Startups

Episode 22: Lin Shearer, Founder & Principal Consultant, Spark Consulting

Lin talks about how the e-commerce world has changed, what's on the horizon, building a career on curiosity & growth and when to start your own company.


This week on The CoSell Show we are thrilled to have with us Lin Shearer, the founder and principal consultant at Spark Consulting.

 

Topics Covered:

    • How the e-commerce world has changed in the past decade (and what is on the horizon)

    • Crafting a career built on curiosity and growth

    • How to know if you are ready to start your own company

 

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Follow Along With The Podcast Transcript

Taylor Baker:
Hello listeners and welcome back to The CoSell Show. I'm your host, Taylor Baker, and today we're going to talk about how the e-commerce world has changed in the past decade, and what's on the horizon, crafting a career built on curiosity and growth, and how to know if you are ready to start your own company. And who better to talk to about all of this and more with than, Lin Shearer, Founder and Principal Consultant of Spark Consulting. Welcome Lin.

Lin Shearer:
Hey, Taylor? Great to be here. Thanks for having me.

Taylor Baker:
Of course. We're thrilled to have you on. So to get us started off, can you tell us a little bit about your background and the path that led you to where you are today at Spark Consulting?

Lin Shearer:
Sure, I'd be happy to. So really in looking back at my experience, probably three key things that are consistent throughout. First of all, B2B marketing from cutting my teeth on B2B marketing for American Standard in China, to co-founding a B2B e-commerce startup, which was really my entree to technology, to then working for tech firms that spanned companies that sold to small businesses, to mid-market, to enterprise markets. And then also cut across SaaS license that open source models. My career has really been about selling to businesses. And along with that, it was really that love for technology. It's been a big part of the last, probably a couple of decades of my career is really working on technology that helps businesses, whether it's growing faster or running more efficiently, helping them in the case of the e-commerce platforms I worked on, create great experiences, and ultimately really about helping them build businesses and in turn create opportunity as well.

Lin Shearer:
And that's for themselves obviously, their employees, ultimately other businesses that support them, their ecosystem, which being on the CoSell.io podcast, that's a key theme that I know you focus on. And then really creating opportunity for their communities, locally and obviously increasingly with the web and the internet globally, and doing that online. And the third piece that has led me to starting the consulting firm is really my curiosity and adaptability. I'm always looking to learn something new, whether it's new marketing techniques, sales techniques.

Lin Shearer:
With a consulting firm I've got a great opportunity to learn about new industries, and new areas of technology and businesses that I haven't worked on before, which really plays to a key strength of mine, which is adaptability. That ability to get ramped up quickly on new businesses, new industries, and help them get on a path to create a clear go to marketing plan, sales plans, partner plans, really any aspect of their customer facing aspect of their business or revenue driving aspect of their business. So you add those three things up, B2B marketing, love for technology and curiosity and adaptability. And that's led me today to, just a couple of months ago, actually launch Spark Consulting.

Taylor Baker:
Wow. Very cool. It sounds like you've had a very colorful history and every day is a new adventure for you.

Lin Shearer:
It has been a little bit like that. I mean I spent 10 years at eBay, but even there I had the opportunity to work on some different businesses. So yeah, it's been pretty exciting.

Taylor Baker:
Yeah. Well, I have so many more questions about, I mean, decades of experience in tech, you have I'm sure tons of experience to share but we will get there later, don't worry listeners. For now, I am going to ask you our favorite question to ask our guests, which is, what is something interesting about you that our listeners cannot find on your LinkedIn profile?

Lin Shearer:
Well, I touched on it and there may be a little bit of this on my profile, but my time in China, spent almost six and a half years in Shanghai right out of college. And it was really an incredible time to be there. Company went from being basically frozen in time since the 1940s, through the very beginnings of the development that it's gone through the last little while. And that has really turned it into the booming international city it is today. So, I saw highways going up, tunnels and bridges being built, first lines of the subway, really just an amazing time to be there. So you're not going to get all that detail from my LinkedIn profile.

Lin Shearer:
And the other thing I think it flags is my being a little bit of a risk taker, often calculated risks. But there were times that were honestly complete leaps of faith. So going to China, coming back from China to start the B2B commerce startup, landing in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, before it became the hipster haven it is today, move out to the SF Bay Area and ultimately here to Austin. So, again, leaps of faith, a little bit of risk taking, and ultimately they all worked out. So very grateful for all that.

Taylor Baker:
It sounds like you have been at the forefront of pretty much every trend in lots of different industries. Being at Shanghai before that boom started, getting over to Brooklyn before it was hipster haven, being in Silicon Valley, and I know now you're living in Austin, which is becoming the South Silicon Valley. It seems like our listeners should take out a page out of your book and just follow you around the world for the trends.

Lin Shearer:
Yeah. I think just figure out how to turn that into something to really cash in on it at some point. But it's certainly been a great adventure.

Taylor Baker:
It sounds like it. So to circle back a little bit, can you tell our listeners a little bit about what Spark Consulting does?

Lin Shearer:
So for B2B tech companies, if you're selling SaaS software or other technology to other businesses, I can help with really any aspect of your business that is customer facing and that impacts revenue. [inaudible 00:05:44] strength is go to market strategy and execution and product marketing. So a big part of my background was in product marketing for my time at eBay, and for a company, the startup I went to after eBay. So whether you're launching a new product, entering a new market, or if you have an existing product that has stalled out or isn't growing as fast as you would like, I can really help you get very clear, first of all, about who your ideal customer is, and then nail down how you communicate that value to them. So that positioning and messaging is a really big part of what I do. And then from there, turning that go to market strategy into action plans, whether it's sales strategy, collateral and enablement, growth marketing and content development, or business development of partner programs. But really, again, my core strength is really around that go to market strategy and planning and product marketing.

Taylor Baker:
That is wonderful. And listeners don't worry, we will link to all of Lin's Spark Consulting information, because I know you're going to want to utilize his services. So you touched a little bit on the fact that you've been working in e-commerce for quite a while, as you mentioned with roots all the way back to working a decade at eBay. How have you seen the e-commerce community grow in the past nearly two decades?

Lin Shearer:
Well, a couple of things. I think one of the big changes has been around, call it the democratization of the technology, and along with that is really the reduction of what it costs to get started, or launch an e-commerce business or channel today if you're an established business. That's been driven mainly by the SaaS platforms and not only have the Shopify and the big commerce's of the world made the tech more accessible from a cost perspective, but also usability as well. Right? You don't need to know how to code today to launch a professional world-class web store. Along with that of course is the changing consumer behavior. We're all willing to buy even big ticket items online. And coming in behind that is now more and more the business buyer, who really is demanding that they have an option to buy online as well.

Lin Shearer:
The other competing trends I've seen are really around convenience and customer experience, times they go hand in hand, but I think also we're seeing that increasingly they're diverging and competing. Amazon, of course has led the way on convenience. Sometimes on price as well, but not always. The direct consumer digital native brand phenomenon has really picked up the experience mantle, right? If you're looking for unique products that speaks to your own style in the case of apparel, that type of thing. High quality products that stand out from commoditized mass market brands and products, to the point where big brands are now trying to look like small brands, right? They're trying to find ways to build communities around common affinities and interests. So, first of all, democratization of tech, lower costs than ever to get into e-commerce, providing either a convenience approach in story or customer experience, and going with that customer experience piece, the flip side of that, no code or low code SaaS phenomenon, and that need to create unique experiences there's a flexibility required.

Lin Shearer:
So, you as a brand have a way to create a unique experience tailored to your business, tailored to your customers. And on that front, Magento is really been the poster child for that flexibility. You need to do that. But increasingly there are SaaS and cloud platforms that are offering the best of both worlds, right? So, big commerce, for what they're calling Open SaaS, they give you that great out of the box, simple, easy to set up experience and technology. But at the same time they're also giving you the flexibility if you have the need and the wherewithal, to build more tailored experiences for your customers. So, accessibility that the technology from cost perspective, from a usability perspective, a competing trends around convenience and customer experience. And of course the technology is evolving to meet those various needs.

Taylor Baker:
Absolutely. I mean that market is flourishing. And I am someone who admittedly, I love the in store tactile feeling of shopping. But just purely out of convenience, naturally almost everything I buy now, because you have the world of options at your fingertips, it's just so much easier to buy things online.

Lin Shearer:
But I mean at the same time, the convenience factor is now involving the ability to order online and have your groceries delivered, the ability to buy online and return in store. So, the other key thing obviously is the convergence of online and offline into a single seamless experience, which has been called, omni-channel or unified commerce. Pick your buzzword. But it's really about, again, delivering a great experience to the customer wherever, however they want to buy.

Taylor Baker:
Absolutely. So, specifically in that vein, in the past several decades, what are some of the most effective marketing campaigns that you've seen in the world of e-commerce?

Lin Shearer:
I worked on the technology side of that equation, so providing merchants with the tools they need to engage and sell, and provide those great experiences to their customers. So, on that side of things, I'd have to point to Magento and Shopify, right? So, two very different paths to market and growth. Magento took the market by storm in 2008 of their open source offering. This was started by an e-commerce development agency who were tired of the bugs and spotty documentation of OS commerce, which was another early open source platform. So, they got together internally and then also with this fledgling community of passionate developer, e-commerce developers, and build an open source community edition of their software. And it just took off by word of mouth, and it took off simultaneously locally and domestically in the US, and also globally and in Europe and around the world.

Lin Shearer:
It was just really this open source phenomenon that took off like a wildfire. And at the same time, through the staff community and e-commerce agencies that were supporting some of these early direct consumer brands, direct consumer brands like Warby Parker and Toms at the time. So you have this interesting mix of small businesses using it, tech savvy developers building their own story, but at the same time agencies and some pretty well known brands starting to use it as well. And ultimately we know how that story played out, from that hyper-growth, to the eBay acquisition, to the spin out, and then ultimately the recent Adobe acquisition. So, one path to market there and then that amazing story and hypergrowth is really the open source approach.

Lin Shearer:
The other story there is of course Shopify, and that's been more of a growth at all costs approach. So they're still paying a lot to acquire new customers, but they're also investing in that full set of tools and services directly and through their partner ecosystem and extension marketplace, to provide really everything merchants need, and increasingly from small businesses up to enterprise level merchants as well. And I think the SaaS model has established itself as the future. But again, open source and open SaaS is a new phenomenon. And the flexibility you need again to create these great experiences. Shopify puts you in a box which can take 80% of the market as far as they need to go, but there will always be a segment that outgrows that box or for whom it's not going to work from the start. So, you've got again these other platforms that are now pushing the envelope as far as the openness and flexibility you need. At the same time offering in a SaaS package as well.

Taylor Baker:
On the SaaS side of things, what would you say are maybe some, maybe swings and misses you've experienced on that side? On the tech, the development of the backend of the company, or just how they're communicating with their customers?

Lin Shearer:
So, interestingly, I think the biggest swing and miss was, I think eBay really missed the opportunity that Shopify has seized, and that's this idea I think they call, their vision is really becoming the commerce operating system for everyone. They don't say against Amazon, but essentially that's what they're building, right? They have all of the pieces, whether it's fulfillment, or payments or marketing solutions, it's for merchants of any size, from small to medium to large, to compete against Amazon.

Lin Shearer:
And eBay at one time had all of those assets to do exactly that. Whether it was small businesses that grew up in the marketplace and graduated to having their own store, to mid market brands and even large enterprises. We had just to tick them off the traffic and brand recognition to deliver buyers. And we had marketing tech to drive customer acquisition outside the marketplace. The e-commerce platforms for sellers to build their own branded web stores. Of course payments with PayPal. And even at one time the physical warehouse network [inaudible 00:14:51] it's not just about having those assets, but clearly a lot more complicated than that. But I think there was a big opportunity for eBay to step in and play that role that Shopify is now fulfilling.

Taylor Baker:
So, you did work as we discussed, at eBay, for 10 years, which in the tech industry is a lifetime. How in this new evolving tech industry do you determine when it is time to move on to a different company or opportunity?

Lin Shearer:
Well, I think really, it comes back to that curiosity and learning. If you think you've run the course of everything you can learn from the company you're currently working for, the role you're working in. I mean, I was fortunate at eBay to have the opportunity to work with an eBay on essentially three different businesses. So, an SNB SaaS e-commerce platform called ProStores, and I got to work on Magento when it was owned by eBay, and ultimately eBay enterprise, which is a combination of Magento and all of those other assets that I outlined; the physical distribution, the marketing services and all of that. So, I had the opportunity to continue learning both from a perspective of different customer segments I was selling to, from small business all the way up to enterprise, to different technology platforms and the various different benefits and value propositions that they were offering.

Lin Shearer:
So it was really an opportunity even during my time there to continuously be learning. And at the same time also continue to build out that B2B marketing experience and knowledge. So, I think it's really about, if you have an opportunity to continue learning, if you're getting more and more responsibility, absolutely continue in your current role with your current company. I think if you're looking to get to the next level, to continue to learn in your career, that's when a move is really in order. To start looking for new roles where you can expand your knowledge, you continue to grow, and continue to learn.

Taylor Baker:
Oh, I think that's great advice. I think it's easy sometimes to get settled into a position, whether it's, you like the people you're working for, you like the work you're doing, but you're maybe not getting as stimulated as you would like to. So, I think actually finding curiosity is more pretty way of looking at it, but continually growing and challenging yourself is something I think a lot of people don't do. And it's amazing that you've been able to have so many opportunities and step into that question of, I don't know.

Lin Shearer:
Yeah, exactly. That idea of getting out of your comfort zone, not getting too comfortable. There are times when, again, if you're at your current company, if you can raise your hand and say, "Hey, I'll take that on." I'm sure the people you're working with, your co-workers and your manager, they've got their umpteen challenges and things that need to be solved, don't ask for permission, just jump in and say, "Hey, I can help you solve that." And go out and do it. And if those opportunities start to dwindle and or not presenting themselves, or you don't see them in your current company, then I think that's a good signal for when it's time to think about moving on.

Taylor Baker:
It's one thing to work at a huge empire like eBay, and then another thing entirely to found and run your own company. So, in that same vein of moving on or making career choices, how can budding entrepreneurs such as yourself, determine if they are truly up for the challenge of founding and running their own company versus being a cog in a larger machine?

Lin Shearer:
So, I think the good news today, is again, because of that accessibility and relatively low cost from an ease of use perspective, it's easier than ever to start a side hustle and test the waters. If you've got a passion that's outside of... Or not being completely fulfilled by where you're working today, I think you can keep that day job and really start to pursue that passion on the side. Right? You can start a blog, start writing about it, building an audience, if you get an audience, maybe you've got a product come in behind that.

Lin Shearer:
But I think the calculated risk would be to start doing something on the side. See if you can build up an audience and some demand for a product, before you take that full leap. I think that's the safe way to go about it. I think on the the flip side of that, you're looking to start something from scratch. But you can do this at any point in your life. I think it's probably easier when you're younger and have fewer obligations to take that leap. But again, a safe bet is, you've got a nice secure job to start a side hustle, test the waters, see if you can build up something from there.

Taylor Baker:
I think that's a really great mindset. I come from a background of entertainment, where it's very much like doing whatever random job that comes your way. But the most successful people I know that are actually working in entertainment all have full time jobs, and entertainment is their side hustle. Because you free up so much more space in your mind when you're not constantly like, how am I going to pay my rent this month? You have those things covered. So you have the space when you are off to actually work on other things that matter to you. It's amazing how that works.

Lin Shearer:
Well, and I think, I mean, it seems like everybody's got to be to some degree an entertainer today. I think if you come from the entertainment background you probably have a bit of a leg up. If you're comfortable, either you're passionate about something, you have the ability to strings sentences together in an entertaining way, or get on camera or everybody's starting a podcast these days. So the challenge is starting, how do you break through? But if you've got a penchant for, sharing advice, or sharing your story, getting in front of a camera, getting your voice on a podcast, or again writing, writing in an entertaining and educational way. That seems to be a way to test out, is there a business around this? Or can I make a living around any one of those content creating aspects.

Taylor Baker:
Oh, absolutely. And I have to say from the weeds of an actress and an entertainer and also a professional. I highly recommend, and I don't know if you've ever done this, and you do live here in Austin, so I'd highly recommend it to anyone, but I think every human being on earth should take an improv class. It gets you out of your comfort zone, but it teaches you so much about just listening to people and being present. Because especially now when everybody's got, your calendars dinging, and your emails going off, and you've got social media networks trying to get your attention. I feel like it's really hard to be present with people and make tactile connections. And I just think everyone should take an improv class, level one. It's so helpful, whether you're an entertainer or just a human being.

Lin Shearer:
Fantastic. And interestingly a friend of mine, a university buddy of mine, has started an improv, I don't know if you'd call it consulting, but he runs classes for everything from the local schools to now corporations. So yeah, I absolutely agree and maybe it's time I take that leap and take one of those courses.

Taylor Baker:
Absolutely, there is, I know you're here in Austin, there's a company called, The Hideout Theater, and they do something similar where you can just take fun classes there, but they also do corporate events. So, if your company wants to do something a little fun and silly one day, you can have The Hideout come in, and you'll do an improv workshop with your company while you're at work. So it's a fun way to get you out of your head and into your body. It's awesome. I highly recommend it.

Lin Shearer:
Very cool. I have to check that. What was the name of it again?

Taylor Baker:
The Hideout Theater.

Lin Shearer:
The Hideout Theater. Very cool.

Taylor Baker:
Yeah. It's right downtown. It's right on Congress and in between 7th and 8th. So it's a great location. Very central.

Lin Shearer:
Nice.

Taylor Baker:
They have great shows too. If you're ever looking for a laugh, they have great shows. But as far as classes go, highly, highly recommend. So, I have half final question, you did answer this a little bit, but if you just have... I know you're less than a year old, correct?

Lin Shearer:
Yes.

Taylor Baker:
So in this first year, what are some of the key takeaways having founded your company, and getting your feet wet also in a new city. What are some key takeaways you could give to our listeners?

Lin Shearer:
Well, it's fulltime selling at this stage, right? So, let's get out there. I'm engaging in, I think the in-person, we live so much in a virtual world these days online. And of course I'm doing all of that. I think, we thankfully have at our fingertips, not just a local ecosystem, a local community through LinkedIn, but through you also have a global community as well. But the local piece that I think is important, the in-person getting out there, actually meeting people, exchanging ideas, and so I'm out there plugged into the meet-ups, and Capital Factory, and looking to connect with other venture capital and incubators.

Lin Shearer:
So, really, in our early stage it's about selling, right? It's about getting out there, driving awareness, figuring out how best to do that. But certainly, lots of fodder for doing that online through sites like LinkedIn, and then also in person. I mean, thankfully again, Austin is just booming these days from an entrepreneurial and overall business perspective. So, plenty of opportunities to get out there, but sell, sell, sell is really the... in early stages is what it's all about.

Taylor Baker:
Well, I'm sure our listeners are going to want to ask you some more questions, how can they reach you?

Lin Shearer:
Well, if you need help with any aspect of your go to market planning or execution, any aspect of your product marketing, you can go to www.sparkconsulting.io and book a discovery call. And also through the end of February I'm offering a free one hour positioning review. So, I'll take a look at who you're selling to, your messaging, and provide some recommendations on how to revamp or refresh it to be more compelling.

Taylor Baker:
Wonderful listeners do not worry, I will link to all of that information in the show notes, so you can reach Lin and ask your questions and talk about Spark Consulting. And thank you Lin so much for taking the time. It has been an absolute pleasure to have you here.

Lin Shearer:
Thank you. It's been great. Again, I really appreciate you having me on.

Taylor Baker:
And to all of our listeners out there, thank you for listening, and be sure to tune in next week for even more exciting CoSelling content. Now go get your partnership on.

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