Here’s a fun fact about Kelly Ford: She’s never held a job for which she has replaced someone. Since leaving Michigan State in 1994 with her bachelor’s in communications, Ford has been the first at every company she has worked for to do whatever it was that she did.
This includes her latest job as chief marketing officer for Edison Partners at 1009 Lenox Drive, to which she was appointed last month after a chance meeting in downtown Princeton. Her job in the company’s brand new marketing arm is part of a push by Edison Partners to expand the breadth of its services to help its portfolio companies understand growth at various stages of their existence. (See page 29 for story on Edison’s renaming.)
After only a month, Ford is engaged in more than a dozen portfolios, all of them at different points along the growth curve. Some need to know how to write job descriptions for new hires, others need to know how to engage and lure C-level executives and sell directly to managers and major decision makers. All of it is technically new (and challenging, she says), but not fully new to someone who’s been working in tech marketing for two decades.
And to think, she was almost a doctor.
Born and raised in Boston (and yes, she’s a diehard Red Sox fan who’s married to a diehard Yankees fan named Ryan), Ford says her parents created somewhat of a monster by uttering this line before college: As long as you get in, you can go wherever you want. What they meant by that was anywhere within a five or six-hour drive. But growing up in a tight-knit New England community where parochial school was king, the idea of staying in Boston suffocated the young lady.
Her prayers were answered by an emotionally weighty commercial for Michigan State during an MSU/Notre Dame football game. She wanted to trade small schools and small sports for big, big, big. MSU offered farmland, a golf course, and grandeur for the wannabe pre-med student. By the end of her time in the Midwest, where she loved the people, she admits, she realized something: “I’m an East Coast girl.” So she moved back to Boston, where she worked in public relations for IBM, working with industry analysts.
The good money and good job close to home pleased her father, who worked for Polaroid for 34 years and was the type to espouse the play-it-safe model for work. But Ford, despite the good money and interesting job, found herself drawn to the tech people more than the industry analysts. She found herself in the middle of the $3 billion deal to buy Lotus in 1995, where she met Ray Ozzie, the founder of Lotus Notes. Ford worked in various marketing and communications roles for Lotus under IBM until 2000, when she horrified her straight-laced father’s sensibilities by leaving IBM to join Ray Ozzie’s new tech startup firm, Groove Networks.
It took nearly a year for Groove Networks to really launch, during which time Ford did a little of everything, including raise money for the venture. “We were really hoping Microsoft would buy us,” she says. “And they did.”
In 2005 the avid foodie and wine aficionado met up with a serial entrepreneur who was launching a wine company with a different outlook on marketing the grape. Oriel Wines were not, like most all labels, from one vineyard or region. Oriel imported wines from vintners all over the world and congregated them under one label. The establishment didn’t swallow it easily, Ford says. Wine sellers balked at the company’s “Travel the World through Oriel” approach, but eventually opened their minds to a singular label that sold wines from independent vintners.
In the three years she spent with Oriel, Ford did almost everything, from promotions and marketing to traveling to various vineyards. And while she helped turn the company from essentially zero to a $5 million operation, the profit margins were incredibly slim, leaving little money for solid marketing. Besides, she missed tech.
One day, on a customer support call with a New York online marketing and web analytics firm named LivePerson, she realized that she had the itch to leave what she calls “my sabbatical from tech” and pursue a career in her favorite field. “I called them cold,” she says of LivePerson. “I said, ‘Here’s what I can do for you.’ They hired me.” In her time there, she helped grow the company from $49 million to $100 million.
Ford joined SundaySky in 2012 as vice president of marketing for the video marketing firm. Being a private firm, she can’t mention the revenues, but Ford says she helped the company triple its value. Things were great at SundaySky, but the commute from the middle of New Jersey to Manhattan every day was a killer. She had fallen in love with a 102-year-old fixer-upper home in Lawrenceville and with the capital area. Then, earlier this year, Ford ran into Chris Sugden, managing partner at Edison and, as luck would have it, a fellow MSU Spartan. Ford had known him through professional channels, and the two chatted in Princeton.
Luck and timing were again on Ford’s side, as Sugden relayed his plans to add a marketing arm to Edison, and the rest is the beginning of Ford’s new chapter. She will advise portfolio companies through Edison’s sales and marketing acceleration program, which emphasizes building scalable marketing, market presence, and strong pipelines. The exciting thing for her right now, she says, is the variety her new job offers, and the ability to apply 20 years of insider know-how to companies at various growth stages.
Actually, there are three distinct growth stages companies go through (past the startup stage) and three distinct sets of principles by which to guide their growth:
Stage One: This is where companies have shown their worth to their customers. “You prove your value to your customers and they start helping you sell it,” she says. This stage, say for a $5 million company, is usually about identifying the tools and mechanisms that allow controlled growth to occur — writing the right job descriptions for new positions; the investments you should be making, and the expectations of those investments.
Ford helps companies at this stage build templates for scalable growth and helps them to see the frameworks and their organizational guidance structures. At its heart, she says, this stage is a look at expectations and managing them accordingly.
Stage Two: Once companies have established themselves as a category leader, they need to start thinking of competition in a new way. Plenty of companies grow early without much attention paid to the economics of that growth (which is a mistake), and Ford helps companies at this stage organize the budget and know the market share.
Stage Three: At this point, companies often have a large customer base to maintain, and they must be sure to maintain their base while growing. “Stickiness” is the watchword here, Ford says — the certainty that your customers will stay with you as you grow. This is where value is often deepened as it’s broadened, and often it involves multiple new technology platforms. And the marketing/sales divisions need to be sharp and engaged in order to make sure growth happens without letting it get out of hand.
“It’s an interesting challenge to productize what’s in my head,” Ford says. “To give repeatable tools so that firms can take them and strategize. It’s very exciting.”