Molly Laufer went through countless interview processes after transitioning out of the Navy before landing a job as employee #1 at startup NatureBox. Molly is now the Director of Offline Marketing at Homelight. Hear about her journey combating misconceptions about transitioning service-members, her perspective on offline-marketing, and her favorite interview question to ask candidates in the following interview:
I’m currently in a new role at HomeLight as their first ever Director of Offline Marketing, focused on customer acquisition across all offline channels.
It was actually my dad, who had been in the Navy, that encouraged me to join. He insisted that the Navy was a great place to get leadership experience and see the world. He certainly wasn’t wrong, although 15 years later, I now know there are plenty of non-military paths that enable you to lead people and see the world. Nevertheless, I joined ROTC at the University of Virginia, commissioning into the Navy as a Surface Warfare Officer upon graduation. If I could compare that role to one in the private sector, I’d say it’s very similar to a fast-track rotational development training program for junior management. You learn all the fundamentals of ship warfare capabilities and how to lead a group of sailors in a function in which you likely have no prior experience. For example, I majored in foreign affairs in school, but on the ship, I was the Electrical Officer followed by the Force Protection and Ordinance Officer.
My first tour was on a very small ship comprised of 176 people – only 3 of us were women. This class of ship was particularly undermanned and under-equipped, so we were required to execute our mission with light resources. I had multiple collateral duties and wore a ton of hats, an experience that prepared me well for a transition out of the Navy and into startups. Overall, it was a great professional experience and I am glad that I had the opportunity to serve my country and learn valuable leadership skills.
I completed my 4-year sea duty commitment in 2011 around the same time my husband was applying to graduate school. Long story short, he got into business school in the Bay Area and we made the decision together that I would transition out of the Navy and move with him to the Bay Area from San Diego
Silicon Valley was a huge culture shock from the military. In the Navy, people deploy. In Silicon Valley, software deploys. In my world now as a marketer, we want CPAs (cost per acquisitions) to, generally speaking, be very low. In the Navy, you want CPAs (closest point of approach at which two ships will pass) to be high. Even harder than catching on to the lingo was navigating my initial job search. There are a lot of recruitment firms which specialize in placing junior officers into larger corporations with training programs and support systems to help make that person’s transition successful – that wasn’t the path I saw for myself in the Bay Area. I wanted to join a startup, and so my search was pretty much up to me and me alone as most of these traditional recruiter firms placed in operational roles at large manufacturing companies.
I went through countless interview processes only to hear that my background was very interesting but that there wasn’t a clear fit. After a while, I decided to change my approach. I realized that if I couldn’t point to professional experience, then I needed to focus on verticals that I was passionate about from a consumer perspective and then translate my military experience and ability to be a “jack of all trades” as an asset to that industry. At the time, my interests revolved around health, wellness, and fitness – areas where I ultimately shifted my job search focus.
I was ultimately introduced via a friend to Gautam Gupta who was preparing to leave his role as a venture capitalist to start a healthy snack company. Over several coffee meetings, I was able to demonstrate that I understood what he was trying to accomplish because I was the target audience and that I was willing to do whatever needed to be done to help bring NatureBox to market by reaching out to influencers, building up social communities, writing marketing and website copy, and helping with content marketing. He welcomed me as employee #1, pre-launch and pre-revenue.
There are many misconceptions about former service members in the civilian world. One major misconception is that service members are rule and procedure followers to a fault. When you think about the military, you think about policies, processes, and bureaucracy, but from my experience in the military, you also have to be incredibly resourceful within the requirements. Many communities within the military are not as well-funded as people think. The mission always has to get done, but how you execute a mission doesn’t have to follow a rigid path or the same way that something had previously been done. The phrase, “do what you can, where you are, with what you have” absolutely applied to my time in the Navy. Specifically, the time I spent on a frigate translated especially well to an early stage startup because finding a way is what it’s all about in the military. I don’t think it’s something that most people know or appreciate, but if you can translate your experience in this way, it can be very powerful.
My advice to transitioning veterans during an interview is to be sure to point to times in your career where:
you had to make something out of nothing, or
you had to solve a problem that had never been solved before, or
you had a mission to achieve where you were severely undermanned or under-resourced.
I began by focusing on influencer marketing. At the time, I was an avid blog reader and recognized that all the bloggers I followed were advocating products. This was back when bloggers were making the majority of their income through display ads, not for sponsored content, a time before Pinterest, Instagram, and other platforms for generating revenue as an influencer I started reaching out to any blogger I could identify as having followers with an affinity for healthy living. In my outreach I simply asked if they’d be willing to try and write about our product, to give us their thoughts and share with their audience.
We saw a lot of traction right out of the gate. Bloggers would write about us and then we’d have customers sign up using a bloggers’ promo code. We did this grassroots outreach for over a year before we put a single penny behind the acquisition marketing channel.
Over time, bloggers started to realize they weren’t optimizing their income potential because no one was clicking on display ads. The blogging community started to write about products for a set cost. Eventually, it became clear that if wanted to continue to see significant ROI from bloggers, then we needed to make a substantial investment into sponsored posts. Our first test into sponsored content was an outrageous (to us) $7,000 cost for a single blog post from a notable blogger. Fortunately, it was a success, and over the next year I built out more scalable blog partnerships with influencers, putting more and more money behind the channel.
About a year later, someone reached out on Twitter, asking us to sponsor their podcast for $1,500. Mind you, it was mid-2013 before podcasting exploded as a medium. We took another gamble which subsequently led to me driving a six-figure podcast advertising budget over the next year and a half. To our surprise, we were acquiring nearly the same number of customers via podcasts as we were through Facebook advertising. And interestingly, the quality of customer and their life time value (LTV) acquired through podcasts was exponentially better than those acquired through Facebook.
From there, everything started water-falling as the business scaled. I was at the tip of the spear for testing new offline channels – everything from radio to direct mail to YouTube influencers and television.
You’re certainly starting to to see more companies expand into offline channels - traditional media channels like TV, radio, out of home, direct mail, plus emerging channels like podcasts, streaming audio, and connected TV.. In addition, companies are becoming more advanced with acquisition tracking; they are shifting away from last-click attribution to multi-touch attribution models. Multi-touch attribution takes every exposure a customer has with your product into consideration whereas last-click attribution credit’s the conversion to the customer’s last exposure or click. In digitally-native brands, the former is often the bedrock of their acquisition playbook, but over time, new models are needed as you diversify your channel mix.
There are a lot of factors that make offline marketing hard and a little scary for digitally-native brands who are accustomed to last-click attribution and view-based conversion insights. In addition to higher out of pocket costs for media and creative production, tracking and measurement is more complicated compared to digital. However, digital has its limitations when it comes to customer acquisition and overall brand reach. For instance, there are certain times of the year when competition for Facebook advertising spikes, causing CPAs to increase drastically. As algorithms and ad technology changes, so should your media mix.
Offline marketing opens up opportunities to achieve scale that can be difficult to achieve digitally. Business insight and analytics teams are getting more sophisticated with attribution models used to measure incremental impact of offline, which is allowing companies to test offline channels as well as track offline ROI.
As I always say - a rising tide lifts all boats. One of the benefits of running offline media is that you start to see increased efficiencies in your branded search campaigns as well as within your display and social advertising. Your re-targeting pool opens up tremendously because you’re now driving new prospects to your website. The synergy between online and offline marketing is what drives the need to develop more sophisticated attribution models in order to evaluate the entire marketing mix - across digital and offline.
What was a piece of critical feedback you got from your manager? Why did you get that feedback? What did you do with the feedback?
I like to know what a candidate’s potential weaknesses are, and this question reveals whether a candidate is self-aware enough to communicate those weaknesses. The follow-up questions help demonstrate if they’ve taken that feedback to heart. As their potential manager, understanding how they respond to critical feedback is very useful. Plus, you have already identified areas to keep an eye on as you work to help them grow and be successful.
When startups are looking for a specialist, it’s very hard to fill that role with a newly transitioned veteran. However, if startups are looking for more of a generalist or someone who is able to roll up their sleeves and do the hard work, then a military veteran could be the perfect fit.
My advice to startup founders on the fence about hiring a veteran is to think about the types of problems you want the candidate to solve, and then allow the veteran to translate their experience as it relates to those problem sets.
Look for individuals who have the job you think you want and read or listen to their stories. When you read several peoples’ stories, you start to realize there is no single path to take. Everyone’s background and journey is unique. Ingesting their backgrounds will help you to visualize possible paths for you, while giving you confidence that there is no “right way” to achieve your goals. Two podcasts that specifically focus on veteran transitions are Behind the Uniform and Success Vets - these shows profile veterans who have made transitions into new and diverse sectors in the civilian world.
There were so many people that were willing to have coffee with me when I was getting my start in the tech world and I would be honored to pay it forward to anyone who wants to reach out to discuss a transition from the military (or large corporate) into a startup or to talk about a career in marketing. Over LinkedIn or via email are the best ways to get in touch. My email is: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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