Making the Most of the Early Years in Your Career

Episode #023: Sara Pion, Brand Content Manager at Alyce

What do startups and the early days in your career both have in common? They both can feel like building a plane while in flight.

In this episode, we chat with Sara Pion, Brand Content Manager at Alyce where she helps develop Alyce’s content strategy. Previously she was at Drift where she has held roles in growth marketing, conversational marketing, and customer advocacy.

We’re talking about why startups are similar to building a plane in the middle of a flight, why you must know everything about your product, the value of listening to sales calls, when it’s time to move on to your next adventure, and so much more.

Stephanie's Strong Opinions

  1. If you do great work, you’ll always feel bad when you move on to a new role. 
  2. No one tells you to knock it off when you do good work outside of your area of responsibility. 
  3. Marketing’s job is to help other teams; being helpful doesn’t mean you’re reactive…it means you’re proactive

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Episode Transcription

Stephanie Cox: Welcome to REAL MARKETERS, where we hear from marketers who move fast, ask forgiveness not permission, obsessed about driving results and are filled to the brim with crazy ideas and the guts to implement them. This is not a fireside chat and there’s absolutely no bullsh*t allowed here. And I’m your host, Stephanie Cox. I have more than 15 years of marketing experience and I’ve pretty much done about everything in my career. I believe speed is better than perfection. I use the Oxford comma. I love Coca- Cola. I Have exceptionally high standards and surround myself with people who get sh*t done. On this show, my guests and I will push boundaries and share the real truths about marketing and empower you to become a real marketer. What’s the job of marketing? Early on in your career, it’s kind of hard to figure it out. What are you supposed to do versus what do you need permission to do? It’s something that so many of us struggled with when we’re early on. And there’s really not a guidebook to figuring it out. And let’s be honest, even if you have a college degree, no one teaches you how to do marketing in college. You learn all of it in the real world, on the job. And a lot of it you’re learning by yourself. So what do you do and how do you figure out when you should take initiative versus when you can’t. What should you be doing? How much time and effort should you put in? All of those are topics that I’m talking about with today’s guest. In this episode, we chat with Sarah Pion. She’s the brand content manager at Alyce, where she helps develop Alyce’s content strategy. Previously she’s at Drift where she’s held roles and growth marketing, conversational marketing and customer advocacy. And we’re talking about why startups are kind of like building a plane in the middle of flight. Why you need to really know everything about your product, the value of listening into sales calls, when it’s time to move on to your next venture and so much more. So first question for everyone, always tell me something about yourself that few people know?

Sarah Pion: I think one thing that my team recently found out because I told them is, I can sew and I can knit pretty well. My grandma taught my sisters and I, so I have two sisters, how to knit when we were in like second grade. I don’t know why. She just decided that she needed something to have us sit down and not be jumping around. And that thing was knitting. And then I made costumes for the plays and musicals throughout my four years in high school. So if you give me a pattern, I can sew it. If you give me a yarn and knitting needles, I can knit stuff. So I’ve knit scarves obviously, but then mittens, the head warmers, hats. Yeah.

Stephanie Cox: Crazy. Are you still doing that? Did you find that as something during this whole COVID situation that you’ve gotten back into or is it more kind of when the need arises?

Sarah Pion: It’s more kind of when the need arises. My boyfriend’s little sister wanted a sewing machine for Christmas and I was the only person in the household that could help her figure out how to use it. So it comes in handy in situations like that. But I definitely… there’s a picture going around of Bernie Sanders, wearing mittens at the 2021 inauguration. And the pattern is now live of how to make those mittens. And now I’m very motivated to get back into knitting just so I can knit those mittens.

Stephanie Cox: I feel like all of us do that, right? I mean, who would have thought that Bernie Sanders’ mittens from Vermont, we’re going to be the fashion piece of the inauguration.

Sarah Pion: It’s the biggest talking point. I feel like besides the fact that there was an inauguration, it was also, and Bernie Sanders mittens, specifically.

Stephanie Cox: And it looked like he brought mail too, I think. The whole situation was really interesting. He’s an interesting man.

Sarah Pion: He is.

Stephanie Cox: So we’re here to talk about really being younger in your career. You’re about five years out of school and marketing and how you’ve been able to really navigate the waters. And I think one of the things that I find a lot of times when I talk to people, there is similar point in their careers, potentially even younger there’s whole idea of how do you think about what job to take? When do you switch jobs? How do you know that you’re making the right decisions for your career? Because really early on, the first few roles that you take are so instrumental in building your longterm career, even though I think sometimes people don’t realize that. So talk to me a little bit about what that journey has been like for you.

Sarah Pion: Yeah. So I studied management and business in college. And so that course of action generally leads you to thinking that the only path to success is being a certified personal accountant or being a consultant at one of the big four. And I didn’t want to do either of those because it sounded incredibly boring. And so-

Stephanie Cox: Just as you were saying that, I was like, “Who wants to do that?” And I know there are people out there that do, but oh my goodness gracious.

Sarah Pion: Right. For the people who want to do that, that rocks. I personally did not. And so my dad actually told me about someone that he knew who became the VP of sales at this small startup. And he thought that startups could be interesting for me because they’re kind of those funky environments where people are riding around on bicycles, like indoors and there’s beer on tap. And he just thought that that would be an interesting path for me. And I was kind of in the like, “Yeah, whatever dad” sort of mindset of I’m going to be a consultant and that’s that. But I started to look more into startups, specifically the startup called Drift. Applied and ended up getting the job. And it just made so much sense when I went into interview at Drift versus going into interview at other consulting companies of just the sheer difference of the environment that I would be working in. And so that kind of just solidified it for me. I was like, “Okay, cool. I like startups.” And I went into Drift, not knowing anything about tech, not knowing anything about marketing, really, because business school didn’t really prepare me for that. And learning just a ton on the job. And it just kind of made sense to me of like, “Okay, cool, startups are kind of messy.” You kind of are building a plane while it’s in flight. And I love that chaos in a sort of masochistic sort of way. And so-

Stephanie Cox: Same.

Sarah Pion: I felt really lucky.

Stephanie Cox: It’s not for everyone.

Sarah Pion: No, definitely not. But I felt really lucky to be in my first working environment being like, “I love this. This is cool. This was made for me, I think.”

Stephanie Cox: Well, let’s talk a little bit about one of the things that you said that I find so accurate around how college and a business management degree didn’t prepare you for marketing. I hear that so many times from people that graduate with business degrees and that’s where marketing sits on a lot of colleges and universities, there’s typically a marketing major or minor where you learn like the four PS. And I feel like a lot of stuff that was probably relevant in the’80s and’90s maybe, or the’50s, who knows. It’s the same stuff I learned in college 20 years ago. But the thing is that doesn’t teach you actually how to do marketing today. So how was that on the job training? And do you feel like you were at a disadvantage a little bit, maybe compared to other people like accountants who come in and really understand how to do their job on day one and you’re kind of drinking by the fire hose almost immediately.

Sarah Pion: That was a crazy trip because I had had a few marketing internships, but it was very much so grunt work and like what people see as marketing and sort of like the arts and crafts sort of table where I was packaging up like direct mailers and helping buy swag for a virtual event and an in- person event. And just didn’t feel like there was any strategy that went into it. It was just sort of like, this is the fun stuff that happens in business. And so going into Drift where they are very much so like a marketing and product led organization, they’re kind of equal in just how much emphasis is placed on product and marketing. Was really interesting because I took one marketing class in my business major and it was about advertising and we didn’t even ever talk about digital marketing at all. And so my first role at Drift was actually on the support side. So I was supporting the marketers who were using Drift. And so I started to learn from them how they saw how Drift fit into their marketing campaigns and structures and programs. And so I had to learn technical things like UTM parameters and integrations and data and attribution, all while trying to help people just figure out how to use this product. But then eventually I did move from the support team to the marketing team where I started to lead Drift for Drift, which was very meta, but I got to work under big marketing names like David Cancel and Dave Gerhardt. And so I feel super lucky that I got to just observe those people in their element, doing their thing while also being able to watch a team grow with unbelievable marketers who specialize in different things. I didn’t even realize that there were different ways to market. Product marketing and content marketing and web dev and design and all of these small incremental things that go into someone’s marketing programs. It was all so new to me and Drift was really good at hiring really good people. So I got to see Sonia Jacobs lead a content team, and I got to see Dan Murphy startup the product marketing at Drift. And I kind of just sat back and reacted to their marketing, but it also helped me understand what goes into the foundation of building a marketing team and a marketing program so that when I did move on to my next role, I got to apply the things that I observed from afar. And that was really cool having that base foundation from just kind of the best and the best. And I think this is probably a question for later on, but I think luck plays a huge role in my path. And I think that I was just like super lucky to kind of fall into where I was and that I will never take that for granted.

Stephanie Cox: Well, it’s interesting that you mentioned that because I think all of us in our career, right. Have that opportunity where luck plays a little bit of a role into it. Right. You’re at the right place at the right time. Like I know for me that was, gosh, like 2010, I took a role at Ingersoll- Rand, large company, but I worked in the startup portion of the business. And that’s when I got into mobile and that was… right? The iPhone was relatively new. The whole idea of the app store was relatively new. And that’s when I started doing mobile apps for the first time. And back in the day, when you still did Blackberry apps and windows apps, I’m super dating myself, but that really changed my career a lot. And it’s funny because I never would have anticipated that. And I just happened to take a role that I was super interested in, but also happened to be at this change in time where this technology was new and I got to do all of it. Same thing when I started my career early on, in the early 2000s, what people don’t realize is not every company had a website. Social media didn’t exist really back then. And so being the younger person, everyone was like, “Well, you can do like this internet thing. Right?” And I was like, “Sure.” Here we are. But I think it’s to your point, it’s like, there’s luck but there’s also what you do with that. So how did you think about being in this situation where you can learn from such incredible talent and how did you take advantage of that? What do you feel like really helped you not just learn and digest everything, but also prepare you for your next role?

Sarah Pion: Yeah. I think one thing that I hated for my internships was that my role was passive in that I had to wait for someone to tell me what to do. And I had to wait for someone to give me projects and I have to a fault a bias for action. And that I just want to execute and sometimes need to pull myself out of that and start to think more high- level, but that’s a whole other thing. And so at Drift, I saw that there was just so much autonomy in this role. And I was like, “this rocks.” But there was also, I was a little bit of an underdog because I had never done support and I’d never been in more of a technical role before. So I felt like I needed to prove myself and also got that expectation from the product leadership also, because this role kind of lived on the product team instead of under the customer team because the customer team didn’t really exist. So I felt like I had to prove myself to the product team. So I was trying to learn everything there was to know about this product. I was trying to press every button and break things and talk to engineers and ask them as many questions as I possibly could. And then not just to work within the confines of my job, but try and come up with new ideas. And I think my manager also pushed me to do that because he would be like, “Okay, what are you working on today?” And I’d be like, “I don’t know, chatting with customers.” That’s my job. And he’d be like,” No, no, you need to start thinking about long- term projects and how to evolve this role.” Because I was also the first one to do it. And so I think him pushing me to do that helped take some of this excess energy that I had and make me go out and try and evolve my role past just what the job description was. And I don’t know if there’s a lot of people who get that sort of push from their managers, especially in the beginning of their career, where instead they’re kind of put more into a box of like, you can’t really go outside of these four walls. But that’s sort of what has helped me progress in my career is just like trying to be the most helpful person in the room by working a little bit outside the confines of my job description. And that reputation has followed me from Drift to my new role at Alyce, where people don’t really ever know what I do. They kind of just see me everywhere, outside the marketing team. Within the marketing team, people know where I should be and what I focus on and where my lane is, even though it is like a rather wide lane but that’s always been my advice for people starting out in their careers, just try and be the most helpful person in the room. And that means going into the support channel and answering questions proactively, or going up to the customer success or sales teams and being like, “What are some of the frequently asked questions that you’re hearing that you don’t see help docs on?” And I think taking that initiative is something that’s super simple, but not always easy to fit into your day, but makes a huge, huge impact on how the entire team views you, not only as a teammate, but also as a leader of, this person is going to get something done and they’re going to do it for me and not because I asked them to, but because they saw a need and then they decided to fill it.

Stephanie Cox: I think that point is so important. I always tell people one of the things I learned, and I think I learned it later in my career than it sounds like you have, is when you start doing other things outside of your responsibilities and you do good work, no one tells you to knock it off, right. Instead they start noticing you. And it’s so important. But I think that younger talent tends to be on two ends of the spectrum, people that are doing just that, like you just explained that you’re doing, and then other people who feel like they’re kind of in a box, right. They do exactly what they’re supposed to do. Nothing more, nothing less. And it doesn’t mean that they’re not super talented and they don’t do a great job. It just means their ability to really, I think, impact the organization and have a transformational career opportunity tends to be pretty limited. So how did you determine like, “Okay, I’m going to do this, I’m going to just start.” I know you mentioned your past, but I have enough gumption to go ahead and start doing this and when I go to Alyce, I’m going to just start doing things that I think are the best for the company. And I’m going to talk to other people. And I want people to see me as kind of a mover and a shaker within the organization, as someone who really wants to learn all aspects of the business and be helpful.

Sarah Pion: I think that started when I was kind of viewed as an underdog during my time at Drift, of like, “Okay, this person doesn’t really believe that I can last more than three months here. I’m going to prove them wrong.” Also in terms of taking feedback and my boss being like, “You need to take initiative and start to plan more things outside of just your normal day to day.” I take feedback so seriously, probably because I hate confrontation and never want to be told that I’m doing a bad job. And so him saying that I need to go outside of what I feel like I need to accomplish day- to- day and start thinking more long- term, really pushed me to be like,” Okay, I need to prove myself. Not only to the big boss, but to my current boss.” And that compounded over time where it started working. It started paying off. And I got people proactively telling my boss that I was so helpful or we had a internal thank you platform. We used 15 five where you can give people high fives. And I started to get those high fives of like, “Thank you so much for doing X, Y, and Z.” And ego wise, it feels really good to be appreciated and needed. And so it’s kind of addictive of like, “Okay, great. I know that if I help these people, they’re going to be appreciative. And they’re going to talk about me in a way where I’m shown in a positive light. And they’re going to tell more people, either that they work with directly or indirectly, that I can help them with X, Y, and Z.” And then I’d just get more opportunities to prove myself and show that I’m helpful. And so that addicting feeling of accomplishment, of helping other people was just something that I didn’t want to lose. And so I thought it was cool slash a very hard challenge to go from Drift where I was seen as this super helpful person who can get your questions answered, help you with your sales call, help you with your CS call, write that blog post, do all the things and then go into an entirely new environment where I had to prove myself over again. And so I went back to that underdog mentality that I had when I was first starting at Drift of like, “Okay, these people don’t know me. They don’t know what I’ve done. They don’t know how I like to work within a team.” It’s time to start over and build the foundation again and sit down with people outside of my immediate team and see how I can help them and see how I can make their job easier or see how I can make them more of a rock star, especially with my current title, which is brand content. How can I create more content around what this person is doing or enable them to make more content? So I think it’s just, honestly, I love outward validation and external validation. And so getting that is addictive and I just want to do more, that helps me with that. And I think marketing kind of fits into that because marketing’s KPIs should be fully influenced by other team’s KPIs. So if we’re not helping other teams then we’re not doing our job.

Stephanie Cox: I love what you said there, a couple of things. One when you talk about the addictive behavior, but two about marketing’s job is to help other teams. I think that’s so true. But I also think there’s this flip side to it, right. Is that you have to be helpful, but you also have to… being helpful doesn’t mean that you’re reactive all the time? It means that you’re proactive. So how do you think about being helpful, but also being proactive and doing things before they need to be done and almost kind of… I think that’s one of the hardest things for a lot of marketers to transition from is, the idea of being an order taker. And I’ve seen so many people, regardless of how many years they have in their career get sucked into I just take orders to yes, there’s always some of that don’t get me wrong. But how do you also flip over to this idea of like, “Well, I’m going to drive the bus. I’m going to be really thinking about what snacks and where we need to head and try and be four steps ahead of the game.” How do you get your mind to shift that way? Especially when you talked earlier about you sound like a get shut down kind of person, which is what I am. I just like “Problem? Let’s fix it. Let’s go.” How do you start to do that? And to think about shifting our mindset to being more proactive and driving more of the strategy versus just always being the one that’s told what to do?

Sarah Pion: I think it starts with just talking to people that your work should affect. So for me, I focus a lot on not only net new logo acquisition for our content, but also making sure that we have content that enables and helps our customers as well. And so sitting down with our customer success team, who’s always going to have more of a reactionary type of role and seeing if I can make their lives easier a little bit. And so sitting down with people that your work should help, will help you understand what problems they have and what issues generally arise in their day to day. I think also just in terms of normal startup situations, there’s a lot of working out loud. And that people are sharing their work or they’re posting in public Slack channels. And it’s easy to see either a question come up a bunch of times and figuring out, okay, this question’s come up a ton of times, can I answer that once and for all? Can I write down the exact way to answer that question? Or like sales has asked for industry specific customer testimonials twice this week, can I reach out to the product marketing manager and see if I can help enable them to create this tool or create an encyclopedia of customers and their use cases and the problems that they’re using our product to solve. And I think it just comes from being observant and looking outside of just your bubble. There are so many problems that every organization is trying to fix all at the same time and trying to prioritize them. And if you can take a part of your day to try and figure out at least how you would try and solve it and bring it up to your manager and your one- on- one and see if it’s a place where you should spend more time, or it’s a place where other people are spending time and you can potentially help them. It just helps you also get more experience as a young employee. And I don’t know what I want to be when I grow up. And I don’t know if this is the thing that I want to do forever. So I want to get as much experience doing things as possible. So I can check boxes of like, yep, I like doing that. Or no, no, no, never want to do that again. But even if you don’t have a company where a lot of these things are happening, ask to sit in on calls, or if you have a tool like Gong or Chorus, where calls are recorded, take a chunk out of your day and go and listen to some on like 1. 75 speed, and see if people are talking about a specific thing. And you’re always hearing that let me get back to you. Or if people are giving really awesome tips and you’re like, “We should have those documented and distributed for everyone.” And going out of your way to kind of do that extra work is definitely a commitment to paying attention and spending your time thinking about other people. But it’s also an investment where you then get to work with others, learn from them, teach them something and produce something that is then useful to way more people.

Stephanie Cox: I think that’s super helpful for you to share with everyone. So I know you made the transition from Drift to Alyce. And one of the questions I get so many times from younger talent, even people that are 10 plus years in their career, is when do you know it’s the right time to make a move? When do you know that you’ve learned all that you can, and that you’re ready for the next step or that you can’t grow anymore in the current role? How did you make that decision? And what would you tell other people that are in similar situations?

Sarah Pion: It’s so hard. Especially your first job where it feels like a very transformative role. I am who I am and where I am because of Drift. And because of that, I felt so loyal to them and I didn’t want to make them or let them down or leave them when they felt like they needed me. And so that just mentally was a tough challenge, but it also really depends. You have to do a lot of introspection of like, what do you want and where do you want to be? And what do you want to work towards? And did you accomplish what you came here to accomplish? And if that’s the case, you can learn a lot really fast if you switched jobs. And so for myself at Drift, I felt like I was learning a ton about all different kinds of marketing, but I couldn’t apply it because I had to be the bot girl. And I had to be the girl who was running Drift for Drift. And it was really helpful to the organization and I was doing a good job, but I was 24 and I didn’t really want to be put in a box and I wanted to do other marketing. And so for that reason, I felt like it was time for me to either try and find a new role within the organization or try and find a new role outside of the organization. And it was really hard to do because there wasn’t anything particularly wrong. I didn’t hate my boss or hate my working environment or hate anything. I wasn’t running away from something, but I wanted to start running towards a new opportunity instead. And so I think if you look at what you’re doing on a day- to- day basis and seeing that there’s still so much room for you to grow and learn, absolutely stay at your job. But if you feel like you can’t apply the things that you’ve learned, or you have a toxic boss or toxic work environment, it can be time to then shift outside of the organization and try and find something new. And it’s really hard. And you never know if you’re doing the right thing, but it’s a great way to learn so freaking quickly. And I think also knowing when it’s time to leave a job, it’s not a set time frame of like, “Okay, you’ve hit a year and now it’s time to think about what you want to do next.” Your longevity should depend on what you came there to do. And if you came there to set the foundation for your career, but you want to take the next step, it might be time to move, or you haven’t yet made a name for yourself and put your stake in the ground and changed and affected the organization in the way that you wanted to. So stay and ride that out and make sure that you’re working towards that every single day. But then once you hit that reevaluate and say, “Okay, is there more that I can do here? Or would I just kind of be doing the same thing?”

Stephanie Cox: I think that’s so important. Right? Everyone you’re coming around, you always felt like Well, if I leave here after my putting them in the lurch, honestly, I think I’ve felt that way every single time I’ve left a job.

Sarah Pion: Yeah. It just feels awful. And it’s hard to hear, but everyone’s replaceable. You’re not that important where the organization will crumble if you leave. And write a really lengthy transition doc and then go learn something new.

Stephanie Cox: Exactly. Well, and I think it’s part of it too, is when you’re so invested, it’s hard to take a step back and say, “I can do things for me. I can make the best choices for me. And that’s okay.” So I think this has been a wonderful conversation. I think you’ve shared so much great advice for people that are early in the career. I’d love to end with one final question, what’s the one thing you wish you would have know before you started your journey in marketing?

Sarah Pion: I think one thing is it’s so easy to get caught up in the tech marketing bubble. We’re very loud, we’re very passionate and we really do think that we’re changing the world and we aren’t, and that’s okay. And have passions outside of work, because otherwise you’re going to absorb yourself in a lot of stuff that you can’t change right at this very second. And then you’ll be no fun to talk to because all you’ll want to talk about is B2B tech marketing, which isn’t what other people want to talk about. So you don’t have to only read business books. You can read for fun. You don’t have to only listen to business podcasts. You can listen to podcasts for fun. And you don’t need to work 16 hours a day. If you give 85%, that’s still a lot. And sometimes that’s all you can give that day. And so it’s really easy to get caught up in the bias and excitement and tunnel visionness of tech, but it’s not your whole world. So find and experience other passions.

Stephanie Cox: Working at a startup especially in marketing, Sarah and I touch on this, but it really is like building a plane while you’re on the plane, 30, 000 feet in the sky going at 400 miles an hour. It is the most unique and interesting experience ever. But I think for a lot of people early in their career, and this is what I tell so many people that are fresh out of college, work at a smaller company. You will have the ability, and especially in startup world, to get your hands in so many different things. But here’s the catch to that, you absolutely have to invest the time. There isn’t going to necessarily always be someone telling you how to do your job, there isn’t going to be a process for figuring it out. You’re going to have to kind of do that on your own. And your ability to grow is going to be a 100% dependent on how much effort you put in. And a lot of times that means putting in the extra hours and going above and beyond, and really devoting yourself to that company. But I can tell you, if you do that early on in your career, it will pay off dividends in the future. You’ve been listening to REAL MARKETERS. If you love what you’ve heard, make sure to subscribe, rate and review our podcast. And don’t forget to tell a friend, all of this marketing goodness shouldn’t be kept a secret.