Skeleton Technologies is an Estonian company that develops and manufactures ultracapacitors. They power energy savings in automotive, transportation, grid & renewables, maritime, industrial manufacturing, and material handling. With the company's production located in Dresden (Germany), Skeleton Technologies employs nearly 300 professionals. They have been featured in publications such as The Telegraph, Business Insider, The Economist and Bloomberg to name a few.
Previously shaking up the Estonian startup scene by introducing the novel concept of a visiting CMO, Annika Ljaš joined the company in early august and has now set out to humanise energy storage technologies. We caught up with Annika to discuss the inner workings of Skeleton, the dynamics between marketing and sales and how to build PR relationships with industry media.
Skeleton Technologies is a classic example of a B2B company, where presumably, the sales team carries a more significant role. The decision-making process is very long, the products are expensive and traditional advertising is not particularly relevant, or not regarded as such. What role does marketing play at Skeleton?
The marketing function was actually set up in the early days of the company. First and foremost, the role of marketing is to raise awareness, shape opinion leadership, especially in such an innovative niche. And secondly, marketing initiatives also drive leads.
So PR is especially relevant in your case?
PR and government relations specifically. Skeleton Technologies is an active participator in several EU programmes. We have a special function to keep up with any new developments and be active in procurements.
It’s quite hard to receive media coverage. A journalist working in tech gets hundreds of press releases, which are all somewhat exciting. Any tips on how to garner the attention of top tier publications like Business Insider?
It is very important, especially coming from Estonia, to understand what is newsworthy and what, in the case of your company, could be the interesting or outstanding aspect that is somehow more important in the world. In this sense, Skeleton has an advantage because the product is interesting and it’s obvious how it could be world-changing or necessary. In other words, understand what is newsworthy and present it in a newsworthy way. It sounds simple, but many are still struggling with this. If three words in your email header can make the journalist interested, they will generally gladly respond.
How important is it to build personal relationships with them?
Crucial. Be mindful of the topics someone writes about and contact people who have covered your topic before, outlets that are invested and therefore understand it better. This way you don't have to worry too much about the quick coverage you need by tomorrow. When writing to them, I have often referred to their own previous coverage (along with a compliment on the work), showing that I know that they write about this topic and therefore it is completely logical that they would want to cover this further.
And you should also understand how urgent it is. They can really get hundreds of emails a day from startups, and giving them a reminder in another medium helps. For example, given that we have a history of prior communication, I have contacted journalists on Twitter or WhatsApp. When they see a picture along with a strange foreign name in two channels, they usually react.
Apart from the heavyweights, each industry is covered by numerous smaller bloggers and influencers. Their coverage combined can be equal to a single NY Times article.
To be fair, I don’t think it’s reasonable to aim for top tier publications in the early years. In addition to bloggers, it is worth maintaining relations with analysts and journalists investigating the field, and these industry media publications should be bombarded on a constant basis. And if you have the resources, why not consider smaller bloggers and vloggers.
Are there any influencers in the field of ultracapacitors?
Yes, there are. YouTube does not have a niche for ultracapacitors, but there are several publications that talk about energy solutions, and where the host invites specific guests to cover different topics. Quite similar to mainstream media, but the style is perhaps a bit more familiar. Skeleton has been involved in such initiatives.
Estonia is notoriously a fertile ground for SaaS startups. But Skeleton operates in a field that sells physical products that are very expensive. Compared to Western Europe, we have less experience in marketing such products. You have been in contact with quite a few companies as a marketer, are we starting to develop this competence?
The basis for this in Skeleton is the entire commercial team led by Ants Vill, and the lion's share of it is the sales team, which is really very representative, very multi-layered and precisely structured. The team has sought advice from other experienced companies on how to build such systems within organisations. There is a lot of cooperation between a sales representative who is a classic relationship manager and a technical person who helps provide the customer with technical descriptions and information about options and pricing.
In Estonia, this competence is emerging, and in addition to hardware, enterprise software (i.e. expensive software) is also gaining momentum. Skeleton is both a physical product and software. The experience in the market is there and getting better. But sales really rule in this field and dictate marketing much more than in SaaS. Yesterday my day was spent meeting with sales directors and listening to how they find customers and what the customer needs to come to a decision faster. Marketing fulfils these needs.
So the endless debate about which is more important, sales or marketing, at least in Skeleton, has been concluded in favour of sales. If you look at different business-to-business marketing gurus, they all say that marketing is not about creating PowerPoint presentations for the salespeople or polishing email copies. How strategic is marketing at a company like Skeleton?
As the VP of marketing I have a very clear role at Skeleton. Despite the fact that Skeleton's product is very technical, the final decision is still made on the upper management level. Hence, you have to make sure that your product is exciting for an audience that is less technical in its nature. Our marketing needs to simplify and elevate the technical story to a visionary level. Define it in a way that even an ordinary grandmother can understand.
Since Skeleton is already a mature startup, the company should relate itself to the world's big technology giants, who switch the narrative further from sales and focus on the grander vision. It shows confidence.
Prior to joining Skeleton Technologies, you defined yourself as Visiting CMO. What does that concept mean for you and what are the benefits?
Globally, the concept has become increasingly popular for C-category roles (financial managers, CEOs). When it comes to marketing, I introduced this position in Estonia because there was a practical need. At one point, it was also clear that there is very little long-term global marketing management experience on the market. Many startups had some kind of marketer function, but the knowledge of what could be tested was quite limited. And my role was created with the idea of helping startups avoid certain mistakes, create a faster path to good strategy and marketing plans, achieve the next level of growth, have a team and a functioning system in marketing.
Traditionally, this has been the role of advertising agencies.
There are almost no B2B agencies in Estonia. Moreover, an emerging startup needs to focus on a small handful of activities, but allocating them without prior experience can be tricky and expensive. They end up doing too much and not enough. So a visiting CMO who allocates the right activities and helps to set up a clear plan is much more cost effective.