EPISODE 022
If You Know You Know
Chris Walker, CEO of Refine Labs, was always meant to be an entrepreneur. He took his shot in Corporate, but when they weren't progressive enough to be open to a new way of doing things, he took his "bad ideas" and created a multi-million dollar business for himself. 
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Host - Monique Mills:   

Hi everyone. Thanks for tuning in to listen to another episode of the Unpolished MBA podcast. Today I share a conversation I had with Chris Walker, an engineer turned entrepreneur that's turning the B2B tech marketing world upside down on its head. He is changing the game. Listen in as he describes his journey and how he's managed to create a successful business after his ideas were underappreciated in Corporate. He was trying to let them know that what worked 10 years ago, doesn't work today and won't work in the future. Well, he took his “bad ideas”, and has created a multi-million dollar business for himself. This is just another example of how you have to go with your gut, and when you know, you know. Now, I typically don't play pop songs during this podcast, but this one is just fitting. The title of it is “If You Know, You Know”. It's only 20 seconds. Take a listen and then hop on into the interview.

(music)

                      

Host - Monique Mills

[01:24]       So you have this skill set, you've seen a lot, you've worked with a lot of different companies. If the right opportunity came along, and someone's like, “Hey, I'd like for you to be our CMO,” would you go back to work for a company?


Guest - Chris Walker   

[01:37]       No way.


Host - Monique Mills:   

[01:38]        Why is that?


Guest - Chris Walker   

[01:40]       Because it took me eight years to realize that I never want to work for somebody. You know what I mean? The company that I'm running right now is far and away going to be much greater upside in every single aspect of my life than being a CMO of a company.


Host - Monique Mills:   

[01:56]      What was your background before you got into this?


Guest - Chris Walker   

[01:59]      So for the eight years of my career, before I started this business, I was in all different forms of business. And so everything from product development, product management, operations, and Lean manufacturing, supply chain, and then the last five years of my career in I would consider downstream communications or demand generation for venture-funded companies.


Host - Monique Mills:   

[02:19]          Okay. What was your undergraduate degree in?


Guest - Chris Walker   

[02:22]           Biomedical and electrical computer engineering?


Host - Monique Mills:   

[02:25]         Ah, okay. So you're a little bit of a geek like me. How did you get into marketing?


Guest - Chris Walker   

[02:29]        Yeah. And so when I was graduating college, I had several different offers of jobs to consider. And one of them was a large British holdings company that held technology and engineering companies. And I worked for that company in a graduate development program. GE has done some of those as well in rotational type of programs and moved around their subsidiaries and solve different business problems. And I consider that an MBA in a box, an MBA in the real world - going in and trying to figure out how to increase the gross margin of a high-volume manufacturing business or develop a new product or work with an OEM or different things like that. It was really great.


Host - Monique Mills:   

[03:05]         Mm-hmm. So that helped round out your experience, but what was the catalyst for you starting your own business in the past what, five years now you've had it?


Guest - Chris Walker   

[03:14]           Two.


Host - Monique Mills:   

[03:14]          Two? Whoa, in two years, you've done all of this?


Guest - Chris Walker   

[03:18]           It has been cool.


Host - Monique Mills:   

[03:19]           Wow. Okay, so what was the catalyst for all of this.


Guest - Chris Walker   

[03:23]       So I had built a demand generation function inside of a venture-funded company from the ground up by myself. The company didn't know how to measure what I was doing and didn't tell me what I should be doing. And so I was in this little echo chamber, and I did whatever I thought made the most sense to drive the business and continue to grow our results and the budget in order to keep growing the results. And then I looked out in the world and realized that everyone was doing it quite differently than me and I had a better way to do it. And so I'm very grateful and lucky that I got into that company and that company allowed me to use my brain. I think that a lot of marketers go into a system and then just have to do whatever their little part in a system. And yeah, I was just very lucky to be able to experiment and learn for myself, and essentially just came up with, I think, a better way than exists in the market right now.


Host - Monique Mills:   

[04:12]     Yeah, so your foundation-- I say this all the time, but it's kind of like the foundation of engineering, and this may also be part of your personality, is to be problem solvers. It just trains the way you think about things.


Guest - Chris Walker   

[04:23]       That's all it is.


Host - Monique Mills:   

[04:24]       Yeah, that’s all it is.


Guest - Chris Walker   

[04:24]       An engineering degree is just a degree in solving problems.


Host - Monique Mills:   

[04:28]    Absolutely. I totally agree with that. So the thing is with marketing engineers, they don't teach us anything about that. So I'm wondering, what did you reference in order to even get started?


Guest - Chris Walker   

[04:42]       Clarifying question: to get started in marketing or get started in my business in marketing?


Host - Monique Mills:   

[04:46]       To get started in marketing. And I know how GE has the OMLP


Guest - Chris Walker   

[04:51]        Something like that.


Host - Monique Mills:   

[04:52]      Yeah. But if they pull you out of engineering, you do get to touch parts of the business, but you've went really in-depth. So I'm trying to figure out what resources you've used or mentors, whatever it is to get that deep dive.


Guest - Chris Walker   

[05:06]     Yeah. And so while I was doing it, the first little rotation that I had, I was in an engineering lab which was responsible for trying to develop this product. And in order to develop the product, I had to go out and talk to customers. And so I needed to go and find customers, develop specifications, do all these different things. And within six months of doing that, I realized that I much better appreciated trying to solve a customer's problem than to actually write the code. And so that was a quick transition to product management, upstream product management work interfacing between the market and engineering or product development. I want to put those together.

And then from that type of marketing into downstream demand generation is what I consider it, that transition was actually quite easy, and the background gives me a huge advantage. Because most marketing people that come out of a comms or a PR, that type of background, have no idea how products are developed, have no idea how to research - conduct unbiased market research with customers or qualitative market research interviews or things like that. And when you pair them together, I think you have a sort of secret weapon in marketing.


Host - Monique Mills:   

[06:10]        Yeah, and that secret weapon is refined labs right now. So you have a tremendous amount of content on LinkedIn. When do you have time to do that, and do sales for your company, in order to bring and service clients?


Guest - Chris Walker   

[06:29]        So we've created systems where basically, I'm able to create content without it dramatically disrupting my day. And so I also like talking to people. And then thirdly, I think it's part of my job. I think it’s part of my job to communicate the vision and to interface with the market, and to drive our message into the market. And so I just consider it part of my job. And if you are a CEO, and you have a certain amount of priorities, I just think that this is one of the top three things that I could do besides our people, take care of our customers, and then do this.


Host - Monique Mills:   

[07:02]        Absolutely. So marketing and sales are two different things, and I talk about that a lot. And you do too. But also, that's a skill set that we don't learn in engineering. And unless you're in kind of a sales engineering role, you may not even learn that skill set at all. So now that you have your own practice, how are you learning sales? What are you studying in order to help you with that?


Guest - Chris Walker   

[07:27]        This is a really interesting point for the listeners. Sales is easy when you do marketing well, that's it.


Host - Monique Mills:   

[07:33]       Yes!


Guest - Chris Walker   

[07:34]      I'm not reading any books. I'm not doing anything. I don't have any secret system. I just do marketing well, the right people are attracted and come and talk, and then we just have a conversation on how we can help them. And so that's the way that I think most companies should aim to operate.


Host - Monique Mills:   

[07:51]       Absolutely. So we talked before on LinkedIn a few times, a few things have come up, and I'm like, “Wow, that works, but for a certain stage of a company,” right? So I work a lot with startups. And I know they would love to get their hands on someone like you to bring them in to be their marketing person, to guide the way, to be a consultant to them. But that's not really the stage that you deal with, the ones that are not quite at product-market fit yet. So tell me, tell the audience, your ideal client and what you do for them.


Guest - Chris Walker   

[08:23]       Yeah, before that, I just want to note that I was doing that for whether it's a growth stage or early stage companies before I started doing this. And so there are people out there that you can find that can help early stage companies as either employee or consultant that enjoy doing that. At this point now, what we're looking for are companies that have clear product-market fit traction, most likely have raised a big round either B, C, or D, and are trying to pour gasoline on a fire that's already lit.


And so the difference, the key difference here is we're not here to start fires, we're here to be the gasoline for fires that are already burning. And that becomes the core distinction. Because if you don't have a validated process and how you can actually sell something in a high volume, if you don't know exactly who you're selling to, if you don't know exactly what your message is that resonates, doing a lot of advertising is not going to help you move the needle in your business. It might help you learn but it's not going to move the needle in your business results necessarily.


Host - Monique Mills:   

[09:18]     So with the folks that you do work with, what is the type of work you do for them? Do you run the ads for them? Do you create the content for them? Or do you mostly focus on the strategy that they need in order to blow things up?


Guest - Chris Walker   

[09:30]    We focus in three core areas. The first one is transforming their demand generation programs by changing their metrics. Step one is if you don't change the metrics, then you're not going to work with us because companies that run high volume of the MQLs get forced to do it a certain way. So step one, change your metrics, and then we're going to be able to change all the downstream programs. So transform their demand generation program, an element of team training and framework, so giving their team frameworks in order to create content for paid, create content for organic, how to make product marketing creative in a LinkedIn ad, we show their team how to do all of those things.


And then we have an agency layer that will execute on media or do creative and different things like that. So it's a very interesting setup here because on both sides, you have consultants that never actually implement anything, so they just give advice. And then they haven't actually implemented that advice in 10 years and so who knows whether or not that advice works anymore.


[10:24]      And then you have agencies that just do what they're told or do what's most profitable for them and don't provide any strategic guidance. And I think that we have a very interesting model here in the middle, where it's very clear that we understand the strategy. And while you execute, we update the strategy. Our customers use us as a source of innovation. And so we'll test technology tools and new approaches and experiments that inside of companies get restricted because of how the company works. And so there's a level of innovation that I feel like we have across 20 or more software companies that we work with right now that cannot be replicated in-house.


Host - Monique Mills:   

[11:01]     Mm-hmm. Wow, that's great, because you're actually creating IP for them, I mean, actually, the way they do things, which is a huge advantage. So you have this skill set, you've seen a lot, you've worked with a lot of different companies---if the right opportunity came along, and someone's like, “Hey, I'd like for you to be our CMO”, would you go back to work for a company?


Guest - Chris Walker   

[11:25]        No way.


Host – Monique Mills   

[11:27]         Why is that?


Guest - Chris Walker   

[11:28]       Because it took me eight years to realize that I never want to work for somebody. You know what I mean? The company that I'm running right now is far and away going to be much greater upside in every single aspect of my life than being a CMO of a company. So yeah, not interested.


Host - Monique Mills:   

[11:47]     So what got you on this path anyway? So everybody kind of has their own story of how they entered entrepreneurship and the circumstances around it. So what was that for you? Did you decide that, “Hey, I just want to do this on my own” or was it you know, you were looking for a job, nothing quite met your expectations and you were just like, “Forget it, I'll create it myself”?


Guest - Chris Walker   

[12:07]      Yeah, so there are two components of this. The first one is that I have had entrepreneurial tendencies for a very long time. I built e-commerce companies in my bedroom when I was 23 and grew those to mid-six-figure revenue ranges within a very short period of time. And that was two of those things, one when I was 23, one when I was 25. So that helped me build a nice foundation of skills, and also start to really learn how to run a business, which I thought was very cool. And then what really pushed me over is that I had this great amount of success of this company, generated millions of dollars, they IPO-ed, it was very successful, the program was working. The company that I was working for didn't even realize how well it was working because they were so focused on sales. And then I get out of that and I go and interview for companies for director of demand generation, CMO, director of marketing, that type of role, and I’d pitch them on my way, and nobody wanted it. And they didn't want it because it goes against all conventional “best practices” for the listeners.

[13:06]       And so I took a step back, because I mean, I'm very grateful for the opportunity of working for that company where I built this, but I didn't love that experience. I was swimming upstream against executives that thought differently than I did. And so instead of continuously butting heads with people when I'm an employee, and I don't have the say that I need, I decided to start this and then just attract people that were already in line with my points of view. And so now there's very little friction for our customers because by nature in order to pay us the amount of money that we charge, they probably would want to be aligned with our way of seeing the world.


Host - Monique Mills:   

[13:43]      Absolutely. Yeah. And some of your posts that I've seen, I've seen you post about different things and I'm like, “Yeah, you were always an entrepreneur. That's just in your blood.” So it doesn't surprise me that you made that jump but if there's someone else-- A lot of people think they can make that jump, and then they get out there, they're like, “Oh, wait, this is not quite what I thought it was going to be.” So is there any other things that you think someone needs to consider besides, of course, the will and wanting to do things their way?


Guest - Chris Walker   

[14:16]     I think you got to know whether or not it's in you. And sometimes, to be honest, you're not going to know until you're out there.


Host - Monique Mills:   

[14:21]      Until you do it. Yeah.


Guest - Chris Walker   

[14:22]      You know what I mean? Like, the time that I chose to do this wouldn't have been that the time. It was my option. And I'm so grateful that it was my option because it showed me a path that I didn't know that I had in me. And so in order to find out, what I would potentially suggest is create enough financial space if you want to, where you can go out, and even if you fail, you can always get another job or you have a safety net and you don’t risk things. That's the advice if you think that you have it is that you've got to put yourself in a position where you have a safety net, but you're in it. I'm struggling to explain this but you know what I mean? Because when you don't have a paycheck coming in, and you got a lot of free time and you have a business idea, you actually start to innovate, you actually start to find out things that work. But if you're not in that, if you don't have that situation, you actually don't create those things.


Host - Monique Mills:   

[15:14]    Absolutely.


Guest - Chris Walker   

[15:16]     You know what I mean?


Host - Monique Mills:   

[15:16]      I do.


Guest - Chris Walker   

[15:17]  There's a reason that I didn't create this business while I was an employee of someone.


Host - Monique Mills:   

[15:21]     Right. So, Chris, I know you have a fantastic podcast. I listen to [it], and I have been listening to it throughout the pandemic, and I tell people on my daily walk. So it's such a good thing that you let nothing get in the way of, “Hey, we're just going to start this. Let's see where it goes.” Describe a little bit more about what you discuss on there, and so that our audience knows the name of it and knows what they can learn from listening.


Guest - Chris Walker   

[15:46]    Yeah, for those listening, if you want to check it out, it's called “State of Demand Gen” available on Apple and Spotify and all other places where the podcasts are. And we basically talk about very focused demand generation for software companies, but the principles can be applied to any B2B. And we even get into some B2C concepts as well. I think what in general we talk about is sound marketing principles, and then how they get applied in a lot of depth. And so I think that the people appreciate the amount of depth and actionable insights in there. I know a lot of people have taken the advice and then went and got a better job, or got a promotion, or started their own company, or accelerated growth for the company they had already started, or all those different things. And those success stories make me happy.


Host - Monique Mills:   

[16:31]   Yeah, it's fantastic and you do dig in deep. Just a warning to people who aren't familiar with marketing, there are some acronyms, so you will learn. You know, I just said the other day on LinkedIn, “Every time I see MOM, I think month over month instead of mom,” as in mother. I was like, “Ugh." I’m so thrown off by all the acronyms because that's my daily life these days. 

But Chris, it's been a pleasure speaking with you. I'm so glad we're connected on LinkedIn. And I learn from the information you share and other people chiming in. And I know that you also have a way for people who listen to your podcast to submit questions. Do you want to tell us a little bit about that before we wrap up here?


Guest - Chris Walker   

[17:11]  Yeah. So I think a great content strategy for anyone is to answer questions that your buyers have, or people that are like your buyers, you know what I mean? Have that persona because you create content that people actually clearly need because they're asking the questions. And so if you have questions about marketing or business or anything like that, feel free to submit them and we'll answer them on a live show. The email to send the questions in is DGL, dog-- DGL@refinelabs.com I was trying to do the acronyms, but I couldn't think of examples.


Host - Monique Mills:   

[17:40]   Like Demand Gen Live?


Guest - Chris Walker   

[17:42] Demand Gen, yeah. Thank you, like Demand Gen Live, DGL@refinelabs.com. Thank you.


Host - Monique Mills:   

[17:47]     Thanks, Chris.


Thank you for listening to the Unpolished MBA podcast. To hear more episodes or to request to become a guest, please visit unpolishedmba.com.

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