In the Masters of Growth series, executives of high-growth ventures across all of MaRS’ clusters share how they overcame the growth challenges surrounding going to market, hiring for growth, developing processes that scale and more. It’s a rare behind-the-scenes look into how these executives successfully scaled their companies.
Founder: Ben Zifkin
Industry: Retail, technology
MaRS cluster: Finance & Commerce
Team size: 47 (13 on marketing team; hiring for around 20 roles)
Hubba is a global B2B commerce network that powers the new retail economy. Using a combination of machine learning and personal curation, Hubba matches independent and craft brands with buyers. Brands get increased distribution, buyers get the right products for their stores — everyone grows their business. Hubba currently services over 100,000 small and medium-sized businesses.
Hubba has grown substantially since its founding. What were some of the unique challenges Hubba faced evolving from a startup to a high-growth venture? How has the function of marketing changed over time?
Hubba has been around since 2012. As we’ve grown and refined our product/market fit, we’ve learned to define ourselves and our audience much more specifically. We are now firmly in the independent retail/craft brand space, and have moved beyond being a simple discovery network to powering the world of B2B retail commerce.
Marketing as a formal, strategic, deliberate function is fairly new at Hubba. I was brought on as Hubba’s first CMO in March of 2017, 5 years after we were founded. Marketing activities were being executed previously, but they lived on other teams in the organization. We’re now a cohesive unit — the team encompasses product and partner marketing, PR and communications, analytics and insights, marketing services (including copy and design), acquisitions and engagement, and all demand generation activities.
How has leveraging or building diversity at Hubba played an important role in growing of Hubba’s customer base and talent?
We believe diversity builds stronger teams. Diverse backgrounds bring diversity of thought, which in turn simply builds better products. We deliberately recruit for diversity, and don’t necessarily look for people who will fit into our culture, but who will join us and enrich us. Our interview panels reflect the diversity we are continuing to nurture.
Finding growth marketing talent and building a team for a high-growth venture is difficult. How have you been able to build such a talented team already aligned to process and ready for growth? What are some of the tools, processes and thinking behind creating a culture that attracts good talent?
Hubba is a highly involved company in the tech ecosystem here in Toronto. We have a very strong reputation, which attracts some of the top talent available. We look for smart, adaptable, entrepreneurial, creative people who are builders by nature. And we look for good humans — we have a pretty strict “no assholes” policy. Once someone trusts us enough to want to come work with us, and we think they will help us build our business, we’re really careful about being clear about expectations right from the get-go — we have a very strong focus on communication.
How has Hubba landed larger clients, who might normally be resistant to working with startups since they believe it’s too risky? Was there one project or customer opportunity that became your tipping point? What channels have worked well?
We’ve actually moved away from the enterprise space, which was a key component for us when we launched. We’re now uniquely supporting small and medium-sized businesses — the independent retailers and craft brands that we believe are the future of the new retail economy. So rather than find big clients, we want to build them. We want the 100,000+ brands and buyers in our network to band together to beat the big guys. As we grow, as our network grows, our users will grow — and we get to support and nurture the entrepreneurial spirit that will be the future of retail.
Many CMOs have experienced hardships on the journey to success; times when they did not think they were going to make it. Do you have any of these stories you can share, and how did you respond?
I think that’s the nature of life as a CMO! If you’re not dancing out there close to the edge, you’re likely not taking enough chances. It’s easy to play it safe, but that can actually be riskier for your career. CMOs are the C-levels with the shortest tenure around the table.
For me, making the move from running a cost centre to a profit centre was the key to my success. Being able to think and plan in terms of profit, about the targeted ways to find the right customers, about measuring activities, about testing and learning — that’s the key.
You need to be willing to put yourself in the line of fire, and to develop ways of working that support and encourage change. You need to be fearless, not afraid to fail, and not afraid to ask for help. You need to readily admit you don’t have all the answers, and become tireless about finding people who do. And most importantly, you need to know how to make a company money, and articulate the value that your teams drive.
That said, as I’ve made a profit-centric shift in my approach, I’ve had to become conscious of not swinging too far towards analysis and away from creativity. That instinct — that marketer’s gut — it is still just as important, and perhaps even more so. As we move towards a world that is infinitely measurable and trackable, the intangible instinct becomes one of our most important keys to success.
How would you describe where Hubba is on their growth journey and what is next?
Hubba is at a really exciting time in our trajectory. We’re confident in our product/market fit. We are playing in B2B retail arena that has a trillion dollars’ worth of commerce running through it, divided amongst 1.2 million retailers — mostly small and medium-sized, which is our target market. We’re adding really exciting new functionality to our network that our members have been clamouring for. And we’re constantly tweaking and refining our core offering, making sure we stay on top of what our members want and need. What’s next is continuing to attract fantastic brands and retailers onto our network, and continuing to develop our machine learning capabilities to match the right brands with the right retailers to grow their businesses.