Tips for moving from startup to scale up with Ioana Serban, VP of Marketing Ops and Demand Generation at FintechOS

For B2B technology and SaaS marketers, the transition from startup to scaleup requires agility, processes and the right MarTech. In the fast-paced world of B2B tech and SaaS, investments are plenty, but so is competition. 

On this FINITE Podcast, you’ll gain insider knowledge from experienced B2B growth marketer, Ioana Serban. Ioana shared the lessons she learned from her journey as first marketing hire to the VP of Marketing Ops and Demand Generation at FinTechOS

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Full Transcript

Alex (00:06):

Hello and thank you for joining me on this episode of the FINITE podcast, where today we’re talking about a topic that many of you will have experienced at various points in your B2B tech marketing careers. And that’s this exciting process of scaling up, going from startup to scale up. 

On today’s episode, we’ll hear our guest’s lessons learned from scaling B2B tech companies, challenges she’s faced along the way and solutions she’s engineered. We’ll be joined by Ioana Serban, who is currently VP of Marketing Ops and Demand Generation at FinTech OS, a digital banking and insurance platform. 

She spent the last 15 years specialising in marketing and business development for tech, SMEs and startups, and has a lot of experience in this startup to scale up phase of growth. Hope you enjoy!


FINITE (00:44):

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Alex (01:05):

Hello, Ioana. Thank you for joining me on the FINITE podcast.


Ioana (01:08):

Hello, Alex. Welcome everybody. It is a pleasure to be here with you today.


Alex (01:12):

Looking forward to talking. We’re gonna be hearing all about your journey in the startup to scale up phase of a very exciting business and I’m looking forward to hearing all about it. But before we do that, I’ll let you tell us a bit about your background experience so far. And then we’ll talk a little bit about your current role and everything you’re up to at FinTech OS.


Ioana (01:30):

Sure. So about me, I have about 15 years of experience in technology marketing, mostly working with, and for technology startups and SMEs. I’ve acted both as marketing director and MVP for international tech companies, and also as marketing consultant or fractional marketing head for tech startups, and SMEs that want to scale fast and expand globally. 

I’m passionate about pragmatic and data driven marketing with concrete revenue impact. And I’m always exploring how small and medium companies can achieve more with limited marketing budgets, resources by using the optimal marketing infrastructure.


What does the marketing look like at FintechOS? 

Alex (02:06):

Cool. Sounds good. And I think that’s very relevant to what we’re gonna be talking about in terms of starting with, I think you were the first hire, but before we go there, tell us a little bit about your current role, current team, how marketing happens.


Ioana (02:19):

Happy to do that. So my current role is VP of marketing and operations at FintechOS, which is a global technology provider for banks, insurers, and other financial services companies. And our technology helps financial service providers to build, test and scale fast new digital products and services in weeks rather than months. 

So to be a bit more concrete, I’m referring to digital mortgages, digital retail, or SME lending solutions, health, or life insurance, and more. I joined FintechOS before the series A investment happened. And exactly, as you mentioned, I was the first marketing hire back then. So basically I was the marketing division from the seat phase and now we are almost one year after the Series B moving very fast towards C. 

And as you can imagine, this was a very dynamic environment. Therefore I had wear multiple hats in the last couple of years when I started over two and a half years ago. As I said I was the first person. So basically I’ve had to create the initial marketing team and infrastructure from scratch, managing the marketing function end to end. But after the series B, the marketing function split into the demand generation and growth marketing team, which I led, and the brand team. 

And now the marketing organisation is maturing even more, including a proper product marketing infrastructure or research function, analyst relations, and more in terms of the team of my marketing operations team of fluctuating going up to 15 plus colleagues, including a new BDR business development team. I’ve operationalised in 2021 and this team, this business development team now sits under the sales organisation.

The roles in my team are more or less covering the infrastructure of a full stack digital agency. I would call it from senior campaign managers that are driving demand by leveraging integrated long tail demand generation programs, that are multi-touch and multi-channel. And these campaign managers are working very close with our dedicated resources for social media, content creation, design, web management, paid media, email marketing, PR events, customer partner marketing, and of course the data part of it.


How was the marketing function at Series A of FintechOS?

Alex (04:43):

Cool. So it sounds like you’ve been on quite the journey building out a really strong team. I like that analogy of almost like a full digital agency team in house, which is a good position to be in when you grow. You need to operationalise it as much as possible and make it like your own marketing army. Cool. 

Well, let’s maybe set the scene and go back to go back to the beginning. You mentioned the point at which you joined FinTech OS. What was the role when you first joined? I assume it was just quite a general, broad marketing outlook, marketing generalist type role.


Ioana (05:15):

Indeed, indeed.


Alex (05:17):

And how’s the role really evolved? So that was series A or just before series A?


Ioana (05:23):

That was before series a. So basically in the first two months I had to make the first two hires and it was very difficult to choose. What are the first hires? This is a question that I get quite often from a lot of startups: what should be my first marketing hires? And I think that the reality is that for fast growing tech companies, when to hire these specific roles can be as important as whom to hire. 

So the sequence of hiring is crucial for success and for B2B startups, especially the marketing team, it isn’t actually the ground zero priority. When you launch a startup, that’s not necessarily your first priority when you build your organisation. In the first stages, before you get a serious investment, while you try to define your product market fit, and develop the GTM, go to market motion, usually this person to person, the direct sales, the referrals are essentially the bread and butter of the business. Especially once you try to validate and mature your product and solution. 

So whether you are selling a high value SaaS offering or enterprise software, you need a lean focused sales organisation. And of course that the founders are usually involved there before you start investing into your marketing infrastructure. 

Personally, I focused on creating the marketing ops team and all the processes needed to help the team members work well together. And the initial team included the digital marketing specialist that managed the website development, of course, in collaboration with some third parties and an agency, the basic digital marketing function from SEO paid media, some conversion optimisation hacks. 

Additionally, I had the social media and content specialist from the early days, an event manager that worked on the in person ones, but of course in 2020, we went quite a lot into the virtual events space and that more or less became digital campaigns in themselves and the webinars associated with that and a MarTech ops consultant. 

So this person helped put in place the first dashboards, the initial automation processes and workflows, and helped us analyse the results. After a few months, so let’s say after six months, we looked more into the content writer stream. We had also internal content writers, but also some freelancers that we collaborated with. And they helped us with the initial whitepapers, the thought leadership pieces, all the landing pages on the website, emails, infographics, and more. And especially in B2B marketing and sales, these thought leadership pieces increasingly are reliant on expert credible content that is oriented to education rather than selling. 

So we needed some sharp content leaders that could get this relevant intelligence from subject matter experts and translate it into good messages for our target audiences. Once this initial operations team was in place, I’ve recruited the initial marketing programs managers, and this is what I would call my generalists, who had a holistic view on the whole marketing function, strong project management skills, and they had to work very closely with each member of the marketing operations team. 

Of course, we still work very close with third parties like global and regional PR agencies, for some strategic thought leadership assets, like executive surveys or interviews. We work very close with third parties, like trade associations, media outlets, external subject matter experts. And of course our partners that have in-depth global or regional expertise and could help us create this valuable quality thought leadership for our sophisticated audience, like executives from the financial services space worldwide. 

But if I were to have a recommendation from startups, for startups, that would be to start to focus first on recruiting a very strong product marketing leader, then focus on the demand generation growth marketing function. Based on my experience, if I were to prioritise the marketing budget spend, I would invest first in proper market research, and making sure that you truly understand, as a startup, what differentiates you and your product, what needs to be approved in terms of the product maturity. 

As a second phase, I would work on the key messaging pillars that resonate with the target audience. And after testing these messages on some less expensive channels and in smaller forums, then I will start scaling up the marketing efforts and budgets and create this full stack demand generation infrastructure.


What tools were implemented at each stage of growth? 

Alex (10:16):

Cool. I mean there’s a lot there and it sounds like you’ve reflected on and worked out all the different things that you’ve implemented over time. You mentioned some of the MarTech side of things. I know a big challenge for a lot of marketers is just, there’s so much marketing technology out there and choosing which products to use and when to implement them at different stages of growth. CRM and marketing automation, analytics, and reporting. 

I guess it’s never ending, like you can keep going with a lot of this stuff for ever and ever. Also, it’s hard when you’re a smaller marketing team to build the business case to say, we want to spend loads of money on this tool or this tool, or this MarTech. So specifically on the MarTech side, what bits did you implement along the way over each stage of the growth?


Ioana (11:01):

Yeah, that’s a great question. And I have a lot of conversations on this topic with some of my peers. So taking into consideration that average companies, I think they dedicate around 20, 25% of their marketing budgets to marketing technology alone. Often a big part of this investment remains untapped. 

So I remember a study from Gartner that has shown that marketing leaders were only utilising maybe 50% of their marketing tech stack potential. And that can translate, especially for startups, in a lot of money being wasted. And of course, especially for B2B businesses that compete in small marketplaces, that have a known and clearly defined customer base and lengthy sales cycles, we need to make sure that the marketing teams are equipped with the right tools. 

So we need the tech stacks that allow us to clearly define and monitor lead scoring, nurturing funnels, have a consistent engagement across the customer life cycle. And this consequently allows us to stay away from random acts of marketing. 

Personally, I have five basic principles when I look at more tech stack. So definitely I have strategy first, technology second. So definitely what sets apart the truly powerful tech stack isn’t just about the technology, the tools themselves don’t work alone. So you need to make sure that you have the bandwidth to use all the tools that you put in a tech stack. Then I always try to keep it simple. So any extra piece that you add to a tech stack usually puts a lot of complexity, compliance, risks, technical challenges, they need maintenance, you need to upkeep it. And also the administration part of it. The third principle I have is that I try to think midterm. So I think you be to be very cautious about making it too short term or too long term. It needs to have some agile iterations. 

So for example, we are using quite a lot of HubSpot. As we grow, we know that we want to shift towards Salesforce maybe, or using them together, but I didn’t allow this long term thinking to block our business as usual. So we made sure that we use HubSpot right before we tried to add some extra complexities to the MarTech stack. Of course the fourth principle is about documentation. 

So we need to make sure that at least the minimal level of documentation of the processes is there and to include the market tech stack some non-marketing tools. What do I mean by that? Some tools that allow your team to collaborate more effectively, the project management part of it. 

If I were to give some details about that, I split the tools into tools that help us plan attract, convert, nurture, sell, and analyse what we are doing in marketing. For planning and project management, we use Asana, for design collaboration we have Canva and Figma, for the collaboration part of it. To attract and convert leads, we use HubSpot automation, BuzzSumo, SEMrush, LinkedIn and Google Ads to nurture our prospects and sell. 

We use HubSpot of course, because that’s an essential tool in our MarTech stack, Google GDM, of course the CRM part of HubSpot, Zoom info. We use Lead Feeder to see which companies are visiting our websites. And to be able to use this as triggers in our campaigns, also Competitors App it’s called actually, exactly like that Competitor’s App, an app that allows you to see exactly what your competition is doing online. And for analytics, HubSpot has quite some good analytics features there, but we complement it with Zapier and Power BI mostly.


Alex (14:50):

Cool. There’s a lot there. And I assume all of that didn’t start on day one. So this happened over time? All these different tools, as the team grew, you started to implement these?


Ioana (15:01):

Absolutely. Basically we started with the basics, like website optimisation was the most important thing. Then we needed to make sure that our data was clean in HubSpot, that we can have some decent level of reporting and prioritisation of leads from each campaign. And then we moved step by step into a more complex MarTech stack.


FINITE (15:21):

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Why are partnerships so important in moving from startup to scale up? 

Alex (15:41):

I’m interested in partnerships. Because I know in the FinTech space we see a lot of really interesting partner marketing activity. Because I think there’s obviously all of the big incumbent banks and financial institutions and all of the fintechs that are really changing the game. And actually, it seems like in most cases, both have a lot to win by working together in certain respects. Tell me a bit more about partnerships and how those have played a role in the B2B tech marketing you’ve been doing.


Ioana (16:12):

Absolutely. So from my perspective, partnerships can often be the key to success, especially in new markets. And there are a lot of examples of companies that were lucky enough to have some strategic partnerships from early days, and those partnerships help them scale globally, very fast for us. 

And today the expectation is that about one third of the sales pipeline should be generated through the partner channels. We were a bit lucky, first of all, because we had an initial strategic technology partnership with Microsoft and they supported us quite a lot in our early days. Another opportunity that we leverage was the fact that since our founders and the first customer base was in Romania and Eastern Europe, we had the opportunity to open some doors inside some leading global tech and consultancy companies here, like Deloitte, Earnest and Young, Gemini and more. 

And once we had some initial success, it was much easier to expand these partnerships on a broader scale. So my recommendation here would be to start with some pilots where possible with such partnerships. And maybe after that, try to look at it from a bigger picture perspective. 

I know that some software as a service companies and some startups are even luckier, so they can start their programs due to concrete demand from potential partners or resellers. That was not our case. Sometimes you need to be a bit more proactive and you need to strategically think of how to target some potential partners. I do call them ideal partner profiles and how to head hunt these partners. I think there are a few approaches that should be explored by startups. 

So first of all, there could be some strategic partnerships when you need to sell a product into new territories or a new market, you should look, and also sometimes invest, in a few carefully selected strategic partnerships with bigger companies. But of course, that takes a lot of time and effort. 

On top of that, there are the technology and the implementation partners team for some of the tech startups. That definitely can be a consistent pool, when you try to grow fast. For me, what worked and what I’ve explored successfully, I try to partner with non-competing brands that were targeting the same customer segments as ours. And we try to do some co-branded initiatives, share some promo costs and of course, operational hassle and as long as there is no competition, both parties definitely can benefit from that. 

In some cases, B2B startups can invite their first loyal customers to become also their first partners. So I know that Drift has done that. So they invited their initial customers to become partners before they open the gates to anyone. And everyone of course, that in some scenarios, the referral partner scheme should play a strategic role, from some local regional influencers or boutique consultancy houses, trade associations, or simply reach out to companies that are already somebody else’s affiliate. 

Of course they don’t have to build direct competitors. And nonetheless, all these platforms and the new marketplaces that are available out there. So for example, the Salesforce exchange or HubSpot marketplace, Microsoft marketplace, all these big tech companies start having these new marketplaces and you can either build software for a platform or are more likely to build an integration so that your solution can seamlessly integrate into other, maybe bigger and even well known products. 

But to complement that, once you identify these partners, I think that this is when the hard part starts, because first you need to decide what is the type of partnership that works best, and then you need to start putting a lot of effort into this partner enablement program to make it a success. 

So what’s the joint value prop? Do you create any sort of joint marketing collateral? The partner training, partner sales enablement, start teaching these co-branded marketing initiatives and co-founded campaigns, how to share and monitor the joint activities. 

So I think that once you identify them, the operational hustle definitely increases. But I think that the key here, to growing this partner strategy, is to understand which partners you want or need to have to complement your service offering. What is the business value for them even beyond the financial benefit and focus on making their life easier?


What’s the balance between long term and short term thinking for marketing through growth? 

Alex (20:59):

All good tips. There’s a lot there. I feel like more businesses should be exploring partner marketing, then actually do it. Because it’s such an obvious opportunity in a lot of cases, particularly in the FinTech space specifically. You talked earlier a little bit already about this balance between making decisions for the long term, but that doesn’t affect your business as usual in your short term.

And when you’re doing series A, series B, series C and you’re on a big growth trajectory, I think it’s always hard to look a year ahead, but also deliver results that month or that quarter. How do you find that balance between thinking short term and long term when you’re moving quickly and going from that kind of startup to scale up phase?


Ioana (21:40):

That is usually a tricky one, especially for fast growing companies. But I think that regardless of the company size, it’s always important to set, first more or less, the long term marketing goals that are aligned with the company’s goals early in the process. And in this way, you can also align this short term planning and actions with a bigger picture, vision and action plan. 

I think it takes a series of short term tangible and achievable goals to add up to this long term perspective. But also when you create these long term goals, it’s very important to strike the right balance between generality and specificity. Especially for startups, it’s very difficult to predict sales revenues in the first year, the profitability, and also the standard KPIs that VCs and the investors expect from them. And also your landscape will change, the product will evolve, new industry trends will emerge. 

So when you’re a startup, you might be a different company in one year from now. So you can’t always look at the long term picture. Just to give an example, if maybe 10 years ago, a whitepaper campaign might have been enough to generate some good sales leads, I don’t think that it’s enough anymore. There is so much digital noise. 

And the reality is that a lot of companies produce good high quality thought leadership, and they have strong marketing teams and good budgets. So you need to be able to match the market expectations. Also, when you tap into a new market, you need to take into consideration that that market is new. 

So therefore you need to do some initial market research to identify some regional needs and wants. And of course, that takes some time and it’s best to avoid pumping a lot of marketing budgets fast into some random campaigns prior to understanding these buyer needs, the regional buyer needs, and making sure you have the right solution and product to solve those challenges. 

B2B leads are expensive and there is no second chance to make a good first impression is how I look at it. An example of short term goal could be, for example, to generate double or triple volume of good marketing leads. That’s short term achievable and easy to measure. 

I would call a mid to long term objective to increase leads’ relevancy, the quality or the velocity and campaign efficiency. And maybe an even slightly longer term objective could be to measure or reduce the cost per lead per customer. And to measure correctly how marketing is impacting revenue, because all the marketing theories speak about that. But all the marketers know that that’s not so easy to manage to calculate.


What are the biggest challenges in scaling a B2B tech company? 

Alex (24:24):

Yeah, that’s the dream, isn’t it? The long term dream is always tying everything back to revenue, but particularly in B2B when things are pretty long and complex buyer journeys, it can be difficult to do. So you’ve been on quite the journey. It sounds like it’s been a lot of fun and super exciting, but with any journey like this, there’s always some challenges along the way. What would you say are some of those challenges you’ve come across?


Ioana (24:45):

Well, rapid growth always translates into new and new challenges. So I think there is a constant shift in terms of product definition and value proposition, because this is what the life of a startup is. The company is evolving and is growing too fast. That means that the team is growing very fast. 

So on an ongoing basis, you need to create new processes, you need to align with new departments, you need to restructure what you were doing yesterday and align with the needs of other departments. So definitely there is a constant need to adapt to a new business as usual, whilst you have to do a lot of operational marketing activities as you get there. 

So I think from my perspective, that was the greatest challenge, coping with all this change of the product value proposition, product maturity, fast team growth, new processes, the need for alignment with the other stakeholders.


Should B2B tech startups hire generalists or specialists? 

Alex (25:43):

Yeah. Lots of things to think about. And just as you think you’ve solved one thing you’re probably onto the next challenge. We talked earlier a bit about that generalist versus specialist split in terms of marketing team. I always like asking marketers this because I think everybody’s come from so many different backgrounds in marketing and different marketing education. Some start in various roles, some start in more generalists and go in different directions. In terms of your own career progression, how did you think about that generalist versus specialist split?


Ioana (26:13):

I think there is often this debate of whether you should opt for specialists or generalists or hybrid or both. I would say that once you grow, the role of a specialist is becoming more and more important. But in the beginning, most of the startups end up having some generalists, because this is the most pragmatic option in the beginning. But as you grow, I think you start needing more and more specialists. 

These generalists, in my team for example, are the campaign or the programs managers, and these are well known for wearing many hats. So it could be a very cost effective solution for the business. So when hiring all these various positions, the reality is that you can’t afford it, but you also need to take into consideration the fact that you can’t expect everything from this generalist. 

They are like the operators within the team that can carry a lot more project management tasks than the specialists, but they still have to be very creative and they still need to understand, let’s say the holistic view of marketing. They need to spin a lot of plates and keep all these different areas of the business moving, including alignment with other stakeholders from the business. 

I think sometimes there is quite a lot of workload on the generalist, especially startups, and we need to take this into consideration. Marketing is increasingly complex. And I would say even more and more difficult. So we do need to add specialists as we grow in the team. And of course also this freelance market is supporting startups because there are all these fractional experts available in the market. So you don’t need to hire everyone in your team, but you need to make the right balance.


Alex (27:54):

Absolutely. Good advice. We are pretty much out of time. So I think I’m gonna wrap up there nearly at half an hour. I just wanted to say a big thank you. I think anyone that’s listened to this who’s on a similar journey, startup phase going into scale up, there’s so much there. I feel like it’s one of those episodes where people are gonna keep replaying bits over and over again. You’ve added lots of great insight and detail. So thank you again for sharing everything.


Ioana (28:17):

You also Alex, and it was a pleasure to be here with you today.


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