Founder and CEO
I am so honored to be able to present the next speaker here at SaaS Metrics Palooza. And we're actually going to be doing a fireside chat. Sam and I have gotten to know each other through his Pavilion community. And Sam, just thank you so much for joining me here on the stage at SaaS Metrics Palooza 23. Ray, it is an absolute honor to be here. We've built a relationship and a friendship over the years. I'm a huge admirer of what you've done and a huge admirer of all of the positions and ideas that you advocate, including, I think, don't you run the SaaS Metrics Board? What's the name of that organization? Yeah, the SaaS Metrics Standards Board. It's the first standards-setting body attempting to take on common definitions of things like CAC payback period, Sam. Well, it's critically needed, so I applaud you for all the work that you're doing. Well, thank you for that. I appreciate it. We're going to spend about 30 minutes here. And, Sam, you have built one of the most vibrant B2B communities that I've ever been a part of, and that's the Pavilion community. And I talk to so many B2B SaaS company founders, heads of marketing, that think, oh, building our own community, that's what we need to do because we want our buyer personas to have somewhere to gather. So I thought, who better to talk about community-led growth than yourself? And maybe we can start with your vision behind the Pavilion community and why you decided to build it out. Yeah, 100%. So Pavilion is the world's leading community for go-to-market executives in the world. That's what it is, and that's what we are building. We are 10,000 members. We are a paid membership organization, so people pay to be members of Pavilion. And I can talk about why they pay because that's probably much more important than the fact that they pay. And we are global. So it's 10,000 people all over the world coming together with a shared sense of values to help each other unlock and achieve their professional potential, which means we want and we exist to help our members who are all in the go-to-market functions of companies, meaning sales, marketing, customer success, operations, and then the CEOs and founders themselves. We exist to help those people achieve their professional goals. And, yeah, that's what Pavilion is. We've been around since about 2016. I've been working on this full-time since 2018. And, yeah, I'm the CEO and founder. That's an interesting foundation to help your community members achieve their professional goals. We have a wide range of the membership segments. You've got the CEOs. You've got the leaders of sales organizations or marketing or customer success. Can you double-click a little bit upon what it means to achieve their professional goals and how your community enables that? Sure. Well, the big picture, the macro environment is as follows. Here's the thesis behind why we exist, right? Here's the problem statement. The problem statement is that having a job and having a career in the modern world has never been less predictable and more volatile. And I fundamentally believe with technology and with AI that the trends that have weakened the bonds between employers and employees have never – are only going to accelerate. And what that means is that the path to achieving the goals that we all seek as professionals, that path has never been more opaque. It doesn't mean it doesn't exist. And what do we seek? Well, it depends. Some of us seek wealth. Many of us seek wealth for – and maybe not for its own sake but to achieve freedom and to achieve security. We seek impact and the ability to make an impact on the world that extends beyond ourselves. We seek meaningful relationships and connections with fellow humans. So all of that is – every day when we get up to go to work, that's part of why we do those things. And we're hoping that at the end of the day and at the end of our career and at the end of some period of time that we will have achieved all of the things that we read about and that we've dreamt about. And again, that could be getting rich. That could be becoming – starting your own business. That could be just building a network of people that really truly care about you and that will support you over the course of the challenges of your life. So for each person, it might mean something subtly different. But the reality is that business school and traditional educational institutions and companies themselves are not positioned to provide that guidance in the modern world. And the reason is that the modern world changes too rapidly. And the forces that are driving those change are only accelerating. And the consequence of that is that if you want to have all of those things that I just talked about, you're going to need something more than just getting a traditional MBA. There's not going to be a prescribed route that you can just take step one, then step two. It's not going to be a painting by colors or painting by numbers kind of situation where there's – here's the codebook that has been prescribed over the last 20 years. And if you just follow these steps, you will get exactly what you want. That's not the way the world works anymore. And so the consequence of that is that there's going to be a need for community more than there ever has been. In the old world, they might have called them guilds or trade associations, whatever you want to call it. You're going to need people that are in the trenches doing the work themselves that are sharing and willing to share best practices and ideas to help you get where you want to go. Because every book that you will read is going to be out of date by the time that you put down the book or by the time it goes to press. And so that's what's happening in the world. And I would say that especially we're recording this in 2023, the AI and technology are only going to accelerate those trends. And they are only going to cause further disruption. And the bonds between companies and employees are only going to become more frail. And every person will have to find the path for themselves, just as you and I have done, Ray. You and I are both entrepreneurs and CEOs, and both of us were operators in previous lives. But we both realized that to achieve our goals, we were going to have to be a little bit more self-sufficient and independent. And we were not going to be able to rely on the resources provided by big companies. And so in that world, people are going to need support and help and assistance. And in that world, there are going to be communities. And again, you can think of them as the modern-day guilds. I hesitate to call them unions because there's not going to really be an adversary to do collective bargaining against. But there's going to be groups of people that come together that share common vocational experiences. And those people are going to help each other and support each other. And that is what Pavilion exists to provide. And we are just choosing to do it within the world of go-to-market, the world of the people that help companies and firms generate money. We are the community for those people to learn their trade, to learn their craft, to connect with their peers, and to help support them and achieve financial independent success and career success over the course of two to three decades. So, Sam, let me pivot just a little bit because a lot of the people here at SaaS Metrics Palooza, right, they have their own companies. And they're talking about, how do I build a community that's valuable to the buyer personas who are interested in my product? I know that's a little tangential to what you do, but I'm sure a lot of people are asking you about building a B2B community. What are your insights? And here's my first question about that. You can't be all things to all the people all the time in the community. So how do you go about prioritizing what's most valuable to your community? Well, it's a great question, Ray, and you're absolutely right. I think it all starts with, and I can also speak about mistakes that we've made. Where have we faltered? And we faltered when I haven't done what I'm about to describe. The first thing is you've got to figure out why do you exist? Who do you exist for? And that I just articulated at great length, long-winded rambling, incoherent length. I articulated why we exist. We exist for a specific group of people. So the first thing is you've got to figure out why do you exist and who do you exist for. And it can't be for everybody. It cannot be for everybody because your message will not be poignant or targeted enough for those people. And I can tell you that the example in my world is for some period of time we built communities for non-executives. And we built corporate memberships. And in hindsight, I think that we erred in so doing. And I think we should have maintained our focus on just being an executive community. And I think going forward over the next couple of years, you'll see that we are more and more only focused on serving executives. And it's not that other people don't need help or support or assistance. It's that we cannot be the thing that provides all help and all support and all assistance to all people. So, again, the first way to answer your question, Ray, is let's find the commonality, but let's be really, really focused on our key persona. And let's make sure that we're building things for that persona. Now, for Pavilion, you could say, well, but you say that, Sam, but you're not just focused on sales. It's sales and marketing and customer success. And that's because fundamentally there's another thesis underpinning Pavilion, and that's that revenue generation is a team sport. And that go-to-market alignment is the way to create sustainable, efficient growth. And so I don't believe that salespeople should exist in isolation in their own community. I think that sales, marketing, customer success, and the CEOs and founders that lead those teams, those people all need to exist adjacent to each other so they can learn from each other and so that we can build businesses that are durable and that can grow through difficult economic periods like the tech economy that we're currently in. So, first and foremost, how do you build a B2B community? Figure out exactly who you're trying to serve and why you exist and what your point of view is on how to help them. And then over time, you have to develop a point of view on what are the things that those people are going to need so that they're going to be engaged in your community. And, again, a lot of it comes down to community selection. Who are the people? Because there needs to be – and it's a balance. It's a Goldilocks kind of portion where there has to be enough homogeneity that people feel like these are people like me that are facing similar challenges, but there also has to be enough diversity and heterogeneity so that people can say, oh, there's serendipity. I learned from that person that didn't do quite the same thing that I'm doing, but he did it in a different way. And I can apply a metaphor from a different industry to my world and so doing maybe uncover or unlock some kind of insight. So I think that that's the basis of it. And then you have to think about – I mean, then there's a lot more to think about. Curation. How do you make sure that in some ways it feels like a nicely groomed subdevelopment as opposed to an abandoned lot? And how does it feel hygienic in a way? How does it feel like there's groomed lawns and it's a nicely ordered place where people can be collegial? And that goes from everything from tone to naming conventions and to how people appear online. And then it also – and then it filters additionally down to the product assortment and what are the – the products or the experiences that the community members have. And it's how you design those experiences in such a way that they find value in them. I wanted to double-click on that because as a member of Pavilion, you have great content, right? You have curriculum. But the biggest value that I personally have received is interacting with my peer group, right, that carefully curated peer group. So if you're a B2B company out there and let's say you're trying to reach the CFO audience, right, because a lot of people who follow me, that's their community. How do you – how important is it getting those opportunities for them to interact with each other? And how do you provide those opportunities? Is it primarily virtual and digital or do you ensure you provide some physical interaction opportunities for those members? It's both virtual and it's in person. And so, I mean, I think you have to take it – first of all, what you just said, Ray, is exactly correct and it's what we hear from our members, right? And it's really interesting. It's been a learning that content is – I always thought content might be retention to the point of SaaS metrics, right? It might be in the cost of service and flow into – the cost of creating content might go into lifetime value but not into customer acquisition cost, not into CAC. But what I'm discovering is that content is CAC and that relationships are lifetime value. And it's exactly what you just said, which is that people come to learn something or to discover some kind of insight. But they stay or leave based on the strength of the relationships that they build. So, I think that that's sort of – thing number one is for people to understand that. And then thing number two is, okay, if that's true, that human connection – I was on a journey over 2022 where I got it all mixed up. And I said the central metaphor for what we're doing is learning. And we invested heavily in Pavilion University and actually didn't see much of a change in our retention. In fact, because we were heading into a recession, our retention got much worse. And what I realized is that it's not just learning. It's human connection combined with learning. And so what I would say to anybody out there that wants to reach CFOs or any audience is you have to understand that it's about, first of all, creating the content that brings people in and then creating the community that keeps people. And the community, again, it doesn't happen necessarily on its own. It is a garden that must be tended to and nurtured. But it can be tended to and nurtured, and when you do, beautiful things can grow. So, now, we live in 2023. So, I don't think that there should be anything that doesn't combine online and offline experiences. I don't think it's enough unless you have a brand like YPO, right? If you're a brand like YPO, then you can really focus on the offline stuff and understand that your online experience is only so-so, but that's okay. But if you're any other kind of platform or trying to build a new community that doesn't have any brand equity, it needs to be a carefully integrated experience between online and offline. So, let's double-click on the vendor communities, right? A lot of the SaaS technology platforms want to build their communities, but they're really building the community with the ultimate goal to sell them something, right? Which, to me, it's that transition from educating, nurturing collaboration among the community peer groups, and then selling. Any insights from that, Sam, or lessons you've learned of not going too much or too quickly towards the selling model? Well, I think it's – the reason that it's good that we charge money at Pavilion is because if it's a free community, then ultimately, if you're not paying any money, then you're the product, right? And if it's completely free, then at some point somewhere, your information is being harvested by some third party to sell you something. And that is also to your point, Ray, why it can be quite problematic if vendors try to create their own communities because everybody understands. And frankly, it's not that different, to be honest with you, although it's a little different, but it's not that different when investors try to create their own communities because it's the same thing. Everyone is aware that there is an ulterior motivation that exists beyond the stated motivation. And when you're Pavilion, you know that our only motivation is to get you to renew your membership because that's our business model. And that doesn't mean we're always successful, but at least you can trust that the things that we're building are in your best interest as opposed to in service of some other goal or outcome. Now, if you're a vendor and you say, you know what? I don't care. I want a community and I want the conversation to happen. Whatever the conversation is, I want it to happen where I can see it, at least. Then I just think you need to detach it from your P&L goals. And so it probably really depends on where the community reports into. And obviously, the community should not report if you're a vendor, if you're David Apple at Sage and you're trying to sell accounting solutions. You just don't want to, and they start a community, you don't want that community to report up into the CRO of that company because then you're going to have a strong incentive to monetize it. You have to play a much longer game. And that's my advice. My advice is do not attach revenue or pipeline goals unless you want to blow it up. Because your instinct to harvest it more quickly than it wants to be harvested will contaminate the very thing that makes it special. I love the you don't attach a revenue goal to it or even a pipeline goal because you act differently, right? You're trying to build this human first community. Speaking of human first, you said something that reminded me of what Nick Meta and Gainsight did, right? They built this Pulse community, which was for a fledgling profession of customer success, and it became the community. But then at a point in time, it went from just being a community to a customer user group because so many customers, right? Do you have an opinion on community versus customer groups or customer user groups? Do you have a demarcation line between the two? I do not have a demarcation line. I think my biggest demarcation tends to be between an audience and a community. There's a lot of people that say they have a community, but what they mean is an audience. It's one to many. I say something and lots of people listen. That's not a community. A community is when the people talk to each other. A community is hopefully when you, Ray, in our CEO pavilion are talking to other CEOs, and I have nothing to do with it and have no knowledge of the conversation, and there's value that's imparted. It's not a community if it's me talking on a webinar and I've got 300 people on it. So whether or not it's a Gainsight user group or a community, I think as long as people are finding value from connecting with each other, I don't have a strong point of view on the definition of it. And I think your point, Nick, if there's anybody that you would trust to build something in service of a profession, because he's playing a longer game, he or she or they are playing a longer game, it would be Nick Mehta, where I would trust that whatever is happening at Pulse, it's not just an advertisement for GainSight, because Nick understands that Gainsight benefits from more and more people focusing on customer success, and Nick can play a much longer game, as he has been his whole career. Sam, you said something that was just so astute. An audience and a community are two different things. If you think building a community is about building all this great content, podcasts, webinars, and having three or five hundred or five thousand people read it, that's not going to give you the same community benefit of those members of the community interacting with each other and viewing them as, it's not the product, but as a value-add part of the community. I love that. Yeah, I think the structure, and this is, you know, the other thing I would say to people out there, and again, as I've said on LinkedIn, most of the time I'm admonishing somebody, I'm admonishing myself for my own personal failure. Membership businesses, community businesses, communities, this is not new. These are not new things. People have studied them, so it's incumbent upon us to study our predecessors. I read this great book, Belonging to the Brand, by Mark Schaefer. There's another woman named, I think her name's Robbie Kilman Baxter, that wrote a book called The Forever Transaction about subscription businesses. She explicitly studies them. CrossFit, Soho House, Weight Watchers, these are all communities. There's lots of places we can go, and so what I would say to the point is, so what is the learning that I glean when I study other businesses? It is about the gamification of interaction. It's about the guardrails that the community leaders build. It's about the game that they design, the game that they design, the mechanisms that they create for people to interact with each other, and the rewards that they provide for that interaction. And if you can design that system really well, that's your product. That's what you need to be focused on. No, that is the perfect lead-in to kind of how we're going to close this Fireside Chat together, and that is your vision of communities going forward. So you've seen, you've been right in the middle of building one over the last seven years. If you kind of say, boy, here's where I think the ball is going to go in the next two to three years, and here's where I want to be, so our audience should think about where the community theme is going. What do you think, Sam? What's your crystal ball say? Okay, here we go, Ray. I think the themes that I articulated at the top of our chat are going to become stronger. So what do I mean? I think that software development will become more and more commoditized, and what that means is the following. It means that it will be easier and easier and easier for individual people to build their own businesses, and this idea, and it started with Instagram, and I think we diminished the concept of influencers because we think it's all like people taking pictures of themselves in front of Ferraris that they don't own, but I think Instagram is a platform, and it's a content creation platform that enables people that are good at creating content to build a business, and I think that with Shopify and with other tools and with generative AI, my point is that companies will become weaker, but individuals will become marginally stronger, and what that means is that we're all going to be on our own more and more and more, and communities are going to be more and more necessary. The playbook for how to have a career is going to become more and more and more opaque, and the strength of employers will weaken every day. Companies themselves will become less and less able to provide the resources and the tools that people need to navigate their lives. There will be all kinds of picks and shovels that help people build their own career, become an influencer, build their own business, and the consequence of all of that is that if AI can create software and images and text with the click of a button and with a few easy prompts, the one thing that AI can't replace is human connection, and so while there's going to be lots and lots of co-pilots and all kinds of things, the thing that I think is going to be more true than ever is that we're all going to be more and more isolated in our careers, and therefore community will become more and more and more important. That's my crystal ball. My crystal ball is that what is an AI proof, at least for now, until we're all wearing goggles and the tech on virtual reality is still a long way off, what is the one thing that is going to be really, really hard for AI to replace? It is authentic human connection. It's not going to be impossible. Maybe I'm an AI right now, but it's going to be much harder. Writing copy, automating workflows, building databases that contain information, and accessing those databases, that will become easier and easier and easier, but the thing that will be hard to replace is you and me having lunch at Cafe Clooney in the West Village. That will be very hard to replace, and as a consequence, I think communities are ascendant and will continue to be over the course of the next decade. As you know, I'm a metrics person. We're at SaaS Metrics Palooza, and I like to measure everything, but I'm thinking right now, how can I measure human connection in our community versus digital engagement with our content? So to me, that's what I'm going to leave this session with. What do you think of that concept? I love it, and I think it's incumbent upon me at Pavilion. This is why we're building our own platform because I don't want to be just relying on Slack or some other third-party tool to tell me what is the strength of the overall member engagement across my global community, and that's what we're working on. Sam, we have approximately 5,000 B2B SaaS executives out there in the listening audience right now. Notice I said audience. I didn't say community. Any final words of inspiration you'd like to leave them with? Well, I'm a CEO, Ray, so my final words of inspiration are if you're a go-to-market executive out there and you want training, you want community, you want the tools and the content that you need to be successful, you want to build your own fractional business, I encourage you to take a look at Pavilion, and you can use the code SAM15 for 15% off an annual membership. And if you have any questions, you can email me, sam at jointpavilion.com. Happy to answer them. But my final words are become a member of Pavilion. Join us on this journey, and I think it will be a wonderful journey. Ray and I are both members. Sam, thank you for being my guest. I want to give you another little plug. One of the favorite books I've read in the last 12 months is Kind Folks Finish First, I think. Was that your first book that you published? Yeah, my first book. Yeah, highly recommend it. That's a great read, and it takes us out of all these metrics we're going to be talking about at this conference and talks about that human connection and being a human first. So thank you, Sam. Really appreciate it. Thanks, Ray. Appreciate the time and for everybody out there. What a great event, and hope you get some value from it.