Meet The Disruptors: Keith Jensen and Jim Le Of Brightfin On The Five Things You Need To Shake Up Your Industry

An Interview With Fotis Georgiadis

Fotis Georgiadis
Authority Magazine

--

Design your team with the future in mind. The thing about a boring industry like Telecom Expense Management (TEM) is that many employees have worked at competing companies. And when that happens, they often bring over the things they learned in past lives. At brightfin, we forced ourselves to rethink our org chart. Most TEM providers don’t even have strong marketing teams. We invested in marketing, and with the unique content we’re putting out, it has paid off in spades.

As a part of our series about business leaders who are shaking things up in their industry, I had the pleasure of interviewing Keith Jensen and Jim Le.

Keith Jensen is a marketing executive with nearly 20 years of experience leading rapidly growing technology and healthcare organizations. He is Chief Marketing Officer of brightfin, a quickly expanding Telecom Expense Management (TEM) provider, as well as the CMO of Periscope Equity, overseeing marketing operations across their portfolio of private equity investments.

Jim Le is a modern product influencer fiercely dedicated to customer growth. With nearly 20 years of experience, Jim currently serves as Chief Product Officer of brightfin and brings a wealth of diverse software experience in mobility/MMS, TEM, supply chain, and contract management.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?

Keith: I’ve been marketing for fast-growth, private equity-backed companies for nearly 20 years. I’ve been the Chief Marketing Officer for two leading private equity firms guiding marketing across their portfolio of companies. I also taught for eight years at the University of Central Florida (UCF), which was a lot of fun. There’s really not much else to say other than I’ve loved marketing and advertising since the day I started playing around with Photoshop and writing taglines.

Jim: I spent the first part of my career in consulting and implementations. I had a passion for delivering solutions and working with customers. Moving to the product side was quite serendipitous. I had no understanding of “product management,” yet I fell in love the minute I started the role.

Can you tell our readers what it is about the work you’re doing that’s disruptive?

Keith: Jim and I work for brightfin, a software provider in the Technology Expense Management (TEM) industry. TEM is typically pretty boring — not just the subject matter itself, but also the way most TEM companies talk about their capabilities. Jim and I are looking at things differently. With marketing under my purview and product being Jim’s area of expertise, we’re essentially joined at the hip to create content and messaging that’s fun, informative, and the exact opposite of what you’d expect from a SaaS provider. So many companies operate in silos where marketing makes stuff pretty, product only talks techy, and they each rely on “product marketers” to bridge the gap. But there’s a big problem there — product marketers aren’t really experts in either area.

Jim and I talk constantly because if I can’t speak about the technical aspects of our product, how could we ever get the marketing side right? And Jim is an incredible help on the marketing front — he comes up with ideas, helps with scripts, and actually stars in many of our videos. Who needs product marketing when you have a true alliance between product and marketing? We actually don’t have any team members with a “product marketing” title, like nearly every other SaaS company. At brightfin, our product and marketing teams work collaboratively and push each other to be better.

Jim: Not only are we disrupting the way we’re marketing, we’re also expanding our core product capabilities to go way beyond what our competitors can do for IT and Finance leaders. For example, we are allowing expense management to live in your ITSM or ServiceNow ecosystem. IT Service Management (ITSM) platforms, like ServiceNow, are where companies manage IT. And by fully integrating IT invoices with their ITSM, it unlocks way more capabilities and ways to save time and money. Beyond that, we are expanding into the cloud and building an IT Financial Management (ITFM) tool to provide even more insight for IT and Finance leaders.

All of these product enhancements that are unique to brightfin mean that we have to lead the way and figure out how to get these messages across to IT and Finance leaders. It’s a challenge that Keith and I love and are attacking together. This level of partnership between product and marketing is something I’ve never experienced before.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

Keith: I’ll take that one. Back in the day, I was running marketing for a healthcare company, and we were holding tons of events every week in local communities. To advertise those events, we’d run newspaper ads. Yes, newspaper ads! Each event had a unique phone number to call in order to RSVP. We had a marketing team of about 12 people at the time, and a lot of the work was manual — getting the dates from one person, getting phone numbers from another, giving them to the designer, proofing by one person, another sending it to print, etc.

It felt like we had a decent process in place until one day, we realized that an ad went out with the wrong phone number for one of the events. And as luck would have it, that incorrect phone number was dialing right to a local sex shop. You heard that right — one mistaken digit took us from a wholesome healthcare company answering the phone to “Rodney’s Pleasure Palace, how can I please you today?” Our airtight process clearly had holes.

After that happened, we revamped our process and made it more automated by integrating spreadsheets with our InDesign templates and adding more checks and balances to the approval process. We shortened the time it took to complete the ads every week and never had a mistake like that again. We probably should have done that way sooner, but sometimes it takes a blunder for you to take a good hard look at your processes. The lesson was certainly learned, and I feel like it has helped immensely in future roles.

For instance, at brightfin, we’re proactively forming committees to suggest process improvements and automations for any process that’s manual today. It’s just another piece of the puzzle that’ll help us move out in front of our TEM competitors.

We all need a little help along the journey. Who have been some of your mentors? Can you share a story about how they made an impact?

Jim: Countless mentors have paved the way for my career journey as a product and organization leader. I pay very close attention to the actions leaders take and how they handle product and organization challenges. Two great mentors come to mind.

First, an executive product leader at VMware had an amazing ability to quickly understand technical innovations, maintain singular focus, and worked with marketing so that the compelling stories were framed the right way. He has since moved on to lead product and technical teams for Atlassian. If you have a great technology, but the impact is not conveyed, or if you have a great message and the technology underdelivers, you will have a large imbalance.

Recently, the brightfin CEO, Ed Roshitsh, set extremely high goals for our organization along with defining our principles. In basic terms, he sets the tone by empowering the leadership team to set goals and ensures we execute them the right way. For example, early in his tenure, we worked with a 3rd party provider and invested substantially in the technical and go-to-market integration. But, there were a few red flags, and it just did not feel right. He did not hesitate to make the difficult decision to cut ties and find a partner that was a better fit. There was a short-term financial and customer perception hit. But, impacted customers also were very impressed with sticking to our principles, even it meant having difficult decisions and financial impact.

In today’s parlance, being disruptive is usually a positive adjective. But is disrupting always good? When do we say the converse, that a system or structure has ‘withstood the test of time’? Can you articulate to our readers when disrupting an industry is positive, and when disrupting an industry is ‘not so positive’? Can you share some examples of what you mean?

Keith: I think that disrupting an industry is positive when it brings value to the majority of stakeholders. In brightfin’s case, we used a five-pronged strategy to do things differently than the way our competitors have always done them. Here’s a summary of the 5 things to shake up a boring industry:

#1. Don’t take the path of least resistance. In our industry, our competitors consistently buy companies and leave their legacy software in place, which means they have to support it forever. With respect to mergers & acquisitions, instead of maintaining three legacy platforms from the companies we merged, we extracted the best of all three companies and moved forward with one unified platform. This is vastly different from other TEM providers in our space. Some of them are still operating and signing new customers up on old systems years after they acquired them. Think about that — imagine a software company maintaining ten different pieces of software that essentially do the same thing. That’s just the way TEM providers have always done it, and we didn’t want to follow in those footsteps. We are putting all of our resources and innovation into one piece of software, which we’re confident will propel us forward at a much faster rate.

#2. Have some fun with your content. We took our newly created, unified platform to market with some fresh video content that introduced personality and humor into what has been regarded traditionally as a boring industry. We make all of our videos internally with a modest team of three marketers, without any agencies or production companies. Our videos get ten times as much engagement as our competitors, even the large competitors with 20 times as many followers as us. There just isn’t anyone else doing what we’re doing from a marketing perspective, and it has really paid off.

#3. Always stay two steps ahead of your competitors. With boring industries, you often have multiple companies doing the same thing, especially when it comes to marketing. In the TEM space, most of brightfin’s competitors are just going to conferences and maybe doing some additional event sponsorships. While we’ll still go to a conference or two each year, we focus more of our time and effort on digital marketing strategies like account-based marketing tactics, connected TV ads, personalized digital content, HTML5 banner ads, and more. By the time our competitors catch up, we’ll be on to the next thing.

#4. Design your team with the future in mind. The thing about a boring industry like Telecom Expense Management (TEM) is that many employees have worked at competing companies. And when that happens, they often bring over the things they learned in past lives. At brightfin, we forced ourselves to rethink our org chart. Most TEM providers don’t even have strong marketing teams. We invested in marketing, and with the unique content we’re putting out, it has paid off in spades.

#5. Always be thinking about what’s next. Brightfin is moving from being a traditional TEM provider to a company that can provide exponentially more value than our competitors. To do that, we have branched into the IT Financial Management (ITFM) space which allows us to provide IT and Finance leaders with a platform that not only saves them money by optimizing their IT invoices, but one that also allows them to easily keep track of their IT spending to find new areas to save money. As Jim mentioned earlier, this additional functionality is industry-leading and helps us stand out as a leader in the IT Expense Management field.

Jim: Everything Keith said is right and are great examples of when disruption goes right. When we merged three companies, I was reminded of the saying, “necessity is the mother of invention.” This was our reality. We had three great companies coming together with unique differentiators (one was built on ServiceNow, another had amazing automation, and the last had end-to-end services that clients loved). However, the TEM industry is generally viewed as a mature market. TEM providers have built an exclusive audience instead of an inclusive audience. Messaging is primarily focused on technical solutions, not the expansive problems that TEM solved. This resulted in competitor marketing being stale and tailored to “insider” domain experts.

Brightfin’s growth definitely bucks market trends. Traditional TEM providers grow slowly and offer the same features and benefits as everyone else. Our combination of product innovation and marketing has resulted in skyrocketing growth with Fortune 500 companies. Creating a differentiated product on one unified platform and telling the story the right way through creative marketing has been a real game-changer.

Can you share 3 of the best words of advice you’ve gotten along your journey? Please give a story or example for each.

Keith: The most helpful advice I’ve gotten along the way has been to never stop learning and to always challenge yourself. I remember back when I was working on my master’s degree at UCF; I was put in a position where I had to put that advice to the test. Generally, I didn’t mind school at all and enjoyed the challenge, but one thing I never liked was when I had to give presentations. I was working a full-time job to help pay for my master’s degree, and one day, I got an email from the school with an interesting way to make a little money. They were looking for master’s students to teach public speaking classes to undergraduate students. I read it and immediately closed it thinking, “no way!” A few hours later, it was bugging me that I was turning away from an opportunity to help pay for school just because public speaking was scary. I ended up pushing myself, accepting the offer and went on to continue teaching night classes at UCF for nearly nine years. I grew to really love teaching and speaking in front of large groups, which has been a big help in my career development.

We are sure you aren’t done. How are you going to shake things up next?

Jim: Both Keith and I are newer to the TEM space and brought in new perspectives. The relationship we’ve established has allowed us to create some really great content so far and we’re definitely not done. We constantly brainstorm with each other and end up coming up with new ideas all the time.

What we’ve found works best is to think about messaging very early in the build and design process. Too often, the messaging comes last, but for everything to feel cohesive, it messaging cannot be an afterthought. If your product solution does not have a market message that resonates, you wasted precious resources.

This formula has gotten us to where we are today, and we’ll continue to hone and refine it for the future of brightfin, which we know is going to be bright.

Do you have a book, podcast, or talk that’s had a deep impact on your thinking? Can you share a story with us? Can you explain why it was so resonant with you?

Keith: For me, I constantly re-read and reference the book “Switch” by Chip and Dan Heath. It’s filled with stories about how people have influenced change in their lives, careers, and the world. And that’s really what marketing is about, in my opinion — changing people’s perceptions. The stories in Switch have inspired me more than any other book I’ve read.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

Jim: The quote that goes, “every day you either get better or you get worse, you never stay the same,” by Bo Schembechler, is my daily outlook reminder. It’s no surprise that life is challenging, both personally and professionally. The technology world is extremely challenging. Barriers to entry have become low with cloud, SaaS apps, and ubiquitous high-speed data that is inexpensive. Competition is fierce. And with new technology seemingly available daily, the landscape changes just as quickly. And competitors today could be tomorrow’s M&A announcement.

With so much going on, you must have a continuous daily process of improvement and applying recent learnings. If you take a process-based approach, it leads to great results. If you are always shooting for the “once in a lifetime” product, it is extremely high risk and low/no return. If you focus on the continuous improvements to the innovation process and close customer connection, success is imminent and continues to grow.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)

Keith: If I could inspire a movement, it would be to get people to never quit learning. Whether it’s reading a book, listening to a podcast, or doing tutorials online, I have interviewed so many candidates for marketing leadership positions, and I’m always surprised by how many of them are choosing to stop learning after they hit a point in their career. I don’t know if it’s because they feel like they’re at a point in their career where they can hire people to do the work for them or what, but it’s definitely disheartening. I still love doing the “dirty work” by writing content, designing, video production, SEO, etc. I’m nearly 20 years in at this point, and I still push myself to learn new things every day. Maybe it’s just my love of marketing in general, but it has never felt like work. It’s like an ever-evolving puzzle that I’m trying to solve — and who wouldn’t need to keep learning if they’re trying to solve a puzzle like that?

How can our readers follow you online?

Jim: Keith and I are both very active on LinkedIn. Feel free to connect with either of us on LinkedIn, and be sure to follow brightfin’s page for fun videos you’ll love!

This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!

--

--

Fotis Georgiadis
Authority Magazine

Passionate about bringing emerging technologies to the market