JUNE 14, 2004

By Christopher Kenton

Across the Great Divide, Part 2

It takes a lot more than good intentions and empty words to close the typical gulf between sales and marketing, as CollabNet CEO Bill Portelli explains

When I first came across software outfit CollabNet, I was impressed by the sales team's enthusiasm for marketing. That's not the typical attitude of most sales departments. I asked to be introduced to the vice-president of marketing to learn what magic he was using to work so successfully with sales. What I found out was that it wasn't magic at all, just common sense well applied within a culture of collaboration. So I dug a little further to find out how that culture came about, and I met the CEO of CollabNet, Bill Portelli (see BW Online, 5/26/04, "Reps and Marketers: Across the Great Divide").

Portelli is a veteran of technology companies large and small. Trained as an engineer, he has held positions in engineering, marketing, and sales, and has spent the last 15 years in general management, where each of those groups has reported to him in every imaginable configuration of departments and cross-functional teams. He joined CollabNet when it launched, in part because he had seen enough organizations and organizational problems to believe in the importance of getting it right from the start.

TALK IS CHEAP. Portelli set out at the beginning to create at CollabNet a culture of collaboration and communication, a culture supportive of cross-functional integration, a culture where people challenge each other to perform.

Yeah, sure, we've heard it all before. But that's precisely the point. We've heard all of these things before because it's common sense. And yet, like so many other things, like not dieting or continuing to smoke or not getting enough exercise, we all know what needs to be done -- yet persistently fail to do it.

What's remarkable about Bill Portelli and CollabNet is not the content of their methodology, which is certainly solid, but the simple fact that they have been able to execute where others only talk. And it's paid off. After five years of building a startup in the worst conceivable economic environment, CollabNet will turn a profit this year while many competitors struggle to stay afloat.

SHARED GOALS, COMMON LANGUAGE. Portelli's recipe for a collaborative culture is simple: Establish clear goals that everybody understands, focus communication on solving business problems, give your team ownership over its product, hold them accountable for successes and failures, and specifically hire people who buy into that approach. Of course, the devil is always in the details, so I asked Portelli how this plays out day-to-day in the roles of sales and marketing at CollabNet.

In order to understand CollabNet's approach, you first need to understand one thing about the company: it values marketing. At CollabNet, marketing is not just about creating PowerPoint presentations and sales collateral, but about playing a pivotal role in understanding market demand and translating that into products that can be sold profitably. As Portelli puts it, "Marketing is very much a lynch pin in our organization. Both engineering and sales look to marketing to arbitrate what we're going to build next, and why."

So, turning back to the creation of a collaborative culture, the sales, marketing, and engineering efforts need to continually understand what each is trying to achieve, and that means clear goals and metrics against which performance can be measured. At CollabNet, sales and marketing work together toward revenue and booking targets, and engineering and marketing work together toward product road maps and dates. There is a clear value chain in which every team understands the critical role that every other team plays.

A DELIBERATE CULTURE. "It's important to have complete transparency of what the sales force is trying to accomplish," Portelli says, "as well as what engineering is trying to accomplish. So it starts at the executive level by having everyone understand these tradeoffs and metrics, and how we're trying to drive ourselves."

In an environment where everyone understands what they are trying to achieve together, communication can be more easily focused. That's not to say CollabNet doesn't face the same challenges as every other business when it comes to politics, but there again, Portelli has clear expectations from the start. "I found that you could change organizations by having the right kind of communication culture," Portelli says. "A little more tolerance. A little more openness to what someone else is trying to say. Things like back-channel communications are not tolerated. We fight on a daily basis to keep that minimized, while focusing on performance-oriented communications."

But establishing a collaborative culture doesn't happen by fiat, it has to be cultivated, which is why Portelli actively drove collaborative behavior from the start, especially in marketing, where much of his approach came from his own experiences.

LINES OF COMMUNICATION. "I remember that I had to compete for the sales force's attention," Portelli recalls. "You really want to make sure that you communicate and get on the same page with the sales force, and treat them with the same respect and interest that you do with your customers. I would send them our successes, I would pick up the phone and call the sales people to say, "'I'm coming into your territory, I'll be there next week, I don't care what you have to do, let's get in front of five clients together.'"

Getting marketing involved directly in the sales channel is a critical part of CollabNet's process, not only for getting marketing and sales on the same page, but getting on the same page with the client and engineering, or, as Portelli puts it, "the whole value chain that connects the client with the product that ultimately has to get out the door."

For Portelli, what starts at the foundation as a cultural imperative to collaborate and communicate openly, naturally builds into the business tactics that help CollabNet thrive in a challenging market. Communication isn't just about playing well with others, it's about getting the right information to the right people at the right time to be able to beat the competition and make a profit, and every team has specific responsibilities around communication.

BEDROCK VALUES. Portelli again frames things around his internal value chain. "Getting in front of your clients, understanding their pain points, and then making the client a part of the process, along with sales and marketing, and then actually delivering something that the market wants, and then supporting it -- that goes a long way to client satisfaction, and of course making money with everyone feeling good about it."

Marketing's role in all of this is to "take input from the broadest possible group of stakeholders that matter, and synthesize it into some direction for engineering." Those inputs include market dynamics, direct client feedback, and feedback from the teams that service and support clients day-to-day.

The sales function is also built on communication. "Sales' role is to go out there and really listen to what particular clients want...and to work closely with marketing so that marketing understands it as well, and that the right kinds of information can be fed back into the product development process."

None of these ideas will be new to anyone in business. These are the ideals we read about in every business text book. The difference at CollabNet is that these ideals have been turned into bedrock values which Portelli and his team have pursued from the start, and continue to pursue from the start with every new employee.

I couldn't help asking Portelli what advice he had for people stuck in companies without a culture based on collaboration and communication. His answer sheds a lot of light on the underpinnings of culture at CollabNet.

THE BIG QUESTIONS. "You have to look at your span of influence and do the best you can," Portelli says, "whether your working on products or on the entire company. And you try to change the culture within your sphere of influence. Go across your organizational boundaries, try to set some team goals that you all buy into, get some buy in from the executive management to help you support what you're trying to accomplish. But you have got to look at this as whether or not you're moving in the right direction. Are you capturing requirements better? Are you talking to clients? Are you interacting with clients and the sales force? Are you building better product? And if you do those things, people will say 'well here's a person who's trying to take a leadership role', and that's great. But it either happens or it doesn't. If it doesn't, you leave. Let your feet do the talking."

When you break it down, Portelli is describing a balance of vision and tactical execution. That balance is hard to achieve, Portelli admits, but it's the critical factor that both leads to a culture of collaboration, and banks on it. What makes CollabNet different from a thousand other companies is only their belief in the value of that one critical factor, and their willingness to build a company around it.