For startups, marketing is a critical, but often overlooked, step in communicating both the vision of the company and convincing new customers -- and that's where Virginia Balcom comes in. Balcom brings 20 years of marketing experience to her role as Executive in Residence for VentureLabs, an accelerator program based in Vancouver, BC, where she works closely with startups in developing their marketing strategies.
In addition to working with telecom companies, Balcom has led marketing teams in a wide range of verticals including retail, clean energy, biotech, wireless, supercomputing, big data and healthcare. Balcom has worked with startups, such as Abatis Systems, and led brand-building at larger companies including Sierra Wireless Inc. (Nasdaq: SWIR; Toronto: SW).
Balcom started her career as an engineer in telecom and understands the challenges women in the communications industry face and the pressure from being the only woman in the room. Developing communication and facilitation skills have helped drive Balcom's success, and she shares her insights on how to build strong teams as well as why she's optimistic about the future of the tech industry, despite recent negative press around tech startups. Read on for more.
Women in Comms: What does your role of Executive in Residence at VentureLabs entail?
Virginia Balcom : VentureLabs is an accelerator program based in Vancouver, BC, delivered by Simon Fraser University (SFU), the BC Innovation Council and other partners. At VentureLabs we have a strong focus on product and market validation, and my primary role as an Executive in Residence (EIR), is to advise and mentor VentureLabs startups through this stage of their startup journey.
What I’m really excited about is the opportunity to bring real-world marketing experience to our companies. As an EIR I work directly with CEOs and their teams, helping them with the next hurdle -- whether its articulating their vision and the value they aim to deliver, or working out how they can affordably reach their prospective customers. There’s such a hunger for marketing learning that we’re also providing marketing seminars and workshops that focus on the key challenges for startups.
WiC: What are the most important considerations that go into building a successful technology company?
VB: While there are a handful of important things that most every investor will say a successful startup needs, and the one thing that’s often overlooked, is marketing. To be successful, technology companies need to see marketing as more than brochures and social networking. They need to invest in the knowledge and experience to design and execute a strong go-to-market strategy. A strategy that starts with testing your ideas in the market and continues to evolve as you learn about your customer and your product. I’ve spent most of my career helping companies bring new technologies to market, from IP network products, to supercomputers, to big data. And over and over again, I’ve seen a direct correlation between treating full-breadth marketing as a key contributor and the company’s success.
WiC: Have you encountered any unique challenges or opportunities as a female executive in the technology space?
VB: From the early days of my career, as an engineer in telecom, I got used to discovering I was the only woman in the room. And, as the only female in the room, it was easy to feel excluded. From those early days I began developing strategies to get past exclusion -- both real and imagined. One of the best strategies turned out to also lay the foundation opportunities that came my way -- I learned to listen. I watched natural communicators draw even the quietest engineers into animated conversation, and copied their approach. I took courses in facilitation, and I learned about team building and leadership. And as I practiced these skills, I learned about my colleagues, their work, their lives, and their hopes and dreams. That was the best payoff!
WiC: What are some of the most important lessons you’ve learned over the course of your career?
VB: Learning how to prioritize investment of time and resources. Even after working with many different project management tools and new task management apps, I still lean most on a technique I learned from Stephen Covey’s "7 Habits of Highly Effective People." Categorizing work into one of its four quadrants organized by urgency and importance helps me make sure that I don’t neglect those that often have the most impact -- those tasks that while important, aren’t urgent enough to make it to the top of the list by themselves.
One of the most important leadership lessons I’ve learned is that no matter how hard it is to do, addressing performance issues in a timely manner is critical. Whether the project is going off the rails, or a team member is struggling, there’s no gain in hoping things will improve. Just prepare for the conversation, and dive in, you’ll often find the water isn’t as cold as it looked.
WiC: Given all the negative press around tech startups today, what makes you feel optimistic about the future of the industry -- and company cultures -- from the work you do with accelerator companies?
VB: Every day that I spend at VentureLabs makes me feel optimistic about both the future of technology, and the future of our world. The teams radiate energy. I’m encouraged by the diversity of the accelerator companies and their teams -- the diversity of culture, education, age, and gender, and the diversity of ideas. And I’m heartened by the problems they want to solve -- from improving access to healthcare to helping companies make more efficient use of energy.
— Kelsey Kusterer Ziser, Senior Editor, Light Reading