“You Can’t Hit Hypergrowth Without Data Debt”: An Interview With Front CMO Anthony Kennada

Front has all the hallmarks of a tech industry darling. They just closed a $59 million Series C from elite investors including Sequoia Capital. They boast a stacked leadership team of proven tech veterans. They’ve gotten heaps of good press and perfected the elusive flywheel model of growth—consistently adding hundreds of new trial users per week.

The downside? Growing at a breakneck speed comes with unavoidable technical debt—even for a sophisticated, cutting edge organization. For CMO Anthony Kennada, formerly of Gainsight, making due with less-than-perfect processes early on was a necessary trade-off to grow quickly. “That’s the heritage of being a fast-growing Y Combinator tech startup,” says Anthony. “We acquired a ton of customers faster than we could keep up.”

“That’s the heritage of being a fast-growing Y Combinator tech startup,” says Anthony. “We acquired a ton of customers faster than we could keep up.”

Today, his data team is undergoing workback projects to clean historical customer data to prepare for the next phase of growth. In this interview, Anthony Kennada shares the story of the most pivotal data discoveries of his career, his biggest data screw-up, plus a lesson B2B marketers can learn from their B2C marketers about what not to do. 

Can you tell me a story of when a data discovery helped you create demand more efficiently?

In the early days at Gainsight, we were going after customer success team leads. But over time, the role of the chief customer officer emerged and was getting more power and budget. We had to figure out how to get this newly emerging profile to own the customer relationship. There were two big revelations in the data along the way. 

The first was a correlation we discovered between our best-fit customers and the complexity of their team structure. When we used LinkedIn data to map their org charts, we found a proxy in the data for how many directors of CSMs existed relative to the CCO. Companies that had a certain number of individual contributors and next line managers would hit the level of complexity where they’d benefit most from an operational engine like Gainsight.

The second was understanding the progression of titles that went from VP of customer success to chief customer officer as an early indicator for our total addressable market (TAM) growth. When you’re creating a new category, LinkedIn data is really instructive, and can be a proxy for forecasting how many people might come to your conference, or take a demo. 

You’ve done a lot of fun and quirky campaigns in your career What role does humour play in your leadership style?

Authenticity is everything—it’s the only way to build real trust. Being able to laugh and not taking myself too seriously is a major part of that. For example, when we were recruiting a new Head of Product Marketing recently, we were trying to get an incredible candidate to sign her offer letter. 

We’d heard through the grapevine that she’s a big Drake fan, so we wrote and recorded a parody of “God’s Plan.” The lyrics were convincing her to join us, and everyone from the CEO to folks on my team made a cameo in the video. It was a chance for her to experience our culture and understand how deeply we’d value her. It’s not conventional, but hey, it worked.

What qualities separate exceptional MOps hires from the rest?

I think what separates good from great MOps hires is that they don’t just pull reports. They’re actually prescriptive about what you need to do to change that metric from red to green. Being very fluent in data and systems is just par for the course. The best ops people form their own hypotheses and act as business partners to help executives define our strategy. 

What’s the biggest data nightmare you’ve ever faced?

I wish I could say this blunder happened once, but it might’ve been twice or three times. At Gainsight, we hosted a large scale conference called Pulse with over 6,000 attendees. We would run campaigns with certain pricing offers to different segments of the database. But occasionally we’d misfire and send an email offering a ticket for $750 to a segment who’d already registered for $1000 dollars. Then we’d have to refund those customers the difference, at no incremental value to the program. 

It just hurts because the gross cost of the event was six million dollars, so we needed to recoup every dollar we could. It probably happened because we used some Zapier connection of Eventbrite data into Marketo, and something got messed up along the way. Clean data and better integrations would’ve meant we didn’t needlessly lose out on that revenue.

You’re multilingual—you know Arabic, Greek, Italian and English. Does this ability ever help you think about data that lives in different systems and how to get them to “talk”?

Definitely. My wife and I are currently learning French together for fun. She’d rather learn by listening to a song, or watching a movie. But personally, I tend to think about the engineering behind languages more than the story.

As a kid, I learned Greek in a very systematic way—I learned parts of speech, verb tenses, syntax. So when I learn a new language, I think about everything through those frameworks. With data systems, it’s very similar in that you need a common connection point that translates all of these different things into something universal. 

If you can nail that, you can go from French to Russian to Portuguese. Doesn’t matter if you’re pulling in CRM data or marketing automation data, if you have the common framework, everything will work. That’s the power of what companies like Syncari are doing.

What was the last thing you read that deeply impacted you?

The Ruthless Elimination of Hurry by John Mark Comer. Our society has become obsessed with this hurried, always-on, relentlessly over-optimized lifestyle. But this mentality is detrimental to our minds, bodies, and souls. This book made me re-evaluate the way I live and work. I’m finding more ways to embrace a slower pace. Covid has forced a lot of us to slow down, and I think society is finally starting to wake up to the fact that productivity isn’t the ultimate goal we should glorify.

Your LinkedIn bio says you’re a “B2B marketer trapped in a B2C body.” What can B2B marketers learn from their B2C counterparts about data?

B2C companies have a maniacal focus on data because their business model demands it. B2B companies would be wise to place a similar focus on data to power better experiences. Every person in B2B is trying to solve a problem. They’re trying to get promoted, or they’re trying to close that deal. It’s our job as vendors to help them achieve that. We can do that better if our data is clean and up to date because we’re able to better understand how to help these people solve their problems. 

But also, there’s another very timely lesson: certain B2C companies can show us what not to do. I just watched the Netflix documentary “The Social Dilemma,” which is all about the dark art of ad networks and the pernicious effects they have on our society. There’s that saying, “If you’re not paying for the product, then you are the product,” as is the case with personal data with companies like Facebook. B2B marketers should heed this cautionary tale and never risk data ethics over profit.

Biggest data related challenge you’re experiencing at Front right now?

ICP definition is difficult for us given the size of our market opportunity and some challenges parsing through historical data. With that, it’s not easy for us to answer the question, “Where did our past wins come from? How can we use this to create more wins in the future?” This challenge comes from being a fast-growing startup. But now as we try to mature our go-to-market strategy, we’re realizing we can’t answer some pretty basic questions.

I want to be able to look at a cohort analysis and say, “This is how many customers are using Front for their support team, or for the sales use case.” It’s challenging because we’ve “stopped the bleeding” moving forward for new customers, but in some cases, we still don’t have that data for a cohort of customers. 

What advice do you have for aspiring marketing leaders?

Relationships are your most valuable currency. For me, this has proven true time and time again. I gave one presentation to the CEO of a company called Live Office that made him go, “Hey, that guy would be a good marketer one day.” Because I nurtured that relationship on a personal level, when Nick Mehta was starting Gainsight, the CEO put me in touch with him. I became his first marketing hire, and the rest is history. Nick became the greatest mentor of my career, and also one of my closest friends. The key lesson here: Never put your so-called “real work” before investing in relationships. That and, sing and rap on the job as often as possible.

About the authorNick is a CEO, founder, and author with over 25 years of experience in tech who writes about data ecosystems, SaaS, and product development. He spent nearly seven years as EVP of Product at Marketo and is now CEO and Founder of Syncari.

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