Mind The Gap, with Kristina Libby

Kristina Libby

How do you effectively market and sell products that are so complex that most people can’t understand how they work? Join us as Kristina Libby, CMO at Hypergiant, describes how to be the ‘cool kids in the room’ when selling AI-powered software, and lessons she’s learned from building a brand while also fueling sales.


Kristina describes the importance of building a brand and representing the benefit that your buyer and the rest of the world can experience using your product. 

Additionally, Kristina goes on to describe the importance of having a mission – especially when building a brand around something as transformative as AI. 


Nick: Hello everybody, and welcome to Mind the Gap, Enablix’s only podcast, about the gap between sales and marketing. My name is Nick Ziech-Lopez, and today I’m joined with Kristina Libby. Kristina, how are you? 

Kristina: I’m good. Thank you. How are you?

Nick: I am awesome. Kristina, can you tell me a little bit about who you are, what you do, and why you’re here? 

Kristina: My name is Kristina Libby. I work at a company called Hypergiant. We’re an enterprise AI software company that basically works in space defense and critical infrastructure. That means that what we’re really concerned with is a lot of the like quote, unquote boring data problems that actually impact how the world operates. That’s things like figuring out the problems within the energy grid so that we don’t end up with mass energy outages due to climate change, and unforeseen previously unpredictable events- that’s the space at the bottom of where we work. I came into this role from sitting as a chief science officer, where I was really interested in strategy, the direction of technology, where it was headed, and how it was impacting our collective future and a whole bunch of other roles as well.

Nick: You said you were chief science officer. Did you start in the AI space and then transition into marketing AI? Or, have you always been marketing and you kind of crept towards AI? How did that work? 

Kristina: My master’s degree is in international security and I actually studied international politics and conflict, and then moved from that into tech and marketing. I worked at Microsoft for a number of years, then worked in the start-up space for a long time. The interesting thing about Hypergiant is it’s kind of a fusion between where I started. Thinking about these big geopolitical, social infrastructure, questions and technology. Technology at this point is also a social question, also, an infrastructure question, not just a technical question. We are at this moment in our collective society where we are letting technology make choices for how we want society to be instead of making choices for how we want society to be, and then building the technology that underlays that.

I think artificial intelligence is a very interesting part of that conversation, where, whatever happens with artificial intelligence is going to dictate the way that our society functions. Trying to be a part of that conversation, to me, is really about asking bigger questions about how do we want to be human, how do we want the world to operate, how do we want our technology to change and improve the systems that affect us on a daily basis?  

Nick: I totally get that. For me, a lot of it is about how do we get to a city where I could take electric scooters everywhere, and maybe take less cars?  

Kristina: That’s totally fair. I am aligned. I mean, I would love to live in a city where a city wasn’t designed for car transportation to happen every day. I live in New York city, so I like to take the subway to the airport because I get very carsick. However, I often look around the city and I have these questions about, what if we only needed cars for the most minimal part of our day? Rather than seeing streets flooded with cars, what if we saw them flooded with other things, or, would we need as many streets? 

There was an interesting article in the New York Times over the weekend that talked about putting reflective white paint on rooftops and how that is important for climate change because it stops cities from being heat bubbles. They said something interesting, which is that we have the opportunity with enough building roofs to be 44,000 square feet, which is like essentially the size of another borough in Manhattan. If you started to think about that rooftop space, as a changeable, editable space in a city landscape, how does that change the way you think about the city. Also, if we could somehow half the number of streets that we needed to have in the city, what else would you do with that space?I think those questions are really about, how do you want to live in this city and what do you want it to be? Do you want those roads to be reclaimed green space, do you want them to be new levels of housing? Do you want them to be storefronts or do you want them to be bike storage? There’s a bunch of those questions and I think that they are absolutely fascinating. 

Nick: And, how do we turn all of those rooftops to be rooftop bars? 

Kristina: That’s an option. In a pandemic, that feels right. That’s probably what the majority of people hope for.

Nick: Yes. And it’s totally socially distanced- you get your building and I’ll get my building and we’ll just be on the other sides. 

Kristina: I’ll have those like little tin cans with the wires.

Nick: Yes, so the question comes down to how do we get to a society where we have 44,000 rooftop bars? 

Kristina: I think that’s the question that you said, but, yes.  

Nick: So, Hypergiant is an AI based product that the vast majority of people won’t understand how it works, but do understand how it does, and even when I hear you talk about what Hype giant is and what you guys do, it’s obvious you’re talking about the problems you address. How do you find the balancer? How do you find the way to talk about the difference between the marketing speak of what you do and perhaps the sales speak of how you do it and, and the details there?

Kristina: I think that question is a line that we often have to balance at the company. Hypergiant was started by Ben Lamb. He’s a serial entrepreneur, and he’s great at figuring out the intersection point between what pop culture is really interested in and where technology is headed.

When he launched Hypergiant, he was tapping into this cultural fascination with space, this retro futurism, this disgruntledness that people were feeling with this idea of, where is the future we were promised, right? Why are you 40 years on this earth, or 50 years on this earth and why don’t we have flying cars yet? We have climate change as a problem, and our cities aren’t clean, where are our self-driving cars? All of these ideas that, in the 50s and 60s, were promised to us, or theorized were at the heart of the brand that was built, and this brand promise. It was pretty central to us taking the market position that we’ve had, which is so many AI companies come out and they’re like artificial intelligence, this, machine learning this, and they’re talking about it at a really technical level, but they’re missing out on the excitement, and even the romance, and the potential of what the future looks like.

Hypergiant, furthermore, in that negotiation actually hit on this techno-utopian, techno futurism idea, which is that technology actually makes it possible to build the future. I think those insights into the building of the brand have helped to open up a lot of doors for us. They have helped us open a lot of conversations because, ultimately, the decision maker, who is buying our solutions or buying the products that we’re bringing to market, is often not the person who is highly technical. It’s a C-level decision maker. That person also is in a leadership position, also feels this question of, where’s the future that I thought I was building towards? Where is the future that I was promised? Where is the future that I’m creating? More so than it is someone asking, can this happen in Python? Or, 70% of the people working on this project speak this code base, how do your projects work with that? I think that’s one of the things about technology that we often forget, is that it can be so alienating to people when we speak about it at an extremely technical level, but when we’re speaking about something at an extremely technical level, all we’re doing is sort of describing a bigger idea.

We as a brand choose to enter on the bigger idea, we choose to enter in that conversation of the beauty and the power of the opportunity. Then, we back into how we can do it, here’s how we can think about it. In the process of our sales and marketing cycle, we come at it in different levels of depth at different times, but we pretty much always go layman terms first, and I think any company you look up that is successfully marketing technology does that because ultimately, we’re all  people at the end of the day. No matter how deep my knowledge is on a specific topic, it’s a lot easier if you can talk to me about it in regular terms and then we can make sure that we’re both having the same conversation before we dive deep into the technical language. 

Nick: Do you find yourself having to transition or get more specific as you work down the sales and marketing funnel? Maybe, at the total top of the funnel, you could talk in very broad marketing terms about what Hypergiant does, but do you ever feel yourself in your messaging, and in the way that you talk with your sales team, having to get either more specific in how or what you do as people get pushed down that funnel to purchase?

Kristina: Yes. We get technically more specific the further down the funnel people go, but we never get too in the weeds. I think partially we’re changing that perspective. For a long time, we built a lot of different things across a lot of different categories. What that meant was that we were a lot about showing you what was possible. A full credit goes to our founder Ben, that was really about gaining a lot of market share and gaining a lot of potential and a lot of possibility in making a big noise for a company that was still in the early stages of its development. Now is where it’s maturing as a company. Ben stepped down as CEO, he brought in a new CEO, Mike Fetzer. Mike is focused on solidifying and simplifying our offerings. As we do that, our marketing strategy is changing to be a little bit more industry specific, a little bit more technical, a little bit more case study focused, but still within this beauty of the brand potential and this idea that is core to our business, which is that we do believe in impossible things.

We believe that we have this team of really incredible, very smart engineers, technologists, UX designers, brand thinkers, who are actually capable of meeting these huge challenges that the energy industry has, the Department of Defense has, that space companies have. We have to play that line a little bit between being like, this is exactly what we do and this is what we can do. Because of that, our relative positioning is more of slight changes, some more technical depth, really until we have that sales handoff. And then when sales takes over it becomes a lot more deep, a lot more quickly in that process of evaluating, is this a real customer and is this a great market opportunity for us or not? 

Nick: How do you currently interact with your sales team? What is your current way to find alignment between sales and marketing and what does that interaction look like for you? 

Kristina: I talk to our CRO, David Young, 15 times a day. We’re really intertwined. Also, making sure that they have everything they need, that we are able to help provide them and give them every material that they need in order to make that transition to sales. We are two different orgs, yes, we have two different remits, but we are so closely integrated that it really feels like everything is a collaborative effort. I think that is rare and I think it is wonderful and that’s a part of the reason why this work is actually such a joy

Nick: Since you guys work so closely together, do you ever think of switching between CMO and CRO one day, you’re CRO one day, you’re CMO, you go back and forth.

Kristina: No, I would be terrible at it, but thank you very much. I think sales is a discipline all on its own and it’s good that there are sales leaders. There’s some inherent tension between sales and marketing. Sales is thinking month to month, possibly quarter to quarter and marketing is rarely ever in a rush to hit the end of month goal for anything, and much more thinking, what can we accomplish this quarter? What are we doing 6, 9, months a year from now, how are we setting up for the opportunities that sales needs us to do? I think in that there is a tiny bit of friction, but there doesn’t have to be. I think this idea that there is friction with sales and marketing is a little bit short-sighted. I think that happens when you don’t have strong leadership and when you don’t have a very clear vision of who your customer is, why they need you, what you are selling to them, and then also where you want your business to go. That’s something that is really exciting about where Hypergiant is now. We have a very clear vision on what we want to do in the market and who we want to sell to and what we want to sell them, so then it’s synergistic to work together in a really collaborative fashion. 

Nick: Given the nature of your product, do you have any tips or suggestions that you’d have for educating your sales team or understanding the competitive differentiation between your solution and the other ones that are out there?

Kristina: Did you ever read the blue ocean book- I forget what it’s called. There’s this book around blue ocean strategy, or it’s a theory around blue ocean strategy. I used to be a professor and I would teach this book, and now I forget what it is called. Blue ocean strategy is to say that you find your blue ocean. You find the place where there is opportunity, and then you stick there. One of the interesting things about our brand is that our brand itself has created opportunity vis-a-vis other companies who essentially do very similar sorts of activities to us. Part of what makes us successful is this big brand idea. This blue ocean, that we are an artificial intelligence company focused on space defense and critical infrastructure, focused on these boring problems that we think are necessary to evolve humanity as we go to our next 5, 10, 50 years forward. That cuts into the competitive language. I do think you need to have an understanding of your competition, you need to have an understanding of where you fall, vis-a-vis the competition, because that’s how you do a bunch of tactical marketing.

However, I also think you can get bogged down in competitive market positioning, in understanding what the competition is doing, in your wins against the competition, because ultimately at the end of the day, purchases are still made emotionally. If you are on the same level, or even 5% worse, or 5% better than someone who is offering the same thing, then how does someone make the choice?

They’re making the choice based on where they feel the most level of emotional attachment, and that has nothing to do with what your competition is doing at all. I think that is an interesting thing to think about. I think, because we are a very brand focused organization, when David came on board, he inherently understood that. We get to, a little bit, be cool, we’re a little bit the cool kids. If we were just an ML ops company, or we were just an AI solutions company, a lot of those companies are really marketed in a very business-way. We get to exist in this other brand, quite like a high fashion brand, category. That is a true help for selling, but also, we have tons of competitive research, we do a lot of market research, we are constantly understanding what our competition is doing. At the same time, I’m a marketing perspective, I’m very interested in our voice, our message, how we talk about what we do, how we tell those big, interesting stories in a way that we are the only people to do that because it is so authentic to who we are as a company, more so than I am necessarily going out and batting against the competition. The market that we’re going after is enormous, and we don’t have to do that yet. When I worked at Microsoft, we did a lot of competitive analysis and we had to do a lot of that work, and I just think that was because the market was a lot more crowded and the players were a lot more established and we’re just like in a totally different market where we’re not a TelCo.

Nick: Yeah, I’m waiting for the Hypergiant x Supreme collab to come out. 

Kristina: If you think about it, that was a core part of what Ben wanted to do when he started the company. He wanted to make a company that could just as easily partner with an Off-White and make a hyper giant shoe that had an IOT sensor, that powered some really cool data dashboard, as he was wanting to work with the Department of Defense on building a satellite constellation.

Part of that is possible because we wanted to play in this space that was a little bit more pop-culture oriented. That was more about the idea of what we wanted the future to be than it was just about the technical capacity of who we are. 

Nick: I’m imagining an edge IOT device from your shoes that goes to track exactly where you are in the movement, and it just lights up your shoes when you take a step so we have used AI to get ourselves back to where we were in the late eighties with light up shoes. 

Kristina: I think edge computing (19:49) is going to see a massive growth in the next five years. Often, we talk about that in terms of how a business can run a company? At the end of the day, right, it’s a lot more data from a lot more places that can shape the world around us, but we have to be thinking about what we want from it. Like, do we want light up sneakers or do we want to be able to take the data- which, you can get it with phones already- but really, transportation data and then reimagine cities. Would it be cooler if it was in our shoes? So much of your data is sold now, but, what if you were more privy to that data?

What if you were like, I’m buying these cool light-up shoes because each time that lights up, I know that that data is going towards this research project, which is rethinking how to use city streets. I know you were being totally facetious, but I think that is also this interesting data question, which is right now, so much of our data is in commercial spaces and commercialized.

That brings a lot of questions about data and privacy and security, what we want to do with it, and how companies make money off of it. But, if the consumer is more connected to what is possible from artificial intelligence, what is possible from big data, what is possible for machine learning, there are so many other ways that information can be applied in our futures and in our current lives. Getting people excited about the next step in technology is a really powerful opportunity for a brand. I think that’s the thing that Hypergiant does is- let’s not just sell tech to businesses, but let’s make sure that we are educating everyone about what’s possible with technology.

Nick: It’s interesting because you look at a company like Snowflake, the database company, and they talk about how data is going to be the new currency or data is the future. I think the discussion we don’t have enough is data empowerment, where you own your own data, and you can choose where to put that data to work to influence the things around you.

Kristina: I am extremely excited for that future, but it’s also the same thing that we are talking about with businesses. We talk about this path from data to decisions, and we want to shorten that path as much as possible for businesses. Sometimes that is products like our product Hyperdrive, which is all about ML ops solutions and taking models into production.

Sometimes it’s about bigger things, like an intelligent operating picture, which helps companies take deals from a bunch of different data silos and put it together in a way that’s easy to visualize that makes everyone from the data scientist to the CEO, be able to use that data against whatever their end needs are.

Why can’t consumers, and community groups, and organizations also do the same thing with their data? I think, because of the difficulty of collecting data, because of where that data is stored, and because of the thresholds to being able to access that data and a certain amount of technical expertise.

But, when we do have access to that data, we can start to understand our world in a really different way. The secret is that there’s a ton of data out there, we’re just not good at visualizing it and interpreting it right now. I get really excited about this idea of, what if we were to ask bigger questions about what we wanted out of the world and who we wanted to be, and then we were actually able to dig into that data and find ways to positively encourage people to do things while collecting that data? Citibank is a great example with their rewards in the Citibike app for doing things that are ultimately moving the bike around to where Citibike needs those bikes to go. That is a company doing that with data, but it’s also encouraging you to act in a way that’s positively social. Because you drop your bike off a little bit further away, you get a small amount of money, but that means people who need the scooter are able to find a square where they need it. Think about other things, think about if you could be incentivized to recycle and as a result of that, a piece of public art was made or something like that. 

Nick: Yeah. For instance, I save my plastic bags and then I put them into a bin at the Publix where they just go away and they say they recycle them. I know that they can turn those plastic bags into park benches. But, what if, when you turn in 80 plastic bags, you could  track them along the way to becoming a park bench or something like that? What if you could actually see the impact of the little things you’re doing and how they make something better?

Kristina: Yes, you’re able to very clearly see the path between your action and a positive outcome. I think that is one of these misconceptions around big data is that we think about disinformation campaigns, we think about Facebook selling our data, we think about all of these things that have had a negative impact on society. Why can’t data become almost like a gamification, or an encouragement for us to live our lives- even like collective action? I think Fitbit tries to do this a little bit, when you get the notification that you’ve walked 200,000 steps or, you’re in the top 2% of people. Give me something more interesting such as, in New York city, if everyone walked as many steps as you’ve walked today, it would cut your carbon emissions here. Or, because you walked this many steps today, you don’t need to pay for carbon offset if you take a trip. I don’t know exactly what it is, but that kind of thinking about positive, connected, social, data empowerment. We talk about the promise, but I think that future is a possibility for us. If we start to think about our data, if we start to take it out of technical speak and put it into layman’s speak, which we started off this conversation talking about, then all of a sudden it’s about inspiring the public to think about all of the different things that their data can do. That’s really exciting. We were building this product called Hyperdrive, which is about helping data scientists get models into production faster, and people are often asleep.You say that sentence and then if someone’s not a data scientist, they’re like, why do I care? Well, why do you care? Some place between 80 and 90% of models that are made never get put into production? Again, why do I care? Well, you care because the more models that make it into production, the better all of our models become, the better our systems become.

If we can fix that part of the path, then it’s like taking 1995 websites and making them Squarespace. And if we can do that, then a lot more people can do a lot more things with data. It takes it out of the realm of just big businesses doing complicated, enterprise related data solutions and into some of these things that are maybe more tangible, maybe more exciting, or maybe bring forward these cool, fun, future-forward ideas that a data scientist working for NASA, just wouldn’t be thinking about. 

Nick: To bring that back to the sales and marketing, I really like what you just did, where you started with almost a really specific sales problem- a very specific use case- and they said, okay, well, why do you care? You brought that back out into a marketing message, and I think we all try to do that, but you didn’t go all the way down to the idea that you make more money. I think a lot of us have that problem, when you get to the base of it, it seems like it’s all the same.

Kristina: I think, honestly, make more money, it feels like table stakes. Isn’t every technology solution supposed to help you make more money, and be more efficient, and all of these things? For us, if we stop at making more money, then we’re not a good enough company and we’re not the right partner for you. If all you want to do is make more money, you don’t deserve to work with these engineers in our business and these designers. The people who work in this company are so smart and so talented and they are so interested in how to actually build a better, more, equitable, more interesting world. If a company is just interested in a better bottom line then, there are other people to go work with. If a company wants to increase their bottom line, great, but then also do more. I think we are in this moment where we’re seeing it with workers’ rights, we’re seeing it with general trendlines. Companies that just want to make more money, they’re going to go out of business in the next 15 years. Companies that have a dedicated social mission, companies that are focused on doing more than just being a company, they’re going to kill it in the next 15 to 30 years, because they’re going to be doing the right things. I think those are the companies that we want to stand behind, but that’s also the way we want to talk to our customers, and we believe we can be a guiding light. We feel like we can inspire people and encourage them to have big ideas and do impossible things. We want to stand beside them and help to accelerate that journey, and I think that is who we are, and that’s why you see that in all of the work that we do. 

Nick: That was my recent discussion with Kristina Libby, CMO of Hypergiant. Although we didn’t cover it in the interview, something really interesting about Kristina is she’s had a past life before she was in marketing, and continues to go outside of marketing today.  

Kristina: I taught at NYU and I taught at the University of Florida before that, which was great, I loved those jobs. Then, I had a really severe brain injury a couple of years ago and I still struggle with my memory for names a bit- too much to stand in front of a classroom. I used to be able to quote passages and books and things like that. I like to do a lot of things. Someone once said that the thing most people regret when they die is not living up to their potential. I think I spend a lot of time thinking about that, of trying to figure out what your potential is.

Right now, I became a moderately successful public artist last year. My Instagram channel is, @lightvslight, no I don’t need to plug it, but, if anyone wants to follow my Instagram channel and my public art, I am just on this quest because of my brain injury- I almost died.

Now, I ask myself, what’s the weird thing you want to do now? All day, I’m going to find this weird stuff and I’m going to try it and see what sticks. 

Nick: This has been Mind the Gap, a podcast about sales and marketing alignment put on by an Enablix. My name is Nick-Ziech Lopez, thanks for listening.