As hailed in Forbes newly unveiled Entrepreneurial CMO list, the role of the head marketer at brands both big and small, is now to ride shotgun to the CEO and demonstrate an agile and disruptive mindset around everything from the customer experience to overall enterprise growth.
June + Lyft Co-Founder Matt Van Horn On The Emerging Entrepreneurial CMO + Need For Horse Blinders … [+] And A Challenger Mindset
In a world where growth mandates are punishing and the mettle to succeed sometimes in scant supply, I thought who better to get some advice for today’s CMOs than from someone among the most successful Founders of recent times. Matt Van Horn is the Co-Founder of Lyft, along with Co-Founder + CEO of June, the smart oven that has taken the world by storm. Matt has a unique vantage point on what it takes to be an entrepreneur on the front lines of business with expertise that cuts across function and aligns with growth. What follows is a recap of our conversation:
Billee Howard: As you and I talked about, there is a new entrepreneurial CMO model that’s taking shape in the market. Can you share best practices from your experience as an entrepreneur that can be helpful to this emerging type of marketer?
Matt Van Horn: Absolutely. I think one of the big things in my entrepreneurial journey, that has only led me astray a few times, is you must put on blinders if you have conviction about something no matter what the obstacles. I had a conviction that we wanted to make the best countertop oven in the world with a camera in the top that recognized most cooked foods and cooked them perfectly every time. There were so many reasons that we should not have started that company, so many reasons that we should not have done that and tried to find easier ways to do things. Yet, we put on these horse blinders, and we didn’t listen to all the people telling us it was a bad idea. Who needs that in their life? How are you going to build it? What do you know about manufacturing, etc.?
We just had that conviction that we needed this product in our lives, and we went for it. I think in an environment when you’re a CMO, you need to figure out how to get your idea off paper and into real life. Build an early version of your vision because that is what will convince everyone around you, like the CEO and Founders and the Board, more than just talking about it. Take your conviction and execute an early version of your vision to show them, not just explain.
Howard: That’s excellent advice and it’s a great segue way into the next question. Today’s CMOs require an appetite for building and must create alignment between marketing and product, while having a clear vision. What are key things to consider when driving toward that type of synergy?
Van Horn: I’m a big believer in the philosophy of you should never have the board meeting in the board meeting. I think that type of conversation can happen, especially in companies with a lot of meeting culture and things can get decided early on by building up to it. Maybe I’m old school, but I like to go into the meeting already knowing that I have a yes in the works. I think getting to that takes a lot of one-on-one time with the proper stakeholders, pitching your vision and working toward alignment. Then, by the time the big meeting comes together, everyone’s just like, okay, sounds good. Maybe people that weren’t in the room where it happens are like: “Wait, how was that so easy?” But it wasn’t easy. You put in a lot of work one-on-one getting all the stakeholders on board with your vision. I think investing in that extra time and individualized interactions can be extraordinarily valuable to CMOs today and any executive for that matter.
Howard: Interesting when building and developing June, you mentioned to me embedding a real time customer feedback loop into the process, which impacted everything from design to the overall experience. What are some key learnings you can share related to building out this type of process or infrastructure?
Van Horn: We were extremely fortunate that a core thesis of June was around sensors and intelligence. How do we use sensors and intelligence to make the best product in the world? If you think about a camera, a camera is a sensor. If you think about data from probes, that’s a sensor. And data from customers is a very important feedback loop, in essence another sensor. Something that we have in the June app is, say you make a steak; you can either mark that with a happy face or sad face. If you give it a sad face, you can say that it was because the steak was overcooked or very undercooked, etc. then that creates a ticket with our customer support team that is associated with your personal cook session. So, if you’ve agreed to share your data with us, we have that camera video of that chicken that was messed up. For example, we had this one customer who reached out to us and was like: “Hey, you burnt my chicken on the outside. But it was still raw on the inside. I thought this was supposed to be a magic oven and I want to return it.”
We were able to pull up the video log and figure out that the customer had a very, very cold chicken. It was frozen when he put it in there. He had the probe in there, but he didn’t let the oven treat for that program. As a result of that, and the extremely cold bird, it was impossible for it to get up to temperature. What’s amazing about this is we were able to see this with all the sensor data and we replied with: “Hey, you know, you’re still within your hundred days, we’re happy to return the oven for you. However, we looked at the sensor data and we believe this was human error on this one. Why don’t you try this? Just let’s take your chicken out, let it preheat, then put your chicken in and then see how it goes.” The next day the guy posted on Facebook “You’re not going to believe this. Yesterday, I had the worst chicken in my life, I wanted to return my oven, and then the June team was able to tell me that it was my fault because of the camera, because of the sensors. Then tonight I had the best chicken I’ve ever had in my life! Like, oh, my goodness. Thank you, June.” That’s the kind of wow moment you can create with your customers when you have the right customer feedback mechanisms in place that allow you to not only listen to, but respond to your customers, in meaningful ways that create long-standing relationships.
Howard: That’s compelling. Thank you. CMOs are afraid to fail for many reasons, only some of which are their own fault. Because of a variety of factors, leaders sometimes don’t have the courage to have a challenger mentality. Can you talk to me about things that they should keep in mind, related to overcoming fear of failure to challenge the status quo?
Van Horn: It’s boring to not be ambitious and not try interesting and aggressive things. In today’s environment, as a CMO, as an executive, as an entrepreneur, just doing what you’re supposed to do isn’t very interesting and likely isn’t going to get you far. I think if you’re not challenging the status quo, not trying new ideas and not trying to invigorate an environment, especially as a marketer, you’re missing the boat.
Marketers today need to come in, be ambitious and try different things that haven’t been done before. Think of it like a baseball reference, right? You’re going to strike out at all the swings you don’t take. Right. You’ve got to take swings. Maybe you’ll get to take three swings, but if you just hold the bat and don’t swing for the fences, you’ve got a 0% chance of hitting a homerun. But, if you’re at least stepping up to the plate three times, there is that chance that you swing for the right thing that’s going to hit and really make a difference. I think that’s the opportunity we all have as marketers, executives, and entrepreneurs today.
This thinking must hold true whether you’re at a startup or a Fortune 500 brand. Size should not constrain you and the ‘challenge the status quo’ mindset should prevail.


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