How to Build a Revenue Operations Team

This is part of a series of interviews with B2B revenue leaders. This interview is with Carol Leaman, CEO of Axonify.

carolTo start off, give me the 30-second pitch on Axonify.

Axonify is the world's first employee knowledge platform. We deliver a three-minute a day bite-sized, gamified, and personalized learning experience to employees in corporations that result in behavior change once they acquire knowledge. That translates into a very specific business outcome for our customers.

The topic of the day, and what we’ll be focusing on is how and why you built a Revenue Operations team, what you call Business Operations at Axonify. To start out – how was Operations structured at Axonify before you restructured?

So, essentially it didn't exist. Anything that was data-oriented was a combined effort of Finance, Sales, and Marketing. Our Finance and Marketing leaders were the ones that would collaborate to pull the data together that we needed.

When we were really early-stage, we didn't have the capacity to hire for specific roles in business operations – we had to make do with the resources we had. 

Since then, we’ve together our Business Operations team, or as we like to call it, BizOps. The business got to the size where it just made sense and we have the financial capacity to do so.

What was the company size when you started to implement the BizOps team?

It’s not only about employee count, our customer list (including opportunities in the pipeline) was growing at a pace that it was impossible to discern patterns manually. We needed to automate our entire process and have the data to improve.

We started the BizOps team when we were at:

  • 75 employees (20 in Sales, 15 in Marketing)
  • 100 customers
  • 20 million dollars in pipeline

What were the main challenges, problems, or gaps you saw under your old organizational structure?

The biggest challenge was that our volume of activity increased, quickly, and there was a lot of folklore out in the organization about what was true. You’d hear people say things like:

  • most of our deals come through human resources
  • most of our deals come through the business
  • most of our deals get signed by this job title
  • most of our deals have a nine months sales cycle

These are all great things to know, but the thing was, we didn’t really know, but people developed beliefs around what was true based on things that were not grounded in reality.

In order to do what I call "turning Sales and Marketing into a repeatable, scalable machine," we needed real data to tell us what was true and what was not. That was our biggest pain – having too much data that stories started to develop about what was true. We needed to get to the truth, the actual truth of the data.

What made you to pull the trigger and go all-in for this Business Operations team?

The trigger was seeing people make decisions, focus money, and allocate resources based on guesses. Without data, that’s what it is, an educated guess. Frankly, that isn’t good enough for me.

I wanted to know the truth so that we could apply resources effectively. I wanted to know where Marketing should be focused … is it to job titles X, Y, and Z? Is it these particular market segments? Which segments are performing best? Where should we be hiring? Should the Sales team be segmented by geography or industry?

All of those types of questions started to crop up and we didn't know the answers. That's where I made the decision that we couldn’t go on guessing anymore. We needed to have the data tell us what the best application of money is.

What are some symptoms that people can look for that would indicate they need to pull the trigger on this type of team and start investing resources? 

If you're a SaaS company, you are already collecting tons of data from the usage of whatever you're selling that you know can be quite useful to your business. 

Beyond that, it's a competitive, competitive world, and so you always need to be looking to optimize your resources. The earlier you jump on the bus, the better. 

How do you have the new BizOps team set-up? How is it structured?

So we have the VP of BizOps, Joe Gelata, who leads the team. Below him, there are two directors: one focused on Sales Ops and Enablement and the other on the other areas of the business – Marketing, Customer Success, etc. – they each have direct reports.

Then there’s someone for Tools, who is responsible for the integration of our tech stack and someone in Insights who derives insights from the data, creates dashboards and identifies what we need to know about. On top of that, there are a few co-ops that float around and fill various roles.

What’s the total BizOps employee count sitting at today?

Six full-time, and a couple co-ops.

Is the plan to continue adding to those teams you have in place now: Operations, Enablement, Insights, and Tools?

Absolutely, whichever areas get the busiest, that will be the next area we add to, but those are the four teams we’re going to have moving forward.

When would you say is the right time to start building a Operations team? Not necessarily hiring six people all at once, but to start the process of hiring and building of the team.

My guidance would be to say that once you reach the level of between 10-15 people in Sales and Marketing roles collectively, that’s when you should make the first hire. A lot of people would say that it’s too early, but looking back, I wish we made the decision earlier than we did.

One of the signs that you’ve waited too long, is that the first two months of having an Operations team is spent doing data cleanup, like what happened with us. Our reps weren’t using Salesforce accurately or consistently, and so before our BizOps team could start analyzing anything, they had to embark on a big data cleanup exercise.

So I’ll say it again, once you hit 10-15 employees in Sales and Marketing collectively, start thinking about that first Operations hire.
For companies making the first hire, what kind of skills should they look for?

I would say someone who has a lot of experience with marketing automation. Someone who understands and has experience with:

  • Marketing metrics
  • File creation
  • Velocity
  • Conversion rates through the funnel
  • Sales and Marketing tools
  • Campaign attribution
  • Pipeline growth
  • Business insights software (data warehouse for example)

The list goes on … but those are the ones I can think of off the top of my head. 
For a lot of companies that are early stage and can’t afford at VP with at body of experience, then start collecting data with that marketing automation person and that digital marketing person.

How did you find the transition between your old structure to the BizOps team? Were there any big challenges you faced?

The biggest challenge we faced was the data cleanup.

The second thing was we were completely retooling our territories and who we were going to focus our marketing dollars on. So we went through some fundamental exercises for sizing of markets and segments – like numbers of companies. The Ops team took care of that. 

One other thing to a certain extent was within the organization, there was a bit of questioning as to why there were these new people and what are they doing. That challenge was very quickly alleviated when Joe Gelata, VP of BizOps, did a presentation on what our end-game was, and from that point on everybody has been completely onboard.

Other than that, it’s just things that you would expect, like implementing new tools into the stack, getting them up and running, and making sure everyone knows what they do and how to use them.

The team is still fairly new – implemented about 7 months ago, and we’ve been slowly adding to it. We're still doing a lot of the foundational things. It's not a flip of a switch, and suddenly we can start getting all this great data … it's a long involved process. 
You mentioned that it's still an ongoing, involved process, but have you started to see changes when it comes to things like revenue and growth targets?

We're in the early stages and starting to see the positive indicators of what we can expect to see. For example, I'm feeling more confident about the committed forecast versus most-likely and best-case. I feel confident about sales velocity numbers, pipeline growth numbers, source of pipeline … those kinds of number. 

We're still tweaking the data and creating a series of dashboards every month to see what’s been happening month over month. Every month I'm still finding things to question, but generally speaking, we’re about 90% there. 

What kinds of changes have you seen in the team relationships and alignment of Sales, Marketing, and Customer Success? 

There’s a greater awareness in the organization now that has led to the teams to have more knowledge of customers, deals, and what tools play a part in every interaction. 

One of the things we're looking forward to is for Customer Success to be able to say that if a customer churns, what were the characteristics of that customer along the way:

  • Who was the buyer, what was the lead source? 
  • How long did it take them to get through the funnel? 
  • Which market segment were they part of?

Are there common characteristics of customers that have a higher churn rate? If so, I want to know about it so we can do everything we can to mitigate those things earlier in the process.
Similarly with marketing, finding the answer to what makes the best deal. What are the characteristics or qualification criteria of a deal that gets passed to Sales that end of being most successful? 
Overall, there’s closer collaboration business-wide. 
How did you rationalize the decision to invest in this team over, say, adding to the Sales team? 

Well, for me, it's a no-brainer … I know for others it isn’t, but you need to make intelligent decisions in business. Sure, you could hire five salespeople, but if you don't know what's working and what's not, then you're just guessing at what you should be asking them to do.

One of the first things the Ops team did is figured out where are our best-performing markets were. Which segments are the ones we should be focusing on? Our business can sell to any industry; retail, tech, logistics. The problem is we didn’t know which ones we performed best in.

If we hired five new Sales reps and decided to put three of them in an industry that wasn’t performing well, then that’s a waste of resources, and even worse, we wouldn’t have at BizOps team to tell us that information.

That was the rationale – to get the truth. Let the data of our business tell us how to intelligently apply resources.

What challenges would you say that you're still facing today? 

It’s a heavier lift than most realize – it’s not just about making sure the end points from one software solution feed into the next one. You need to set yourself up for an expectation that you're looking at a year to get it right and plan accordingly.
Now, I'm hoping to grab a few of your favorite resources:

A must-follow on Twitter? 

My current favorites are Steve Johnson at Vidyard and Steve Woods at Google. 

Favorite blog?

I’ll do an easy answer … Medium

What book are you reading? 

The author is Kelly McGonigal, who I just saw speak at a conference, and the book is called The Upside Of Stress. Why Stress Is Good For You, And How To Get Good At It.

Kelly is a behavioral psychologist and the book is all about harnessing your stress and using it in a positive way. I’d highly recommend it.