Michael Stone is the SVP of Marketing at Airship, responsible for the company’s market growth strategy, demand generation, communications and product marketing. For over 20 years, Mike has led marketing organizations and provided strategic consulting to technology companies. Most recently, Mike was SVP of Marketing for Salesforce Community Cloud—from its initial launch through four years of worldwide growth.
Where were you born and raised?
I was born in Detroit but my family moved to the East Bay Area in California when I was 2 years old. I was raised in Oakland, so I saw the rise of the high-tech industry pretty much from the very beginning and got opportunities to work with emerging technology very early on in my career.
What was your first job?
My first job was actually working in a newsroom for the local CBS affiliate during the Gulf War. After that, I worked with John Naisbitt’s (“Megatrends”) consulting group as a trend researcher. From there, I moved to Regis McKenna Inc. developing positioning and messaging for technology companies. In all those jobs I spent a lot of time doing research and directly interviewing customers – I’ve literally done thousands of live customer interviews. Starting out on this career path really shaped my perspective on approaching problems – looking from the outside-in and always taking the big picture into account.
What was the first product you got really excited about?
The first time I borrowed a laptop computer. Whoa. Just whoa. Teeny LCD screen, mostly just word processing and spreadsheets. But man – you could carry any research, half-written paper, whatever, anywhere you went, open that thing up and you were right where you left off. Crazy.
Who has been the biggest influence on your career?
I’ve been lucky enough to have had a lot of great managers. I borrowed different things from each of them.
What has been your greatest achievement?
By the numbers, probably launching the Communities product line at Salesforce and leading marketing through enough rapid growth for it to be dubbed its own separate “Community Cloud” organization by Marc Benioff. But what I am really most proud of is the team we assembled almost from scratch. Such a broad array of backgrounds and personalities, but we really all genuinely enjoyed working together – and we got so much done with a relatively small team and kept it fun.
What has been your biggest mistake?
Working as a marketing consultant for a few great companies and not getting paid in stock.
What is your greatest strength?
I think over the years I’ve gotten pretty good at looking at a lot of data, perspectives and product capabilities, and boiling them down to their most essential elements pretty quickly. This has led me toward a pretty strong career in positioning and messaging: taking complex products and simplifying their story so that people can easily see value.
And I genuinely enjoy developing the skills and careers of the people on my team.
What is your biggest weakness?
I’m always working on assertiveness and trusting my gut. My natural approach is to consider a few different perspectives and scenarios before going full speed ahead. But that’s not the way things work sometimes. Sometimes, you have to just make a quick call on the spot or provide direction to an assembled team while a topic is top of mind. Or jump into a heated conversation before things head in a direction that is unproductive. As the years pile up I’ve gotten better at trusting my intuition, but I still have to push myself sometimes.
What do you think is the aspect of your role most neglected by peers?
I think sometimes marketers can get too comfortable after a while and think that they know their audience and market better than they actually do. Many years of domain expertise can actually be dangerous. Attitudes, preferences and expectations change incredibly quickly.
Sure, you should do regular research, but you need to get out with customers a few times a month. Go on sales calls, host advisory boards and user groups, go out to dinner or grab a beer afterward. And then don’t just ask about your product – ask about their jobs, their teams and how their work ties into the company’s business strategy. That’s how you really find out how you can help them.
Which word or phrase is your mantra and which word or phrase makes you squirm?
I’m pretty big on prioritization. I probably too often repeat “strategy is about focus, and focus is about saying no.” It’s really easy to say yes to everything, but if everything is important – nothing is important.
I also think the phrase “thank you” has the highest ROI of anything in the world. So I like to remember to use that phrase when it’s deserved.
Phrases I hate? Pretty typical overused business babble – “outside the box”, etc. I keep saying “over-rotate” in meetings and it’s driving me crazy.
What makes you stressed?
Packed trains. But that’s probably not what you’re looking for.
What do you do to relax?
Photography. It’s the one thing I do where I just look for interesting light and patterns and don’t really think about anything except what’s in front of me.
What is your favorite song?
That’s the toughest question yet. Impossible. Guess I’ll go with Houses of the Holy by Led Zeppelin.
Which book taught you most?
Well, my wife is an author. So I’d have to say her first published book. The content was great, for sure. But watching that process was amazing up close. I think it’s incredible to make up a whole world of characters out of thin air, and then amazingly brave to show that world to anyone. You show the world something that is completely and only of you and your mind – for them to love or question or critique. It blows my mind that she can do that, over and over again.
Do you have a team or sport that you follow?
Warriors and 49ers. I’ve also been pretty over the top on fantasy football for over a decade.
Which country would you like to work in?
Probably the UK, I guess. Aside from my general lack of any language other than English, I’ve been there quite a bit on business and always enjoyed it.
Which company do you think has the best marketing?
I think you have to give it up to Apple – maybe an obvious answer, but they’re really the Lebron James (Messi?) of B2C technology marketing. They are amazing at how long they’ve maintained a very consistent, simple yet somehow personable approach to their messaging, creative, etc. They make complex technology approachable and their brand is maybe the most impressive in the world because it’s so infused in everything they do. You know an Apple commercial before you see the logo, the industrial design and packaging, the in-store experience, the website – everything looks like / sounds like / feels like Apple. And in the ultimate proof, it’s just as quickly recognizable when someone else is trying to copy Apple in any aspect of their marketing, merchandising or design. That’s powerful.
What do you love most about your job?
All of the different use cases and impacts we can have on the customer experience. It gives us a lot of room for creativity and variety in the stories we tell and the strategies and programs we can create. And it’s a great environment comprised of really smart people who don’t have a lot of attitude and genuinely all want to pitch in for the greater good.
What is your favorite book?
You guys and the book questions! Books I really enjoyed reading include the Pillars of the Earth, Kite Runner, King of the World (Ali), The Name of the Wind, 11/22/63 by King, Book Thief, American Gods, Breakfast of Champions, Me Talk Pretty One Day.
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