Tara Lavelle Head of Marketing River SaaS Capital
Each week, we interview proven leaders from our network, to learn from their experiences, and share their Talent Attraction and Candidate Experience stories with you.
- Our mission is to promote the accomplishments of our guests
- Highlight the companies where they work and the services, and products that they offer
- Share success stories from their experiences and, most importantly
- Provide strategies for job seekers and advice to talent seeking to accelerate their careers.
Tara shares the story of her career progression and success as a Marketer:
- Tara’s career spans product marketing in Consumer Products with American Greetings, to Financial Service with Cardinal Commerce (Visa)
- She talks about and give specific references about how the power of CURIOSITY can lead to great marketing as well as impact your career aspirations.
- Tara discusses the importance of putting yourself into a position to take calculated risks in order to grow
- For those beginning their careers, it’s critical to demonstrate your self-driven ability to learn
- Lastly, Tara shares the concept of leveraging a Brand Plan for supporting your job search.
Full transcript of our interview below:
RON: Hey everybody welcome to episode 10 of the Bell Falls Search Focus on Talent video series. This is the Digital Marketing Edition.
I was introduced to today’s guest in 2020 during a CMO search I was working on. She has become a very good friend of mine and more importantly a dependable advisor to me along the way.
She has extensive product marketing experience previously in consumer products with American Greetings. She also has several years of experience in Financial Services where she drove brand marketing and company growth at one of the most successful exits in Cleveland history, Cardinal Commerce which is now part of Visa.
Although she’s very strong in Digital Marketing, her expertise is in building brands and taking them to market. She is a true marketing executive.
I am honored to welcome Tara Lavelle, current Head of Marketing for a set of private private equity backed companies in Cleveland, Ohio. Tara, welcome and thanks for being here!
TARA: HI Ron thanks for having me.
RON: I appreciate you being here. You know that was a really brief introduction of you, but can you improve on that and talk about most importantly your career progression over time, how did you get started, how have you moved from role to role, and how have you developed your marketing expertise over the years?
TARA: So you know find that I just do what I love to do. I didn’t know that I wanted to be in marketing. I just know that I love insights on human behavior, consumer behavior, how we buy things, what we do, what we think about. I’ve never felt like I’ve ever had a job. Like I’ve always felt like I picked something to do because I want to do it and I know that sounds super ethereal and probably not typical of most people but I just always find like I find things that I love and then I just explode and grow with them.
I mean one of the things that cracks me up is like I was selling digital subscriptions online before when Amazon was just selling books and my kids are like “books? Amazon sold books?” So I like to be on things that are new. I take a lot of risks and they’ve paid out for me. And it’s because I love what i’m doing so I pick things to do that are really interesting to me.
My whole career has been in marketing. I have a marketing undergrad and I have a MBA. Marketing is a wide field, there’s so many pieces parts to it, but truly it’s like finding out who you want to talk to and what and how you get them to buy. I’ve done B2B, I’ve done B2C and I’ve worked in research, I’ve worked in online subscriptions, I’ve built websites, I’ve done product marketing, I’ve done brand marketing, and I think it all just comes down to the basic of how you want to communicate.
I set very specific things that I want to accomplish and then once I accomplish them I move on to do something else to find another love. And that’s how my career has progressed. I’ve gone into things where I don’t know how to do them and I figure them out and I think a lot of that came from an early mentor that I had in college. She just encouraged me to do things that I didn’t know how to do and I talked to people that I didn’t know and you can learn a lot from really just asking a lot of questions and being curious.
RON: You talked a little bit about the transition from consumer products to financial services, can you talk about that a little bit? I’m really curious because I represent lots of candidates and I work with lots of companies that very often have tunnel vision and say they’ve only been in consumer products they can’t possibly be in financial services or vice versa. So how did you get that opportunity and what was that transition like for you?
TARA: Yeah so all the opportunities that I’ve had in my entire career have been from former people that I’ve worked with either customers or vendors or actual colleagues. I think that has to do with do a great job of wherever you are and people remember you. One particular opportunity, I was introduced to one of the co-founders at Cardinal from a former colleague who I worked with eight years earlier. She happened to be the neighbor of the co-founder and I met him and I was like I gotta work there.
I had worked direct to consumer, I’ve worked you know B2B2C, but I had never worked in just B2B. But I really understood the internet really well and we’re selling to merchants. In fact a job that I had earlier in my career we had used the software that they had used and I didn’t like it. I made them take it off my site as a merchant so I was like okay well now I got to make this better.
When I met them I knew they had a very specific mission and I wanted to be a part of it so I have very specific criteria that I look for when I look for opportunities. I’ve created, I guess I’ll call them like my “brand pillars.” So I look for opportunities that complete those things with me and one of those I have to believe in the product and what it’s doing and I love helping merchants.
That was a great step even if it was in financial services. It’s just helping merchants do things better and then the second criteria is that I have to be building skills. I always want to be learning things. I don’t want to do stuff I’ve always done and that’s why I take a lot of risks and sometimes those you know don’t work out.
Sometimes you fail, and one of the things I really liked about the three co-founders at Cardinal is they talked about we take all kinds of risks and that’s okay because some things will fail.
“Fail fast, and move on to the next thing and don’t worry about taking the next risk. Because the next risk might get you that big account that you didn’t think you were going to get.”
Then I look for places where I can have an impact. If I feel like you’re too small and you’re not gonna be able to make the impact, I don’t wanna waste anyone’s time. I look for fun. When l met the co-founders I think it was a crazy number, maybe eight rounds of interviews at Cardinal all of them ended at the bar…every single one!
RON: So can we transition to case studies? If you don’t mind, I know you had a couple lined up that you wanted to talk about so you I’ll know turn the floor over to you if you don’t mind.
TARA: One case study that might be interesting is a current one. So I’m currently working for a portfolio business where we support different brands and during covid, it’s been very interesting because a lot of the businesses in my portfolio did a lot of event and relationship marketing which in b2b has been the age-old standby and definitely has grown businesses based on reputation. But during covid we had to do some things differently because we couldn’t have those in-person events or in-person things.
Let’s try some old tricks so we did a list rental and I haven’t done a list rental in years. It performed really really well and I thought you know with email marketing I didn’t really think that it would. On a cold list you really wouldn’t be able to deliver and we saw great results and still seeing results. lt’s still producing results for us so it’s got a long tail. I mean I think my advice is just because something is old doesn’t mean you can’t try it. I mean I know there’s a lot of things going on too with direct marketing and direct mail kind of making a little resurgence so you know just be creative and just be different in your marketing and know the audience that you’re talking.
We bought a very niche business and so we bought a very specific niche list. You can’t be everything to everybody, so my advice would be just try things because you never know what’s gonna actually work.
The second thing I thought I would talk about is a Cardinal example. You know we were an industry leader we had a negative connotation to the software. Our software was in an industry that had a lot of negative connotations to it. Why don’t we change the narrative and what we call it? So we did a very detailed review. We went to our business partners like Mastercard and Visa and Amex and said this is how we want to talk about it in the marketplace. We went to our customer base, to our merchants and banks and we got them to start talking about it and when you get a lot of really big blue blue chip merchants to start talking how you’re talking, people start moving it.
But I think part of it was we had the market leadership so we already owned the market space so we could control some of that a little better. But we didn’t want to take for granted that everybody would just follow us so we made sure to work all those different angles and audiences and talk to those audiences the way they wanted to hear. That is like the ultimate marketing to get people to change their perception about what happened and really our business exploded after that.
It took us a good 18 months but that was sort of our plan and we were able to change what people called our product in our industry so it was really fun.
RON: That sounded pretty substantial. I mean that might require a whole separate video or blog post around the process you went through in a non-proprietary way to change that perception. There had to be a pretty rigorous and thoughtful and intense 18 months.
TARA: Yeah, and commitment. So the whole leadership team was jumping in the deep end together. I loved working with that team. Not that we didn’t have our differences but when we agreed to do something we were all in. Let’s just go do this and you can’t make those kind of changes if you don’t have everybody in.
RON: Well I’m going to take the team comments as a transition to talk about talent a little bit. I know you and I have had this conversation especially about Cardinal, around the effectiveness of the team. And I know they grew very fast so you’ve seen massive cultural shifts, you’ve seen massive, inflow of of lots of people rapidly. So let’s talk about talent. So first when it comes to entry level talent, college graduates. A couple things…what are you seeing in the marketing field in general that that you would love to share with people in that position from an advice perspective on where to focus their time and energy and how to how to take their first steps out of college and into the field of marketing.
TARA: I think two very important things. One is I’m a learner. I always want to learn things. I always want to be building skills there’s so many resources available online that you can be building skills for. Any of the software platforms have certifications like HubSpot or Brightedge, SEMrush. You can go learn about any of the software tools so that you can put those on your resume…I have Hootsuite experience or I have HubSpot experience, or whatever.
That is because a lot of times it’s hard to get that first job right or that first experience so how do you get those first experiences? One way is to differentiate yourself. Show you’re definitely invested in your career and in your skills and that you’re using resources and it takes a lot of time to do those things. I’ve done some of those certifications and they can take you many hours. You’re talking about like 40-60 hours to complete some of the certifications so you know if you’re trying to stand out and get that first opportunity or get someone to notice you or talk to you.
I do know that on Linkedin people are looking for certain things like these tools. I know salesforce is one in particular that you can’t find. Salesforce admins they’re just crazy to find, and so people go and mine and find look for people who aren’t looking for jobs. I think that’s a way that you can in a sense make an investment in yourself that doesn’t really cost you money but costs you just the investment in the time.
The second thing I would do for and it sounds really strange, but network. I realized that early on in my career that people will talk to you. Get a warm introduction to somebody and set up a call or coffee. Now zoom. Last year I’ve had so many Zoom calls with people but you know I think that it’s invaluable because I don’t know I don’t connect with anybody on Linkedin that I don’t know. It’s just a personal choice that I have made. So i’ve at least talked to every single person that I’m connected to on Linkedin.
Some obviously better than others. You’re can meet lots of people through your network and it’s just getting started. It just takes the time to go look and find out who. I want to meet this person who knows them yep and how can I get introduced?
RON: Yeah I couldn’t agree more. You know even when I started my own business I was blown away by the number of people who wanted to help. Literally just wanted to help, are happy to help and happy to have a conversation and steer you in the right direction.
When it comes to experienced talent I’m sure you’ve interviewed a lot of people over the years and and have hired lots of people over the years or not hired lots of people over the years. Can you talk about any advice you would give people as far as differentiating themselves from others? Whether it’s with a resume in the interviewing process or maybe examples you’ve seen that stand out? Or suggestions you you would tell people to help themselves?
TARA: In the marketing field I would just start with you’re a marketer, go market yourself. How do you think about who are you, who are your targets? Don’t send something to 5000 people! Pick five places that you would love to be a part of or an organization that you want to be a part of and then figure out everything you can learn about that just like you’re building a persona. Marketers know all these things of how to build that foundational work and how to connect and how to do that. And then I think the second thing is, I mostly find that people have hired people from someone I know who introduced me.
I immediately reach out to my network hey I’m looking for this and you immediately come back with people you don’t know. I’ll do dinner or coffee, whatever, meet a couple people then when I have an opening I’m like I know who I’m going to hire. At Cardinal specifically, when I had to hire key roles I already had people lined up that I had been networking in like dinner and coffee with for several months before I knew I was going to have the opening. Because I knew we were growing when you’re growing double digits you just can’t keep up with everything and you know you’re gonna be bringing people on. But even if you’re not, always kind of keep that open you get recommendations from other people.
At Cardinal we were part of Primus (our private equity firm). I got to play with some of the other Primus people in their portfolio and I use them as “:who do you know in this space?” and they could just help you find and meet people. I would say those kind of conversations are great. One person I talked to and two years later I contacted them, “hey i’m looking for somebody now that I think you would be perfect.”
RON: I think the answer is for anyone listening go connect with Tara Lavelle see, if she’ll have coffee with you, and then someday she’ll hire you because because she’s gotten to know you?
Flipping the tables on that real quick, because I know that you went out squarely at the beginning / middle of Covid and and you were looking for an executive marketing role and you found it. And you found it close to home so I’m guessing that you employed a lot of those same kind of tactics and strategies that you just mentioned. Can you walk through that a little bit at least at a high level? What did you do to be so successful during Covid to go find the role you did?
TARA: I literally wrote a “brand plan” for myself. I had just done a brand plan at Cardinal. I know how to do all this stuff and I decided okay I’m gonna go and just really decide what I want and who I am at my core, and what I want to look for. And then once I did that, then I just really set up some target companies that would fit with the things I needed and the skills I wanted to build. Then I reached out to people to meet who know people at those companies so it was very targeted.
I had conversations and some of the conversations I had didn’t go anywhere and some of the conversations went obviously further faster than others. But I mostly counted on that network of former colleagues that I had worked with before. I realized you have to tell people specifically what you want especially if you have experience. I wasn’t looking for a job and fortunately I was in a situation where I didn’t have to find a job. So I think that puts it in a very different perspective and that also again sounds super ethereal and sounds fake but it’s not in my case. I have always lived very financially conservatively and so I was able to take the time to find the right place then got very lucky with meeting the Kennedy’s and being able to work in the portfolio business that they have.
RON: Yep I love the brand plan concept because I have a mentor that that used to ask one of the best questions I’ve ever heard. He would ask people no matter if they were marketing or technology or business consulting, “what is your brand?” And it would always set people back on their heels and they’d be like “I have to think about that.” I advise that to lots of people I talk to because I think if you can describe what your brand is, not only can you tell people kind of what your capabilities are and how you can line up against what they’re looking for but I think you also have a lot of confidence to your point what you want to do you know and and what you’re you know where your strengths really are.
You and I could write a book together on the brand plan concept or something.
TARA: Yeah I love that idea! I have never heard anyone ask that question but I love it. I might steal it.
RON: Please go for it. Borrow it, you can rent it like the list. Well Tara this has been extremely helpful. I really appreciate your time and like I said, have been looking forward to this for a long time.
Thank you very much. As always, I’ll include your your link in the notes and um hopefully you’ll get some new connection requests and new jobs for people!
June 9, 2021