“How did they do that? How did they get there?” Companies succeed because of the people who build them - operating leaders who grow businesses to new heights and make decisions every day that can impact entire industries. Each month, our Operator Spotlight gives you the inside track from one of our incredible Operator LPs (Limited Partners) who are changing the game – building and scaling some of the world’s most successful companies. Read on for lessons learned and mistakes made, perspectives from the top, practical advice, and ideas on what’s next.
This month, we chatted with Carol Carpenter, Chief Marketing Officer of Unity. Carol is a self-proclaimed geek with a passion for technology and solving customer problems. She's been in tech marketing for most of her career, starting as a product manager at Apple. She loves creating new categories, scaling teams, and optimizing go-to-market activities. Over her career, Carol has built high-performance teams in both small and large companies in varying roles as CMO, GM, CEO. Most recently, she served as CMO of VMware where she led the transformation of the business from license to subscription and SaaS. Prior to VMware, Carol served as the VP Marketing of Google Cloud, scaling the business from approximately $5B to over $12B.
She is particularly proud of the high-performance teams she's developed and the fact that many of her prior marketing mavens are all doing impactful work. She continues to mentor women and students via the HBS women entrepreneurship program, the Stanford alumni network, and Monte Jade.
You’ve held the Chief Marketing Officer role at several companies for the better part of a decade - how have you seen the role evolve over time? What has stayed consistent?
I’ve had the privilege to learn and work during this incredible time of change and intersecting trends coming from technology, customer behaviors, and the overall complexity of marketing.
Today, we have a heavier reliance on data-driven marketing than ever before. CMOs now use data to make smarter decisions, personalize marketing, and measure campaign effectiveness accurately - in particular as we’re shifting toward more tailored customer-centric strategies. Personalized experiences and building strong relationships from awareness through advocacy is a more connected journey today than at any other time before. Ultimately though, the core of what we do in marketing - articulate the value proposition in terms of functional, economic and emotional value - continues to be the most crucial element in how we develop unique campaigns that stand out. And of course, we continue to demonstrate ROI and measure performance to show the impact of our efforts.
What were some of the biggest challenges and learnings you experienced moving from major enterprise cloud computing companies VMWare and Google Cloud to a development powerhouse like Unity?
So many challenges. The good news is that both Google Cloud and VMware had a strong focus on developers, albeit more on software developers for business applications. I was fortunate to work with great leaders at both places who valued the developer community, and we did extensive engagement work with developers specifically around open source like kubernetes.
Here at Unity, Game Devs are deeply passionate about their vision and software - more so than those I had the honor to work with previously. They passionately embrace decisions they agree with, and conversely, display strong concern when they happen to disagree with certain company decisions. When we say Unity is “users first,” it’s not just a company value written on paper; we do so much more to ensure we bring our dev company along with us on most key decisions related to our products and services. For example, with our recent AI announcements, we talked to our Advocacy teams, our influencers and champions early on to get their feedback on our positioning and messaging. We try hard to explain the “why” of everything we do. It is one way of ensuring that we keep our “users first” in all things that we do - both product and marketing.
It’s quite rare for CEOs to have a marketing background. Why do you think that is, and how did your experience in marketing prepare you for the top job? What are some of the benefits marketers uniquely bring to the role?
Particularly in tech, most CEOs are a technical genius who founded the company or a professional leader with strong tech and business skills. I believe successful CEOs need a broad range of experience and expertise to lead the overall operations and strategic direction of a company. And, experience in marketing can indeed provide several advantages and unique qualities that prepare those of us with marketing backgrounds for the CEO role. It brings us closer to the mission and understanding how that ties to overall customer-centricity. We instinctively think about the needs, behaviors and preferences of our customers which helps drive the decisions that directly lead to stronger brand loyalty and competitive advantages. And I think collaboration in leadership is another key quality. Marketing often requires collaboration across different departments, such as sales, product development, and finance. Marketers with cross-functional experience can foster a culture of collaboration and teamwork, which is essential for effective leadership at the CEO level.
What advice would you offer early-stage founders who are starting to think about go-to-market and building out their marketing function? What’s the first thing founders should try to nail?
Two pieces of advice. One, define your SOM realistically. In order to fund raise or get a company off the ground, we often overly focus on the TAM (total available market) and try to find a segment with a large TAM. It’s critical to define your SAM and SOM (serviceable market) in clear ways so you can find product-market fit.
Two, define your value. Get to know your ideal customers, what problems they face, and what they're looking for. Do some solid market research and gather feedback from potential customers to shape your value proposition. And that goes hand-in-hand with creating a compelling value proposition. Let it scream what sets you apart from the competition and how you're the best solution or offer out there. A killer value proposition reflecting your core value will attract those initial customers and make you stand out.
What practices have you adapted in response to the current macro environment, and any predictions on what’s to come?
Marketing in the current economic environment has definitely seen its fair share of challenges and transformations. The economy has a profound impact on consumer and customer behaviors, which in turn affects how we approach strategies. Internally, we’ve seen our fair share of streamlining of processes. We are working smarter, and focusing on the key parts of our business that we know have immediate value to our customers today. And conversely, we’re leaning into the value propositions of our portfolio that can maximize ROI for our customers and prospects as they look to do more, with less, without sacrificing scale and profitability (as much as possible). I’m hopeful that the future is bright and do see some moderation in the cycle. In the long run, markets are cyclical. What goes up must come down, and it rebounds. We’ve seen, and lived this, for the greater part of the past three decades.
There’s a lot of chatter about the impact of generative AI in the marketing field, how are you thinking about its application and the future of the industry?
This is one of my favorite questions. I think that AI has polarized many in the industry. The conversation has become an “either, or'' one, when in reality, it is an “and.” It’s not creativity versus AI, or creativity versus technology. It’s creativity and AI, and creativity and technology. I’m currently encouraging our teams - particularly those in marketing - to experiment with it. Use it to help expedite first drafts, web page copy, ad copy. We are experimenting across the team with many tools such as jasper.ai for landing pages. In a recent naming brainstorm, we used chatGPT to help generate a first list of name options. I very much believe AI will help us accelerate the way we work, and get to our desired outcomes, faster.
What was one of your first jobs and one big lesson you learned?
My first job in technology was working as a Product Manager at Apple after business school. I was fortunate to work for great mentors who taught me so much about customers, innovation, and how marketing works. One big lesson was the importance of understanding the products you're marketing. It wasn’t sufficient to only know the top-level features. One had to dig in and understand how the hardware and software worked. For me, a non-techie, this was a powerful way to build credibility with the teams, increase influence, and do a much better job marketing Macs. I am forever grateful to two friends, one a sw engineer and another an industrial engineer, who provided “computer 101” tutoring. The combo of product knowledge and customer insight is the foundation of all great marketing.
What’s one piece of advice you would give to yourself 10 years ago, if you had the opportunity?
My kids are both early in their careers, and they get a lot of advice from me ;-)
Engage. Don’t be a bystander.
I emphasize that they need to lean in, raise your hand and engage. A fulfilling job isn’t just ticking the boxes to get the work done. It’s about finding provocative work, often with tough challenges, and leaning into it. Opportunity and recognition comes to those you raise their hand, those who step outside of their comfort zone, those who push the edges a little bit. They’ll learn more this way, and they’ll have more fun.