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Strategies for Success: Surefire Local's Niche Marketing Approach

Christopher Marentis, Founder & Executive Chairman of Surefire Local

Embark on a dynamic podcast journey with Harshit Gupta and Christopher Marentis, Founder & Executive Chairman as they decode the evolution of Surefire Local on Wytpod. From SaaS leadership insights to pioneering AI integration, this conversation unveils the strategic mastery behind Surefire’s niche marketing approach. Join the discussion for a deep dive into the technical intricacies of small business empowerment, customer retention, and the cutting-edge innovations propelling Surefire Local to new heights in the digital realm.

Surefire Local provides business intelligence marketing software for small businesses, helping them attract customers, grow profits, and maximize efficiency.

Christopher Marentis
Founder & Executive Chairman of Surefire Local

Okay. Hello, everyone, and welcome to another episode of Wytpod. My name is Harshit, and I’m the Director of Business Alliances at Wytlabs. We are a digital agency specializing in SaaS and E-commerce SEO. And I’ve got Christopher Marentis with me, Founder and Executive Chairman at Surefire Local. Now a little bit about Surefire Local, It provides business intelligence marketing software for small businesses, helping them attract customers, grow profits, and maximize efficiency. Chris is also an executive coach helping SaaS leaders and is a strategic advisor at involve.ai. He’s also a limited partner at Stage 2 Capital. Big welcome to you, Chris, and I’m so happy to host you today.

Thank you. Nice to meet you.

It’s because of a lot going on in your life right now. And let’s start by telling our viewers a little bit about you and your professional journey so far.

I’m an older guy so that professional journey could take a long time. So I’ll try to give the abbreviated version, I’m an engineer by training back in college, and I’ve always been very interested in this idea of bridging technology with marketing communication from the beginning of my career journey in the large agencies of New York City, advertising agencies where they started to lean into new technologies, even back then. And I’ve been an entrepreneur several times over. I’ve run three venture-backed businesses. The third one, Surefire Local. I found it as well. And I think there’s never been a more exciting time to be in marketing communications software. I think we’re at the precipice of an unprecedented wave in the next ten years that’s going to make the beginning of the Internet, that period of 95 to 2005 look like it was a blip compared to what’s going to be happening now.

Yeah. Okay, let’s talk a bit about Surefire Local now, because it’s dedicated to empowering small businesses. Would love to know what was the inspiration behind founding Surefire and how its mission has evolved since 2010. It’s been a long time, 13 years now.

Yeah, I founded it having been CEO. I was a hired CEO to come in and help some young founders at a company that became Add This, which is around content sharing and commenting. It made it super easy for content to move around in the early days. That was back in 2007, 2006. And then I went to another company around geospatial intelligence called Forteus One. And having been involved in marketing, technology, and marketing for quite some time at that point, I started to put those two things together about the importance of content. No longer a destination, a website, but something that you could have across the web in many different places, and then how Geospatial intelligence was going to change search and discovery in both of those things. And I wrote a book in honor of my dad, who was an HVAC contractor about how business owners could take more control over their business visibility. They don’t have to just abdicate it to an agency anymore. They could be more involved in that, and they should be because it was changing. And that kicked off Surefire Local and back in 2010, 2011 when I started, there were some point solutions in technology, but they were very nascent and didn’t have very strong APIs and such.

I started as a managed services business, creating the idea from the book, which is a coordinated strategy across all these new channels anchored in structured data. And then as APIs became mature enough, around 2014, we started building our cloud with a common database that took all the data from all these siloed applications and brought them into one place so you could start to create. Some business intelligence out of that and knew where to spend money time and effort and then grew from there into what we think right now is the leading platform for small business owners.

That’s brilliant. And how exactly does the platform address the pain points that are commonly faced by small business owners in the digital landscape? You mentioned it correctly. Are there any other pain points?

The pain point for a business owner, and a lot of them, especially in the beginning, didn’t quite understand it, was that marketing for their businesses was very easy before the Internet. And even Internet version 1.0 was just about creating a TV ad or a print ad or a radio ad or a website, letting it go for a year, revisiting it, and then you did your mailers, you did your other types of things. It was very simple and they liked that. But around 2010-11-12, they realized marketing was changing a lot. But they looked at that as a challenge and a problem as opposed to an opportunity. One of the things that we did differently was that all of our marketing and sales was around educating them about how it was an opportunity. And that’s really what got us early traction. Yeah, that problem evolved to, gee, I’ve got to use all these applications a CRM, and I’ve got Facebook and I’ve got Pinterest and I’ve got Google, and I’ve got Google My Business and I’ve got all these other like, how do I understand and keep track of all this stuff going on? And having an all-in-one platform that had a common database that allowed you to manage all these things was the problem that we solved later on.

Makes sense. Makes sense because you’re catering to a lot of industries. Home improvement, health, wellness, whatnot legal, what strategies or elements within your platform resonate most with these diverse sectors?

I think the thing that resonates most is knowing exactly what your ROI is by channel knowing what’s not working and not wasting as much money is the common thread because even though they’re diverse industries, we deliberately pick what you call professional services. There’s white collar and blue collar, but they’re all professional services businesses. And the commonality is having to bring in new customers every month. And the value of those new customers and professional services is high enough that they’ll spend money on marketing.

Yeah. And isn’t it much more challenging, Chris, because you’re targeting multiple industries altogether? I understand they are all assembly but then diverse sectors and one thing that becomes extremely tricky is marketing your product to this diverse sector. Your content strategy becomes way too tricky because your targeting is way too broad. In the era where everyone is niching down, how exactly do you cope with your marketing and what are the effective strategies that work in your favor?

I think you’re right, it is tricky. We started in roofing and that’s all we did. And then we went into HVAC. I bought a company that specialized in HVAC and we brought in that intelligence and the go-to-market scripting and have language how they talk about it. We brought in people who knew legal well in sales and customer support. So we do have to highlight language concepts that are important to specific verticals, but we’ve gotten big enough where we can have people that are super knowledgeable about those verticals, that are working on those verticals.

Gotcha. That works. Can you share any study for Surefire Local that significantly transformed the business marketing approach or growth trajectory?

Yeah, like we were just talking about earlier when I started building the platform in 2014, we launched it to customers, I think in 2017. What I found was my go-to-market motion, my leadership, and customer success were all people who were equipped and good at doing managed services. Selling and selling software is very different and stewarding customers in software is very different than managed services. We kept on trying different things and the education of a team, but we were all based here. I’m based in Northern Virginia outside of Washington DC. When COVID happened, I met a person who ran parts of sales organizations and eventually became CRO of a company called Digital Pharmacist that sold a K one twelve and a half times but knew the SMB sales go to market at scale. And I hired him to be our CRO and he’s now our CEO and that changed the game. And since then we moved most of the company to Austin, Texas, where he’s based because what I found was getting the right talent pool to match. What is your mission? Vision product is super important and within four months we quadrupled our sales monthly bookings and from there, it’s just been up and to the right.

That’s great. Now, as a seasoned executive coach, how do you perceive the intersection between empowering small business owners through Showfire Local and your role in coaching SaaS leaders? Are shared principles or lessons that apply to both areas?

Definitely. I think there are certain standard things that all businesses need to think about and measure to understand how well they’re performing, where they could perform better, and what areas they ought to prioritize to work on. I think SaaS has a layer of complexity to it because of the nature of building revenues and retention and other nuances in retention that create a compounding effect that could work in a positive direction a lot faster than you think, but also work in a negative direction a lot faster than you think.

That’s true.

And I think the other thing about SaaS that’s different than the people we sell to is if you’re a roofer, I don’t discount the competitiveness of being a roofer, that you’re in a competitive, but your competitors are defined in your local market. In SaaS today, your competitors are global and you have no idea how many businesses are starting up to come against you and the kind of funding they may have, the kind of management team they may have. Those two dynamics of SaaS a very fragile models that can work against you or for you with multipliers that are super important to be dialed into. And you’re operating a super hyper-competitive framework that’s global, which makes it a particularly tough business to operate in. And I created a framework for SaaS executives that’s called Edge that’s around efficiency, drive, growth, and empowerment with specific aspects to those things to make sure that you’re not ignoring different parts of the business that could dramatically affect your swings of how it’s performing. Also, you can’t work on everything at once, but allows you to measure how well you’re doing in different aspects of it so you can identify the one or two things that you could focus on that could have the biggest effect on the value that you’re creating for your employees and shareholders and customers.

Is this framework available in the public domain? Can we?

Yeah. On Chrismarentis.com, you could go there and read more about it and you could take an assessment if you’re a SaaS executive, to see how well, it’s not meant to be super in-depth. It’s meant to give you an idea of where to focus.

Gotcha. I’ll make sure that this is linked over the session when it goes live. For sure.

Great. Thank you.

Let’s go ahead. Okay, now in your role at involve.ai, it’s an AI-driven platform. How do you see the future of AI in shaping small businesses’ marketing strategies?

Yeah, I think the exciting thing about AI is that every business in the world is going to benefit hugely. And it’s not something that’s in the distant future, it’s happening right now. Surefire Local, you mentioned your company is embedding AI into what you guys are doing. We’re enjoying about 6% to 7% more points in gross margin by integrating AI into our tech stack, by the way. Wow. Providing a better product to our customers and a better product experience to our customers. But you could imagine a roofer that’s able to get more gross margin by creating more efficient marketing, ideally leveraging us with using AI, right, but AI is going to create value over the next five to ten years. For folks who don’t put their head in the sand and embrace it and engage it, that’s going to be unprecedented. If you think about there’s a tremendous amount of value created through productivity. In the 90s when computers became prevalent, software platforms like Microsoft Word and Excel and all those other things started to become used in a big way. We had a productivity boom that created a lot of wealth.

In the last 10-15 years, since 2008, and 2009, when all the central banks hugely lowered the cost of money, all that wealth was created almost on a false premise of a zero cost of money. There weren’t any productivity gains. If you look, there were zero productivity gains. Now we’re going back to the cost of money, going to historical standards, and a lot of people who aren’t used to that are thinking it’s hard to create businesses, but no. Google, Microsoft, Adobe, and great companies were created at the cost of money. But you’re delivering real value to the economy with productivity gains and we’re going back to that. And that’s what makes me super excited. And maybe I get more excited than most because I’m an older guy and I’ve seen cycles before, but this cycle is going to be exciting, trust me.

That’s good to hear. And because Surefire Local emphasizes a lot on real-time visibility into marketing channels, that provide the best ROI, could you please elaborate on this approach and how it leads to SMBs making informed and timely marketing decisions?

Yeah, the best way to explain it and the vision of the company always has been this, right? As digital became a bigger and bigger piece of the marketing pie, right? And I used to work in the traditional advertising business. Years ago, I mentioned I started there, right in the major brands started to abdicate marketing to agencies and agencies benefited from that with more revenue. They were the research arms, they were the media buying arms, they were the creative arms. And big brands offloaded all that. Starting probably in the early 2000s, large brands probably even earlier, maybe late 90s too, large brands started to take back those functions. The AG business used to be super cool. It was really fun. It’s now not very fun because it’s a commoditized business. The large brands, right, because they saw that they could take more control of themselves and have direct access to the data and the consumers and do more real-time adjustments. Small businesses are just later to that because they were wishing this all went away and went back to the old days of just once a year planning their media spending. The money to create creative and then let it ride and revisit it the following year.

To get small businesses to be able to want to take that control, you had to make it easy for them. Now, agencies that service small businesses have been trying to hang on as long as they can by saying, this is too complicated, there’s too much data. We’ll make it simple for you and we’ll create those reports. But really what they’re doing is they’re not being very transparent and they’re not necessarily doing what’s in the best interest of the client. They’re doing what’s in the best interest of them, where their best gross margins are at encouraging things that benefit them, not necessarily the customer. Our platform now makes it super simple, along with our customer service that complements it, for that business owner to take that control. Just like the big brands did with the Adobe Marketing suite and other things, right? So that’s a really simple way to think about how an all-in-one platform with the right types of customer support gives that business owner the power of what those big brands have through technology.

That’s fascinating. And like any other SaaS business, you must be focusing a lot on your customer retention. There must be some loyalty programs running all of those things happening, right? Could you please tell us a bit more on that front? What strategies are working to keep your customers engaged and retained?

It’s hard for SMBs. It’s not enterprise sales. Right. The key to SMB customer acquisition is the front end being super efficient in acquiring customers. Because if you don’t have that, the math is not going to add up. Right. But because we’re software and the onboarding process by nature is customizing this software for their use, putting in place email sequences for leads, and lead management. We have some proprietary products like GeoJuice that allow them to do check-ins with Launchlat to create signals for the search engines around the geography they cover, so they’re more likely to show up in service packs. And once they start creating all this proprietary data in our platform that solves multiple purposes, the cost of switching becomes higher. And that’s the way to do it.

Got you. And what exactly is the churn rate for your company? For sure. I’m sorry, about the churn rate. And how long is the lifetime duration of these SMBs? Because I know for a fact, just like you mentioned, keeping an enterprise for a longer time is something that anyway, by nature works. But for SMBs, it does get tricky.

Yeah, I would say that we’re better than average.

Okay.

Yeah, I’d say that we’re better than average. And we’re pretty happy with it. And as we get more and more sophisticated at it, and as SMBs become more sophisticated at marketing and technology, we’ve been trending better year over year, every year.

Got you. Let’s talk about some of the new developments, and innovations happening in Showfire to keep you ahead of the curve altogether.

Really for us now is integrating AI into our platform in ways that enhance how they could use our platform. An example of that is built prompts so that they could easily create social media calendars, easily create posts or blog posts or picture content, things like that, as opposed to having to go hire someone themselves. Or we had an ecosystem of at-scale large companies that used to write stuff and things like that. And now we’re getting much better quality by using AI embedded in our platform and doing it at a lower cost. By the way, one of the toughest things to do if you think about all the channels that we embed into our platform for a customer to use, there’s a lot that needs to be connected and hooked up APIs and passwords and things like that. Bots AI bots make that process much simpler than being on a phone call for an hour or several hours phone calls with someone to do. So there are all kinds of ways that we could make the experience for our customers and their customers better. Building AI into lead so that they could better understand the quality of leads and where to spend more time.
So that’s really where we’re leaning into.

That’s amazing. We’re coming to an end, and I would love to have a quick, rapid-fire with you. Are you ready for that?

Sure.

Yeah.

Let’s go.

Okay. What do you want people to associate you with?

Really? Bridging technology, with marketing and communications is my story arc. I think where I want to be right now is helping younger founders and senior executives be able to be super successful and create breakthrough success for themselves and their companies with less stress by helping them do that. Because I’ve just seen a lot and have done a lot that makes sense.

Are you a private person or not?

I do a lot of podcasts, so I’m not that private, but it depends on what it is about. But I wouldn’t say I’m super private.

Okay. Okay. Any funny nicknames your colleagues or your friends or your family used to call you?

My last name is Marentis, and in business, a lot of times people have called me relentless because I’m very aggressive when I get my mind on what I want to do.

Good. Okay. What was your last Google search?

Probably I’ve been trying to understand. I think the key to AI is data. I built my company knowing where this is all going and having data, but I’m looking for investments. I’m an investor too. I’m in stage 2 of capital. I invest in private companies. I’m an advisor and get shares, advisory shares for different companies. And I think that there’s going to be huge value created from companies that help manage that data in all types of ways, connecting it and creating Data Lakes appending that data, hygiene of the data, privacy of that data, all kinds of things. So I’ve been researching a lot on public and private companies that are being funded around data management because I think that’s going to be like, I think picks and shovels play in a there are some obvious plays by Microsoft, right? But other plays probably are less crowded right now that could have exponential returns.

I agree with you. That sector is booming. Some companies are built around database management, database modular data governance, and all of those things. I’ve seen them, Drastic growth within just a few years of launch and they’re doing really good business. So what’s something that you could eat straight for a week?

Something I could eat straight for a week and it doesn’t matter if it’s good or bad for me.

Yeah, it doesn’t matter. You love that you can eat for a week, probably.

Pizza is my number one thing.

Okay, I’m coming to my very last question. What is not a big deal to most people, but is it torture to you?

I am good at vision and pointing out where we need to go. What’s torture to me is the details, okay? And I need people around me to help put those details together because especially as I’ve got, I think it’s really funny. After all, I think the older I’ve gotten, the less tolerance I have for all the intricacies of putting together the details. Maybe because I’ve done it before, but it might be because of my ADHD, but those details are tough for me.

Makes sense. I think that’s something like the groundwork. Groundwork does make you grumpy. I enjoyed this conversation and I can’t appreciate you enough for all the time, all the wisdom. Thank you so much.

Thanks. Nice meeting you. Nice talking to you.

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