The Most Crucial Leadership Principle Most B2B Brands Miss


In this episode of #Exceptions, a revelation about leadership and team happiness and retention in B2B. Indianapolis startup Lessonly teaches us about the communication principle most needed but often overlooked across the corporate world. It’s one that explains why customers send Lessonly unsolicited letters praising them, and why the company’s VP of Marketing spent a recent evening alone in his garage, spray painting 700 toy llamas gold.

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Like this episode? Be sure to leave a ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ review and share the pod with your friends! Connect with us on Twitter: @lessonly @kyleplacy @jayacunzo @seekingwisdomio.

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In This Episode

0:35 – You’re only as good as your last at bat.
1:20 – Read Break the Wheel
1:56 – Meet Lessonly
2:56 – Jay reaches out to one of Lessonly’s happy customers.
4:10 – Putting the customer at the center of it all
7:17 – Jay explains Lessonly’s road map… with llamas.
9:00 – Jamie advocates really knowing what conference you’re going to.
10:09 – If Lessonly were a person it would be Jamie’s friend that would follow through.
13:00 – Psychological Safety introduced
13:17 – Employees are the best place to invest.
13:54 – Most marketers are reactive and skittish.
14:57 – At the core of psychological safety is trust.
15:21 – Marketing successes
16:40 – Caring about the whole person on our team
17:40 – Meet Kyle Lacy (Lessonly’s VP of Marketing)
17:47 – Non-violent communication & appreciative inquiry
20:53 – Katie Brunette (Marketing Manager) talks about Lessonly’s CEO & work/life integration.
23:40 – Kyle Lacy explains being too metric-heavy.
24:55 – The Golden Llama trophy
27:14 – The things that aren’t scalable are typically what works.
27:53 – Why Yellowship?
29:55 – Psychological safety while event planning for Yellowship
32:15 – Lessonly’s branding and unexpected touches
33:30 – Jay reads a letter from a customer.
35:54 – Gut-checking as a team
37:28 – The ability to help others do better work IS the platform.

Full Transcript

Jay Acunzo: There’s a saying in baseball, “You’re only as good as your last at bat.” It means essentially that your latest results are who you are, and if that is true, well you better act accordingly. If you aren’t getting results, then that’s who you are as a player, so work hard to improve. Don’t rest easy knowing that you’re talented or had prior success. Don’t shrug and think, “Well it’s a long season. I’ll get plenty of at bats.” Because you’re only as good as your last at bat.

While that might be a fine personal motivator for some people, I guess, I wonder, is that a healthy way to motivate an entire team in business? I mean, in our world, in B2B marketing, a lot executives seem to treat their teams that same way. But today, we explore a concept called Psychological Safety. We meet a team that’s hellbent on challenging that idea, that you’re only as good as your last at bat. This team has reaped some incredible rewards as a result.

Welcome to Exceptions, the show about why brand matters more than ever in B2B. I’m your host, Jay Acunzo, author of the book about challenging conventional thinking, Break the Wheel. I have partnered with Drift to bring you this show because Drift is all about creating a better experience between B2B ales and marketing and their customers. In each episode, I go inside one of the world’s best B2B companies to understand how and why they’re actually proactively building a brand. After so many years, where just uttering that phrase was seemingly forbidden, these companies are challenging that conventional thinking. These are the exceptions.

Today we head to Indianapolis to meet [Lessonly 00:01:57]. Lessonly is a SaaS business that helps sales and other customer facing teams learn, practice and improve in their jobs. They believe in one thing above all else, helping you do better work. Their customers include their learning and development teams, and employee education departments at companies like Zen Desk, Cisco, Sales Loft and Trunk Club. Recently Lessonly’s 100 employees decided it was time to get their 550 customers together in a room at their first ever user conference, Yellowship. It was a refreshing approach to most corporate events, and one we’re going to hear more about later. But it’s their truly unique values and subsequent approach to leadership that makes Lessonly an exception.

I wanted to hear how these values affect the customer experience. So I reached out to an actual customer that I saw praising Lessonly, and their big event, Yellowship, on Twitter. That’s where we begin today, with the voice of the customer.

Can you just say your full name and where you live, and we can get started that way.

Jamie Madison: Okay, Jamie Madison. I live in Chicago.

Jay Acunzo: Jamie works on the learning and development team at a mid-market software company, and I reached out to her because I wanted to understand more about Lessonly’s event, Yellowship. It’s such a common tactic for B2B brands to have an event, isn’t it? But there’s one thing I’ve learned as a keynote speaker on the road at like 25-30 events a year. Most of these things are exactly the same. So just as we can fight against building a commodity company by building a great brand, we can improve our events and other customer experiences the same way.

If we have a coherent brand, well articulated with values people actually live by at the company, well that’s kind of like a filter we can use when we make decisions. We can take any idea or tactic, no matter how new or common, and press it through that filter to make better sense of how we should actually execute our way. So how did Lessonly execute their way? They put the customer at the center of it all.

Jamie Madison: Talking to Lessonly people was the only time of day that I really spoke to people who understood what it is I do all the time. It was exciting to have the idea that I could go to a conference where I could meet up with a bunch of other people who do a lot of similar stuff to what I do.

Jay Acunzo: What is it exactly that you say you do?

Jamie Madison: Pretty easy to explain to B2B people. I am in the education department. I’m part of the marketing department, but I primarily focus on educating both internal and external users of our platform about how to use our platform and marketing best practices.

Jay Acunzo: Teams that learn better do better. That much is pretty clear, and I think most of us would get on board with that idea. But, what isn’t so clear is how those learning and development teams that help people learn better, you know, the ones that are found at most progressive B2B firms today, especially in tech, how do those teams connect with other like-minded individuals to advance their careers? That’s the first thing Lessonly’s Yellowship event did so well. It provided a forum where at long last people who work on these smaller, often misunderstood teams in B2B, could come together and think, “Finally, you get me. You are me.” In other words, Lessonly is for me. Lessonly built an event around their customer, empathy, as a result.

This empathy affected smaller decisions, too. For instance, unlike most conferences, they chose not to pack their agenda full of speakers talking back, to back, to back, to back to … you get it.

Jamie Madison: It’s exhausting to go to that many sessions in a row. Sometimes when people are planning these conferences I want to be like, “What did you guys do in college? Did you take four, five, six classes a day? Because I didn’t.” People can’t listen for that long. I like that there was the ability to kind of stagger out what I wanted to do with my weekend and pick which sessions I wanted to go to. I purposely planned it. There’s going to be a few sessions where I’m going to take some downtime because I’m going to get more out of those sessions later.

Jay Acunzo: On of my favorite examples of having empathy as event planners, was how Lessonly approached the vendor and sponsor booths. The conventional approach is for the event MC to thank these companies and tell people in the audience, “Hey, go check them out on the expo floor. They’re great.” Or, at some events they let some sponsors introduce each speaker, which of course means three straight minutes of that company’s droning commercial, and 20 seconds of bland speaker intros, all of which just deflates the room. Then there’s the expo floor itself. I’m sure you’ve been there before. You mill around the room, maybe with a friend or a colleague, and there’s booths everywhere, and all these marketers and sales people at each booth just keep staring at you all wide eyed as you walk by. With each person who passes they’re thinking, “Are you going to talk to us?” No. “Are you going to talk to us?” No. “Are you going to talk to us?” Ah, no. “Are you going to talk to us?”

But at Yellowship they did something different to improve the experience. They handed out little roadmaps where you can see a path through the vendors, and if you actually talk to one, they’d give you a little stamp on the roadmap. Complete the map, and you’d receive a llama. Not a real one, but the llama is the mascot for the event, and increasingly for Lessonly overall. A llama named Ollie. Get it? Ollie Llama. Ollie Llama. Nice.

Jamie Madison: So it was a nice incentive to actually go speak with all the vendors and they had cool vendors that had interesting things to say. So it didn’t feel like drudgery, it just felt like a fun little game to go play and then I’d get a prize at the end. So that was nice. I liked that.

Jay Acunzo: So often, people like Jamie feel like they exist on the margins of their companies, and if not, certainly the industry. We often lulled the work of sales, and marketing, and customer support, of product and engineering, and design. But the learning and development teams are rarely given the credit they’re due. Make no mistake, they’re due a lot of credit because they do a lot of important stuff.

They onboard new hires, train people, help them get promoted and advanced in their careers, educate existing employees on new products and processes, not to mention all of the things that go into managing your career like the finances. They improve the diversity and inclusion of teams and companies, and even entire industries in doing so. All kind of crucial things. But typically, these departments are really small. So if you can find an event like Lessonly’s Yellowship and if you’re Jamie, you try to bring some reinforcements.

Jamie Madison: So I am in a very small department, the education department. There’s four of us. I was like, “I’m glad that I’m going, but I would love if I wasn’t the only person who was gaining these insights, and I think that this a teaching conference. This is talking a lot about training. It’s not just talking about how to use Lessonly, so let’s bring more of our team in so that we can gather these insights together and we could split up. You go to this session and I go to that session.

I would say that the best way that I find to advocate is actually really know what it is you’re attending, and pointing out what you believe you’ll be getting from all of those experiences. Because if you just want to go to a conference, they’re going to be like, “Why? Is it in Vegas?” And you’re like, “Yeah.” But I was like, “No, I’m not begging to go to Indianapolis. Indianapolis is fine, it’s a lovely little city, but I’m going because these are the things I want to accomplish, and I think if I bring these coworkers with me, we will accomplish even more. So instead of just me going, I got to bring my two coworkers with me.

Jay Acunzo: So now this is the million dollar question, which is what every listener is going to want me to ask you, because of what I’ve done with previous episodes of Exceptions, which is, if Lessonly the brand somehow became a person in your life, who would that person be and why?

Jamie Madison: Oh goodness. That’s a good question. It’s my mom. No, that’s weird.

Jay Acunzo: Why?

Jamie Madison: Lessonly can’t be my mom, that’s weird.

Jay Acunzo: Why did you go right to your mom? I’m just curious. That was such an instant reaction.

Jamie Madison: Oh, honestly because … so I take improv classes and we joke about … we don’t say “yes, and” where I take improv, so we like to joke like, “I’m not your mom. I’m not your dad.” That’s just a running joke, so that’s why I went there.

Jay Acunzo: Okay.

Jamie Madison: It’s nothing personal. I feel like, and this is probably partially because I work so much and so well with Lucy. I feel like they’re just … like my understanding friend who we go to school together and if I miss a class, they’ll tell me what I missed and help me catch up. Like a best friend, but still in the context of helping each other out. Like you can actually ask each other for things, because you have those friends that you’re like, “Oh, we’re hang out friends, but we’re not do stuff for each other friends.” Lessonly is like your friend who you’re like, “Man, I really need X, Y, Z,” and they’re going to say, “Okay, yeah. Yeah I’m there for you. I’ll do that for you.”

Jay Acunzo: I asked Jamie why do so many of the customers I’ve interviewed on this series all say some variation of friend. She said, “Well, friends are great things, but there’s also a layer of accountability. See, unlike a family member, if they become a bad friend, well, you’re no longer friends and you can go and make more.”

Jamie Madison: There are other friends I can go make, and quite honestly, that’s a pretty easy comparison in the B2B space.

Jay Acunzo: If they don’t want to work with you anymore, well copy and paste the competitor over you and not much changes. That’s the problem. But there is one thing that’s fundamental to every brand we’ve explored on this series, and I’d argue your company too, that makes that copy and paste process impossible. In other words, there’s one thing that all these exceptions have in common that makes them one of a kind. Man, do they know it. They’re people. They recognize not everybody with the same title is the same. Your content marketing manager, your social media marketer, your product designer, your software engineer, they’re all different company to company. You can’t just replace one and have the work be identical because make no mistake, you and your team, that’s the one thing competitors can’t access. You are your company’s unfair advantage. Are you using that advantage fully in your work? I believe we can all do exactly that if we embrace this episode’s big idea: Psychological Safety.

At your company, the people are the most powerful asset you have, so it’s the absolute best place to invest. It’s not overhead, it’s not nodes on an org chart, it’s the people doing the work. It’s not just about investing in their job skills, but in who they are as people. This notion of psychological safety has been gaining some serious steam in recent years, especially among more progressive tech firms who do indeed care about brand. In other words, the exceptions. If your company believes you’re only as good at your last at bat, well then if you screw up, you might get fired. As a result, a ton of marketers behave in a way that actually runs counter to success. I would use two words to describe way too many marketers that I’ve come across lately: Reactive and Skittish.

They’re reactive because they’re worried about missing something. They panic read blog posts, panic launch campaigns, and panic jump onto each and every new trend because well if they don’t, maybe they’re fired, maybe they’ll stagnate, or maybe they’ll simply get reprimanded by their boss. That causes them to be skittish, failing to see the upside in new experiments or ideas, clinging to the convention because it’s safe, it’s the best practice, it’s the tried and true. What’s missing is a feeling of psychological safety, this understanding that my leaders are servants to me. They care about me and my wellbeing not because I’m selfish, but because they want me to do my best, and we together are solving objective problems as a united front. You aren’t your last at bat. You did, however, take that at bat, and so now let’s see if we can ensure the next one is even better, and the next one, and the next one, together.

At the core of psychological safety is trust. We as marketers crave trust from our audiences all the time. But we as leaders need to crave that same amount of trust, if not more, around the team. There’s this really useful analogy we can draw from past episodes of Exceptions here. What each and every brand we’ve profiled interacts with their audience, one thing is clear: They market to the whole person. Gusto thinks about your emotional, financial and career health, not just the cold, hard facts of getting paid or receiving benefits. Envision gives product designers an identity throughout their careers. Buffer builds community around remote working and better company culture, and Help Scout, they fight for customer service as an asset to business, not a cost center, going so far as to publish salaries, and advocate that people pay customer support reps more.

All of that stuff goes well beyond talking about the tips, and tricks, and tactics of what people actually do day to day. In doing so, these companies both serve their own interests, and of course, their customer’s interest by treating people like whole people. Whole people are full of emotions, and hopes, and dreams, and they care about tangential topics to your products, not just topics one step removed from actually buying. These companies market to the whole person.

In doing so, they all seem to say what Seth Godin says about great marketing. It’s about saying to others, “People like us do things like this.” People like us. Not marketers like us. Not BDRs like us. Not designers like us. People. You are a person, not a lead, and these brands market to the whole person. So we can extend that idea today by caring about the whole person on our team, not just a percent of a person that’s a marketer, or a designer, or a manager, or a VP. Brand is the collective behavior of your people, and how others feel about that behavior.

So far, we’ve talked a lot about the latter, but the latter, the way other people feel about you, is the effect of a cause and effect relationship. The cause, the thing we can control, is our collective behavior. Without trust built among the team, without providing the psychological safety to stop working in reactive and skittish ways, we’ll never do better work. It’s time we treated everybody at our company as a whole person, not just the job title, not a node on an org chart. To build that trust, to provide psychological safety.

That is Lessonly’s core belief, and they have several values they articulate to their company that are deeply rooted and practically executed. To understand what I mean by that, let’s first meet Kyle Lacy, their VP of marketing. Kyle told me about two of the best damn company values I have ever heard in my 10+ years in SaaS, non-violent communication and appreciative inquiry.

Kyle Lacy: There’s kind of a mix between non-violent communication and appreciative inquiry. At another company, if you miss a quarter or you lose a deal, some leaders would say, “That is unacceptable. We need to do it better next time.” Appreciative inquiry would be, and at Lessonly, we try to do more of the, “I understand that we missed that deal, but I believe this is the right team and we are going to do better next time.” Instead of being very direct and degrading, you are stating the obvious. We missed it. We screwed up. But reinforcing the value of the people around you. I think that’s really hard to do, and I don’t think very many people do it well.

Jay Acunzo: When you think about this theme that we’re speaking to on the show, which is like this human-powered brand, where everybody’s responsible for the brand experience because the brand experience is the collective behavior of your company. Brand is like the shorthand term that we use to remove the people, but ultimately it is the people. So how does that kind of communication affect the way the customer feels about Lessonly?

Kyle Lacy: Well I think brand in general is everybody’s perception of you, whether you’re a person or you’re a brand. So by having open conversations that are direct but critiquing in love, for lack of a better term, your perception is being honest and straight forward, and trying to help people get the best out of themselves. When we practice that with our customers, and when we practice that with employees and ex-employees, and even who are interviewing, if we practice that community organizations, if we try to live the Lessonly ideals and values outside, the perception is only going to get stronger for us in a good way.

I care that our 550 customers understand our values and our mission because it streamlines the story across everybody, because they’re also talking about it. It’s the main reason we did an event like Yellowship, which I know we’re going to talk about. But it helps get everybody in a room, it helped us to solidify what we believed is our mission, and everybody … and it was astounding how involved people got in that mission and how hungry they seemed for it. I think that perception is everything, honestly, and it’s not my perception of Lessonly, it’s our customers. And by us trying to live our mission and values outwardly, it helps because they can feel it and they can see it.

Jay Acunzo: Thanks to values like non-violent communication and appreciative inquiry, and thanks to the consistent education of every new employee, whether they’re just out of school, or taking over an entire department, Lessonly has created a company built on serving whole people, not just job titles or nodes on an org chart. Marketing manager, Katie Brunette told me that is affects her life in meaningful ways. I do say, “life” on purpose. The first thing she said was that it all comes from the company’s founder and CEO, Max Yoder.

Katie Brunette: Max talks a lot about psychological safety and making people feel safe in the workplace, to be able to be a human, because really your work takes up most of your life, but it’s physically impossible to be able to separate work and life. To be able to have a work/life integration and let people at work know what you’re going through, it helps you do your job better because you’re trying to be secretive and hide something from them, and then they can be even more supportive.

He really pushes that a lot. He has us do this exercise where you name the biggest high in your life, and the biggest low in your life. It’s super vulnerable, but it just helps you understand the people that you’re working with as humans. Then you can just have honest conversations and you come at it with more empathy than anything else. It has changed my work style so much.

Jay Acunzo: Can you give me an example of how it’s changed your work style?

Katie Brunette: Yeah, I mean not to get too personal, but my husband and I are going through some fertility treatments, and to be able to do that we have to go to a lot of appointments and I have to be out for a few days, and by letting my entire team know that, they’re just letting me do my own thing and they understand when I have to be out, and when I have to take some time off. It’s just been huge, and it’s a huge weight lifted off my personal life, and then I’m able to do my job better because I know that they understand what I’m going through.

Jay Acunzo: We’re going to hear more from Katie when we dive back into the Lessonly event, Yellowship. And for what it’s worth, both Kyle and Katie said that if Lessonly were an actual person in a customer’s life, he’d be their CEO, Max. If the values don’t come from him, they’re at least most consistently shown by him.

Lessonly’s focused on psychological safety. Is it a tactic to create a brand? It is their brand. We get into this mode as marketers where when we hear something piffy from an expert, or somebody says that something works, or we’ve done it in the past and now we want to do more of it, we then try to manufacture the result. I blame our industry’s … actually you know what? There’s no such thing as an industry or a company. There’s just whole people. So let me say that again. I blame our over-emphasis on measuring everything in a way that feels like direct response. That’s why so many brands are being built that feel so hollow. Like they’re doing things based on the letter, and not the spirit.

Kyle Lacy agrees.

Kyle Lacy: Oh, I just think we’ve gotten away from being brand marketers and more towards being metric-heavy. I say that in not a great way. I think that you have specific unit economics you need to try to stick to as a marketer of a software company, but you don’t need to be held to every single metric within a funnel. I think that we have skewed as marketers to the direction of it’s all about measurement and not about the experience.

That’s dangerous because sometimes … I heard this quote recently, and I don’t even know if it’s a quote, I don’t know who to attribute it to, but it’s usually the things that can’t be measured are the things that are right when it comes to marketing. And that really hit me because there’s a lot of things that we do that are brand at Lessonly, that if I dug really deep and spent hours, could probably attribute some dollar value to the touch point. But in reality, it’s just about the email that we got from the customer that they were delighted, with the golden llama we sent them. Because it’s not measurable, I think B2B marketers ignore that.

Jay Acunzo: I have to ask about the golden llama, because that’s missing context.

Kyle Lacy: Oh yeah.

Jay Acunzo: What is the golden llama?

Kyle Lacy: We give a gold llama out every quarter to an employee that exhibits the mission and values of Lessonly. There’s this really heavy golden llama trophy that goes around to an employee every quarter. We get the idea to send golden llamas to a bunch of our prospects to put more of a brand culture spin, instead of sending a direct mail piece about the product. It has been our best performing direct mail by far. I have hand-spray painted 700 llamas gold, that we then box up and send as a card that talks about our golden llama, our golden llama experience as a Lessonly employee, and then it tells the recipient to give the golden llama to an employee that exhibits these values.

Jay Acunzo: Wait, hold on Kyle. I’ve known you a couple of years now. I am now trying to picture this person that I know wearing goggles and being in a garage spray painting [crosstalk 00:25:55] llamas.

Kyle Lacy: You know what? I have a picture of me in my garage, and it has … I think there’s 300 golden llamas on the floor on plastic with goggles and a spray mask. I’m more than happy to send you that picture.

Jay Acunzo: Yes, please. Yes, please. Because I think we will put that in the blog post. That’ll be amazing to see.

Kyle Lacy: I think that the value … and we still, we have ordered … I guarantee you, we are the best customer of this random manufacturer that just produces these three inch tall llamas. We’ve ordered a ton of them, but they are so different from all the crap that’s being sent out, and their brand. And we’re lucky that llamas are cool right now for some reason, because if you’ve ever ran across a llama in real life, they’re like the worst animals ever. Yeah, I completely got off track there, but that’s an example of how we’ve worked brand into our message.

Jay Acunzo: I mean, the headline writes itself. Why this marketing executive at this high growth SaaS company spends time spray painting 700 llamas for their customers.

Kyle Lacy: I need to … yeah, I probably should use that. I haven’t yet.

Jay Acunzo: #GrowthHack.

Kyle Lacy: Yeah, right.

Jay Acunzo: All right, so-

Kyle Lacy: Well it’s the point, it’s the point that things that aren’t scalable are usually what work. My time spray painting 700 golden llamas is not scalable at all, right? But it’s the by far best performing piece that we’ve ever done. It’s a freaking toy llama that’s spray painted gold.

Jay Acunzo: I love the era we’re living through where creativity actually is starting to have a resurgence and like a resurgent moment.

Kyle Lacy: Amen.

Jay Acunzo: It’s just great. All right, lets … speaking of creativity, so at what point as a marketing executive do you feel like your team was ready to create Yellowship? Because I think there’s so many reasons you could create an event. How do you make the decision that now is the right time?

Kyle Lacy: I don’t have a good answer for you, honestly. We were pushed pretty hard from our Board. On our Board is Scott Dorsey, who is CEO of ExactTarget, and Connections, which was ExactTarget’s user conference and now the Salesforce marketing Cloud’s conference, was a massive driver of business for ExactTarget. So Scott was constantly talking to Lessonly about doing a conference. When I got to Lessonly, it was brought up at a board meeting and I said, “You know what? Let’s just do it. We have the customers to do it. We have the fans to come. We can get people to Indianapolis. Indie needs more tech conferences.” So I don’t have a tried or true methodology around, “Hm, now is the right time to do a conference.” We just made the decision that we’re going to do it, and we’re going to try it.

Jay Acunzo: That’s what companies who develop psychology safety seem to do. They try stuff. They are investigators who prioritize, experiments and evidence. Not experts who hide behind absolutes and “right answers”. They embrace, but there is no one right way to most of our work here. That’s a subtle but powerful switch, isn’t it? Instead of gathering up all the answers you need to justify acting, you act to find your answers. That’s exactly how Katie Brunette approached Yellowship. Katie is the company’s experiential marketing manager, which basically means she focuses on experiences. That includes events, but also swag, direct mail, and more. Katie had the monumental task of crafting the company’s first big event, but when I asked her how she felt going through it, I got an answer I didn’t expect.

I have worked for some software companies. I’m not going to name them, but let’s say it rhymes with the word, “GrubSpot”, and the event they have is so big and it’s so visible that the team is in panic mode the entire time. What does this idea of psychological safety do to you as you approach all these tactics?

Katie Brunette: I love that question. I never felt frantic, and I think that it was because we were all learning and growing together that as a team … We just knew when deadlines were, we have this really amazing system as a marketing team. We use Trello and do stand ups every day, and then plan out our week every Friday so we know what everybody’s working on. I never felt like we were behind. I always felt like we had the respect and support of the exec team. That psychological safety just helped us be able to develop something new and fresh, and without that pressure of being frantic or being under a microscope. I don’t know, I just don’t feel stressed, and it’s a really refreshing way to work.

Jay Acunzo: Planning an event is a bear of a project. So a little structure and prioritization goes a long way. When creating Yellowship, Katie started her process with the content.

Katie Brunette: What that looks like with breakout sessions and keynotes-

Jay Acunzo: Then you have to think about sponsors.

Katie Brunette: And how you want to structure those sponsorship levels.

Jay Acunzo: And, oh right, we of course need people to attend this event.

Katie Brunette: I think that’s the hardest thing, is starting an event from scratch is that you don’t know how many people are going to respond to it, you don’t know if they’re going to like the prices that you’re setting out, if they will actually want to come to your conference. So setting those goals is hard and scary, and then of course, creating that budget.

Jay Acunzo: Katie says that crucially, but often overlooked is the need to leave in your budget some placeholders for experiences, things that improve the events, emotional resonance, the buzz around the event, and the memories and value attendees take away from it. But maybe you don’t know about those things ahead of time quite yet.

Leaving that placeholder up front in the budget allows you to be creative after, when you’re in the flow of building the experience because the list of things that you might want to build in can get pretty lengthy, you know? Special kinds of meeting rooms, or lighting.

Katie Brunette: Really cool agendas, or lanyards, or we did a swag store. So instead of just giving somebody like a random bag of swag that nobody wants, they were able to come and we created these llama bucks, and they were able to spend their llama bucks at the swag store and they got to pick two or three items that they actually really wanted as opposed to us just giving them stuff that they will probably throw away. But then you think of little touches from napkins to … we had a pool table at our evening event, so we branded some cue balls for that, we branded some Jenga, corn hole, cups for our evening event, and really just thinking about what those little touches are that are unexpected, but really just bring the brand and the experience together as a whole.

Kyle Lacy: One thing we did was Max went through a roadmap of what we’re going to launch in the next six months, and each of the features that we’re launching we took snippets of the code, framed the snippet of the code and had the product team sign the frames. We gave it to the customer that was most active in helping us build the feature. The love and affection, and I use that very directly, the love and affection we receive from customers, we basically told them, “You are the reason we are successful. You are the reason this feature was built,” was hands down like the best part of this. We got a note-

Jay Acunzo: A note from a customer who was given that framed snippet of code at the event. Here is the unsolicited letter that this customer later sent to Lessonly:

“Two years ago we were two teams talking about how do we become partners and not just a buyer/vendor relationship. I have had that discussion with every vendor I do business with, but it almost never happens. This frame represents to me that it can actually happen. Here’s a company that looks at our team as a partner, values our opinion, and also recognizes that these help them achieve their goals. You didn’t give these out to the people who signed the largest contracts or implemented the most instances. You gave these out to those that you believe are helping you succeed as a company. I’m truly honored that you believed my company could help you do that. So again, congrats on many fronts, but maybe most importantly, for proving to me and my company that we can achieve a genuine partner relationship. The Lessonly team continues to help my team and company get better every day.”

Kyle Lacy: You can’t pay for that. That’s marketing, in my opinion. Now I’m kind of dumbing it down by saying it’s marketing, but that is the relationship that a successful software company needs to build.

Jay Acunzo: When you say you’re dumbing it down, let’s build it back up a little bit because now as the leader of the team, these are the kinds of things that you consider wins, and obviously there’s a danger in sort of manufacturing it, making it … losing the soul almost, to try to make it a recurring best practice or trope. So you have this great event, you have wins like that, and that email, and that note. This is a weird question I guess, but how do you keep the spirit of that stuff alive and not let this devolve into kind of what happened with publishing helpful content-

Kyle Lacy: Sure.

Jay Acunzo: Like it started as helpfulness and then it became like how do you prove that you’re the most helpful instead of actually be the most helpful. It devolved. So how do you make sure this doesn’t just devolve?

Kyle Lacy: Man, that’s a good question. I’ll give an example of the picture frames. We had the idea to do the picture frames, and we were going to have it kind of like a game show where we announce the name and have them run down on the stage and we would give them the picture frame and have everybody applaud them. We did a quick gut check and realized that that was manufacturing an experience, and not creating one. The best thing I can say that we do here is that we gut check everything to make sure we’re not trying to manufacture something, and if anybody on the team feels like it’s somewhat manufactured, we’ll go back and try to recreate it.

Kyle Lacy: There could be a moment where the golden llamas feel like they’re manufactured, but until I get the gut check that I think that we’re overdoing something, we’ll just keep doing it until somebody tells us to stop. I wish there was a more scientific process around that, but it’s really the feeling you have around something doesn’t feel genuine.

Jay Acunzo: Genuine. What does it mean to be genuine? Today, it’s like we’re living through this split between marketers. Everybody keeps talking about authenticity, about the importance of being genuine, but there’s two camps. Some do this because it sells. It’s a means to an end. They just assume switch their focus on a different means, a technology, a tactic, a trend, a piffy new statement, whatever the hell it takes to move product.

They’re focused on the ends. But great leaders today focus their teams on the means to those ends. The objective is to understand and improve upon the path to results. In doing so, you get better results. Being genuine means being truly who you are, and who you are goes so far beyond your job description. You are a whole person, just like everybody on your team. And that is your unfair advantage so long as you’re being genuine.

Kyle Lacy: For us, it is ingrained in our identity as a company, that our ability to help people do better work is our platform no matter what we sell.

Jay Acunzo: This episode was written, produced and hosted by me, Jay Acunzo, and brought to you by Drift. If you haven’t yet, go listen to all their other series within Seeking Wisdom. That’s their podcast feed if you’re not there already. Head over to your favorite podcast app, check out Seeking Wisdom to find more episodes of Exceptions and other shows from Drift. While you’re heading to or maybe sticking and staying in your podcast player, leave us a rating and review. But not just any rating and review.

The folks at Drift apparently only accept six star reviews. I have no idea how you send somebody six star reviews, but apparently people are doing it. It’s like some sort of exclusive club. It’s like the Illuminati. It’s the VIPs. It’s like the Avengers. It’s like the Justice League … nah, that wasn’t very good. It’s like the Power Rangers. It’s like the Rescue Rangers. But anyways, do your best and we’ll very much appreciate that. Once again, big thank you to Drift for making this series happen, and thank you for listening to Exceptions. I’ll talk to you next time in our season one finale, with a very special brand. See ya.

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