As part of my series about “How Business Leaders Plan to Rebuild in the Post-COVID Economy,” I had the pleasure of interviewing Jake Sorofman. Jake Sorofman is president of MetaCX, the pioneer in a new outcomes-based approach for managing the customer lifecycle by transforming how suppliers and buyers collaborate and win together. Previously, Jake was CMO of Pendo and chief of research at Gartner. His writing has appeared in dozens of publications, including Forbes, Inc., and Harvard Business Review. Jake holds a bachelor’s degree in English and political science from University of New Hampshire, an MBA from Bentley University, and a Master of Arts from University of North Carolina.
Thank you so much for your time! I know that you are a very busy person. Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory” and how you got started?
I was academically directionless as a kid. When I finally made it to college (through the backdoor, I should add), it clicked. I started to see achievement as something like a game where effort yielded output if you played the game well. I also saw that being engaged and passionate was so much more fun and rewarding than being apathetic. I didn’t have the words for it at the time, but I somehow knew I’d end up in marketing. I was always a writer and a reader, and I was good at synthesizing information, pulling at the various threads, and finding the story that held them all together. I’ve spent most of my career as a marketing leader, with progressive levels of responsibility inside venture-backed software companies. Some of them did really well, but I also had a couple flameouts. A decade and a half into my career, having made it to a CMO role, I took a break from startups to try something entirely different. I became a Gartner analyst. I credit those five years as some of the most formative in my career, and it set up my next move. I became CMO of a company called Pendo, which grew like crazy while I was there. When I left, it was valued at $1 billion. That experience led to my current role as president of MetaCX.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or “takeaways’ you learned from that?
Oh, so many mistakes! I’m not sure I would have ever characterized them as funny at the time. I think back to a few presentations I delivered early in my career where I was inexcusably underprepared. I’m reasonably good on my feet, and I still have a tendency to wing it a bit more than I should, but I recall a few instances where I really bombed. I mean flop sweats bombed. While I still need to fight this tendency to trust that the words, stories and ideas will be there when I need them, I am much more rigorous about preparation for presentations these days.
Is there a particular book that you read or podcast you listened to that really helped you in your career? Can you explain?
Reading is one of the great passions in my life, but I don’t like most business books. I find most of them reductive and repetitive — almost like they should have been an article, not a book. But there are a handful that have shaped my thinking: “Crossing the Chasm” is still one I go back to all the time. I also loved “The Innovator’s Dilemma,” “The Tipping Point,” “Made to Stick,” “Hooked” and “Start with Why.” Otherwise, look for me in the memoir/biography section. One of my favorites in that category is “Shoe Dog” by Phil Knight. I also read a lot of creative nonfiction that borrows techniques from fiction and moves narratively like a novel. This is my go-to genre, both because I feel that there are so many true stories worth telling and because it informs my own style of writing and how I think about brand storytelling. The podcast I listen to all the time is NPR’s “Longform,” which features interviews with journalists and writers on craft and reporting and life.
Do you have a “number one principle” that guides you through the ups and downs of running a business?
Resilience and grit are so critical in business, particularly at the startup stage where the ups and downs are day by day or even moment by moment. Finding a way to maintain that resilience is crucial. How you do that is a personal thing. For me, it’s about discipline and ritual. You just get up and do it again. It may sound bizarre, but I find that work has a comforting rhythm. I enjoy it more than almost anything. Once you get into that rhythm, you start to gain the confidence that behind every down cycle is an upswing. It’s not always easy to do, but the key is to treat every failure as a learning opportunity. Reflect on it, but never allow yourself to be consumed by it.
Thank you for all that. The COVID-19 pandemic has affected nearly every aspect of our lives today. For the benefit of empowering our readers, can you share a few of the personal and family-related challenges you faced during this crisis? Can you share what you’ve done to address those challenges?
So far, we’re all doing fine. I feel incredibly fortunate about that, and we don’t take it for granted. Professionally, this has been a challenging but highly productive time. I suspect that a lot of people who are fortunate to be working right now feel that way, too. Work is both inescapable and an escape: It’s inescapable because we’re working from home and it’s always staring at you, and it’s an escape because it serves as a bit of a refuge from this otherwise strange time.
Can you share a few of the biggest work-related challenges you are facing during this pandemic? Can you share what you’ve done to address those challenges?
Our challenges are probably much like many other companies trying to grow through this crisis. It’s crucial that our message and offering are hyper-relevant to our target buyer because their budgets have been crushed, and their attention is understandably divided right now. Our team, like virtually every other company, is working remotely, so it’s really important that we’re communicating a ton and finding ways to substitute the social interactions found in shared physical spaces. That’s not easy to replicate with Zoom, but we certainly try! We have happy hours every other Friday. We call it “forced fun.” And most of the company is currently competing in a 100-mile fitness challenge for the month of May as an incentive to get outside to run, walk, bike, etc. While I do think this feels like a productive time for our team, there’s always the risk of burnout when life starts to lose other dimensions. We’re trying to encourage balance.
Many people have become anxious from the dramatic jolts of the news cycle. The fears related to the coronavirus pandemic have understandably heightened a sense of uncertainty, fear and loneliness. What are a few ideas that you have used to offer support to your family and loved ones who were feeling anxious? Can you explain?
It’s a tough one. My best advice is to limit consumption of media — not because it isn’t useful and important but because it is unending. I’ve been exercising a lot and trying to eat well. I find that returning to a simple, consistent pattern is comforting in difficult times. Also, slow down and go outside. Enjoy a beautiful day. Do something you really enjoy. Connect with an old friend.
Obviously, we can’t know for certain what the post-COVID economy will look like. But we can, of course, try our best to be prepared. We can reasonably assume that the post-COVID economy will be a trying time for many people across the globe. Yet at the same time, the post-COVID growth can be a time of opportunity. Can you share a few of the opportunities that you anticipate in the post-COVID economy?
It’s become a cliché to talk about the new normal, but I do think that’s mostly right on. This crisis is a wakeup call for companies who now recognize how vulnerable they are to unpredictable macro changes in demand patterns, supply chains, and customer behaviors. The companies that come out the other side in the best position are the ones that will use this time to change. We’re all a bit burned out on the idea of “digital transformation,” but the reality is that it’s now more necessary than ever before. This crisis has shown us that. One of the hidden benefits to a down economy is an opportunity to retrench, refocus and retool in preparation for the next upswing. I also think that companies will need to think differently about value — in how it’s defined for (and with) customers, how it’s delivered over the course of the relationship, and how it’s measured and proven in order to justify repurchase and renewal.
How do you think the COVID pandemic might permanently change the way we behave, act or live?
I’ve worked remotely on and off over the course of my career, and I’ve always found it to be a positive experience. Personally, I’m more productive this way. I know that’s not the case for everyone, but I do think that this crisis will force companies to think differently about remote work. There’s so much cost associated with office space. Don’t get me wrong: There are also offsetting cultural and practical benefits, but it’s not the only way. I think companies will now see this, making remote work and distributed teams far more acceptable in virtually every role. I also think this crisis will permanently change buying patterns where both businesses and consumers are more rigorous in how they justify purchases and renewals.
Considering the potential challenges and opportunities in the post-COVID economy, what do you personally plan to do to rebuild and grow your business or organization in the post-COVID economy?
MetaCX has built a software platform that transforms how suppliers and buyers collaborate and win together. For too long, suppliers and buyers have been misaligned on the outcomes buyers are looking to achieve and, even more acutely, on measurable proof that the product or service has actually delivered on that promise. We think this sort of transparency between suppliers and buyers is more crucial than ever before. We see opportunity through this crisis as companies accelerate their own digital transformations and lean into the supplier/buyer relationship as an area that needs to be improved. Creating more trust and transparency between buyers and sellers will unlock liquidity in the relationship even when budgets are tight because buyers will be able to see the value in a measurable way. Post-COVID-19, we suspect this will be, to use the cliché, the new normal.
Similarly, what would you encourage others to do?
I mentioned this idea of hyper-relevance … be sure your message and your offering are so relevant to the problems and pains your customers are experiencing now — and will continue to experience after the worst of this crisis is over. Anything less than hyper-relevance is going to be very difficult, particularly right now, but I’d argue after the crisis, too. On so many levels, I don’t think we’re going back to the way it was before.
Can you please give us your favorite “life lesson quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
My mother was very artistic and passionate. She used to quote Gustave Flaubert: “Be regular and orderly in your life, so that you may be violent and original in your work.”
It stuck with me. I’m a big believer in routines, rituals and living simply to make space for a creative and productive life. I don’t always get it right, but this is a quote I return to all the time.
How can our readers further follow your work?
I’m active on LinkedIn: www.linkedin.com/in/jakesorofman/
A bit less active on Twitter: https://twitter.com/jakesorofman
And I blog regularly at: www.metacx.com/