Lessons Learned from a Startup Pro: An Interview with HubSpot CTO Dharmesh Shah

Mavenlink Co-Founder and CCO Sean Crafts had the chance to sit down and pick the brain of entrepreneur Dharmesh Shah, the co-founder and CTO of HubSpot. Dharmesh’s personal resume is impressive; in addition to his work at HubSpot, he created a blog for software startups (OnStartups); has started and sold two other software companies; is an active member of the Boston entrepreneurial scene; and is an angel investor in over 30 startups.

In 2009, HubSpot was very similar to Mavenlink today (in number of customers, type of customers, number of employees, and more). Because of this, Sean asked Dharmesh to go back in time to 2009 and share his lessons learned and insight for Mavenlink and other growing companies. Here are some highlights from their conversation.

Sean Crafts: What would you say were the most important facets that changed or became a new focus for HubSpot in 2009 as you looked to grow the business? And would you encourage Mavenlink to focus on these areas also?

Dharmesh and Sean Crafts InterviewDharmesh Shah: Company culture became a huge focus for us. We were adding hundreds of employees around that time and recognized the culture needed to become an area of growth because it was getting more challenging for Brian [Halligan] and me to be a part of the day-to-day conversations with each and every person we were hiring. We focused on creating our Culture Code that helps influence the company culture and the people working at HubSpot.

However, we learned that when you start actively focusing on culture, implementing internal policies or other employee initiatives, you may receive some unexpected pushback from employees. That unexpected pushback could be that the culture may become “rules-oriented” or lose its unique qualities. However, culture growth is vital and needs a ton of attention in order to sustain business growth. For a business to grow, it’s imperative to surround employees with people that they love, respect, and can learn from every day.

Our marketing efforts also shifted for us around that time. In the early days, we focused 100% on lead generation and demand generation activities. But in 2009, we started to focus a greater degree of our marketing efforts on improving brand awareness and PR, as well as our concept of Inbound Marketing.

"For a business to grow, it’s imperative to surround employees with people that they love, respect, and can learn from every day."

SC: Can you describe the concept of inbound marketing and explain why it’s been an effective strategy for HubSpot?

DS: Inbound marketing is a strategy of attracting customers that is in contrast to the more traditional methods of marketing and advertising, like cold-calling, direct mail, web, TV, and radio advertising. We were calling that method “outbound” and found those efforts to be less effective in the current age of marketing.

Brian and I realized today’s companies and products were being found in a completely different way, and from a variety of channels, including web searches, social media, emails, and other channels. People are constantly looking for useful, helpful content online. We decided to call this method of marketing “inbound” because it focuses on drawing people in to a brand by providing them with consistent and relevant content.

HubSpot’s focus is to help businesses get started with inbound marketing. Prior to our company’s inception, there were already a lot of tools out there for people to use — content management systems, email tools, social media applications, and more. But there was nothing that put all those tools in one place so businesses could focus their time on creating content. HubSpot was built to be that place for businesses.

SC:  I feel that HubSpot is to Inbound Marketing as Mavenlink is to Client Services Delivery. In our case, we’ve taken disparate tools, like resource planning, task management, and financial reporting, and consolidated them into one online platform. In your opinion, how do you think we can best leverage our expertise to help our customers? 

DS: Yes, absolutely. I think the Professional Services industry is hungry for information on how to improve client services and compare how their businesses are doing relative to other companies in similar fields and industry benchmarks. It sounds like Mavenlink has a unique advantage of having worked with and gained insights from over 600,000 users. With access to that kind of information, and coupled with your legacy of client services delivery expertise, I can see services businesses turning to Mavenlink for insights on improving productivity and profitability, and also how to best scale a business for growth.

If you enjoyed this interview or have any thoughts, leave a comment below. And be sure to follow Dharmesh Shah and Sean Crafts on Twitter for additional thoughts on startups, marketing, and more.