HubSpot is the Starbucks of Marketing


I had a realisation last night about HubSpot, my agency, and my mindset.

I’m in Boston at the moment, attending Inbound 2015. The conference kicked off yesterday, and I spent most of it in agency training courses (my company is a HubSpot partner agency). We’ve been a HubSpot partner for approximately 2 years now, and although we love HubSpot, most of our clients are still non-HubSpot users. I was prompted to consider why this might be…

HubSpot: The Inbound Marketing Franchise

The realisation I had is that HubSpot is a franchise model of being a marketing agency, and I haven’t embraced that model as yet.

Although from an outside perspective HubSpot is just a software company, in reality their company is much more. They are predominantly a framework for online marketing (branded by them as ‘inbound marketing’) and the software is the glue that beautifully enables that framework.

Franchises are inherently good things. And they are extremely successful in almost every industry, whether it’s food, lawn mowing, legal services, accounting, etc.

For the purposes of this posts I’m going to use a food analogy, and consider marketing agencies to be cafes.

There’s essentially two types of cafes: there’s the owner run boutique cafe, and there’s the chain cafes such as Starbucks.

If you’ve been running a marketing agency (or digital agency, or online agency, or however you want to refer to it) for a while, then you’re the cafe owner.

  • You probably started with a specific skill (mine was SEO, yours might have been web design) which made you the head barista of the cafe. You make a great coffee.
  • You have staff that help with other areas (eg Facebook) who are helping to grow the light snack side of your cafe.
  • You work very hard in the business and you get a bunch of referral customers.
  • You love your cafe, and look forward to getting there each morning
  • You have plans to grow your cafe operations – perhaps opening new stores one day
  • Your cafe probably has one cash register…

None of this is bad. In fact it’s wonderful. It gives you purpose, and your customers love your custom coffee blends.

But there’s a tension building. Because you’ve seen the chain coffee shops popping up and you’ve been impressed by the software they use to run their POS terminals, inventory tracking, and customer reward programs.

In fact, you’ve been so impressed with their software that you’ve actually started using it in your own cafe.

And it’s started to make a difference to things. You can see what customers are ordering the most, how they interact, and you’ve even started ‘engaging’ with them further and increasing repeat business. You can see a lot of potential here.

In fact you even attend the annual conference of this big coffee chain and sign up to be a partner.

As part of being a partner you learn that the coffee chain has a comprehensive framework for seamlessly running their chain stores. It’s an entire framework for running every single little part of the business. And it is very successful.

Getting stuck

But back at your own cafe you still want to keep most things the way they’ve already been. Sure, you’ll add a few of the learnings from the coffee chain partner conference, and perhaps you’ll start promoting some of their coffee ideas to your customers. But overall you’re keeping things mostly the same.

And that’s why you are stuck.

In many ways, if you were starting from scratch today, it would be much easier. Just embrace the whole Starbucks franchise and you are on your way. You’d likely be more successful in a short space of time than the artisan cafe owner will ever be.

But if you’ve been a cafe owner for a while, its a big step to take. There’s going to be lots of changes. Your daily activities will change. Staff may need to be changed. Your customer base will definitely change. And that’s scary. It’s uncomfortable. And easy to avoid for now.

Time to decide

You can’t be both a custom cafe and a Starbucks at the same time. You need to decide and pick one. And if you decide to be a Starbucks then you need to embrace the inevitable changes. You’ll lose some of your customers – the ones who had specially tailored, unique coffees that no one else had. And you’ll miss them.

So, where to next?

This post is a note to myself. Just writing this down is getting it clear in my mind.

At the moment I’m thinking through the next steps for my agency. Where we want to go, who we want as clients, how we want to grow.

And this tension is key for me. On one hand I want to be the head barista, but on the other I want to be the franchise owner. There are difficult decisions ahead as I work through this. What’s best for me, my staff, my clients.

But there’s also a huge amount of relief just writing this - I finally understand the tension. And the clear positive out of all this, is that I realise the choice is totally mine.


Epilogue: What is Quality Anyway?

There’s tons of problems with the analogy above of course, especially for Australians like me.

1: The obvious problem is that Australians are coffee snobs and consider Starbucks coffee to be (using the technical term): shit. But for the sake of this post you need to ignore that personal taste bit – otherwise it’s going to totally distract you from the main point I was trying to make above.

Aside: But is it really shit coffee?

Seth Godin reminded us last night that quality is defined as ‘meeting specification’. So, if you think a particular coffee is low quality (to put it kindly), then you really need to ask what the specification was. Because your specification might be different to other people’s. This has to be the case – how else could you explain why Starbucks has been so successful everywhere except Australia?

The key would be to get the specification right for Australia.

2: The other main problem with the analogy is that it might make it sound like all marketing agencies are the same.

But that’s not the case at all. In fact, HubSpot stress the need to differentiate and position your agency. If I were to labour the Starbucks analogy it would be like saying you need to work out if you are the niche Starbucks for lawyers, or B2B businesses, or mid-size companies, etc. The framework and process is all the same, but the strategy and targeting is tailored.

But at this point I think I’ll stop – I’ve flogged this analogy to death, and I need to sleep now.

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By Craig Bailey