How did she do it? A Q&A with Anita Brearton and Sheryl Schultz, co-founders of CabinetM

Jean Hammond, managing director of Golden Seeds and partner at LearnLaunch Accelerator

July 26, 2018

Anita Brearton, co-founder and CEO of CabinetMSheryl Schultz, co-founder and COO of CabinetM

Golden Seeds is focused on investing in the vibrant opportunities of women-led companies. As such, we work with many talented, passionate female entrepreneurs who are doing truly remarkable things. Our “How Did She Do It?” series shares the stories, challenges and successes of the women behind the companies of Golden Seeds.

Today, Jean Hammond, managing director of Golden Seeds and CabinetM investor, interviews Anita Brearton, co-founder and CEO, and Sheryl Schultz, co-founder and COO of CabinetM.

Below, they discuss CabinetM’s mission to help marketers map increasingly complex marketing technology usage and spending.

AB: Before we founded CabinetM in 2014, I had spent two years working as the interim CEO at an e-commerce company, where I saw how hard it was for digital marketing teams to find the technology they needed to acquire, engage with, and retain customers. Sheryl had been busy investing in and advising marketing technology startups during that time, and she had seen the same problem from another perspective. Potential customers were ignoring the emails and phone calls from technology vendors. These two groups that needed each other were ships passing in the night. We knew the problem was only going to get worse with the rapid expansion of the marketing technology landscape. We determined that vendors and marketers needed, a warm, contextual environment in which to engage, and CabinetM was born.

SS: Anita and I had both had long, successful careers in marketing, and we saw it becoming an increasingly technical role. We saw the boundary between marketing and sales blurring, with marketing responsible for the entire customer lifecycle, from lead gen to acquisition, engagement and retention. We wanted to build a platform that would serve the needs of the new technical marketer as their marketing technology use evolved. We spent six months validating the market opportunity, and confirmed that marketing organizations were increasingly relying on technology to achieve their goals. That six months was invaluable; because of it, we started to frame the business and our platform.

SS: In response to the initial problem we identified, we built the industry’s largest database of marketing technology products (8,700 products) to make it easy for marketers to find the products they need and connect with the right vendors. But since embarking on our entrepreneurial journey, we’ve expanded our vision to include full lifecycle management of the products that marketers are using. Our clients are using anywhere from 50 to 250 marketing technology tools to execute their marketing goals and objectives. For each tool, they’re trying to track a set of 20+ attributes, including information like “what did the product do,” “who owns it,” “who are the super users,” “is it General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) compliant,” and “what do the contract details look like.”

AB: Tracking those variables and generating the reports needed by the organization is exceeding beyond the capabilities of a spreadsheet, but until now that’s been the only solution. No one is doing what we’re doing, which is providing a platform capable of managing the jigsaw puzzle of technology tools at the enterprise level, across what had been siloed areas.

AB: Fundraising has been a challenge from the minute we started. The bar is much higher for women in the fundraising environment, where we’ve seen prospective investors continually move the goal posts. First, it’s “You don’t have the platform,” and then when you do, the response is, “But you don’t have customers,” and when you bring the customer stories, the demand is for something else. We pitched investors who, left to their own devices, would have waited until we completely de-risked the business before investing. That taught us to be very capital efficient. We spent smart, and we’ve gotten to where we are for one-tenth of what comparable companies have spent.

SS: We also met people along the way who actively discouraged us, as middle-aged women, from starting and leading this company. For example, industry colleagues we’d known for years suggested we should hire attractive young women to go into investor pitches first, ask those investors to close their eyes, and keep them closed until our pitch was done. Other investors who knew us as both entrepreneurs and investors said, “Startups are hard. You gals are smart. Why don’t you just take CMO jobs?”

By contrast, Golden Seeds has been tremendously supportive and helpful. Anita and I joined Golden Seeds as members in 2007, and then led the Boston chapter together from 2009 to 2011, which was a great dry run for us as business partners. We understood their process and the value their members could bring to us — not just through connections and expertise, but through concrete capital.

AB: The other challenge we faced was creating a new product category with our platform. Nobody was talking about managing all this marketing technology when we started. We had to evangelize around the problem and the solution. It took a couple of years for the market to catch up to us, but now we see people regularly talking about the challenges of managing their marketing stack. We spent a lot of time establishing ourselves as industry thought leaders, to the point where people think we’re a much bigger company because we’re everywhere.

AB: We built an enterprise version of our platform last year, honing in on exactly what large organizations need to manage marketing technology use, performance and strategy across teams and geographies, and we are starting to see strong adoption. Our focus now is on acquiring new customers and making the ones we have exceptionally happy. As we move forward, we’ll be expanding our capabilities — our customers are very vocal about what they need, and in essence, they serve as our product management team. They are rabid advocates, and they’re very engaged in our product roadmap.

SS: Don’t start raising money too early. A lot of entrepreneurs feel intense pressure to start raising money straight out of the gate, but you need to get somewhere first. Investors will always remember your first story, and startups don’t move in a predictable straight line. It’s hard to recraft a story once it has been internalized. Validate your market, learn what your customers want, find your champions and then pitch investors.

Learn more about Golden Seeds companies and how women entrepreneurs are achieving success with Golden Seeds.