Human of Tech – Paul Gray

This month, we had the pleasure of connecting with marketing guru, Paul Gray! Paul is the Marketing Growth Coach at Communitech currently, but he’s been involved with companies at all stages – from co-founding his own start up to Disney and now back to the start up community. 

You’ve worked for high growth companies leading Marketing, and now you’re helping early stage companies as a Growth Coach at Communitech. – What led you to this path to mentor other companies? 

I’ve had a nomadic career, living and working in five countries, learning about and applying approaches to marketing and product management in a range of industries and verticals. Although my career began with large multinationals –including four years at Disney in the UK and Australia—I found that these environments didn’t really suit me. While large corporations are typically stable jobs that pay well and can teach you, I found they were too bureaucratic, too slow and too cautious in their approach.

Although I’d studied marketing as an undergrad, I wondered if it was the right field for me. I decided to do an MBA, focused on finance and corporate strategy. It was an incredible learning experience, but something of an expensive way to realise I did want to stick with marketing and product roles.

I never went back to working for large corporates. Instead, I began consulting in product development for tech companies, and then launched a startup in the online and mobile gaming space. We had a goal of growing big and selling to Disney! That didn’t happen, but I learned a lot.

What I enjoy most about mentoring is the frank and challenging conversations I have with startup founders. They’re always motivated and energetic, with seeds of great ideas.

What are some of the most common Marketing/Growth challenges you see early stage companies facing?

Going into this, I expected that I’d find the main challenge was finding a product-market fit. In the Kitchener-Waterloo region, a lot of startups are technology based, with some coming as research from university labs and programs. Founding teams have great expertise in building something well, but often haven’t thought through the ‘business side’.

Who is this product/service for? What does it do? What’s different about this compared to other existing services? Do the advantages outweigh switching costs? How will you reach customers? What should the product pricing be?

Quite often, founders have limited answers to these, or may not understand them at all. The good news is, that conversations around product-market fit are objective and we use frameworks to start discerning some of these elements.

What is the most important piece of advice you’d give an entrepreneur that is looking to grow their customer-base?

Entrepreneurs firstly must be experts about their customers. They should be talking to existing or potential customers every day, asking questions to better understand the problems, challenges and frustrations that customers face. There should always be more listening than talking.

I coach my startups to be focused, to set out smart, measurable and achievable goals. If it’s early on, this should be trying to find customers that are willing to do paid pilots and map out future sales. As the business grows, the startup needs to work out which segments its products are most relevant for, and where the sales process can be most efficient. Scaling revenue involves building out the right capabilities, and making the necessary hires in sales, marketing and community engagement.

What is the most important characteristic to look for in a company’s first marketing hire?

A successful startup marketer is a utility player. Someone who can step into any role, and who is comfortable with taking action where no precedent exists and where there are many unknowns. There’s no playbook. They must write the playbook!

These marketers need a thick skin and need to have conviction in their approach. Having ‘fail-fast’ approach works best. If a marketer has an idea that they want to try, they should try it fast – if it fails, that needs to be accepted and they should learn and move on to the next task.

Importantly, I don’t think the first marketing hire necessarily needs a pure marketing background. A marketing degree is useful, as is some experience, but anyone that has an understanding of and an interest in working with customers might be the right fit.

Another factor –and we’re getting into specifics here—is that a startup marketer needs to be a community manager too. Startup marketing involves events, PR, partnerships, customer and community interactions, thought leadership, content creation and support. This is a front-facing role, and marketers should be adept at communicating across any channel.

Working in the tech industry can be very demanding. What do you do outside of work to maintain energy?

Burnout is a big problem for startups, and I’ve experienced first-hand as well as seen the damaging effects that over-working can have on individuals and their families and friends. Taking the time to find a hobby or interest that you can invest some time into will reap rewards for founders. They’ll be physically and mentally healthier, able to reflect and think rather than always acting, and perhaps find new ideas or approaches.

I have always carved out time for my family –I have a wife and two young children—and we have active schedules there between school and sports and activities. We love camping, hiking, biking and a perfect weekend for me involves getting out to a lake or the woods. There’s a lot of studies about the effects that walking in a forest can have!

My main hobby is creative writing, specifically writing speculative fiction –sci-fi and fantasy mostly. I enjoy reading and working at improving my own writing. I’ve had a few magazine and online journal sales and am –very slowly—working on a novel.

What role do you think your creative pursuits have played in your work life?

Having a creative perspective is invaluable to tackling problems. It works for a developer trying to build a complex tool, a support team leader thinking of ways to improve customer experience, or a marketer looking at how to reach a customer. Countless studies prove that stepping back from a problem and going for a walk, listening to music or looking at art can fire innovative ideas in your mind.

I think my interest in writing has certainly helped me seek different perspectives to tackling challenges. I think this is invaluable in tech, which is an industry that can be insular and approach problems from only a very specific mindset.

This year, I’m organizing ‘The future is in your hand’, a writing contest being held as part of True North. I’m very excited to work on something that can help other writers hone their craft and I look forward to seeing the perspectives they bring with their stories.

You’re from Australia originally, what brought you to the Waterloo Region – and what keeps you here?

This is just your classic case of an Australian boy meets a Canadian girl in a bar in London, England. We began there, then spent seven years Downunder before making our way to Canada. My wife is from Prince Edward Island which is beautiful, but we might have to wait till I write a bestselling novel before we live out there.

I’d heard about Waterloo, and we thought the area seemed good, although we’d never been here. Kik had shown up on my radar, so I took a chance and shot a note to Josh Dunton, the recruiter there at the time. I said, “Hey, I’m a marketing, product, BD kinda guy and this is the stuff I do. Got any work?” I did a remote project, then came and met the team and within a week I was leading partnership efforts there.

Waterloo is a great city for us, particularly at this stage of life. After years in big cities I was done with time wasted commuting, and we also wanted an idyllic place to raise kids. Having universities and a strong tech scene means Waterloo also has great diversity. I’m enjoying it here, but I must admit, I’m not a huge fan of the winters! I’ll take +35 over -35 any day!