Leela Srinivasan: In her own words
I grew up 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 don't know how much the outside world knows about the Scottish education system, but it’s very strong and even responsible for a lot of great medical discoveries.
I ended up studying history and English at the University of Edinburgh. This is in the sort of early, the early to mid-90s; I had done very well at school and had I stayed in the UK, I was on track to probably go into banking or consulting along with many of my peers.
I, on the other hand, met a fella. An American fella. And there was something about America. That wasn't why I end up with a fella [laughs]. But I had this weird obsession as a teenager with America to the point where I was mesmerized. I could tell you all the states on the map in order. I knew all the capitals. I knew all the presidents in order. I always had some sort of fascination with the US.
So, 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. 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, pre-OxyClean. It was growing like gangbusters. We did a ton on the radio with big personalities; 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 on reception for six weeks; I think they liked my accent. Then they realized I could probably do more than that, so they moved me into marketing.
There, I worked as a special project manager for the CEO. I took all the minutes in board meetings (because I could type faster than anyone), 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. I 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.
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.
So here 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 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, which was interesting. The role was salaried with a nice bonus built in, but it wasn't a traditional sales structure. In some ways, it felt better. My conscience was clear in talking to customers because I could actually 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.”
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 report [the company put out] 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). Within our society, recognition remains huge. People want to see their name in lights. They want to feel appreciated, and 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 see if I can 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 five or six sales folks and worked very closely with our newsroom; I did that for two years but was ready for the next chapter. I began to think about going back to school and trying my hand at getting an MBA. In some ways, I ran from sales and I went to business school, a little bit ashamed of my sales upbringing.
While in school, though, as I began the recruiting process for new roles, the recruiters loved my sales background.
While in school, though, as I began the recruiting process for new roles, 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 into some of the things that were coming into my inbox and, in particular, I stayed in touch with this fella called Dan Shapiro, who ran talent solutions globally for LinkedIn. (This is in 2008!) He pinged me every few months with an opportunity and the timing was never right; I was off doing a transfer in London, or I was pregnant.
And then finally he reached out with something, and the role looked amazing, even though I wasn't qualified for it. The role was the first product marketer for LinkedIn Talent Solutions, but I went for it and it worked out. Having been a salesperson, I had such a different understanding of what it takes to need to win in marketing. What are the materials are going to convince somebody to move forward? How should this be communicated in order to fully resonate? And so I find 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 remember that Eurythmics song with Aretha Franklin - Sisters Are Doing It For Themselves. There's a line, "Behind every great man, there had to be a great woman." I think the reverse is true for me. 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 at LinkedIn. I've had that immense privilege of having a super supportive partner. I dislike for that to be part of my success story, but it's so true. I'm just really lucky to have Joel as my co-pilot on this journey.
I've had that immense privilege of having a super supportive partner.
Fast forward, years into my marketing career, to a recruiting firm reaching out and saying, “You should really talk to Survey Monkey.” I was intrigued enough having used Survey Monkey extensively as a marketer. I decided to check out the opportunity. During my first meeting there, I was just blown away. I had no idea what was going on behind the scenes at Survey Monkey - all the depth of products that we offer, the business trajectory, 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 the picture of what I offer the brand as a marketer. I came up with the idea of running a survey!
Survey Monkey tools at the time were used frequently for employee engagement, but we hadn't really figured out how to connect with the HR audience yet. My hypothesis was around Survey Monkey for HR professionals. To do this, I tapped into three to five influencers super secretly in the HR space, who could help me get critical mass quickly.
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.