By Mike Fridgen • Mar 15, 2024

MVL investor and advisor Elissa Fink on the art of marketing, customer engagement, and founder success

We recently sat down with MVL Advisor and Investor Elissa Fink, Former Tableau CMO, to discuss various aspects of her exciting career, including sophisticated marketing strategies, the evolving impact of Gen AI on marketing dynamics, leveraging data analytics, and nurturing entrepreneurial triumphs.

Our conversation has been condensed for readability.

Mike: You had a fantastic run and career at Tableau, where you took the company from 5 million in revenue to over a billion. You are someone that everyone wants to talk to about their GTM strategy and get access to insights. How do you decide on who to work with? What are your criteria? What characteristics do you look for in founders and teams?

Elissa: I have a little saying I use and believe in. And that is Team TAM Time. 

  • Team: Is this a group of people that I believe in? Do they have good ideas and work hard? Do they want to do the right things? They have integrity, they're authentic, and frankly, for me, they're also fun.
  • TAM—the market—the total addressable market. Is it big enough? There are a lot of great things out there that are good problems to solve, but they're not necessarily big enough. Can you make an impact?
  • Time: Time is somewhat related to the product. Does this company, with the right team and TAM, have enough time to build or deliver the product that customers will love and will substantially impact the market?

Can you find a solution where you can still make a difference? Can you be early enough to market, providing enough time to mature when the market finally comes to full force? Do you have the time to build the right product for that large TAM with the team to deliver on the promise and build something extraordinary? That makes an impact. Those are the things that I look for. Over my career, I've been fortunate to be associated with different companies in different ways. I never relied just on some big financial analysis or tons of research; I trusted my gut backed by data, and my gut boils down to Team TAM Time.

Mike: The founders we work with are operating B2B/enterprise startups at the zero-to-one stage. They're going from very low revenue and trying to ramp things up. What advice would you share with them as they attempt to understand their strategy and where to focus their limited time and resources in these early rounds?

Elissa: The first thing is that you won't solve everybody's problem out of the gate. You need to know what you are exceptional at and unique at, and laser beam focus on that. This is what makes us different, these are the sub-segments of the market that we could solve this for in the short term or even medium term. And you must and will say no to things not aligned with that. 

The second thing is to get customers as quickly as your can. So sell to your close relationships - colleagues, friends and family. It's okay to get out there, share your vision, and leverage your relationships to find and get close to those first three, four, or five customers. The closer you can get to them, the more you see the problem and not just the feature request. The more you learn the problem, the better you will build a product. 

Finally, everybody in your company should be close to or understand the problem. Whether it's HR personnel recruiting talent, marketing strategists shaping messaging, or product developers addressing customer needs, understanding the core problem is pivotal for success. Make sure that your colleagues and the people you hire have passion and interest in the customer and the customer's problems, no matter what function they're in. 

Mike: Much of what you spoke to shows how marketing and product are intertwined. I think about go-to-market strategy and it's a lot about the customer and staying focused on the product. When you think about the successful founders of the companies you're advising, what patterns do you see in the ones that get this right? 

Elissa: I particularly like to see the ones that talk to customers. The ones willing to ask their customers hard questions and listen carefully to their answers. They might not take the advice or the solutions, but they ask good questions and want to talk in-depth with their customers and prospects. 

And they're just good listeners. They're pretty calm. They may be extremely passionate. Even in heated passion, you can still be a great listener, question-asker, and open to input and feedback. It helps you focus on your mission, vision, and idea. Just because you're listening to much of what's out there doesn't mean you must act on every part. It just means you know more now. You have more depth. When you ask many questions and listen a lot, you learn a lot, and it just makes everything you do more grounded, foundational, confident, and sure. 

We see a lot of false confidence in this technology world. But what I’m talking about is true confidence. You can pick that up in people when it's true confidence built from substance. What's essential is substance. And I see that a lot across the CEOs that I work with. These people are substantial. They have significant thoughts. They think smart. They ask great questions. And they're curious. It's all related to being interested. 

Mike: I value that—the idea of being curious, asking questions, and being grounded with customers. But then, like you said, back to your focus point of having the judgment to take all that, synthesize it, and have clarity of direction. That's powerful. It's helpful for founders to hear that because it's not just about listening. It's about having judgment about what to do with that knowledge. 

Elissa: Yes, you bring up such a great point about judgment. I have a point of view about judgment and data: looking at a lot of data is a fast way of developing and honing your judgment. You see all these examples, you see these facts, you see these patterns. You may not experience them directly because you're looking at data. Maybe you're reading, you're talking to other people, whatever. But the fact is that all this data goes into forming your basis of reasoning and how you make judgments. 

People, especially young marketers, should look at a lot of data. Just be curious and look at the data. Look at other people because you'll learn, and it will make your judgment so much better. Frankly, that's what we hire people for. We hire people to make great decisions. And especially in this world of AI, I don't need someone to summarize something for me or find answers anymore. I don't require that. I need people with good judgment and creativity about how to use that judgment. Again, bringing together lots of information and data, and synthesizing it in your brain give you that perspective to have reasons for that judgment, knowing when to trust your gut, how that judgment fits into that, and how to be creative - that's all connected. 

Mike: That resonates. It leads to a question I had about Gen AI. We have the tools to do those things, but I need higher-order judgment in that. How do you foresee Gen AI impacting the future of marketing? Will it play a transformative role? 

Elissa: Yes, let me give you an example. I have been using Perplexity lately, a generative AI search engine. You ask it questions, and it answers them; I love it best because it sources its responses. Every fact it mentions has a little footnote that you can click on to find out the source. Back to judgment. Can I believe this? Is this credible? So what I've realized is I, now, more than 50 percent of the time, I go to Perplexity first and ask questions, and I learn, and I source, and I click on some of those links, and maybe it does bring me to the company's website. But only after a whole lot of time in Perplexity, aka gen AI. 

So, yes it will change a lot of the way we think about digital marketing. And how we feel about information, how we share information, and how we make people smarter. 

For B2B marketers, it's about whether you are making your customers and prospects smarter. People want to be around people who make them smarter. They make you better, so you like to be around people who make you better. A lot of content people are creating is about making people smarter. But now, with Gen AI, how your content will be used, absorbed, leveraged, or referenced is changing. So, it’s changing the audience dynamic. It will change the action of marketing, but it will also change how the audience receives your message. And that is a huge deal. 

You have to think about how it is changing not only your practices but as  importantly your customers' practices. How is it changing your customers' perception of the market and its choices? And so, how are they collecting information and facts about you? It's going to be pretty interesting to see how that evolves. It may mean going back to judgment and relying more on humans to provide judgment and to be truly creative.

So take me a step beyond just the answers and summarization. My son was writing a report on pears. I was looking at Perplexity, and he could get a lot of sentences out of Perplexity, but what are the implications of that? What is he bringing to it? How do we encourage creativity and thinking beyond the facts and information from Gen AI? What is the human element of that? The implications are enormous. The tactics may remain the same, but the strategies will change significantly. 

Mike: You could do anything with your time, but you've decided to put it into board and advisor roles, even teaching at the UW Foster School. What drives you to do that?

Elissa: It's a feeling of giving back, as so many people gave so much to me. For me, it's never been about the scorecard. It's about giving, making a mark, and being generous with your time. I like that feeling of giving back and sharing. I also love the creative aspect of it. I love hearing new ideas and thinking about their impact, and I fulfill that through my conversations with founders.

That's the wonderful thing about the way MVL works. You have unique ideas that help people and companies do better, do more exciting things, and use their lives more productively. And as an investor, advisor, or what have you, you're giving, but then you're getting this energy and these creative new ideas. It's so interesting to think about it. It's a wonderful give-receive kind of relationship.

Investor Spotlight is a series dedicated to bringing you insights into the investor journey, lessons learned from startup leaders, and a behind-the-scenes look at some of the most compelling tech companies in our community.

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