Anita Brearton is a long-time start-up marketer. In 2014, she co-founded CabinetM, a marketing technology management platform that helps marketing teams manage the technology that they have and find the technology that they need. She’s an experienced start-up executive, skilled at addressing the strategic operational and marketing challenges faced by high-growth, early stage businesses.






In This Episode

As CEO at an ecommerce company, Anita Brearton saw how difficult it was for her digital marketing team to find the technology they needed to improve customer acquisition and retention. Now she leads a marketing technology management platform to solve that exact problem for start-ups. In this episode, she shares insight into how marketing teams today can manage the evolving landscape.

Topic Timeline:

2:00 Get Your Stress Under Control

Don’t emotionally take on everything that happens in business; there are things that you can’t control.

4:30 Problem-solving and Pragmatism

Always look forward, and don’t be afraid to address new big challenges.

5:00 Attracting New Customers Without Money

The first thing you need to do is to establish credibility in your space, whether in speaking engagements or writing content.

6:30 Marketing Landscape Continual Expansion

Growth from 300 tools in 2010 to 8,600 tools in 2018.

8:50 Decide What’s Working and What’s Not

If you’re not getting positive feedback pretty quickly with one of your content endeavors, abandon it.

9:45 The Need for Visualization to Make the Complex Understandable

Marketing teams were once able to get away with a lot, but now they are under the microscope with the increase in spend on technology and programs.

11:00 Unified Customer Experience

LA customer, regardless of who they contact in the company, should have a unified experience.

12:00 Being Remembered for My Ethics

In building a company, don’t exaggerate your capabilities with your customers. Try not to use jargon and pretend that you’re something you’re not.

Companies that are going to do well are solving real problems.

– Anita Brearton


Show Transcript:

LR: Welcome to Modern Ontrapreneur. Today we have Anita Brearton. She is a long-time start-up marketer, and she co-founded CabinetM in 2014, which is a marketing technology management platform that helps marketing teams manage the technology that they have and find the technology that they need. She’s an experienced start-up executive, skilled at addressing the strategic operational and marketing challenges faced by high-growth, early-stage businesses. She spent over 30 in the United States and throughout the Asia Pacific region working with a wide range of technology- and internet-based companies as a senior operations executive, marketer, advisor, and investor. Thank you so much for being here.

AB: Happy to be here.

LR: Great. So you’ve been at it for a while.

AB: A long while, yes.

LR: And what is it that got you into this part of the technology landscape?

AB: So I’ve had a long career as a marketer. And then in my last corporate job, I was the CEO of an ecommerce company, and I saw how difficult it was for my digital marketing team to find the products that they needed to test and try to improve customer acquisition and retention. So when I stepped out of that role, that stayed with me. And then the other piece of it is that I was thinking, “Somebody needs to solve this problem.” The other piece of it was that marketing has become a very technical function, and I didn’t want to end my career in marketing as somebody that wasn’t relevant because I didn’t have technology expertise. So those two things kind of bubbled together and kind of created the impetus for doing what I’m doing now.

LR: Interesting. Thinking back though even before … So that’s the 2014 version of your career, but you’ve been at marketing and entrepreneurship for …

AB: A very long time.

LR: A very long time. We won’t even say. But if you could go back and give your younger self a bit of advice that would have sort of smoothed or sped up the process or improved it in some way, what would that advice be?

AB: Oh, I think the single piece of advice I would give my younger self is to get that stress under control, to learn stress management much earlier than I did.

LR: And how would you tell yourself to do that?

AB: So somebody gave me some good advice that it took years for me to internalize, and it was separate the emotion from the business. Don’t invest all of you in terms of taking on emotionally everything that happens in business, because sometimes there are things that you can’t control. And it took me a long time to learn that lesson.

LR: And so are you successful at that now? You have a bad day at work, and you come home and you’re just able to leave it back ….

AB: Yes, I am. And for me, it was a tipping point. I was working in that ecommerce company. We were venture-backed. And we were looking at the strategy. And the investor said to me, “Well, we want you to double the revenue but cut the expenses in half.”

LR: Oh, of course.

AB: And in that moment, I realized, okay, wait a minute. I can’t do crazy. This is crazy. And that was a tipping point for me. And ever since then, it was like, oh, I finally get what it is to separate emotion from business.

LR: What is it about stress that held you back in your career do you think?

AB: I don’t know that stress held me back in my career, but it certainly affected the
enjoyment of my job and the quality of my life. There were frequent times when it affected my health, and I just kept soldiering on. And I think now, my job is probably as stressful as anything I’ve ever had. We’re raising money. We’re dealing with customers. Well, you know, you’re an entrepreneur yourself. But I’m enjoying every minute of it, and I sleep well at night, and I’m excited the next day. And I wish my younger self could have felt that.

LR: It’s interesting. I think that from my perspective as someone who kind of touches a lot of small businesses, it feels like that lesson is sort of getting learned in a way that … almost generationally. Do you feel that?

AB: Yeah, I do. I do.

LR: What do you think your unique skill set is?

AB: I’m a great problem-solver. I’m very pragmatic. And I’m not afraid of big challenges. In fact, I had a team once say to me, “You know, when you come up with a new idea and you say, ‘How hard can it be?,’ that strikes fear in our heart.” But that’s the way I’ve run my career, always looking and not being afraid to address big challenges.

LR: You’re an entrepreneur like the rest of us. You’re growing your business. This is only a three year old business right now. You’re raising money. You’re getting customers. What’s working right now to attract customers in your business?

AB: So I think a couple of things. One, we don’t have a lot of money for a paid acquisition, so we decided early on that the first thing that we needed to do was to establish credibility in this marketing technology space. And so we’ve done that through a lot of speaker opportunities. We’ve done it through … I have a monthly column with CMS Wire. We write a lot. And also, I think one of the tipping points for us was volunteering to help Scott Brinker kind of build his landscape. That kind of catapulted from a visibility perspective and a credibility perspective. So we focused on that first.

LR: So just to interrupt, Scott Brinker is the guy who put together this pdf graphic called “The Marketing Technology Landscape.” I want to say that he started in 2010 or 11.

AB: A long time ago.

LR: And he was ahead of the curve a little bit. He was, I think, making a point in 2010 or 11 that there were a lot of solutions out there. And really, there were two or three hundred tools on the market …

AB: That’s right.

LR: … that were available to marketers to use. And then he kind of updated this thing since then. And now, it’s just gotten ridiculous. Now there’s how many thousands?

AB: Seven thousand as of last week.

LR: Seven thousand. So the logos on this graphic have gotten smaller and smaller and smaller and smaller, and it sort of is now widely spread around to demonstrate how insane …

AB: That’s right.

LR: … the software is, the service landscape is, particularly in the small business space.

AB: That’s right. And we have 8600 products in our database. It’s incredible.

LR: Yeah, your database, since that’s largely what you guys are focused on, is helping companies sift through this insanity.

AB: Yeah, and manage everything that they’ve got, so that turns out to be a huge problem in enterprise organizations at the moment, because over the last few years with all this advent of SAS technology … It’s easy to acquire it by swiping a credit card. People have swiped credit cards all over the organization, and people now are like, “Uh oh, we don’t know what’s being used. We don’t know what security risks we have. We don’t know what we’re spending.” And so our first value is to get in there and help them. We have a platform that helps them document everything and manage everything they’re using. And then once they’ve done all of that, then we have the information to help them figure out what to use next.

LR: And so you’re selling to enterprises largely?

AB: Yeah, enterprise organizations.

LR: So big businesses. So in that scenario, you’re like the opposite of us, right? You have fewer customers that pay you more, and we have lots of customers that pay us less, right? So in your world, getting customers is about kind of getting out there and meeting people …

AB: It is.

LR: … and shaking hands and raising the level of visibility you have in this space.

AB: Yeah, and then I think the single most effective thing that we’ve done is … So we launched this newsletter very early on when we founded the company.

LR: Email newsletter?

AB: It’s an email newsletter, but it’s really simple. So all we cover is what are the new products that were announced this week, what are the new features that have been announced for existing products, and then what mergers and acquisitions have taken place in the mar tech space. And that’s really all we cover. And so what we find when we connect with a prospect, nine times out of ten, they say, “Oh, I’ve been reading your newsletter for two years.” Or they proactively reach in to us and say, “Okay, we’ve been reading your newsletter for the last three years. Now we’re ready to address this problem.” So it’s been a really effective tool for us.

LR: Yeah. It’s interesting, and it brings up a question for me. How do you decide what’s working, what’s not, and where to keep investing and keep working on something, even when it may not seem like it’s working at first?

AB: So one of the things that hasn’t worked for us … We were sending out little snippets of information about what we were finding in our database, and that hasn’t really done anything. The newsletter was really an easy one to measure, because obviously we’re measuring open rates. But also, people bring it up in every meeting, even if they’re not customers. The content work that I do, that’s my weekend project, and we do get a lot of feedback on those articles.

LR: Okay, so would you say then that if you’re not getting positive feedback pretty quickly with one of your content endeavors …

AB: Yeah, we abandon it.

LR: Then you abandon it pretty quickly.

AB: Yeah.

LR: Very interesting.

AB: Exactly.

LR: So tell me about what you’re learning right now. I mean, you’ve been at this a long time, but everybody has a cutting edge, whether it’s not necessarily in software, but you’re running a relatively new business. What is the cutting edge for you personally right now?

AB: Our next big step is visualization and how we can provide ways to manipulate complex things and make them very visually understandable, so we’re focused on that.

LR: It’s sort of like user experience.

AB: It’s not just user experience. It’s the reporting out of the data around how people are managing their technology.

LR: Very interesting. So you’re building a product.

AB: Yes.

LR: And so that’s kind of what you’re trying to figure out right now, is what is this thing?

AB: What’s the next step, right? So the product itself is built and being used, but one of the things that’s been interesting learning is that marketing is under the microscope now. Marketing teams are under the microscope. For a long time, marketers were able to get away with, oh yeah, a fuzzy spend. But now, there’s so much spend on technology and programs that the CFO wants to know how’s it being spent, what’s the strategy around it, particularly as organizations outside of marketing are buying marketing technology to support digital transformation. So you have to have a way to be able to pictorially show this to people that are not living inside of marketing day in and day out. We’re finding that marketing is bleeding further and further and further out into the organization.

LR: Yeah, well, and you think that’s probably a good thing, right?

AB: It is a very good thing, because we’ve had all of the buzz phrase-iology around the unified customer experience. What does that mean? It means that a customer, regardless of who they contact in the company or how they contact them, should have a unified experience. Well, if you’re not including finance and HR and service and sales in your strategy around that, you’re really just giving them a marketing experience. You’re not giving them a full across-the-company experience, so you have to involve everybody.

LR: You know, you’ve been in business for quite a long time now, and I’m sure that you have kind of a perspective on the arc of your career. What would you like your legacy to have been?

AB: I’d say I would like to be remembered for being a good and honest person, because I learned early on in my career that ethics were really important to me. In building the company that we’re building, we don’t go out over our skis and exaggerate our capabilities with our customers. We’re honest and direct, and we try not to use jargon and buzz words and pretend that we’re something we’re not. And we treat each other with respect, a customer as well as the folks inside. So that’s the kind of person I want to be remembered for, a good business person that was honest and a good person.

LR: What do you feel like it means to be a modern entrepreneur?

AB: I think you have to be scrappy, really scrappy. So I’ve spent part of my career on the investment side as well. I ran an angel investment group. And you know, one of the things that we see as a big trend is it’s getting harder and harder to get early stage capital, so you have to do a lot more with less. And we find it in our own experience, they keep moving the goalpost. First it’s, “Well, we want to see the product. Oh, we want to see customers. Now we want to see revenue. Now we want to see that you got the model figured out.” So they keep moving the goalpost. So I think you have to be scrappy.

I think there’s all those great stories about … and we have them in Boston too … the young entrepreneur that gets given two million dollars and a PowerPoint presentation, but they are few and far between. Companies that are going to do well are solving real problems. One of the things that we’re seeing a lot now in the entrepreneurial world are entrepreneurs hitting a wall where maybe they got a little bit of capital and can’t get to the next step. And part of the problem is that these companies build too quickly. They build their teams too quickly and get too big too quickly, and then don’t believe they have the ability to throttle back and reduce the size of the team …

LR: It hurts.

AB: … to get them over whatever hurdle. And you have to do that in today’s environment. You have to know going in that there may come a time when you have to pull back for a while. And I think those companies that do that are the ones that succeed, and the others just drive really fast into a wall.

LR: So it sounds like pragmatism really is like …

AB: Very much so, yeah.

LR: Competition is off the charts for not just any particular industry, but for attention, for money …

AB: That’s right.

LR: … for talent.

AB: That’s right. Yeah, well great. This has been a great conversation. Thank you so much for taking the time.

LR: My pleasure.

AB: Would you do us the favor of signing our wall?

LR: Of course.

AB: Thank you.

LR: Alright.

Want more Modern Ontrapreneur Podcast?

Check out the previous episode featuring career coach and founder of CaffeinatedKyle, Kyle Elliott.

About Wilson Kwan
Wilson Kwan, Ontraport's Traffic Manager, is from California's Bay Area and received degrees in Asian American Studies and Statistics from UCSB. Wilson has enjoyed many roles and apprenticeships at Ontraport in customer support, tech support, email delivery and marketing. He finds enjoyment in experiencing new cultures and adventures, but is also very much devoted to his hometown basketball team and future dynasty, the Golden State Warriors.