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Hi there and thank you for listening to The Business Storyteller Podcast! I’m your host, Wilson and in today’s episode, we’re exploring a rather unique approach to storytelling with the idea of being contrarian in B2B marketing.
I want you to think about this question: Can a brand build its name by being contrarian and opinionated, opposing popular opinion or current practice?
Well, our guest today certainly believes so. It’s my pleasure to be speaking with Ilia Markov who is the Marketing Director at Toggl, a productivity tool that helps teams work better.
In this episode, we will be discovering the idea of being contrarian and opinionated in Toggl’s brand positioning and how that has helped to build their brand. We will learn how this affects everything they do from their operation as a team to their product development and marketing strategy. As a veteran in the B2B SaaS industry since 2013, Ilia will be sharing his experience and insights with us.
Hi Ilia, welcome to The Business Storyteller Podcast and I’m so glad to have you with us today. How are you doing?
Hi Wilson, thanks a lot for having me on the podcast. It’s a great pleasure.
I’m so excited to be learning from you today because I find interest in this particular topic when you proposed it. But before that, I’m sure listeners would love to know you better as an individual.
Would you like to tell us a little bit more about your career journey and what led to your current role at Toggl?
Sure. I’ve been working in B2B SaaS marketing for the last six or seven years. Ever since 2013, I first started in tech and then shortly after that in SaaS specifically. I’ve worked with a number of different brands from different niches and verticals within SaaS. Right now, I’m back to productivity and time tracking, which is like the core of what Toggl does. And actually it’s also probably the core of what I’m interested in. My experience in SaaS marketing skews heavily towards content and SEO. That’s what we’ve done for a long time, but now I lead the marketing team at Toggl, which allows me to oversee different channels and also figure out the strategy for how to grow an already successful brand and make it even more successful.
On the personal side, I live in Bulgaria. I am working remotely. I’ve been working remotely more or less for the same amount of time. It’s actually something that I really enjoy and I’m a big proponent of. That’s one of the reasons why I’m at Toggl as well because Toggl has been remote. One of the first fully remote companies. It started an Estonian company but very soon after it started, it switched over to fully remote model because the founders of the company realized that there’s no way they are going to find that pool of talent that they need within Estonia itself.
So, the company became fully remote and it’s actually one of the most diverse and remote companies I’ve seen. We literally have people on the team from all corners of the world. Maybe just the two poles is where we don’t have people, but we do have people all the way through South America, through Africa, through Australia and New Zealand, Asia, and of course, Europe and North America, and the UK. This is like another thing I completely love about Toggl, just the diversity of team and the diversity of opinion. It’s actually something that’s very central and core to the values of the company as well.
Just to finish my presentation on the personal side. As I said, I live in Bulgaria, the capital Sofia. I have a baby who’s a little over six months, so I tend to spend a lot of time with the baby. I also have two dogs which are like the other two babies, so they take a fair bit of time as well. With what time I have left, I enjoy just going for a run and listening to audiobooks and podcasts. That’s like my way to disconnect and recharge.
That’s great to know. Thanks for giving us a great outlook into your professional and your personal life. I think we share that in common as well. We’re both in marketing, we’re both in SaaS. We both work in a remote company, fully remote as well. So very similar in terms of Piktochart and Toggl.
Well, I’m excited to get our conversation going today and today, we’re talking about the value of being contrarian in B2B marketing. I’m aware that Toggl adopts a very unique approach when it comes to brand positioning with the idea of being contrarian and opinionated. Can you explain more about this approach and what inspired Toggl to do so?
Of course, I’m happy to. Just for a bit of context for your listeners and viewers, the core offering of the company is time-tracking solution. The time-tracking market is quite noisy with many different actors. Some big, some small companies that aim for the enterprise markets and there are companies that aim for consumers, people who are interested in tracking time for their own benefits and their own productivity.
One thing in that market is that many companies go for an approach which is based heavily on surveillance. So whether it’s taking screenshots of what employees do, measuring activity in some way. I’ve heard some crazy stories of some software tools that actually use the webcam to record whether people are sitting at their desk and working, which in my mind is a bit crazy. In this market, many tools offer that and that’s how they market themselves and sell themselves to managers and founders.
We take a completely different approach. We say, we don’t hide it. If you’re looking for these, Toggl is not for you. We’ll never go in that direction. We’ll never build anything like that in the product. We’ve had numerous internal conversations where we just say plainly that we’ll never go there. It’s never gonna happen. So if you’re looking for that, Toggl is not for you. Just go and get one of the other solutions that offer them.
We believe this helps and this is actually, to be honest, this is tied very closely to how we operate as a team and what we believe in. We have trust, transparency, ownership, and autonomy. They are some of the core values of Toggl and how we operate as a team. Internally, we practice something called ROW – results-oriented work environment, where we track our hours for our own benefit and just to understand how Toggl works and how it helps teams.
But the time you spend working is not a measure of your performance in any way. No one cares about how many hours you spend working, or when you work. You can work in the middle of the night if this is your thing. As long as you’re achieving your goals, of course, and you’re not blocking any other people on the team who rely on you.
This is tied to how we think about the product and how we develop product, and how we market it as well. So, if you go to our website or if you Google Toggl anti-surveillance statement, we actually made it part of our brand offering so you can see what it means by checking out the statement that I mentioned. It’s a very core part of our brand and we believe that it allows us to connect and convince and build trust with who we perceive as our audience.
Toggl is a brand that helps knowledge workers, especially people in service industries and service companies that rely on their knowledge to deliver service to be more mindful of the time, understand how they work, what work takes, build their customers accurately, build stronger relationships with their clients and for that, we believe surveillance is not necessary.
If you’re running some kind of agency, whether it’s a design agency or marketing agency or a development agency essentially, you want to have a team that you can trust with each other. A team of adults who know what they’re doing. They have ownership. They can do the work in the way they believe it needs to be done so they deliver a good product for the client. You don’t need screenshots to make sure that they are working.
Yeah, I love the strong stand that you all take and the conviction that you have because it’s not only the product like you said that you’re delivering but it’s also the core value. So I really appreciate you giving us an outlook about the core values that you all also have in the team because it affects the way you operate. It affects your marketing strategy and everything else. I’m really glad to hear a company that is standing strong in their product and at the same time, in also their values as well.
Now, in relation to that, you gave us a brief overview of some of the benefits for example in building trust with your customers, but how has this brand positioning benefited Toggl firstly internally as well within the company and secondly, externally outside of the company for your clients? Can you share a little bit about that?
Sure, I could actually use some examples. So internally about a year back maybe, we had someone from a very big publication known throughout the world reach out to us and they had a few questions about how the software works. Essentially, they were writing a piece on there’s like an explosion of surveillance software for office use. It’s actually not just remote companies. In many cases, big companies in the US and around the world, they started using some kind of tracking software. Maybe it’s not time tracking, but there’s something to track your email, your communication or what you do.
So a while back, this journalist reached out to us and they were asking how the software works and whether it allows for any kind of surveillance. I think it wasn’t targeted at Toggl in any ways. They were just doing it with many tools on the market. For us, it was just very easy to say, nope, there’s no way to track. There’s no way to record. If a person doesn’t want to share something, there’s no way for a manager to know what they are doing on the computer. In fact, Toggl even allows you to go back and add time entries manually or change some of the time entries that you worked on.
So if you have a team which is based on mistrust, so many jurors need to oversee and employees need to kind of make the numbers or cook the books. Toggl actually allows you to do that. So if you’re that kind of team, Toggl is not a good fit for you. Toggl is a great fit for teams which are based on trust because people know they can trust the tool. The tool is meant to help them not to allow managers to micromanage them, or oversee or intrude their privacy.
So internally for us, it was very easy to say, No, we don’t do any of that. This is something that as a team, it actually gives you a good feeling as well. Internally, this alignment between our internal values and culture and the product we’re building, I think it just helps us to be a much better team and operate much more easily.
Externally, as I said, I think it reflects very well with specific audiences. I mentioned design agencies earlier and we actually have a very good fit with design agencies because the people who work in design agency, they are creative because whether they doing some kind of drawing, some kind of technical design, or they are doing brand building or brainstorming brands and helping with that kind of development.
Essentially, these are like creative tasks and creative jobs and the people who do that is not the type of person who enjoy being snooped on. It’s not the type of person who enjoy getting screenshot of their work computer or whatever. So, it’s really easy for us to go and convince these people that Toggl is the right fit for them. While for some other competitors, it might be a much harder sell because they are inherently a surveillance tool.
Thanks for sharing that and I think that you all have found a good fit for the target audience that you’re looking for and you all stand strong on that. So I appreciate how you’re able to embody that wholeheartedly, externally for your clients and also internally with your own employees. Thanks for giving us an outlook on that.
Now listening a bit more about this unique brand positioning and we have a lot of business leaders who are listening to our podcast. So if you’re speaking with a business leader today who’d like to adapt this same approach, what are some practical advice or steps that you would give to them to help them get started?
Great question. I think I kind of alluded already to some of these. First, I think you have to be very honest and for real. You cannot say, I’m against surveillance but then practice it on your It wouldn’t work. If it’s not part of what you believe in, it’s not going to happen. Sooner or later people will see through it and I’m not sure if it was Lincoln or I might be misattributing the quote, but they said that, “You can lie to a few people for a long time or you can lie to a lot of people for a short time but not both.” So you cannot lie to everyone for a long time. Sooner or later, people will see through the mask in the role you try to put on.
The next thing that I believe is important is to kind of align this with not just your own personal values, but also the values of your team and the culture of your team. This is what I mentioned with Toggl. We operate in this very trust-based environment, where everyone’s interested to own and deliver on the things that they work on. And this sums up very well with what we project as an external brand. If it was the other way around, it’s not going to work. Like if we wanted to build a surveillance tool, it’s not going to happen with this kind of thing. People will hate what they are working on and if we publicly want to project an anti-surveillance position but internally we use screenshots and whatnot. Not going to happen either. Because people will see through that as well. So I think these are like the core things.
And then I think the next one is don’t be afraid to kind of put a personality and put some human face to the brand. So if we try to kind of just rely on the surveillance statement on the website and maybe we use our company’s Twitter account and Linkedin page to protect that, it’s hard to convince people because you still don’t see the faces behind the people who put that statement. But when you add actual faces, whether it’s me or our CEO, or other people from the team because we have free and open team. A lot of people like to talk about their experience with Toggl online. Then that kind of really takes the point home and it’s much easier to convince people that way.
Yeah, those are really valuable and helpful tips that I’m sure that the business leaders would appreciate. If there’s one thing I take away from the three things that you mentioned, I think it’s the idea of being convicted as well and having a conviction that this works and you’re going to fully embrace it. I believe the business leaders are also supposed to consider that, right?
Yeah. I think it’s like a pyramid. If you think about it, this is the basis. And the second layer is the team and the culture, the internal culture you’re building. And then the final layer is actually putting the face and projecting it publicly, whether it’s on social media or when you go to conferences or trade shows or wherever you connect with your customers and prospects in person to person basis.
If you try to put it any other way around, the pyramid is going to fall. Like if you try to put the tip of the pyramid on the bottom, it’s not going to happen.
Such a great way to put it into the form of a pyramid. Now, let’s move on to the next question. Because we’ve talked a little bit about the benefits. You shared also some advice or steps to help someone get started. But also, with all of this, there are definitely going to be challenges. I’m sure based on your experience of trying to build this brand positioning for Toggl to be contrarian, there have been many challenges that you face.
Would you mind sharing with us what are some challenges that that one can expect when they are are positioning their brand to contrarian?
It’s not a challenge we had to be honest. But one of the challenges I can see is if there is no internal conviction especially coming from the leadership of the company. In our case, we’re very lucky because this initiative is coming from the leadership and from the founders of the company.
But if you don’t have that internal alignment and conviction, then it’s going to be very hard to kind of sell that, because people will always go back to this idea of, “Can we not add this thing to the product?” Maybe because at the end of the day, you saying no to some people who come and ask with their wallet open, they’re like, “Can you give us this? We’re ready to pay you money for this kind of thing.” And you have to say, “No sorry, we’ll never give you this. So there’s no point in lying to you. You’ll be better off somewhere else.” Because even if they stick around for maybe one year or so in the best case and then they will be gone anyways.
So this is one challenge. You have to have very strong conviction all the way from the top of the company, all the way to the front line people in the company who can explain the position and why we adopted that position.
I think it’s so true. This alignment is so needed because it’s going to affect every business decision. It’s not just a marketing strategy that you’re putting out to try to be different but at the same time, it’s also the way you’re going to run your product, the way you’re going to make decisions for your businesses and employees. So I think that is an important one to consider.
Let’s move on to the next question. We’ve shared a bit about the success that Toggl has had with this brand positioning and you all have been doing this. Can you share with us some of the top three tips for doing brand positioning successfully based on your experience?
When it comes to brand positioning, I cannot stress this enough. Throughout my career, I’ve seen it from both sides. And what I mean is knowing your customers and knowing your audience, the people you want to go after. I cannot stress this enough because I’ve seen it, as I said, I’ve seen it from both sides. I’ve been in cases where I was writing content or working on social media or doing any other kind of marketing work without really understanding who the customers are. And it’s very hard to do it in a good way.
When it comes to brands, this is what you need to start. Knowing your customers. I don’t think there’s ever enough customer research that you can do. So just going out, whether it’s just checking out discussions on Reddit or Quora, or running a survey, sending out email survey, or whatever. Actually getting on calls, reaching out to customers and saying, “Hey, can I take half an hour of your time?” You’ll be surprised how many people say yes. A fair bit of people won’t respond, but quite a few people say yes and then when you talk to them, it’s like your mind gets blown. What kind of things that they tell you.
We’ve had cases where the people for example, people use specific region within Toggl in a completely different way, even though we have a feature for them that they can use with the exact goal they want to achieve. Sometimes people don’t even know about the feature or they don’t want to use it because this other feature you have, they just like it enough. Every time you talk to customers, you learn something like this and you see how they do things. This is like when it comes to brand positioning.
The second one for me is once you have this understanding of who your customers are and who you want to go after. If you don’t have enough customers yet, just making this narrow and focus to them. Going after a very wide market doesn’t work well., Everyone wants to go after the wide market and be like Coca-Cola or McDonald’s, or something like that and go after everyone. But it doesn’t work that way. I mentioned with time tracking, time tracking is a huge market. You can go after manufacturing workers who need to track their time on the job. You can go after delivery drivers, for example, because they need time tracking as well. You can go after agencies. You can go after huge corporations. Within that industry, within that market, there are many segments.
For us, one of the challenges and one of the things we’re very focused on is just going after the right segment where we know Toggl is a good fit. And then providing that segment with the best possible time-tracking solution and planning solution because we also have another product that’s helping people with planning their work and budgeting for the time they have and making sure that it’s done in an orderly manner. And then providing that solution for them and speaking to them and connecting them with that solution and that value that we are offering.
And the final thing, I think I already mentioned. It is kind of putting a face to the brand. Don’t just make it very anonymous. The fact that we are fully distributed company means that we don’t really have many photos from the office that we can share because we don’t have an office. It’s not like we can share a picture of the office kitchenette with the ping-pong table, like the fancy Silicon Valley type of office. You need to find a way to put a face to it. We do it by just showing people the faces of Toggl. The team is the biggest asset that we have in the company.
I think those are some really top tips and I particularly loved the first one you mentioned. You mentioned that there’s not enough customer research that you can ever do. I think that’s something that each company should always think about. Even doing it for 10 years or more, you’re constantly learning who are your new audiences, who are your existing clients and you’re constantly refining and improving upon it.
The thing is, your customers are changing and the market is changing. It doesn’t matter. Like you can be in the same company, the same job for 10 years, You shouldn’t stop doing it because things will change a lot in that time. And you don’t want to be overtaken by competitors going in a different direction and suddenly your customers realize they have a completely different need. You want to understand how they need to evolve so you can also evolve the product in step with that.
Yeah, definitely. I think this is solid advice when it comes to brand positioning. Well, we’re coming to our final question.
My question for you is this, what are some of your favorite examples of brands, businesses, or individuals out there whom you think are doing really well when it comes to being contrarian?
Of course, Jason Fried and DHH, David Heinemeier Hansson from Basecamp come to mind. I think they kind of made contrarianism the core of their brand. In terms of brands, I can’t think of brands that come to mind, which are inherently contrarian. But I think I’ve seen some very good exchanges with some big brands that do very well on social media when people try to criticize them and they take it and they roll with it.
I think I’ve seen some examples from Wendy’s, the fast food chain in the US. When people reach out and they try to criticize Wendy’s, they have very quirky answers to that. It’s something that I actually really like. When brands play too safe, we never really liked it, right? It’s boring. But if you get a quirky answer, of course, it’s a very fine line between being quirky and being offensive. So you should be mindful of that. I think those are good examples of doing social media well.
Yeah, I was going to mention Wendy’s when you were mentioning about the brand because I can definitely recall them. And I think that’s what helps them to stand out as a brand and people do appreciate the way they approach their brand positioning in that way.
Well, thank you Ilia for sharing so many valuable and helpful insights with us today. I’ve certainly learned a lot more about this unique approach to positioning a brand to be contrarian and I’m sure our listeners have also enjoyed that.
Now, to wrap up this episode, I’d love to ask you some fun questions to help our listeners learn about what inspires you as an individual. My first question for you is this, what is your favorite movie or TV show of all time?
Favorite of all time, I cannot go with just one. So I have to mention it. I mean, I’m a big ‘Game of Thrones’ fan. I started with the books and then watch the show. It was very funny to like see how people react to the show when they don’t know what’s coming. There are like famous reaction videos on YouTube of like the Red Wedding. People who have no idea what happens in the Red Wedding. I’m not going to spoil it for anyone. ‘The Wire’ is another show that comes to mind. I think it’s amazing storytelling. I just really love shows with good storytelling.
Movies. I don’t think I have like a one favorite movie. I mean, ‘The Godfather’ is something that comes to mind. ‘Lord of the Rings’ as well. I’ve seen multiple times. As you can probably see, I’m a fantasy fan, but I do enjoy good storytelling.
Yeah, definitely ‘Game of Thrones’ is also on the top of my list with the way, the suspense and the waiting and the way they tell the story, so it’s a great one.
In ‘Game of Thrones’, there’s no red lines. So anything can happen literally.
That’s true. It’s always a surprise at the end of every episode or season. Now you talked a bit about book just now, so can you share with us what is your favorite book of all time?
With books, it’s even harder than movies to be honest. I enjoy reading a lot as I mentioned. I think one book that I think will be relevant to your audience as well that I would like to recommend is called ‘Monetizing Innovation’. If you reduce it, it’s a book about pricing and pricing especially innovation, technology, new products.
I think it’s a very good book on how to think about value and extracting that value and splitting it between your customers and your company. Because at the end of the day, you live to make profit. It’s a great book. Not very long, very good to read. So I highly recommend it to anyone interested in these topics.
Awesome. Well, thanks for the recommendation. We’ll be sure to leave that in the show notes so that our listeners would be able to also get that. My final question for you is this, if you’re not in marketing today, what do you envision yourself doing?
I studied politics for my undergrad and then for a long time, I thought I would go in that direction so I can definitely see myself doing something for the public benefit. Whether it’s like politics or some kind of civil work, NGO.
Nice. Well, that was fun and I’m sure that our audience have learned about you more as an individual. Now, before we conclude, for our audience who would like to stay connected with you, how can they reach you?
The best ways I would say are to connect with me on LinkedIn and Twitter. I’m on LinkedIn under my name and on Twitter, @nochainmarkov. I’m happy to connect with anyone and answer any questions, exchange ideas.
We’d be sure to also link to your social profiles on the show notes so that our listeners can reach out to you. Once again, Ilia, thank you so much for coming on this episode of The Business Storyteller Podcast. It’s a pleasure to be speaking with you today.
Thank you very much for the invitation. I really enjoyed it and happy to connect again any time in the future.
Nice. I’m glad to know that.- Well, that’s all for today’s episode and until the next one. Thank you.
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