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Social Influencer Series | David Knies, Chief Growth Officer Breakaway Ventures

Social Influencer Series | David Knies, Chief Growth Officer Breakaway Ventures

One of the first and most influential voices that I "followed" when I broke into the Boston tech scene was David Knies - the Chief Growth Officer at Breakaway. I heard him speak at a MassChallenge event and was really impressed with his approach to sustainable, scalable growth for start-ups. He talked about the need to be both strategic and tactical, but also agile and open to frequent change.

That really resonated with me as a business leader. Change is truly the only constant and in the disruption economy - the ability to navigate change and adapt is a prerequisite survival skill. I have often preached the need to be strategically tactical, but that added layer of agility and adaptability is mission critical in the start-up space. 

David has spent 25+ years working with brand, product, marketing and innovation leaders at some of the world's great companies to create white space opportunities and solve urgent business problems. He has led the brand strategy and innovation consulting business at Breakaway in Boston since 2011. In addition to his work with brands like - Oath Pizza, adidas, Dunkin' Donuts, Drizly, Spartan Race, Sony, Wasabi, Microsoft and MLB - to name a few, David is deeply involved in the tech community of Boston.

As JFK famously said, "To whom much is given, much is expected". David makes it a priority to mentor great talent and early stage companies, including teams from TechStars, MassChallenge, Nike+ Accelerator, Seedcamp, Northeastern IDEA and the MIT Entrepreneurship Forum.

He was featured recently on the Sports Lifestyle Podcast and we are extremely lucky to have him join us for this week's edition of The Social Influencer. 

I caught up with David recently and here's a snapshot of what he had to say:

Breakaway works with so many innovative and disruptive brands (Wasabi is a great example). How do you build a marketing strategy for fast-paced, moving targets like that? It is like seeing the future and making adjustments on the fly.

One big lesson I’ve learned working with our clients at Breakaway as well as during my time leading marketing for a number of brands prior to Breakaway, is that no matter how innovative and disruptive the business or its product, as Baron von Moltke famously said - “No battle plan ever survives first contact with the enemy.” 

Which means that as we build a strategic + tactical growth plan – regardless of company size – we are constantly modifying, testing, iterating and adjusting the marketing strategy and tactics to find opportunities to improve and accelerate. This requires a mindset and set of behaviors that is agile, flexible, collaborative and open to frequent change.

Another major lesson is that there’s no one-size-fits-all model for marketing + branding. Every business has its own unique challenges and every brand needs its own marketing playbook and strategy.

You have been so involved in the Boston Tech Startup community with both Breakaway and your involvement in the MassChallenge. Who are the rising stars to watch?

As a mentor at TechStars for the past 6+ years, as well as the work I’ve done mentoring teams from the Babson Breakaway Challenge, the Nike+ accelerator, Europe’s Seedcamp, Northeastern’s IDEA accelerator, the MIT Entrepreneurship Forum and others, I’ve met and worked with a lot of great entrepreneurs, teams and ideas from their earliest stages through these programs and always have my eyes peeled for great talent who could fit into teams with our clients / partners. 

Some of the most inspiring + successful entrepreneurs come out of these programs – people like Anna Palmer of Wondermile / X-Factor Ventures, Jordan Fliegel of CoachUp + Draft, Kash Razzaghi + Jeremy Merle from FanCred, Brendan Candon from Sideline Swap and the teams from PillPack, Lovepop, Heddoku and many others. 

A couple of early stage teams I’m watching closely in Boston / NYC are Manny Lubin + Josh Belinsky and their new beverage startup; the team of doctors looking to reinvent healthcare at Firefly Health, the cannabis entrepreneurs at Ascend and how Emily Levy at MightyWell is creating an entirely new category of apparel and accessories for patients. I’m also very excited by what the team at sports tech company DRIVN is doing (shameless plug – I’m on their board) and intrigued by the new crowdfunding model using initial coin offerings that Justin Hillery and Kory McNeill of Self.Made in NYC are launching for seed-stage companies. 

We’re also extremely interested in what is happening at Breakaway’s portfolio companies - Oath Pizza, Drizly, EverybodyFights, TrueFit and IdeaPaint!


From a go-to-market marketing perspective, what are the top trends to watch in 2018? 

I’m closely watching the evolution of the role of the CMO and how its shifting to become much more directly responsible for a company’s growth. The days of a company’s head of marketing being solely responsible for brand + marketing are over – these are important but we now see that 80% of CEO’s don’t really trust their CMO (per Harvard Business Review) yet they expect them to find new opportunities for transformational growth. This is a very difficult spot for the CMO to be in, and one that demands that they find new kinds of partners able to directly connect branding, marketing, innovation and product creation to growth. Who does the CMO turn to for growth? 

This is why we’ve positioned Breakaway as a “Growth Agency” - a branding and marketing agency born from inside a venture capital firm, designed to be a new kind of partner to the CMO under pressure to take their company to the next level. 

And the growing dominance of Amazon, Facebook and Google across all marketing is part of every conversation. In a world where more than 50% of all product searches now start on Amazon, how a brand shows up on Amazon is rapidly becoming more important than their advertising. 

Also, Russian hackers. Imagine what would happen if every brand had their own team of them!

How important is social media to brand marketing today? 

Its impossible to imagine a company that can’t use social media effectively to listen and engage in conversations, regardless of industry. Even the most boring industries (talking to my friends in manufacturing, financial services and law) are able to move the needle for their company with social. Social media is a powerful opportunity for every brand to connect on an individual level with people, and in many cases, it is the most important and direct way that a brand can connect with people and turn them into customers. 

Of course, not every channel is right for every brand, but there are surprising ways that they can each have a different use. For a SaaS company, LinkedIn is probably very important to talk about the company’s business, but Instagram can be a window into the company’s culture. 

What I’m always fascinated by are consumer-facing brands that don’t use social – Apple is a major example, and I’m a massive fan of Monocle, the media brand that doesn’t use social media to promote itself yet continues to grow like crazy. 

But no matter what, I think we can all agree that Trump’s Twitter account needs to be silenced. 

What advice would you give to a CMO of legacy brand that is being attacked in the disruption economy? 

Be ready, willing and humble enough to create a new playbook. Not just for branding + marketing, but also for product and your entire business model. 

And plan some of your own “breakaway moves” - new products, services, partnerships, acquisitions, programs, campaigns, business model innovation, etc… - to accelerate growth, create white space for your brand and separate it from your competition. 

Speed Round:

Celebratory Cocktail? A massive Hendricks + Tonic. 

Proudest accomplishment? Family. Career. Family. Family. Family. 

What brand is dominating modern marketing? Amazon, Google, Facebook. Putin’s hackers. 

Go to social channel? Instagram. LinkedIn. My gym (EverybodyFights) in AM.

Inspirational Hashtag? #FlyEaglesFly #PhilaUnite #LetsMarchNova #PanMass2018 #Duxbury #WhyIRide #WhyIFight #BreakingAway

David Knies is the Chief Growth Officer of Breakaway. He can found and followed on Twitter and LinkedIn and the great work that Breakaway does is on display on Instagram. I would highly suggest following his blog. I learn something new with every post! 

About the interviewer:

Mark Keaney is a Husband, Dad, Coach, Mentor and Leader. With over 20 years of experience in the media industry and a wild ride in the world of tech start-up & social - Mark is helping brands deliver world class CX at Lithium Technologies, where he is the Regional Vice President of Sales for the East and Central. His mantra is - Brand Globally. Market Locally. 

e: markkeaney8@gmail.com or t: @markkeaney2pt0

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