4 min read

Play The Long Game

Play The Long Game

Looking back at my time at HubSpot, one of the things that stands out is how much the company benefitted from goodwill and affinity, and how it almost shied away from trying to sell you things.

You see, when most B2B SaaS companies run marketing campaigns, they're all usually just thinly-veiled demos.

Are they promoting a webinar that promises insights on "industry trends"? Spoiler alert, there's a product pitch in there somewhere.

Did you download an ebook about best practices on something? Almost certainly, the conclusion that it nudges you toward is something about using their product or booking a demo.

HubSpot didn't do this. During my time there, I had many people tell me that HubSpot was almost too helpful to a fault. After a speaking gig in India I recall coming off stage and having a few people tell me that they were shocked that HubSpot was a marketing platform. Because of the sheer breadth of content available on HubSpot Academy, they thought we were an edutech platform.

I'm willing to bet that a lot of the people reading this know what HubSpot is, have been on the HubSpot blog, have some HubSpot ebooks sitting in a folder in your computer somewhere ... but a sizeable chunk of you have only a vague idea of what HubSpot actually does or who it helps.

This helpful mindset wasn't all bad, however.

HubSpot's culture of authentically trying to help its audience without an ulterior motive is so bizarre (in the context of sales-driven B2B SaaS) that it eventually led to the creation of unfair advantages and defensible moats.

Case in point: its juggernaut world-class inbound demand engine.

Did you know that HubSpot gets about the same traffic as Wired, TechCrunch and the Harvard Business Review ... combined?

via Similarweb

My job as a regional marketing leader was made much easier because our efforts were sitting on top of this giant web property that was constantly driving leads, product signups and sales inquiries.

There are many reasons for HubSpot's success, its inbound machine being one of the major factors.

This is only possible because while everyone else in SaaS is playing the rational short game – "every piece of content we create must show ROI, must be targeted at our buyer with surgical precision ... or its useless" – HubSpot spends calories creating content like this:

I want you to think about this for a second.

Why would a CRM and marketing automation platform publish a 9-minute-long blog post about making animated GIFs? It's not like the VP Sales or CMO of a company would read this? The lead quality from this blog post must be so TOFU as to be completely useless. It is completely irrational from a short-term view.

But if you take the second-order, long-term view, it starts to look more rational.

A junior marketing employee struggling with a last minute deadline asks Google for help. It serves a helpful, detailed, thorough (9-minute long!) HubSpot blog post in their time of need. That junior employee builds a mental association with HubSpot as "helps marketers." Some time passes, more blog posts are read and ebooks and webinars are downloaded and that marketer eventually becomes a head of marketing with budget authority.

Does HubSpot have a headstart when it's time for a buying conversation about CRMs and marketing automation platforms? What do you think?

How about this: because of HubSpot's massive library of high-quality content, it amasses backlinks at a faster rate than any of its competitors, thereby outranking them on competitive keywords and consistently getting to prospects first, while they're early in their buying journey.

Hey, I'm not saying that just because HubSpot helped someone create funny memes or ranks on the right SERPs that it means that person will automatically choose HubSpot. But what I'm saying is that person will probably think of HubSpot next time they have a marketing-related problem, and they have a greater chance of having their marketing or sales worldview shaped by HubSpot. Or if they're in a team where HubSpot is going head-to-head with another competitor, there's a chance the stored goodwill pushes things in HubSpots' favor.

Or maybe that person eventually has a chance at working for HubSpot, and they're so enthusiastic to do it because of the stored goodwill that they prioritize HubSpot over other job offers.

This is what happened to me, and countless others in the HubSpot marketing team. (If you're in Singapore, my former team is hiring.)

I saw HubSpot's long-term, second-order thinking view beyond just the blog and how we did content.

I saw this mindset of playing the long game across different choices across the business, where we chose our own path vs the obvious "best practice" path:

  • Inbound vs Outbound
  • Building natively vs Growing thru M&A
  • Charging for onboarding vs Free onboarding
  • Starting a podcast network vs Launching more podcasts
  • Staying with SMBs vs Going upmarket (and abandoning SMBs)

In business there are often obvious, "drag the spreadsheet" type decisions. Just do BAU. Look at best practices. The good thing with those is that the first-order effects make total rational sense.

The bad thing with those is that everyone else is making the same decisions, meaning you're swimming into a red ocean by default, and it's going to be really hard to get an advantage there.

When you play the long game, you're often making seemingly irrational first-order decisions – this weeds out a lot of competitors. But since you're on a longer time horizon, you can benefit from the second-order effects – it's harder to get there, so there's less competition, leading to a defensible position over time.

ICYMI: if you're reading this from Singapore, you should know that (at time of writing in Sept 2021) that my former team is hiring:

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