For Sales Leaders

Episode 25: Laura McLeod, 99designs

Laura talks about meeting your design & branding needs while maintaining productivity, preparing your SaaS business for a global marketplace and more.


This week on The CoSell Show we are thrilled to have back with us Laura McLeod, Senior Marketing Manager, Strategic Partnerships at 99designs.

Topics Covered:

    • How to quickly get your design and branding needs while maintaining maximum productivity

    • How to prepare your SAAS business for a global marketplace

    • Learning how to avoid making perfection the enemy of good and more!

Brought to you by our host: Taylor Baker for CoSell.io

 

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Follow Along With The Podcast Transcript

Taylor Baker:
Hello listeners, and welcome back to The CoSell Show. This week, we are very excited to have with us, Laura McLeod, the senior marketing manager of strategic partners at 99designs. Welcome, Laura.

Laura McLeod:
Hey, Taylor. Thanks for inviting me on the show.

Taylor Baker:
Oh, of course. It's a pleasure to have you here. 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 with 99designs today?

Laura McLeod:
Absolutely. So yeah, my name is Laura. I lead partnerships marketing at 99designs. For those of you who don't know 99designs, we're the global creative platform where clients and designers can connect and work together to create design that they love. I've actually been at 99designs for three and a half years. So prior to my role in the business, focusing on partnerships, I actually headed up a European marketing function out of Berlin. But actually, I have an arts background. So I actually majored in history of art at University College London, and I fell into digital marketing a little bit by accident. It was a happy accident, but I started working at a modern art gallery in Bristol, England called Arnolfini some years ago, and it was a part time role and I needed something to fill up those hours. I was straight out of college and needing money.

Laura McLeod:
And I got a call from a temp agency saying, "Hey, we have this father and son business. They make websites or something and they need a web administrator to help them out at the time." So we would call this now a startup. It was that traditional father, son back bedroom set up, and I started working for them. Essentially, they taught me the ins and outs of SEO and paid search. And I started, at the time, doing link building and content marketing for them. They really showed me the ropes. And pretty soon, I was running that part of the business. I doubled it in scale. I started helping out with the website clients and doing the client-facing work with them and sort of slowly came on full-time as their office manager, exec assistant, helping the business owners to grow their business.

Laura McLeod:
So that was really where I cut my teeth in web, that was sort of 12 or 13 years ago now. And then I left the UK, did some traveling throughout Asia and found myself in Australia, living and working there. And that was where I really started getting into the client services piece in the agency world. And I was account managing Borders' books back in that time, this is kind of a pre-Amazon world, really. And we were an agency focusing on the e-commerce piece for Borders and I was really doing the email marketing for them. Whitcoulls, New Zealand, Angus & Robertson, and Harvey Norman as well, we did some work with them at the time. So I did that for a year and a half or so, and then returned to the UK and really went deep into the agency world. And I worked for an agency in the Southwest of England for five years as a group account director.

Laura McLeod:
We were an integrated agency. So we were doing everything; cross paid search and digital experience, TV, websites, et cetera. And our clients include [inaudible 00:03:15] ferries, Pret, a big brand if you're familiar with the UK, Historic England, Silverstone and some other really high profile nonprofits. So yeah, we had a really varied portfolio across travel, property, not-for-profit, et cetera. And it was a great experience, I loved my days in agency. I think one of the benefits to having that as experience is that you get a really cross section of business models that you have to learn very fast. And I always liked that dynamic aspect of going to visit clients being on the road and having those conversations, it was always really exciting. But I reached a point with agency life where I wanted to go and market a product and there was a lot of interesting stuff going on in the startup world.

Laura McLeod:
And after a few different applications, I applied to 99designs because Berlin was really where I wanted to go at that point in time. So I was lucky to be offered that job in Berlin and moved over there with the team, and the rest is history.

Taylor Baker:
That is amazing. You have such a colorful history leading up to working where you are today with art galleries and so many different pockets of the country or the world, rather. I'm so excited to talk to you more about that and how that has informed where you're at. So I have to say, one of our favorite questions to ask here at The CoSell Show is what is something interesting about you that our listeners cannot find on your LinkedIn profile?

Laura McLeod:
This is a really great question, Taylor. So thanks for asking this because it's made me realize, I probably need to go and add a few colorful bits of information to my LinkedIn profile. But yeah, I volunteer at the San Francisco Museum of Fine Arts, the de Young Museum. In my spare time, I can also hold a half decent conversation in German. But also the fun fact that I like to pull out, because this is also something that comes up quite regularly for new starters at 99designs is, I used to race Dog Go-Kart. So the Formula in the UK is called Formula TKM. So I did that for a couple of years when I was younger. It's the Formula that has produced Lewis Hamilton and Jenson Button, if you know you're F1. So yeah, I once raised against Lewis Hamilton, that's my claim to fame.

Taylor Baker:
Wow. Here in Austin, we have a very large Formula One race track.

Laura McLeod:
Right, that's right.

Taylor Baker:
Yeah. You'll have to come out and burn some rubber, is that an appropriate racing term?

Laura McLeod:
It is, yes. To blow off the cobwebs.

Taylor Baker:
Yeah. Oh, wow. I love asking that question. I've had some amazing answers and I love a good lady racer. So thank you for sharing that.

Laura McLeod:
No problem.

Taylor Baker:
So to get down to partnerships, how does 99designs engage and facilitate partnerships specifically?

Laura McLeod:
Sure. So yeah, we have spent the last decade or so at 99designs investing our time in building the best global creative platform that there is out there. And I would say around 18 months or so ago, we decided to invest in building out our API, which became our creative marketplace API. And what that's enabled us to do is to empower and help high traffic online platforms who were looking to solve their customer's creative bottlenecks. And so we're partnering with these businesses, utilizing our API to help them and their customers to solve their design needs. So for example, if you're a Packlane, customer, Packlane are a small business online packaging brand, if you are a customer of theirs, you may actually need some custom design for your mailboxes, for your eCommerce business, and you don't know where to find a designer and you need some affordable design quickly.

Laura McLeod:
If you're a Squarespace website customer, you actually may not have the time whilst you're running your business to focus on your web design, so you need someone to do that for you. So these types of online businesses who are all moving towards this all-in-one model, really, it's a big trend that we're seeing, and needing a do-it-for-me design solution so they can really help customers on their platform to get what they need when they need it. And so partnering with businesses like this has three core benefits because if you are looking for do-it-for-me design solution, you want to create this creative marketplace within your brand, it makes sense to leverage a proven infrastructure. So it's something that we have spent a lot of time investing in and it's an infrastructure that's ready to go.

Laura McLeod:
Also, we put a lot of emphasis on matching. So one of the hardest parts about finding a designer is finding the right talent for your particular industry or finding a professional who has ratings and recommendations who you can trust. So matching clients with the right skill sets is something that we do really well. And so you can tap into our amazingly talented global design community, or like Squarespace, you can bring your own and we onboard experts and we'll help this matching experience. And we've also got a dedicated marketplace team that we have formed as part of our strategic partnerships division and we're there to help our partners grow their marketplace because we're experts in the area. We've seen it, we've lived it, we've done it. And so yeah, we can help by partnering with people to be plug and play with their marketplace.

Laura McLeod:
So yeah. So typically, we're engaging with businesses who they're tending to be on the kind of growth phase. So they're looking to attract a new audience and they need a do-it-for-me design solution and they're time poor, they're growing their business. Often our partners are looking to increase their lifetime value or increase retention. So in SAS, we tend to find that businesses are often looking at ways to make their product more sticky. So how can they build a deeper relationship with our customer through their product, through ARR, through subscriptions, through increasing repeat purchases and building something like this often takes a lot of resource, it's kind of a complicated piece.

Laura McLeod:
And as we know, engineering resource kind of hard to find. So our partners are leveraging us so that they can stay focused on their core business and get to market fast with the first iteration of a creative marketplace, and then they can start iterating from there.

Taylor Baker:
Wow. That is amazing. Thank you guys for using your knowledge, knowhow and infrastructure to help creatives and businesses all over the world. That's amazing.

Laura McLeod:
Yeah. No, it's an exciting time. And I think one of the things that's really exciting about what we're doing on the partnerships team right now is that we've really geared our team around this piece. So we're truly cross-functional and our partners get access to all of the different elements. So from business dev, from marketing and designer curation, we have a whole product in engineering and UX resource focused around building out these partnerships. So we are really a strategic partner for all of our partners, and we really see ourselves as an extension of their team to really help grow their overall business through the iteration and the development of the do-it-for-me design solution that we can help them develop.

Taylor Baker:
So in your breadth of experience, what best practices have you seen consistently in your most successful partnerships?

Laura McLeod:
Yeah. This is a great question. And I think it's something that we discuss a lot within the partnerships community as well, so it's always interesting to hear this and to talk about this. I would say, I have sort of a few points on this. I think there really needs to be a strong overlapping in brand values and vision because ultimately, you both want to be working towards the same thing, and it really helps with that relationship piece and to continue the momentum, if you have a shared vision. So that helps in the kind of initial conversations and the approach, that's really cool. And then riffing off that, I would say that having joint ownership and collaborating and having that relationship across both pieces of the puzzle with both partners is making sure that that relationship is strong and having consistent and open and regular communications helps this.

Laura McLeod:
So there's a lot of small tactical parts to this, which is weekly stand ups and having some rules of engagement around Slack or Asana or whichever tooling that you're using. But just all being in it together is really key. One thing that we've found has really helped us with our partnerships, especially the ones that we think of the most successful currently is being iterative. So always keep executing. I hate to use the word agile, but I'm going to use it. Be agile because you don't want to get lags, you always need to be investing. Don't always let perfection get in the way of progress. Just keep on executing and having a team around you to continue to do that with that attitude in mind is really helpful.

Laura McLeod:
I would also say that having a clear go-to-market strategy helps. So we spend a lot of time brainstorming with our partners. Quite early on when we were in the delivery stage of this is how are you going to drive demand through the partnership? We have a lot of knowledge to impart to our partners and we love to hear how they're thinking about that within their own marketing mix and for their brands. So having those conversations early really set you up for success. And I would say transparency on data and learnings. We create, share dashboards with our partners and that also kind of ties back into this joint ownership piece, which is where if everyone can follow along together and spot things and conversion rates or traffic, or all of the metrics that are important to that particular partnership, everyone being able to share that together and communicate and collaborate on that and understand where there might be levers to pull or push is really key to driving it forward.

Taylor Baker:
You are just a slew of amazing advice there. I particularly loved what you said about not letting perfection be the enemy of good. I personally worked on several projects that I think trying to get every comma correct and trying to get everything lined up just right, sometimes just prevented us from moving forward. And I'm not saying that you shouldn't work hard and put out a good product, but you have to put something out and if you keep tinkering it to death, that's never going to happen.

Laura McLeod:
Yeah. Absolutely. I mean, a lot of artists, and you'll know this yourself, it's never done. I think, yeah, you can tinker for a long time, it's not to say like you say that things need to be tight and ship shape, but I also think it's knowing where to kind of just keep things moving, because we'll get there, we'll get there together, and I think that's important as a way of moving things forward and moving things along.

Taylor Baker:
Absolutely. So how do you normally structure these partnerships to ensure that everyone is engaged and driven to help each other throughout the process?

Laura McLeod:
Yeah. Sure. I would say, we start with a scope which is done in collaboration with the partner and with our cross functional team. And it's a scope, it's not too encyclopedic. I have seen very hefty scopes of work in my time, but it's good to have an agreed scope to work to, and making sure that we've got the key stakeholders across that. So bringing the right people in and then knowing who is responsible for what, so who's the project manager, who's our analytics go-to, who's our engineering team, who's in charge of the go-to market plan on both sides and making sure that everyone is introduced. It doesn't have to be right in the beginning, but just sort of making some decisions around that is really good so that everyone has clarity because everyone loves and needs clarity. So getting that early on is a really good thing to do.

Laura McLeod:
Goal setting, it's age old. I don't think you necessarily need to be too rigid early on. It doesn't have to be a hefty list of prescriptive targets, but these should be agreed together with the partner and shared, and does everyone being brought into this project understand strategy? And so I think understanding and setting those goals and bringing people up to speed on what those are really helps with this joint ownership piece. Documentation is important. We do a kind of lightweight project charter, we call it, which has kind of a scope, setting up shared Slack channels, who should be on those, setting up a tracker, getting the right cadence in place for our weekly or biweekly stand ups, depending on how regularly we agree to meet.

Laura McLeod:
And that's important too. I think having the time to talk to people on a regular basis is important, especially in the early phases of getting a partnership set up. And go see one another from time to time, if it's applicable. We're all very distributed and it's not always possible, but at least some time within the year, it's helpful, who else on the team should you meet? Who else on your team should they meet? What other ways can we help each other? So I think the ongoing future dialogue is important. This doesn't have to be all the time, we are well set up for remote work these days. But I think finding the time to get to know one another and to just check in on some other topics is always part of our ongoing structure to help build a brighter future for both sides of the partnership.

Taylor Baker:
So what has been your most successful partnership and why?

Laura McLeod:
Yeah. So I'm always excited to talk about Squarespace because they have been such a great partner to work with and it's been really successful for the both of us. If you haven't already seen it on the Squarespace app, we partnered with Squarespace to launch their expert marketplace over a year ago now and it's been going from strength to strength. They're wonderful to work with. We have a great relationship with their team and Squarespace have been really having some great success with it through 2019 so much so they featured it in their top 19 on LinkedIn last year, if you follow along with them. But to give you a little background on what we've been doing with them, Squarespace actually had already done a fair bit of community building within their design community.

Laura McLeod:
If you're familiar, they have a design community called Circe, and that was aimed at helping them to build a deeper relationship with their designers, with their Squarespace experts. And what they had found is that organically, this kind of customers looking for help from these experts was taking place organically and they had built this basic marketplace experience to help those two parties connect so that customers could progress their website with a Squarespace certified expert. And this really started to show them there was some demand here and actually the demand for this started to outpace the basic marketplace experience they developed. So rather than build out a whole marketplace themselves, they actually decided to partner with us. It was this really serendipitous moment, really. And yeah, and make the most of everything that we had built, so our ready to roll technology and this would enable them to get to market fast with their marketplace experience.

Laura McLeod:
So as it stands today, if you go to Squarespace, it's in the top now, if you can go and find a designer. And what we did with them, Squarespace already had a creative brief that they were already using. We integrated that with our designer profile's API and we onboarded all of this Squarespace experts on to 99designs so that we could enable clients who are coming through the Squarespace website to match with Squarespace experts. There's a lot more to it than the matching, 99designs also comes with a lot of collaboration, functionality, so being able to annotate work and communicate easily with your designer. There's secure payments. We also have global multi-lingual support. So this is really helpful for the designers who are building that initial relationship with clients.

Laura McLeod:
And it also gives the clients a lot of control and a lot of trust that they don't pay until the work is finished. Squarespace Circe community, all of the Squarespace experts that they had curated, we have a designer curation team who spent a lot of time onboarding these experts onto our platform, tapping into this community. A team was really important to Squarespace as well. We have a lot of experience of working with designers, so that was a massive plus. And then yeah, we went live just at the beginning of 2019 and Squarespace really had a rich dashboard of metrics from day one. As I mentioned earlier, we share our dashboards with our partners and so we've been able to work collaboratively with them reviewing these metrics daily, even just to have visibility on what's going on in this marketplace, which they never had before with their initial basic experience that they were looking at.

Laura McLeod:
So they've been able to make decisions around conversion optimization, balancing demand and supply, so do we need to push more traffic through this marketplace? Do we have enough designers with enough availability? All of that metrics and strategy piece gives them full visibility on what decisions to make and when, and making sure that customers and designers are both having a great experience. So we do a lot of auditing and keep an eye on these projects to make sure that everyone's getting great results. So it's been wonderful. It was a very quick iteration. Within a few months, we were up with this marketplace and one of the biggest successes that we have seen and Squarespace have seen with the partnership is just how impactful this has been for their expert community.

Laura McLeod:
Some of them have quadrupled the number of clients that they work with now, since we launched. So it's fantastic for us to be able to help these creative professionals grow their business and that's part of our vision and it's part of Squarespace's vision. And that's really one of the key metrics for us is to be able to bring what to designers all over the world and help them grow in their sector as a creative professional.

Taylor Baker:
Wow. That is a great example of a partnership being really lucrative and inspirational and helpful for everyone. I mean, it's the exact definition of a partnership. You guys are both getting a lot out of it and you're creating value, not only for each other, but also for your customers. Thank you so much.

Laura McLeod:
Yeah. It's a great case study and we continue to work very closely with them. Beyond being able to get help to design your website through the marketplace on Squarespace, there are experts now that are offering SEO. So we've started to expand just being on web design into other project categories. So it's a really exciting time and yeah, we're really excited as to what 2020 and beyond will will bring.

Taylor Baker:
So are we. We're excited to see how that goes. So on the other end, do you have any partnership horror stories or advice on what to avoid?

Laura McLeod:
Yes. Interesting question. No horror stories, but I would say from my experience in both partnerships and from growing client agency relationships, which to some degree, have some parallels, I would say that you would want to avoid... As I said, you want to make sure that you've got the right stakeholders involved through the project. So if you think you need a parallel contact from analytics, from paid advertising, don't be afraid to ask. If you can make introductions, ask for one. Don't let things drag on or go silent, regular contact is key, and make sure that the relationship stays strong. It's a classic, but get to know them. If you feel distant, yeah, figure out a way to connect. That would be my advice.

Taylor Baker:
That is a great, great tip. So I want to go back a little bit. You had mentioned that you've been educated as well as worked in many different facets of this world. So I want to talk a little bit about what similarities and differences you have noticed in various global markets, especially in the SAS marketplace.

Laura McLeod:
Yes. I had to think about this one, it's a good question. I would say in essence, when you're working with SAS business leaders, wherever they are in the world, in the core of things, what they're trying to achieve can be very similar. So we tend to see these kinds of cool goals come up time and time again, which is either they're trying to grow through acquisition, retention is a piece and there's increasing LTV and everyone in the SAS game is very focused around increasing ARR. So stylistically, there can be some differences in how business is done cross-culturally and it is important to understand where people are coming from and those different communication styles. There can be different contract laws, so there can be very different ways of actually signing the deal.

Laura McLeod:
And I think as well, I find when we're working through the specifics is there can be a lot to work through when you're looking at how you're going to get around taking payments, like with local payments in terms of localization, is there a local support team? What languages do you handle? Do you have marketing units in different parts of the world? So I would say, a lot of the goals and the vision can be very much aligned wherever you are. A lot of the kind of specifics around how you might execute on those, where you kind of need to get into the nitty gritty, because they can mean a go or no go, depending on the match and depending on the functions that each business. But we're seeing partnerships taking place for us across North America, Europe, Australia.

Laura McLeod:
We're talking to potential partners all over the globe, Lithuania, India. So I think there's really exciting projects happening in SAS all over the globe.

Taylor Baker:
Oh, definitely. So sort of in that vein, what advice would you give or what important things do you think there are to focus on for a company out there that may be looking to take their brand global?

Laura McLeod:
I mean, we did this, we have operations in Oakland, California, in Melbourne, Australia and Berlin and Germany. And I think that really focusing on localization, not just translation, has been really important. And as I mentioned, we have a global support team. Having that local support, if you're a marketplace as well for both sides of your business, for your assets designers and clients. So just knowing that there's people on the end of the phone who can really speak your language was a massive help for us. And I think that does go a long way to ensuring that people [inaudible 00:27:53] that can help them in their locale. So that I think is a really important one. I think when it comes to branding as well, really thinking through local context.

Laura McLeod:
So having people on the ground that can help you work through that or having some consultancy on that with your brand mark and your word mark, does it work when it's translated? Do you need to translate it? Does it work in that local context? And also I think this is something that's key for branching out into any market, but your competitive set and local alternatives can be completely different. So just really understanding how you fit and how you meet the needs locally is a really important endeavor. And as I mentioned, there is also a lot about what is that user experience like in that local market? How do they pay? What are the local payments? There are some nuances around that. So taking your brand international, it's about understanding the context of where you're going.

Taylor Baker:
That is a wonderful piece of advice. I think a lot of companies kind of... I actually had another guest refer to it as parachute in into these global companies, and they're just like, here's my thing, but they don't actually do any boots on the ground market research marketplace. So if you go in there searching and genuinely wanting to provide a service or a solution or a product to help that community specifically, you're going to automatically set yourself up for more success.

Laura McLeod:
Yeah, right. Absolutely.

Taylor Baker:
So I just have one more question for you. What advice would you give other women looking to get into the partnership space?

Laura McLeod:
I would say, we are really lucky to have a lot of great female leaders in the partnership space. And I think one thing that I have personally benefited from is mentorship. And I think there are a lot of women in partnerships roles, if you make great mentors and so it's a really rich right place to be for anyone, for men and women. It's a really dynamic space, but there's some fabulous female partnership pros out there. I think what Lisa Lawson is doing at LTL Consulting here in Bay Area is super interesting. I've worked with [inaudible 00:30:20] at monday.com. She's over in Televiv, she's super passionate about their partnership program and really great to collaborate with. [inaudible 00:30:29] in London, it's always a pleasure to talk to her. Joy Daniels at Magento is fabulous and she's done an amazing job with their partnerships program there.

Laura McLeod:
So I would say, get out to some of the meetups, get out to some panels. There's some awesome people doing some awesome work here, and everyone, I think it kind of comes with the territory and partnerships, we're all quite happy to talk. So I would say, go out there. I saw Christian Luciano from HubSpot giving some awesome advice on a panel about strategic partnerships. So I would say, get out there, speak to people. Don't be afraid to reach out, have some conversations and you never know where a conversation is going to lead you.

Taylor Baker:
Wonderful. Women supporting women, people supporting people, partnerships supporting partnerships.

Laura McLeod:
Exactly.

Taylor Baker:
Wonderful. So you have been an amazing guests and I'm sure our listeners are going to have more questions for you. How can they reach you?

Laura McLeod:
Yeah. Feel free to reach out to me on LinkedIn or go to our /API page on the 99designs website. I'm always happy to talk more about what we do at 99designs and also what we do with our partnership program.

Taylor Baker:
Well, don't worry listeners, I will link to all of Laura's info and her LinkedIn as well as 99designs website so you guys can easily find her and keep the conversation going because I'm sure you have more questions for her. But in the meantime, thank you, Laura, so much. You have been such a wonderful guest and a ray of light and a very positive person in this community. Thank you for sharing the inspiration and knowledge.

Laura McLeod:
I've really enjoyed it. Thanks for the time, Taylor.

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 content. Now, go get your partnership on.

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