Ahin Thomas, VP of Marketing at Backblaze, shares the unconventional ways he drives growth and why professional wrestling is America's purest form of storytelling

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Episode Outline

[01:10] How Backblaze accomplishes 90% inbound

[06:00] The unconventional ways Ahin drove growth at Backblaze

[09:23] The challenges of content marketing

[12:27] Campaigns that did not pan out and what Ahin learned from them

[16:23] The importance of having a unique view of value to share

[19:20] How learning the mechanics of collaborative databases benefited Ahin’s career

[20:35] Why Ahin thinks professional wrestling is America’s most important art form and purest form of storytelling we have

Ahin’s Inspirations

Pat Connolly

Vincent Kennedy Mcmahon

Connect with Ahin




Elias Rubel: (00:36)
Hi everyone. Welcome back to another episode. I am thrilled per usual for you to listen in on this conversation, but before we get into it, if you're a regular listener and you enjoy the discussions, do me a favor and let us know by rating and reviewing us on Apple podcasts. It helps other folks find the show and it helps Apple realize they should feature us on new and noteworthy. So that would be awesome with that enough of my blabbing. Let's get on to the episode today. I am super thrilled to have a heme Thomas on the show. Uh, we've got to first today for the show. Uh, he is the first hand model ever to be on best and SAS and also wins the a, the best. What do you call it? A hair tie or a bandana. What is that thing that was on your head? You can't see it. This is audio only, but I have the pleasure of seeing this. What is that? I, I had band. I mean, it does add an element of speed. So you looked very fast. It's a pink headband for those who can't see through this audio only recording.

Ahin Thomas: (01:43)
Um, well he and I, I'm really excited to talk all things growth and marketing with you. You're the VP of marketing at Backblaze, um, profitable company, over 40 million in ARR. And a moment ago you were telling me it's like 90% inbound. So like, let's start there. That's, that's always a, a unicorn kind of tidbit to here, so let's dig in. Cool. And.

Ahin Thomas: (02:08)
Hey, thanks for having me. Um, yeah, good place to start. And also I'll pick up on unicorn. We actually, uh, we call ourselves cockroaches. Unicorns are extinct cockroaches, just keep going. Yeah. And actually, if you gave me a second to, uh, I bet that content marketing and the inbound piece, which is backways is 14 years old. We've only ever taken in $3 million in invested capital. Um, and to your point, last year, we finished a year. We're at $45 million in ARR growing that was 40, 40, 40 0% growth year over year, gross margins over 50%.

Ahin Thomas: (02:50)
So how do you do that? How do you build it brick by brick, which is like awesome after it works, but pretty miserable in the moment extent, um, because you don't have a lot of cash. And so predating me, um, we thought, uh, we thought, okay, well, you don't have a lot of cash, so you better write some interesting content, um, and, you know, make good press pitches and all that. So there is that kind of commercial aspect. And there was also the aspect of our five founders, all five of whom are still at their operating roles in the company. Um, of just the like, Hey, let's not be every other company. And so, yeah, that, that meant, you know, is skewing, uh, venture funded, uh, business models, which certainly have their merits. Um, but it, but also have many downsides including, uh, you know, growth pressures, uh, when, when perhaps it isn't right for the business and the sustainability of the business.

Ahin Thomas: (03:46)
Um, so what do you do you say, okay, well, let's actually publish what we think on our blog and, uh, some things that may or may not be re replicable, um, but is how we got our start. We started looking around and said, well, what's interesting to us and potentially interesting to others that they don't have. Uh, and one of our franchise content franchises is what we call dry stats. We publish the failure rates of our, the hard drives on our farm, um, every quarter. So I should take a step back back ways we do cloud storage, what's cloud storage in the end, you store data on, on other people's hard drives that other people being us. Um, so you store data on hard drives. We're asking you to trust us with your data. And so why am I talking about how often my infrastructure fails?

Ahin Thomas: (04:38)
Um, and I'll have to get into that. I'll pause and take a breath in a moment. Um, but so we decide, Hey, people are interested in performance statistics. We have more hard drives than most. And the people that have more hard drives than us Google, Microsoft and Amazon won't publish their data. So we said, screw it, let's do it. See what happens. And it turns out the internet goes nuts. And it also turns out we're the single largest publisher of hard drive performance statistics on the planet. And when you can, you know, you can say hard drive performance statistics. You could say email usage, you could say sales phone calls, but if you're the largest publisher data that people are interested in, then they're going to come and read it. So let me pause there. And does that make sense?

Elias Rubel: (05:25)
Yeah, totally. I mean, my takeaway here is, is, uh, have something that no one else has as far as like data that you can publish and then bam, 90% inbound. I mean, right.

Ahin Thomas: (05:38)
You have to be born on inside of a gold mine. Um, look at that, that, that is very hard to reproduce, although you'd be surprised how many businesses are sitting on that, right? Because if you're in business for the most part, and certainly your, your listenership you're in a large market, there's interest in the mechanics of what's what's going on there because, you know, it's, it's, it's an over billion dollar market and you have, you know, three legitimate competitors and probably a hundred also ran like a bunch of people working on very similar problems. They want the data they want and they want the insights, um, because we all care about what we do. So, so if you take a dispassionate kind of true, what's interesting, look at your infrastructure, that's how you tend to find these stories. Um, and this is the marketing guy talking like, yeah, I want to sell storage obviously, but you know, me just doing another puff piece, press release, no one cares. Um, and so how do we, how do we start from a place of what's interesting and then figure out how to, how to monetize.

Elias Rubel: (06:50)
So you stepped into an organization that was already kind of using this as the strategy. What, so what was, what were your first steps? I mean, what did you then seek to do to further leverage that, or maybe diversify beyond that, um, to drive the growth that you've been driving there.

Ahin Thomas: (07:10)
Yeah. And I want to underscore, I stepped into it, which is if I had been in the room when the, when the person pitch, Hey, we should publish, publish the drive failure rates. I would have said, are you high? Right? Like we are in the business of storing your data. You want to talk about how often things fail. Definitely a terrible, terrible idea. So what about on the wrong side of history there? Um, so I have the tremendous benefit of walking in the door and like, Oh my God, that actually works. Right. Cause I can, yeah, I can see the numbers. Um, and I guess that's his second big lesson or which is the vanity metrics of pages and uniques and engagement and all that are good and often leading indicators, but you gotta be honest with yourself of whether or not it's driving business.

Ahin Thomas: (08:00)
Um, so, so how do I think about it? I say, okay, we're good storytellers. Uh, let's make sure that we have the people and the space to continue telling those stories. And what does that mean? Uh, the, the space is like, Hey, if it's part of people's jobs and they can do it, if you're asking me, we'll do it nights and weekends, you'll get a bunch of loyalists, but it's hard to scale it, to keep it going, um, to making it part of people's jobs and what people, I started my career as a songwriter, I D deep, fundamental respect for writers and copywriters and freelancers and all that. Um, but if you're writing a technical story, it probably comes from the engineer or the product manager at backways product marketers are, are very sophisticated. And so the people doing the work are the ones that know the story.

Ahin Thomas: (08:52)
Um, and so making sure that that becomes part of a culture, not a separate organization, um, and then the, the law. So make it part of people's jobs, hire people then who can do the job, uh, hire, nurture, and retain the people that can do the job. And then the third part that's unusual at backways is we brought in, uh, what we call the head of publishing. Um, I'm a big basketball fan. And so my, my metaphor is Steph Curry needs a shooting coach. I'm not as good a writer. His staff is a shear, so I need an editor. We all need editors. And that's where you can bring in a professional, right? So we brought somebody in his name's Patrick he's awesome. Comes from a publishing background. Um, and yeah, he does, he does know a little bit about storage and it certainly learned a time.

Ahin Thomas: (09:42)
But the thing is, he is a great, great writer and editor. So the people who are doing the work can tell their stories and they go to Patrick and he outs Polish. What he does, what a great editor does. He brings a story out, he polishes their voice as opposed to making it some corporatized legally reviewed. Does that make sense? Yeah. No, absolutely. I love that idea. So are you, are you then like taking this is the traditional, like account based approach to going out and finding, you know, your ideal customers? Is that just not part of the picture there, because you have such a strong inbound or is that another side of the coin here? I was starting in literally 10 days. Um, so today it is not part of the picture now, the downside, what are the upsides of inbound? It's awesome. It's high margin.

Ahin Thomas: (10:37)
You get to appear on podcasts like this and get to take credit for a lot of other people's hard work. Um, I mean, you sound really good right now, but thank you. The other thing too is when you promote, we promote people from the publishing world, like, you know, hipsters drinking, macho all over the country right now. I, you know, I have a high tide Q coercion. Um, so, um, but, but the more traditional things, so the downside of content marketing, like yes, you do attribution and you do all that stuff. And I'm happy to talk about our stack. Um, but it's harder to tell who the customers are. And particularly who the interested people are that we didn't convert because, you know, in the end they kind of show up maybe from Reddit, there's a data hoarder subreddit. Um, my, my band's big in the Philippines.

Ahin Thomas: (11:28)
We're big on red. Uh, the, uh, the, uh, you can kind of see referrals kind of, sort of marry. You obviously do event tracking on the blog category, but you're not learning that much pre customer. And then when you get the customer, yeah. You get the domain, which is awesome. And you can do data enrichment from there, but it's to build the true current ideal customer profile because you fundamentally have a lesser understanding when the traffic comes to you organically. Um, but the flip side, it's high margin and it works. And so that's awesome. So what happens is, um, you know, the business is going on nicely and it tastes a little while longer to build up enough data and enough customers to build out what really is lookalike audiences. Um, and so one, you got, it takes you longer to get that, that data.

Ahin Thomas: (12:27)
Um, and two it's, if you're tuning your infrastructure around that inbound, whereas traditionally you spend a lot of time kind of tuning around the outbound and making sure you're nurturing and, and handing off to sales. Um, so it just, it delays a bunch of infrastructure work. Um, but we've bitten that off. Um, we're very, very excited to get started. Um, and yeah, it'll be a journey because we are, you know, we're over a decade old, we have a great base. We have a great brand, all that, but first time you, you do your prospect and you definitely going to be wrong. The question is how fast you can adjust.

Elias Rubel: (13:06)
Speaking of, of things that are wrong in previous conversations, we've talked about, you know, as marketers, perfecting certain campaigns that you're just mentally are all in on you, you're sure that they're going to work. They're going to be a huge success. And then

Ahin Thomas: (13:20)
Like all

Elias Rubel: (13:22)
Not, you know, it just crickets when it launches. And these are the fun things that we get to balance with our big wins. Sometimes we have big losses. Could you share some of those fun? Like it didn't pan out the way you thought, uh, campaigns

Ahin Thomas: (13:35)
Eli's is hardly what I call, never talking about it again about a month ago. Uh, we, we, we had founded up for big campaign, so a little bit more about Baclays, uh, we have two products. One is for $5 a month, we store all the data on your computer. Um, such a great market leader in that space. Um, second product is B to cloud storage also great, uh, on the market guy, not so safe, cheap, but, uh, it's a lot like Amazon's S3, just a quarter of the price, um, which tells you about Amazon's margins. Okay. So stop.

Ahin Thomas: (14:14)
Um, we launch a campaign. We, we integrate with a partner and we will pay for your data migration out of Amazon to backways. Please we'll pay for it. And overnight you will cut your cloud storage bill, but in, by 75%, it's unbelievable. I'm going to pay you to save money. Um, and no one goes toe to toe with Amazon because you have to be a lunatic, right? Like you don't, you don't go up to David and hit him in the face that your Slingshot out, right? So this is a genius campaign, perfectly organized. I, you know, I personally take lead. VP of sales personally runs it from sales or CEO is involved and we are the night before we kind of have our like quick, Hey, all systems go meeting. Then, you know, it's a good sign of a team. Like, Hey, we're feeling really good about this. We did our jobs. This is going to be good. Like we're all jumping off the cliff together and jump off a cliff. We did.

Ahin Thomas: (15:19)
What does that actually mean? You know, from a vanity standpoint, I was talking about dry stats a second ago. We just published that, that got 1500 shares in the first 24 hours. And that's about average for a big post for us. Um, this campaign where we call cloud to cloud migration got two comments in a month, second one may or may not have been my mom, we're not checking the IPS. So it was crickets and, you know, sort of similarly, uh, horrifyingly, lack of press coverage, social, like no negative thing. It was the worst kind of campaign, but it was just met with indifference, um, and shirts, the DETA summer. And sure, it's a pandemic and sure. A lot of things, but man, we bombed we've and we bombed on a really good message. Um, so that was probably a lot more context, but you know, what are the lessons from that?

Ahin Thomas: (16:14)
We, our fundamental approach was we believe that taking their direct shot at Amazon was kind of newsworthy and noteworthy in and of itself. And it's the classic marketers mistake. It's, it's thinking your customer cares about the stuff you care about when you're supposed to be doing the opposite. Customers don't care that back lays is actually taking a business away from Amazon, which we are, and we're really stoked on it, but customers care about saving money. Customers care about solving the complexity of their storage operations so they can get back to their business. And we made that mistake of speaking from our viewpoint, as opposed to, Hey, we think there's a world of customers that are here with this problem. And let me tell you how we're going to solve it. Does that make sense? Totally. So, and then, then maybe on the flip side, like have there been any campaigns that you put out the door that you weren't expecting tremendous results from that that ended up becoming gold mines?

Ahin Thomas: (17:14)
Yeah, it's mostly entirely when I tell him my table, you can do that if you want, but it's not going to work my track record. I, I just, I gotta stop forecasting is really the issue here. Um, and so what are those, what are those times where it happens? Um, you know, w we end our blog posts with, you know, Hey, tell us about a time we're going to happen to you all the very trite Hallmarky, please, please, please leave us comments so we can engage with you. Um, we do that and you should that's table stakes, where we have hits in your variably. It comes from us going through the Reddit threads, going through the Twitter comments and looking at what other people are talking about. So there are two big things. What are other people talking about and can back ways lend a unique perspective to it?

Ahin Thomas: (18:11)
So, you know, we were really slow for example, to publish when kind of a quarantine hit across the country, you saw a lot of businesses emailing their customers saying, wow, COVID and you know, we're going to try to make this work, um, which I certainly empathize with internally. We were having all of those same conversations. Why does your customer care? What was unique about your business, about your message that should get into their crowded inbox? You know, what people were trying to do is establish an era employer that cares, and we're taking care of our employees and we're nice people we're good, which is all cool, but in the end it's like, well, how am I making the customer's life better? Um, and so from a content perspective, you have to be ruthless about, does my company have a unique, unique view of value to share if so, do it. Um, and even when it's arcane or particularly when it's super random and remote, because then you'll, if you have something unique to say about something that other people, other entities aren't talking about, you're going to draw in all those enthusiasts. And when you find something that even a small group of people are passionate about, it'll go.

Ahin Thomas: (19:31)
So as we kind of wind this down, I'm curious, you know, based on where you are at your career, you've had some amazing opportunities thus far, and it only kind of continues to build who are some of the folks in your life, whether they're mentors or just peers who have been influential, who you look up to, or who have helped you to get to where you are today, trying to me to one directly, one indirect. Um, so I'm just going to keep going before you can solve them. Um, one of them, a mentor of mine, his name is Pat Conway, he's the founding COO at Williams-Sonoma. Um, we started a, uh, direct response wine business together. Um, and so both just like general career sharper at eating, um, which is incredibly helpful. Um, but also, um, learning the mechanics of, uh, collaborative databases, which is, you know, how the catalog industry grew up.

Ahin Thomas: (20:27)
Um, being able to learn that from the ground up, um, was super important for my career because in the end, those mechanics is where lookalike modeling came from. And for the real nerds out there, it's RFM, recency frequency, monetary value. Um, the catalogers are the first ones that figured it out. Um, the folks at eBay were super sophisticated and translating it, uh, online, early on, and there was multiple people there, but there's kind of a Williams-Sonoma and eBay connection bear companies. Um, and so then, you know, as Google Facebook and these pop up, these are just derivations. So really having an understanding of the source material has been huge for my career. Um, so that's good. The other one more universally applicable Vincent Kennedy McMahon. Now you might be asking that name sounds familiar. Yes, yes. It is the chairman of the WWE.

Ahin Thomas: (21:28)
He's my contention that professional wrestling is today. America's most important art form. It is the purest form of storytelling. We have everybody laughed the Georgetown government department when I wrote my undergraduate thesis on wrestling and boy bands that hadn't happened before apparently. So I say it with a smile on my face, although I do watch somewhere in the zip code of two hours of professional wrestling a week. Why? Because it actually is pure storytelling, or you can watch soap operas and novellas two, four for the same thing. It's coming from a heritage of, if you have a complete lack of context, how can you tell a story to a large crowd, even though you're midway through the story and yeah, I mean, what can be, and it's professional wrestling, it's pretty cheesy, but the mechanics of how they work through that and their response to the crowd that is they make their living by responding to the crowd and responding to the customer. Um, so that actually has been huge in my life. And also I get to talk about perpetual wrestling and wildly inappropriate sex. Um, so first, by the way, first retired hand model, um, like sliced alone. No, no more. I see too much. Um, but also I think the first guy to extol the virtues of professional professional wrestling on your, on your podcast, uh, certainly true. And I hope you've, you've probably irregular over at hood slam in the East Bay for, uh, for your cheesy in person wrestling fix.

Ahin Thomas: (23:14)
I actually embarrassingly I'll admit I have not yet gone. I know, I know. I know it is. It is part, it is, it is not something I'm proud of. It's something I look forward to. It's a remedy. Well, at least you have, you're leaving this call. We're leaving this call with a bunch of great insights in the marketing world. You're leaving this call with homework. Yes, sir. And I look forward to reporting back in on it. Great. Thank you.