever it is that you listen to your podcasts. And you can find our videos and full transcripts at AgencyUnfiltered.com
Brian Schilling, VP of sales and client strategy at TSL Marketing, shares his team's commitment to renewing their vows, if you will, with HubSpot in the Solutions Partner program. What does this mean for TSL and their team? How does this change the way they source and manage talent? Well, Brian shares his approach, the early results, and his recommendations for both new members of the program and for those who wish to reinvigorate their involvement. For solutions partners old and new, Agency Unfiltered begins right now.
KD: Hey, Brian. Can hear me OK? Welcome to Agency Unfiltered.
BS: I appreciate it, Kevin. Thanks for having me. Appreciate it.
KD: You bet. We appreciate you coming on. Just to let the folks know tuning in, where are you dialing in from?
BS: I'm dialing in from Annapolis, Maryland from my home office or converted spare bedroom/guest suite now home office. Right. Yeah. One of those deals.
KD: I think that's a pretty common setup. Guest room/work from home office/baby's changing room or whatever else that third option is.
BS: Wherever you could get a little bit of a reprieve and some quietness so you could focus. Absolutely.
KD: Now you know we don't launch these same day so I don't know what the date will be when we actually get this thing out. But I would say for the folks tuning in, whenever that may be, it's actually a pretty significant day in the United States. It's Inauguration Day, which is pretty wild.
BS: Glorious for any country and any democracy. So regardless of political affiliation, this is what we're all about as a country. Awesome day for us.
KD: I like the term that you originally used when we were chatting, what was that, a couple of weeks ago? And it was this idea of and TSL, your agency, renewing your vows with HubSpot in the Solutions Partner program. I thought it was a really interesting way to position what you all are working on. So rather than have me butcher it, why don't we start with you just explaining what the heck does renewing your vows mean? What does it mean for TSL the agency? Maybe we can go ahead and get started there.
BS: Renewing our vows. You know, obviously, being a married man to a beautiful wife and have beautiful children for the last 20 some years with my wife, you realize that you've got to continue to evaluate how you recommit to things, the people you love and the people you serve. And I wanted to use kind of the renewing our vows because most of my team could relate to that in that they would understand what that means in a sense from a commitment perspective from this personal affliction to want to make right or make better a relationship or a partnership. And so when I messaged them about this opportunity for what was 2020-- our 10 year anniversary had just came upon us with HubSpot-- I felt it was absolutely necessary and critical to get everyone on board. And I think that that message certainly resonated with them. And then, obviously, when I conveyed that message to the HubSpot team for which we've engaged for so many years, they were delighted to hear it, because I think we all felt the same way. And so it resonated. And it just, again, reaffirmed our commitment to our relationship and to our partnership. There's a lot of things, obviously, that we'll touch on here in today's discussion that were a part of that renewal.
But I think anyone that is in any kind of formal relationship can recognize that those words are powerful because it reminds you that things can get a little easygoing with your relationships and partnerships. You can become complacent. You can become comfortable is a great word. Well, I think it's always good to be a little uncomfortable, and unconventional, and need to reinvigorate things for those of whom you serve, or support, or those partnerships that you engage in.
KD: Yeah, I love that. And I think reinvigorate after 10 years in the partner , I think it's something that'll be relatable to a handful of agencies, especially folks that have been with HubSpot and have been involved in the partnership for a long time, similar to your team. But I think that there's probably going to be some sound bites, some takeaways, some really great points that are going to be applicable even to folks that are writing their own vows for the very first time with HubSpot. Maybe they're new to the program. But just a continual renewal of the partnership is great. And so let's start to take it a little more tactical. So we've shared with the team that we'd like to renew our vows. How did that impact or change your business's focus? So once you've gotten a commitment from the team, what did you all then go do to reinvigorate the partnership?
BS: As you can imagine, it's a collection of things. The first thing you have to recognize is that there's improvements that need to be made in the relationship and the partnership. And you find where there may be deficiencies, or you find where there may be resources lacking to help support that partnership. I'll give you a great example. We hadn't for years, for the years I've been with TSL, almost the same amount of time that we've been partners with HubSpot for the 10 years, we haven't had an agency marketing lead that ran our marketing, co-marketing, and partnerships endeavors. It was always managed by a collection of people, including myself. And when we're all doing our various job functions, and our roles dictate serving our customers, most often, you lose focus of how to leverage a resource like that to align the business around your marketing interests and needs for your business, and then in concert and in partnership with those of whom that you've identified are strategic from a partnership perspective. So that was step one.
And fortunately, in late 2019, we hired an extraordinary woman who has now become such a critical asset to our business in helping us redefine and renew these vows, and helping us march forward, and holding us accountable to the things we wanted to accomplish. Her name is Rowena Winkler. She's extraordinary. So we have her on board, coupled with obviously the other things that are important as you established where you want to grow together. You've got to have that commitment to acquiring new business, acquiring new growth, building out your skill sets exploring new resources that would be ideal fits for the roles and functions of servicing and supporting HubSpot customers around the platform. Not only that, become more proficient with the platform yourself. The great example of, we were a Salesforce shop for the 10 years I was with TSL, or eight years, for that matter. In fact, when SalesHub Enterprise became a thing and evolved, we immediately adopted that technology to replace and displace Salesforce. So we then now had the entire HubSpot growth stack as our platform of record for our business, and that was not the case in the earlier years. The marketing platform for sure, but we were using an archaic sales platform in Salesforce. And we began to leverage and utilize all the great functions and features and tools of HubSpot Sales Hub. So that not only were we more proficient at that for our own self, we could then obviously do the same for that of our customers and clients, and expand our services capabilities. Marketing related services, all day every day for 10 years. Now we have sales-related service customers, which is a great opportunity for our business.
KD: So there's a handful of things that I-- there's a couple of different directions that I'd like to go. And so maybe we'll tackle them in the order that you produced them. The first one was, identifying areas where you could have directly responsible individuals on various aspects of the business that were like a team or collaborative approach. I think you mentioned marketing and co-marketing as one. The second one was having folks hold the organization accountable to growth goals. That was the second one, and we'll get to that one. And I think the third one you mentioned there was true product expertise or proficiency in HubSpot tools, the complex uses of the tools themselves. So let's take it all the way back to the first one. Direct responsible individual to help with marketing and co-marketing, how did you identify that that was the task that needed to have a singular person, versus the collaborative approach? And then I think the 1B to that question is, tell me more about co-marketing? How do you approach it? Where do you find the opportunities? I can imagine, a handful of our partners are considering it, as well.
BS: Absolutely. Look, we under-leveraged it for years. And the reason why is because no one owned it. As I said, when you are the cobbler's kids and you're pulling together time and energies from the experts, and resources like myself, or executives that may not be able to devote enough time to it, or, again, organize the effort, develop a plan and a roadmap, and then manage to that effort. If you don't have those things in place, it's really hard to make progress, really hard to see and achieve some degree of success. So having someone that we could rely upon to help us identify the gaps, develop out a robust plan, communication plan, content-- think of all the things we do for our clients, doing that for ourselves. But having someone take sole ownership of that was critical for our business. And obviously now we have the opportunity to go to our HubSpot counterparts. We have one of the best, if not the best-- I'll say the best cams in the business in Justin Newhall. He's been an extraordinary resource to help us achieve the growth we have over the last 18 months. We couldn't have done it without him. That doesn't mean that we didn't have that support from HubSpot in years past, from other cams and so on and so forth. But the reality is, he's a rockstar that has helped us tremendously, even pushed us when we weren't ready to be pushed. So by tapping into HubSpot resources like him, Justin Graci on the product marketing side, and really starting to align with those of whom live and breathe HubSpot every day, the HubSpotters, in accessing those tools, those resources, finding ways to position our agency as a thought leader for specific product announcements, case study success stories that we've developed for the various products and solutions and services that we deploy. So it was the culmination of all of those things, but obviously huge contributors were what we know on the marketing management side and the partner co-marketing initiatives, leveraging our cams, leveraging the product marketing teams, and really connecting with the HubSpotters internally.
KD: That's great. No, that's wonderful. The second piece was accountability for growth goals. And I think the spin I want to take, maybe the best place to start is how you organize—or like who runs or owns the sales process? I know every agency or every partner is slightly different. But in regards to accountability for growth goals, how do you energize-- I think we use reinvigorate. But how do you energize or reinvigorate your sales team to want to achieve, and to put the plan in place to achieve whatever growth goals you've put into place?
BS: Man, yeah, I'm going to say this, and damn, it's going to make me sound very old-- decades of experience in the sales profession, having been on the front lines, having been an executive, having been involved in everything in between. It all comes back to what's in it for them, what are they going to see and derive value from in more of that sales capacity? Why would you bring on a net new HubSpot customer? To what degree of value does that provide you, and then potentially the business? Of really formalizing the message we wanted to deliver to the team. It's a combination of—with the growth we achieve with net new customers for whom we acquire, there's obviously some expansion within those accounts and opportunities to grow well beyond the acquiring a new customer for HubSpot, and the subscription, and then obviously the support services. We're an agency, so we would ideally want to develop a roadmap for a retainer of other services that are complementary of HubSpot in all the glory of the platform. So they had to see that there was a connection between those two things. As well as, incentives always drive behavior.
So you have to incentivize them that why would they want to go out there and position HubSpot more frequently and be more aggressive in that manner? Literally for 10 years Kevin, we were not aggressive to force the issue that HubSpot was the platform of choice for TSL. It was the primary, but if you used other platforms, we would certainly accommodate. We would work with you. Because we don't want to shy away from those great agency retainer services. But we were a lot more forceful, and we asked the team to be more forceful for the very reason we had the competency, we had the experience, we had the experts. And it was going to potentially expand the book of business for them exponentially, more so than us working in these other platforms or collection of platforms that are out there that customers use that are archaic and just not useful for their business, and not useful for the agency working with them. So it was a mix of those things. Incentives will always drive behavior for sales resources. But they needed to have more than that as part of their mission.
KD: When you decided to renew your vows with the partnership, did you change or update the incentives you had in place for your sales team?
BS: Definitely. Yeah, yeah. I think it was absolutely necessary, again, because that's going to drive a salesperson's behavior when it impacts their financials. And for us, it was a no brainer in that sense.
KD: I think the third piece you mentioned was building a team of product experts, or having folks proficient with new features, new functionality, growing enterprise SKUs, et cetera. So what's that process look like? How do you ensure that the team you have in place are becoming product experts?
BS: You know, it's hard to stay current on all of the different hubs, because of the continuous improvements on the product itself. And that's exciting, but also can be cumbersome. And I think it's important for any agency to recognize that you can't eat the entire elephant. Focus on a particular Hub where you have strength, competency, and expertise. Build out your portfolio of services to support that, and obviously have those of whom certified to be able to deliver on those support and/or services. But push yourself to explore how another hub might be beneficial to that same customer or like customers. Every customer you engage is going to have likely a marketing, a sales, and a service platform in place. It just may not be HubSpot. So there's some cross-sell and up-sell opportunities that are literally under your nose that can be identified if you push yourself to explore, whether it's taking existing resources, and getting them the additional training and certifications necessary to support those other hubs and/or functions, or hiring and finding the right people that can deliver those sets of services. The reality is there's demand for it, so it's worth exploring both options and continuing to educate and update those individuals with the new features and functions that come out on a daily, monthly, quarterly basis.
KD: No, that makes a ton of sense. As a quick follow up to your note on hiring, are you looking for folks with HubSpot expertise, coming in as a candidate? Or are you looking for the general marketing capabilities, and you'll reinforce the software training? Which would you prefer? What do you normally see?
BS: It's different, Kevin, for us, in the sense that-- with us being a larger agency than most, we have close to 250 people internationally. We're different than most agencies in that sense. We have services that span the gamut of traditional marketing inbound digital services to sales related business development services, with resources that have those specific skill sets, and everything in between. And so it depends on the role and the function of our business as to whether or not it's best served to have a HubSpot resource, or a resource that has HubSpot expertise or certifications. I will tell you and everyone I engage through the hiring process is a plus, plus, plus for our agency if they've taken the initiative to learn and educate, whether that be through the Academy self-serve, or through formal training through the organization or agency, or other company they've worked for in the past. At the end of the day, it is a major plus to have those that obviously come in with knowledge of the platform and expertise. You can mold them over time, but certainly we'd like to get a head start. So I think the more experience they have, the better.
KD: No, makes sense. I think this one's a little off-topic. But just while you brought up that TSL has upwards of 200 employees. I can imagine that there's a handful of solutions partners who aspire to be a similar size. And so thinking those, with those types of aspirations, but with smaller teams. The way you've shaped your org chart, been able to expand teams and functions. Any tips or recommendations? If I'm a team of 12, 18, 25, anything, any other tips if they want to grow to 200, structurally, or organizationally?
BS: Hire remarkable people every time. Don't just be satisfied with B players. They will bog your business down, unfortunately. And you know you'll find yourself limiting your growth potential. Go out there and get the rockstars. You'll pay for it, but it's worth it in the long run. I think that is by far one of the clear messages I would give, in that sense. As I said, we do a lot of different things, more so than most agencies have the capability to deliver. And so there are obviously certain roles or job functions that may not require tremendous expertise. It's just more basic functions of inside sales skill sets that having more selling capabilities and experience may not be technical in nature, but they can obviously deliver for our business. But the vast majority of our team now have profound expertise, not only in HubSpot, in other areas of the business. We have proper SEOs on staff. They're not people that do SEO, they are SEOs. We have proper digital strategists on staff, and advertising strategists on staff. That's all they do every day. Versus years ago, when we were starting, they were the generalist that it was really hard for us, I believe, to show value to clients that we've got experts in each of the various disciplines versus those more generalists that could run initiatives, campaigns, and projects and plans. So I think that agencies that want to grow, go out and get the best damn talent in each of their respective areas, because that's going to help you showcase your skill set ever more, for the potential for future growth.
KD: Source and hire true experts in their fields, and don't settle for B players. That's great advice. Now, I don't know how far along we are in this renewed focus on HubSpot and the partnership for the team. But based on the efforts you and the team have put into this, do you have any results, or takeaways, or net positives? Again, not knowing how far along we are in the process, any early results?
BS: Hell, yes. If we didn't, I'd be certainly, one, wouldn't be talking to you. But second, yes, second I wouldn't-- I'd be remiss if I didn't say again, we were pretty aggressive with our growth plan for 2020. We had been for a number of years, the last couple of years, a platinum partner. I've been in that categorical mix for quite some time. I had laid down the law, or the gauntlet for the team that we wanted to achieve diamond status. And then be well on our way well beyond that before the new year. Well, we did not achieve that status, which I'll call it status. We acquired 17 new HubSpot customers in 2020. Over $15,500 in MRR within that collection of customers. And many of them are retainer customers for the portfolio services we deliver, and so tremendous growth. We have to bring up our manage number to achieve platinum. We're well past the sold category, in that sense, to diamond. But obviously, there's still some work to be done there on those of whom we are supporting on the manage side. But I've told others, while we still are in-- diamond is in the crosshairs right now for us-- we may leapfrog that just go to elite. Reason being is, we're very fortunate over the years of our experience and the relationships we have, and our experience, particularly in the enterprise space and suite, we have one of HubSpot's largest customers, and we are their agency of record for all things HubSpot.
There are $26 billion technology behemoth and titan, and continuing to grow and acquire businesses. So we've got that going for us as part of our growth plan. They're expanding within the HubSpot portfolio of Hubs, as well. And so with that, it's going to potentially expand our business and exponentially grow our business. We may just leapfrog diamond altogether, and go to elite. I don't know, we'll see. We'll see. I shouldn't put that out there publicly, because then people are going to say, hey, you said. Well, reality is this. We still want to continue to grow and achieve that growth. This last year, I would say, was quite phenomenal in the sense of the amount of growth that we saw on new acquisition, new business, new customers, and the expansion within those customers of services that we could render.
KD: That's great, quantity of new business, total sold MRR, client expansion, that's great. Those are all tremendous results. And now that it's out there in the ethos, we'll have to check back in to see when you get to-- well, obviously, leapfrog and get into elite. Now Brian, I know we're up on time, or getting close, so only like one or two more questions for you. But maybe a good place to round this out, as we talk about renewing your vows with the Partner Program and the partnership, it's the metaphor that the best time to plant a tree is 20 years ago. The second best time is today. And so for any new, or sort of new, or early on partners into the Partner Program, any tips or recommendations, things they should consider right from the get go in the early days of this partnership?
BS: Absolutely. And it's a simple phrase. Commit to the partnership. What you put in, you'll get back in spades. That's the reality with anything. And I think this is especially true, as we've seen with our partnership with HubSpot. Early on, 10, 11 years ago, we were all in. And we devoted our time, energies, and efforts, and saw pretty good growth from the onset of our partnership. We had a collection of team members that were a part of that committee to achieve that growth, even though we didn't have, as I said, some of the resources we have today, as we've worked on the renewal of our vows. But every bit of what we put in effort this past year is a great example of what we've been able to achieve with the results I've just outlined. But if you go back again 10 years ago, 11 years ago, when we started in the program, we were a pretty good-sized agency at the time. We just hadn't had a collection of inbound related specialists and services evolving into HubSpot-related support services and expertise. We didn't have that. So, again, I go back to hire that rockstar talent that can dictate a good penny, but they'll be extraordinary in helping you differentiate your agency, as well as deliver unparalleled and unsurpassed services to your customers. And so having that devotion to the best and brightest will reap, and so great rewards for the business. And now, I hope that-- I don't know what your plans are, but if you're planning to renew your vows, or if you have renewed your vows, hopefully the ceremony is like a destination ceremony, hopefully somewhere nice and tropical and warm. Maybe like a nice beach ceremony, or something like that, for the actual vowing.
KD: Brian, last question for you, so we wrap every episode with this. What is the weirdest or strangest part of agency life in general?
BS: Hmm. Personally, it's the most exciting part for me, but for some it might be weird, is the diversity of the things you might do in a given day for a collection of very different clients and customers. I lived the life of being the marketing and sales lead for a large company for years, and managing agencies, and directing agencies, and partnering with agencies with a pretty extraordinary good-size budget. So I had the experience of being the customer or the client, but myopically, and solely focused on my business. Whereas in the agency realm, one minute you'll be talking about XYZ company, and the dynamics, and all of the crazy acronyms they use. And we work in tech, everybody's got their own freaking acronym and glossary. But they don't share it with you. And on the flip side, it may be a small startup here. And then we've got to talk with the $26 billion titan that is as sophisticated as they come, and I think everything in between. That is, I think, a bit crazy. But personally, I tend to like it. And that's why people call me crazy. I like those kinds of things. Diversity, it's good.
KD: No two days are the same. No two clients are the same, no two conversations. Yeah, that's a really great point. Great answer. Well, Brian, honestly thanks again for jumping in. We're officially out of time. So thanks for dialing in and joining the show. This has been great.
BS: Kevin, I appreciate it. And look, here's to the next 10 years my friend. We've had a decade of decadence, let's go for 20 my friend. Can't wait. Maybe we won't wait 10 years to get you back on the show, just to check in and see how things are going.
KD: Well, we'll do a better job of that. And I like the idea of that destination renewal. Once we could all travel again safely, we've got to figure out something where we're not in a cold environment. As I know you up in Boston, or me down here in Annapolis, getting out of the winter weather and maybe going to a more tropical land to celebrate.
BS: Yeah, that doesn't sound so bad.
KD: No it doesn't, not at all. Well, Brian, thanks again. And for folks that have tuned in, this has been another episode of Agency Unfiltered.