Can Boston Become the Silicon Valley of Marketing?

How Brian Halligan, CEO of HubSpot, hopes his fast-growing company can help shift the balance to beantown.

Brian Halligan

Brian Halligan is nothing if not a dreamer. In his dream, the Redsox
win the pennant every year, hundreds of thousands of small businesses
use HubSpot and Boston becomes the epicenter for “modern marketing” that
eschews traditional media in favor of his highly digital, “Inbound”
approach. And while Halligan can’t keep his beloved Sox off the
Disabled List, he is well on his way to realizing at least part of his
dream, building a company that has taken small business marketing to a
new, more cost-effective place.


How Halligan and his compatriots at HubSpot have gotten this far is a
potent reminder of the need to think big while minding the store,
blending a Puritanical work ethic with an Aerosmithian will to “Dream
On.” Whether or not HubSpot and Halligan can transform Boston into the
Silicon Valley of marketing, which will require an entire community of
like-minded marketing services providers to take a ride north on the
Metroliner, my interview yielded several location-neutral insights for
any entrepreneur.

The future is coming, the future is coming

With Paul Revere-like clarity, Halligan is quick to warn of the
impending doom of traditional marketing. Noted Halligan, “My whole
thesis in life is that the way people market their products is broken,
that TV/radio/print and interrupting people with spam messages and cold
calls [doesn’t work].” “I actually think that Madison Avenue is going to
crash because no one is watching those ads they’re making anymore and I
want Boston to be the next generation Madison Avenue,” explained
Halligan, who helped to organize Future M, a conference in early October
that focused on “modern marketing,” and featured 50 or so Beantown
marketing innovators.


The company on a hill

When John Winthrop famously declared Boston the “city on a hill,” he
certainly anticipated the fervent city-centric loyalty of Brian
Halligan. “I’m from Boston and I’m a little pissed of that Silicon
Valley has out-innovated us in the PC revolution and then the Internet,”
exclaimed Halligan. Sharing Winthrop’s evangelistic bent, Halligan
noted his desire to “revive the area in terms of the Internet and around
marketing,” building as big a company has he can that maintains its New
England roots. Even though Halligan aspires to a West coast-style
company like Google or Amazon, he makes it clear he has no interest in
selling out to one of these giants and seeing the company leave town.


Not the same old song and dance


Sometimes referred to as “the Bad Boys of Boston,” the band Aerosmith
made its mark by blending elements of pop, heavy metal and R&B to
create their own unique sound. So too has Halligan and his team created
something new by blending a number of tools “into one simple relatively
easy to use package for businesses to take advantage of.” Designed to
address “a massive shift in the way modern humans shop and learn,” the
HubSpot platform includes software for blogging, social media
monitoring, marketing analytics, email and lead nurturing. To prove
HubSpot has a hit on their hands, Halligan noted that they have about
3,500 customers today up from 1400 a year ago while revenue has grown to
$20 million from $7 million over the same period. And that’s got to
music to Halligan’s VC backers if not to the rest of Boston.

Ask not what you can do for your company, ask what your company can do for its customers

JFK’s famous call to action inspired an entire generation to lead by
doing. This notion is at the heart of HubSpot’s success, enabling and
encouraging businesses “to create remarkable content that becomes like a
magnet to pull people in.” Halligan calls this approach Inbound
Marketing, an approach he preaches about in a book and on a blog of the
same name while practicing it religiously at his own company. Noted
Halligan, “we create tons and tons of blog articles, we create eBooks,
we create webinars, we create a weekly TV show” all designed to draw
people into HubSpot often by way of Google without having to buy
keywords. Explained Halligan, “a webinar works for years and years
whereas with Google ads, you just throw money at it month after month.”


Good grade hunting

Boston boys Damon and Affleck took Hollywood by storm with their
Academy Award-winning debut. HubSpot generates good will and great
leads with it highly praised “grader” tools. These free tools rate a
company’s performance on keyword search, website, blogs, Facebook and
even Foursquare. Offered Halligan, “if they get a crappy score, they
say, ‘who are those HubSpot guys?’ and they end up in our funnel,”
watching a demo, trying the software and ultimately buying. The idea
according to Halligan is to “free up as much knowledge and content as
you possibly can and use that knowledge to pull people into your
business and try to convert them into customers.” Halligan also noted
that their customers see meaningful results in 4-6 months, averaging 13%
increases in sales leads that compound on a month to month basis.

More than a feeling for culture


The band Boston exploded onto the rock scene in the mid-seventies but
after two multi-platinum albums, management issues got the best of
them. Halligan is keenly aware that rapid growth brings its own set of
problems and works diligently to keep the band together while bringing
in fresh blood. Explained Halligan, “when you grow this fast,
everything breaks–many of the systems you put in place break and you are
constantly revolving and reorganizing.” Not wanting to be “just
another band out of Boston” that imploded, Halligan and his cohorts put
extra effort into clarifying and cultivating their corporate culture and
mission. “When we do annual reviews of employees, the culture is part
of that review–there are seven points in our culture and we grade them
[on each],” noted Halligan. It is little wonder both employees and
clients seem to sing the praises of HubSpot.

Final note: With over 80% of advertising still going through
traditional media channels and a sizeable percentage of that flowing
through New York-based agencies, shifting the epicenter of “modern
marketing” to Boston won’t happen overnight, if at all. That doesn’t
bother Halligan who has accepted this mission as his “life’s work,” and
whose accomplishments to date justify further consideration. As such,
I’d encourage you to read more of my interview, as I am in the end a New Yorker, too busy weeping over the Yankees’ demise to belabor this further.

About the author

Drew is the founder of Renegade, the NYC-based social media and marketing agency that helps inspired B2B and B2C clients cut through all the nonsense to deliver genuine business growth. A frequent speaker at ad industry events, Drew’s been a featured expert on ABC’s Nightline and CNBC