Blog | 17 minutes Read

Leela Srinivasan: In her own words


Coming to America 

I was born in Scotland. My mum also grew up in Scotland; her father was Polish and came to the UK during the war. My dad moved to the UK from India. I was fortunate to have a great education. 

I studied History and English at the University of Edinburgh. This was in the early to mid-90s; I had done very well at school and was on track to probably go into banking or consulting along with many of my peers.

But I had this weird obsession as a teenager with America. I could tell you all the states on the map in order. I knew all the state capitals. I knew all the presidents in order. Coincidentally, while at university, I met an American boy, fell for him and followed him back to the US. When I got here in 1997, I took the first job I could find. I answered a newspaper ad and ended up getting a job as a receptionist at a fast-growing startup in Jacksonville, Florida. 

From receptionist to sales

The company was called Clean Shower. They made a non-abrasive tub and towel cleaner that you sprayed on and it dissolved all the grime. This is pre-OxyClean. It was growing like gangbusters. We did a ton of advertising on the radio with big personalities - basically, early influencer marketing - and we couldn’t keep it on the shelves. People were wildly excited about the product. I was at this company for 18 months, in different roles. I was a receptionist for six weeks - I think they liked my accent. Then they realized I could probably do more, so they moved me into marketing.

From there, I worked as a special project manager for the COO. I took all the minutes in board meetings and eventually, I became PR manager for the company. One of my jobs was to send out press releases and to do that I used a service called Business Wire. I really liked the service and saw a ton of value in it. Business Wire at the time had an office in Fort Lauderdale, and they eventually approached me about a job working for them.

And that is how I got into sales!

Truly, if asked, “Would you think about a career in sales?” I probably would have looked at you sideways and said, “Well, why would I do that?” I had no intention of going into sales at the time, and I had no sales experience, but I really believed in the product, and I think you can do anything you put your mind to. 

Closing with a clear conscience 

So there I was at Business Wire. On any given day or week, they maintained a 50 to 55% market share against another player called PR Newswire. And this was in the late 90s, so we were really in a boom cycle. Lots of startups and companies were jumping on the press release as a vehicle to help the outside world become aware of what they were doing. 

It was a really good time to be in sales and selling communications/PR products. The internet was moving fast, and people were trying to get their arms around it. “How can I get my new company seen online?” Business Wire helped answer that question. 

We didn't work on commission. The role was salaried with a nice bonus built-in, but it wasn't a traditional sales comp structure. In some ways, it felt better. My conscience was clear when talking to customers. I could make no bones about the fact that we weren't on commission. I could look them in the eye and say, “Listen, I have your best interests at heart here. Let's talk about the right strategy.”

Finding the next challenge

Winning motivated me at that point in my career, which I think is partly why I was a good salesperson. I liked to win. And for me, the ultimate win was seeing my name and this company report with my synopsis of why the deal closed. What did I do right to win this account from our competition? That for me was the ultimate motivation, not the commission (or lack thereof). In our society, recognition remains huge. People want to feel appreciated, a small token or an experience often trumps cash in the bank. 

So, after three and a half years as an account executive, I went to our annual sales kickoff, and I happen to sit next to the VP of the Northeast. I mentioned that I'd really like to try my hand at people management.

He said, “Well, I'll bear that in mind.” Turns out, he was actually opening a sales manager role in Boston, and a week later, we were on the phone discussing it. The role was really a player-coach. I continued to have my own sales territory while managing a team of four or five sales folks and working very closely with our newsroom; I did that for two years, but I wasn't as challenged. The newswire industry was rapidly commoditizing with a bunch of cheaper copycat players springing up, and I was a bit tired of what my role had become. 

Transferrable skills FTW

So I began to think about going back to school and getting an MBA. In some ways, I ran away from sales and I went to Tuck business school, a little bit ashamed of my sales upbringing. Everyone in the class seemed to have had a ‘real’ career in investment banking or consulting before business school. Sales didn’t have the same hard skills requirements, and I wasn’t even sure what value I brought to the table.

While in school, though, as I began the recruiting process for summer internships and eventually full-time jobs, the recruiters loved my sales background. They loved that I could construct an argument, build relationships, and present well. They understood - in a way that I didn't at the time - the power of communication, which you learn in spades whilst in sales. 

I quickly found that my selling skills were much more valuable than I had led myself to believe they would be. I left business school with a newfound appreciation for the work that I had done going into business school, and I ended up in management consulting for three years at Bain.

After doing management consulting for a while, I finally tuned in to some of the things that were coming into my inbox and, in particular, I stayed in touch with this fella called Dan Shapero. Dan pinged me every few months with an opportunity and the timing was just never quite right.

The leap to Linkedin

And then finally he reached out with something amazing. It was an opportunity to be the first product marketer for LinkedIn Talent Solutions. I went for it and incredibly, it worked out, and now I found myself on the other side of the go-to-market equation: not in sales but in marketing. Having been a salesperson, I had such a different understanding of what it takes to win. What materials are going to convince a prospect to move forward? How should the value of what we’re offering to be communicated in order to fully resonate? And so I found that sales became an absolutely vital part of the value that I could add back to my sales partners as a marketer.

When I think about how I was able to pivot my career and take on this exciting new role while maintaining my personal life, I have to credit my partner Joel. My success is in large part due to the fact that I have such a supportive husband who has actually been being willing to let his career take a back seat at periods in our time together. 

He stayed home for two and a half years when I was blazing a trail (and burning vats of midnight oil) at LinkedIn. I'm really lucky to have Joel as my co-pilot on this journey.

Making marketing moves

Fast forward, years into my marketing career, to a recruiting firm reaching out and saying, “You should really talk to SurveyMonkey.” I was intrigued having used SurveyMonkey extensively as a marketer. During my first meeting there, I was just blown away. I had no idea what was going on behind the scenes at SurveyMonkey - all the breadth and depth of products that we offer, the business trajectory, the expansion into enterprise, the imminence of the IPO, everything. 

After going through the interview process, it was time to do a final presentation. I wanted to show enthusiasm for the product, and come up with something that was interesting, engaging, and could help paint a picture of what I offer the brand as a marketer. So, I ran a survey!

SurveyMonkey tools are used frequently for employee engagement and HR use cases - HR is second only to Marketing in the functions that get value from SurveyMonkey - but at the time, we hadn't really figured out how to connect with the HR audience yet. My hypothesis was around SurveyMonkey for HR professionals. To prove my hypothesis I tapped into five influential friends super secretly in the HR space, who could help me get critical mass quickly.

With their help, I had over 300 people take the survey in a few days. I walked into my final round interview with data to share on why I thought they were missing the mark and one of their key segments. Having data to support my argument and fully immersing my strategy in the product I’d be marketing was how I sold myself. The rest is history.