Small Fish, Big Pond: How to Avoid Getting Lost in the Takeover
Trello’s content marketing lead describes how she and her team navigated a small but successful startup content marketing strategy through an enterprise buyout.
By Leah Ryder
“We’re getting acquired” are the three words that many people in the startup world hope for — or at least are prepared to hear. Yet, in January 2017, there was more than a little disbelief in the room when we were told Trello was being bought by one of our largest competitors.
I had joined Trello the previous year, eager to be a part of the collaboration app’s story as its one-person content marketing program grew into a scrappy-yet-savvy team of four. But, overnight, we had become part of an enterprise engine of 200 digital marketers at Atlassian, an Australian tech company that today has more than a dozen products, including Jira Software and Confluence, and more than 2,500 employees worldwide.
My first reaction was to laugh. From budget to process (and nearly everything in between), the ways in which we ran our content marketing strategy were about to change.
I also felt confident that we had something big to bring to the table. We came into Atlassian with a highly active content marketing program. Reaching an audience of over 10 million annually, we owned the most successful blog, in terms of reach, they’d ever had in their portfolio.
So, there we were; a small team with a “just-ship-it” mindset joining a large team executing initiatives at an enterprise level of detail; both of us with successes to our name, both coming together to learn from each other.
Never let ’em see you sweat
While the acquisition process was smooth, it was still a tumultuous time: Legions of new people to meet (including a new boss), a new HR structure to navigate, and different tools and processes to learn. I felt like I had one full-time job keeping the Trello content machine running, while juggling another brand new job of plugging myself and my team into Atlassian.
From the outset, the biggest goal for me and the rest of the Trello marketing team was to stay consistent. We knew that any sign of disruption or disturbance could spook Trello’s loyal audience, many of whom relied on the app for their own work, were passionate users, and already knew that change was underway. As primary communicators for Trello, my team wanted to reassure them and protect that brand trust.
Trello founder Michael Pryor published a blog post about the change, and the content team set up a social and comment policy to answer user concerns with compassion and honesty. I logged in every day to be met with dozens of comments, each requiring a personalized response, and my colleagues did the same.
Before the Atlassian takeover, Trello’s fans trusted us to publish valuable content about productivity without shoehorning in a sales message. It was very important to me that we stick to that same editorial schedule and continue delivering great content (with no agenda) consistently across our channels — no matter what.
I also felt strongly that I needed to quickly prove our success with the program to head off any risk of unnecessary change. I wrote up annual plans detailing our strategy, paired with monthly reports summarizing our growth, lessons, wins, and adjustments. As much as possible, I used data points that aligned with Atlassian’s definitions of success. Delivering this written history of our work to our new department heads demonstrated that, in terms of the content we were putting out there, things didn’t need to change too much.
Getting an upfront consensus from the executive team on maintaining our content mission was so important, and it freed us from concern about encroaching creative changes so that we could focus on the process changes instead.
Know when to stick to your roots
A few months after the acquisition, I was keen to start work on a content campaign from our pre-Atlassian strategic plan that centered on an e-book about remote work. However, with everything still in flux, it seemed like no one had enough bandwidth to help launch a large new project. I faced my first test of whether to fold or stick it out.
I knew it was the right time to hit this important topic: Remote work was picking up steam, and no one had yet stepped forward with a manual of best practices. As a long-standing distributed team, we had already developed a number of successful remote work practices. We knew we had plenty of proven advice to share.
Senior Content Marketing Manager Lauren Moon and I decided to stick to our startup roots and carry out the project without relying on any of the new resources. That way we could avoid the risk of potential bottlenecks in these new and uncharted processes and guarantee it would get done.
The two of us created some savvy shortcuts by recycling previous design assets and repurposing old blog content to create the asset.
Without any promotion budget, we also looked to our existing and new network of colleagues to find co-marketing connections. We secured nine of the world’s top remote-working companies to contribute tips and ideas to fill out the content. The enterprise-sized network at Atlassian also helped us to source and produce a timely customer story about UNICEF’s work during Hurricane Irma (reusing photography to keep the budget down). With all of this support, we decided we could rely on the distribution networks of those remote-working companies we partnered with to reach a wider audience throughout the six-week promotion calendar by asking for links and recommendations through their channels.
Even in the midst of a large marketing organization, our scrappy startup mindset allowed us to publish our most successful e-book to date with the efforts of just two content marketers.
Nearly 250,000 downloads later, the content campaign is a hallmark of our work at Trello and Atlassian.
Words of advice from the trenches
If I could head back in time and give myself a piece of advice, it would be this: Keep your core strengths in view; know that you can stay agile when you need to; and then take advantage of your growing resources, funding, and expert network to take what you do best to a whole new level.
Prioritize progress over process
Processes only get more complicated when there are more people, legal requirements, and managers involved. It’s easy to let those hurdles stop progress. It’s even easier to let the slowing pace and frustrations of learning new rules wreak havoc on team morale.
At first, I found myself looking at our new resource pool, sizing up the steps involved to access what I needed, and then coming up with an alternate plan that kept things simple (read: fast) to ship.
Gradually refine and scale these processes
However, sticking to our old ways as a rule (or as a comfort blanket) wouldn’t hold my team afloat over the long term, particularly as all areas of the company grew:
- Our product teams hired more engineers to release more features.
- These added features attracted more free users and paying customers at a faster rate.
- The marketing team gained more tools and people for better email targeting, more events, and paid advertising.
- New budgets were created for PR, video content, and social investment.
It became clear that this rising tide of activity would soon overwhelm us. That startup playbook risked stagnating or under-powering our program.
The right balance isn’t achieved overnight. I’ve struggled more with making new processes efficient and valuable to our work than with any other aspect of managing or scaling my team.
Monitor team health and workloads
To refine this crazy tangle of old and new processes, we conduct quarterly reviews of team health, workflows, and request volume. For example, my team uses a Trello board to track every request to review copy from elsewhere in the business, logging the due date and time spent on the card. Every few months, I can see how much time is spent on assistance to other teams or projects and whether it’s increased or decreased month over month and year over year. If we get overrun, we can easily make a business case to finance more freelance editing help.
Allocate more time where it has the greatest impact
The intake process to bring in new people, tools, and funds meant slowing things down — something that was very hard for me to do, having been in the ship-to-survive startup world for years. As a rule of thumb, I found that any project that needs additional resources will usually require 20 to 50% more time to reasonably accomplish. Surprisingly, that extra time hasn’t impacted our results. In fact, because of the increased knowledge and strategy we can apply to our work, quite the opposite.
Be transparent with documented strategies
I guide my team to do the legwork to document our annual strategic plans and outcomes, with an update at the six-month mark, and quarterly OKRs (Objectives and Key Results) to track progress. All of these documents are open to the entire company. I’ve been careful to deliver this content, and other program recommendations, to our decision-makers within the frameworks and formats they are used to. While our ideas and content might not fit the mold of other products in the marketing suite, the delivery is in line with how they assess and make decisions on what to fund or support.
Demonstrate accountability backed up by data
What I didn’t try to do was strive for immediate corporate perfection in an attempt to fit in. It was more important to be accountable for our results. Atlassian is very good at making marketing decisions based on solid data, while proving ROI on past performance is an important part of any investment the team makes in future projects.
Since Atlassian uses a different reporting system, the Trello content team had to quickly reframe all of our reporting metrics and goals, so that the marketing efforts of all Atlassian’s products could be compared effectively.
By consistently delivering on our projects and goals time and time again, my team has earned a great deal of internal credibility. This has helped us gain approval and resources for larger productions like video commercials and sponsored content campaigns.
Amidst all the collaboration as a content team, within a marketing team, within a brand, within a house of brands, I feel the biggest risk is losing focus of what’s most important. So every week, my team and I stay on track by using “the rule of five.” For a half hour every Monday, we get on a video call to check in on our “big five” — the two tasks we’re finishing right now, the two tasks we’ll do next, and the one task we’re not doing (or won’t get to) but is still important. Sometimes another team member can pitch in on that bumped work or we can communicate the delay to manage expectations about our progress.
Embracing the change
An incredible two years since the takeover, I am proud to see that our content activities are empowered by deeper data insights, advanced SEO, and paid marketing teams. I also feel supported by more freelancers and processes that protect our time for the most high-value projects, while still staying true to Trello’s voice.
In fact, we’re looking forward to what the year ahead holds with even more resources at our disposal. Finally, we’re ready for the next level!