[Bold story] Brand guru Kyle Lacy on life, leadership and a quirky llama


Kyle Lacy sitting for an interview with Tiffany Sauder

Kyle Lacy. When you think of marketers who have enjoyed success at an early age, he’s probably one of the first names that comes to mind. Especially if you happen to be from Indianapolis. But while Kyle has had a fascinating career to this point, he’s really just getting started.

His career began at a local agency, and then he launched his own, Brandswag. Next he became a senior manager of content marketing at ExactTarget. After ExactTarget’s acquisition by Salesforce, Kyle directed global content marketing efforts for the Salesforce Marketing Cloud and presented at conferences on technology trends and consumer behavior.

Next he became a marketing executive and later an executive advisor in the venture capital space with OpenView Venture Partners. Now Kyle serves as the VP of Marketing at Lessonly, a local company that builds employee training software.

So I was obviously excited to sit down with him and talk about everything from the lessons he’s learned from failure to company culture and, well, a quirky llama that’s all the rage right now.

Download the full interview transcript here

Here are my 10 takeaways from the chat with Kyle.

1. Never give up. Even when you fail.

“Everything that has happened over the years has always been because I’ve failed at something else. So when I graduated college, it was really hard for me to get a job. And I got a job at a local advertising company in Indianapolis and finally started my own business because I couldn’t figure out anything else to do. The social media stuff came because we figured out that we were losing to everybody else for branding, so we just started talking about social media. … You have to fake it until you make it, right? But the whole point is that if you don’t make it, you’re a liar; if you make it, everybody thinks you’re confident.”

2. Self-worth shouldn’t come from racking up social media followers.

“…It hit me when I was scrolling through Instagram mindlessly, which is a whole other conversation, and half the people on my feed, I had no clue who they were, no idea who these people were. And it just—it was—I don’t know why it happened that moment, but I was like I’ve got to figure out a different way to do this, to find self outside of whether or not somebody is retweeting or like something on LinkedIn or Facebook because I don’t know any of these people.

“And I think my mentality of growing a huge network, it transitioned to focusing on a very small one so that you are investing proactively in a set number of people instead of trying to find as many people as possible.”

3. Time management and mental space are two different things.

“Honestly, let me be clear, I don’t know if I do a very good job at [work-life balance] right now. It’s more about a time management thing for me than anything else. We know that there’s a certain time in the day when I’m working, and when I get home, when my son is awake, I’m not working. And at night, I’m not working most of the time. If I have to work on the weekends, I’m getting up at 4:30 and working before they get up.

“I think I have a pretty good balance there from time management, but having the mental space is different than time management. Because you could not be working and still be thinking about all that. And I haven’t figured out a good way….”

4. Young talent can make prime management material.

“For me, if we hire somebody and they’re a year out of college and they’re really good, I don’t have a second thought about putting them in a management role, if they’re good at it. Because age has never been an issue for me.”

5. Market-leading brands rake in the revenue.

“If you own a market with your brand, then the revenue will come. Because people want to buy from people they like. They don’t want to buy because they got a discount. And they might initially buy for a discount, but they will always pay more if they like you. And if your brand can tell that story and a Google Ad [is] where it can get them in, you have to have both.”

6. A llama can bring your brand to life in a really engaging way. Who knew?

“So Ollie Llama is our mascot. It’s a long story, but there was a poster in Lessonly and apparently the llama just stuck around….

“[Llamas] are terrible animals. They’re like the jerks of the animal kingdom. Ollie is awesome, though, our mascot. But normal llamas are crazy. So for the Golden Llama [campaign], we give a golden llama to an employee every quarter to say ‘thank you’ for embodying Lessonly’s values, and we wanted to do the same thing for prospects and customers.

“So we bought 500 llamas and I actually hand spray-painted all of them. So startup space…. And we sent them out, and it was a brand campaign because we weren’t asking for anything. It was basically: take this golden llama and give it to an employee that you think deserves this. And if you want to share it, feel free. And it has worked extremely well, especially from a revenue-driving perspective as well. And we’re lucky now that the llamas are, like, cool for some reason….

“We were in San Francisco this weekend. We have llama socks and llama koozies and llama stickers, and they were gone within an hour of this show because people—I don’t get it. But the Golden Llama, it’s more brand. And in a world where a VP of sales or a customer service leader, the people who we target, where they are getting emails and direct mail all the time, you’ve got to think of something other than ‘Call me so I can demo my software?’ because the last thing you or I want to do is demo somebody’s software.”

7. It’s gotten harder to crush it with content marketing.

“Well, when we started the content team in ExactTarget, it was very much a thought leadership play, and we found out that we could generate leads from it. And I think the team at ExactTarget was actually farther ahead than most, where we were leading with research in our content, where we were doing surveys and we were actually delivering things that people could use outside of just downloading an ebook. Now, thanks to the Content Marketing Institute and the great press that all this has gotten, it’s just harder to make a dent. And I think that what we’re coming back to is that it’s experiences that really drive anything….

“It’s like you can get your customers to talk about you, you create experiences that people don’t get from your competitors, and you win. I sell software. There’s not much difference between us and the 50 people we compete with. The feature sets are very similar, so you have to win across something else, and it’s not the top 10 ways to build a great training platform, because that’s what everybody else is doing. So how can you send a golden llama? How can you get your customer to talk about you?”

8. Experiences also apply to personal brands.

“If we go back to the very beginning, you know, you send me a resume and say you graduated from IU in marketing, yeah, so did 50,000 other people and I got their resume as well. Like you have to tell a story to get my attention. You have to tell me why it matters that I’m taking time to look at your resume. And if you can do it to a point where you are using your network to sell yourself, much like we use our customers to sell our platform, then it’s even better. And if you can get customers by referrals and you can get a job without using a resume, that’s the perfect world.”

9. Company culture should start with onboarding.

“The Orange Culture was built through onboarding at ExactTarget. Everybody went through it for a week before they joined. The Lessonly culture is built through, of course, our app that we use but also onboarding. And then making sure that the voice—like Max’s voice and Max’s personality and the reason why Max built Lessonly, everybody understands it and everybody speaks to it, and can speak to it coherently, from an engineer to a salesperson to a CX team, we know why we’re doing this. And I think Max can tell the story really well, and it’s up to the management team to be able to tell the story from his mouth so that you can spread the message. And if customers start owning it, then you know you’ve won for the most part.”

10. Always invest in relationships. Even if you’re an introvert.

“…I can be introverted in networking settings. And even my 24-year-old self, when I started doing more business-oriented stuff and then in joining ExactTarget, there were some times where I would leave a networking event without meeting more people.

“I wish that I would have pushed myself to develop relationships a little bit deeper. Because traveling the world, you meet a lot of amazing people and I don’t think I spent enough time developing those relationships.”

More Bold Stories to Dive Into

Life in (and after) the NFL with Gary Brackett

Quinn Ricker on Transforming His Family Business

CMO Turned VC Investor Tim Kopp on the Job of a Leader

CMO Turned VC Investor Tim Kopp on the Impact of Employer Branding

CMO Turned VC Investor Tim Kopp on Why Work-Life Balance is Dead

CMO Turned VC Investor Tim Kopp on How to Balance Brand and Demand Generation

Related resources.

Dealer vs Manufacturer: Who owns the customer relationship?

Dealer vs Manufacturer: Who owns the customer relationship?

Planning the Right Marketing Activity When Entering New Markets

Planning the Right Marketing Activity When Entering New Markets

Lead, MQL, Opportunity: Why You Need Shared Internal Pipeline Definitions

Lead, MQL, Opportunity: Why You Need Shared Internal Pipeline Definitions


Feed your marketing mind and keep your skills sharp by opting into our newsletter, packed with lessons we’ve learned firsthand. You won’t regret it.