Xero’s Andy Lark on why too much marketing is a crutch for poor service and crappy products

Andy Lark
‘You made me sane again’ is a praise lavished often on Xero. Andy Lark, Xero’s chief marketing officer, talks about why marketing cannot be a substitute for a great product or sterling service. He also gives a glimpse of the challenge of tackling the US market.

Q: Tell us a bit about what you have been up to at Xero in the US? What’s been your top projects, priorities?

A: We've been recruiting great talent to drive the business. Through them, the focus has been on building momentum by addressing the large base of small businesses dissatisfied by incumbents, and using digital tools to reach the even larger number looking to run their business off their mobile and in partnership with their accountant.

Q: Based on what you have gathered, spending time with Xero clients in the US, what ‘image’ or impression does the brand Xero generate?

A: Love is the word used most. Owners love the simple beauty of Xero. I hear things like "you made me sane again". We are brand building through the experience. It is simple, beautiful and easy.

Tradies: Their love affair with Xero

Q: How does that translate into how Xero plans to mobilise its conquest of the US market?

A: Our focus is across four markets. There is still plenty of headroom in New Zealand and Australia. Momentum is strong in the UK. And with a revitalised leadership team in the US, we are back on track. It isn't about conquering the US market – though that would be great too. It is about meeting the needs of millions of small businesses underserved by incumbents and confused by old tools that don't meet them well on mobile. The advantage of being a starter in the market is that even small gains are very large for us. It is exciting.

Q: I gather, customers who love Xero liken Xero to being the ‘Apple in the accounting software’ domain. The remarks came from zealots no doubt. What about the non-zealots? How does marketing deal with the non-converts?

A: We've heard that from all kinds of customers. The reality is that the market is so large we can afford to focus on those who want, need and are inspired by Xero first. They will have a competitive advantage over those that don't switch to Xero. We are constantly spotlighting customer success stories, sharing the love for Xero and educating near non-stop.

Q: People who love Xero, really really love it. What are the key messages you have for software company-wannabes wanting to walk in Xero’s path – in building brand, in getting the marketing messages across (especially if no one has heard of you before)?

A: Start with product and service. Too much marketing is a crutch for poor products or services. Then use marketing to drive the demand curve. Marketing should be about engaging prospective customers first. Chasing awareness is a fools game and for those with deep pockets.

Pull the modern marketing levers hard – own your digital expertise, go hard on marketing automation, drive content hard.

Q: Tell us a bit too, about your US customers. Last year, analysts were less than bedazzled by Xero’s US venture, one even suggested an exit from the US. Has that sentiment changed, you think? What is Xero doing differently in the US? How is that tracking?

A: We have the cash, people and opportunity to pursue the US market with patience and deliberation. It's such a large market it would be very easy to squander assets chasing unprofitable growth. We're urgent in our approach but also systematic about picking the right levers. We're learning from our mistakes and quickly correcting them. This all comes down to discipline.

We've won in three of our four markets using this approach.

Q: What would you say to another Kiwi company seeking a beachhead in the US? What words of caution would you give?

A: Be very clear about your growth model. Get deep into the economics of acquiring customers and maintaining that discipline. You will see an opportunity a day that can derail you. Stay focused.

I'd also say, pick a big, but smaller starting point than the US. Say, California.

Then, go to the cloud. The way we work on Google and Yammer makes operating globally very frictionless.

Q: What keeps you awake at night?

A: How can I spend more time with my kids? Often followed by "what can we do now to improve search performance"?

Q: What gets you to work in the morning?

A: Work never seems to stop, so morning rarely seems like the starting point. When I am home, the dog is typically staring me down about 5.30am.

I'm passionate about what we do to help customers succeed. I start thinking about the people who might not fail if we can get them on Xero. The people at Xero are also a huge motivation.

Q: Who is your business mentor, how did that come about? What’s the most valuable life/business lesson you learnt from him/her/why?

A: There are so many people I turn to for advice. I don't have a formal mentor right now. I'm a podcast addict – Tim Ferris, Tara Brach, Rich Roll. I read something by Peter Drucker nearly every month. And I'm often consuming two to three business books at once. I've got great friends – Greg Cross, Rod Drury and Dandapani. And I'm getting a ton out of sitting on boards with people like Sam Knowles, Sam Morgan, and Joan Withers.