Respecting the Process: What Triathlons Have to Do With a Career in Product and Marketing
March 6, 2018 | Melissa Nazar
957 miles. 72 races. 6 job titles. 20 years experience.
How does one person do it all?
I had the pleasure of chatting with Elisa Velarde, who currently supports marketing for Globalization Partners, about her path from sales to product to marketing, her big plans for the future and what triathlons have to do with any of it. What follows is her story, and some snippets from our conversation.
Globalization Partners | Director of Marketing
Like most kids, Elisa never thought much about marketing when she was growing up. She had dreamed of becoming a scientist, doing medical research, finding cures for cancer.
“Turned out, I’m really bad at math. And not much better at science.”
After struggles with these subjects in middle and high school, she decided to steer clear in college and opted to pursue a psychology degree, a major she loved.
Turns out, Elisa’s love of psychology left her with few lucrative job options. “Studying psychology didn’t really serve me well starting out in the working world. One thing I did learn – I knew I liked people.”
So it wasn’t too surprising when Elisa found her first “grown-up” gig working in sales for an tech company. She ended up being pretty good at it (liking people helped) and did well for herself.
In fact, within just a few years, she made herself indispensable to the point that when the business was looking to expand overseas, they called her. “I remember I had just bought my first house… and my boss pulled me aside and said ‘hey I need you to go to the UK next week.’ So I booked my ticket and off I went.”
Figuring Out a New Market
Elisa spent well over a year in the United Kingdom with a singular task – figure out what wasn’t working in the market and make changes.
There was a belief that the UK market wasn’t ready for the product – American buyers seemed more mature, more ready.
So began Elisa’s first foray into what she’d later come to know as product management and marketing – she started by pulling the list of all the closed-lost deals in the UK and started making calls.
“I’d start each call with… ‘pardon the American accent but…’ and then dive into finding out why we lost the deal.”
What she learned was fascinating. It wasn’t that the market wasn’t ready, which was the commonly held thought. It was that the company had no clout in the UK, and the product set wasn’t quite the right match for what the market needed.
This is when Elisa kicked into gear. “My wheels started turning. What sales resources and tools did we need? Who could we hire? What marketing did we need to gain a better footing?”
With the help of the sales and marketing teams in the U.S., Elisa hired out a local sales team and invested in marketing – reworking collateral, sales enablement tools and more. She also worked with the engineering team to rethink the product suite available overseas, to better match the local need.
“The mistake was that they thought going to the UK would be easy, and just took what the US had done, transplanted it over… no one did market research. Nobody talked to potential clients and the result was a mismatch of market and product because they didn’t quite get their audience.”
Elisa’s “a ha” moment happened right around this time, where she realized her core skill – connecting with and understanding people, in their own language. “I could hear what people were saying, the words between the words, what they weren’t saying out loud. It helped me in the world of CIOs and CTOs, to speak their language and understand them.”
Her role quickly morphed into what you might traditionally call a sales engineering position, a product expert who would help directly drive sales. And it worked. “If you paid me a million dollars, I still couldn’t write a line of code. But I could sit with the engineering team and figure out how systems came together and push through a strategy that made sense.”
Finding Her Passion, and Herself
After a few years, Elisa decided to leave and go at it on her own, providing the same services for other companies as a consultant. It was during this time that she discovered one of her passions – triathlons.
“Someone dared me at a happy hour. Whether it was the alcohol talking or not, I committed to sign up. I knew I could run and bike… but I had no idea how to swim. So I had to figure out – in six months – to learn how to do this.”
The first time at the pool was not a success.
“I remember standing at the edge of the pool, walking around, not getting in. I dipped my toes into the shallow end. I walked some more. I finally went in and doggy paddled in the shallow end. I got mad, angry with myself, asking why I did this, why I even bothered.”
Elisa started trying to mimic other swimmers in the pool who seemed to know what they were doing. “I swam an ugly 25 yards, was out of breath. I called it a day.”
Thus began her process of learning how to swim. Step-by-step, day-by-day, she practiced and learned, focusing on trying to be more patient with herself. “It’s such a human thing to expect so much of yourself all at once, but like everything, learning to swim was a process and I had to go through every single painful step.”
This was a metaphor for how she learned and understood new products and functions in her own work. “Triathlon training forced me to think logically about how I learned new things. So when swimming, say your form is bad. You figure out what actionable things you can do to make your form better, without freaking out about it. This applies to all of my life now, especially at work – when I have to learn something new, I don’t panic. I take it apart, learn one piece at a time.”
Elisa completed that first triathlon – even finishing the run portion in record time. “I remember my coach coming up to me saying ‘I wasn’t expecting you so soon!’”
Getting Into Marketing
Perhaps all her experience with training is why when Elisa was approach about a pure marketing gig over a year and a half ago, she went with it.
“Sure, my job always involved some marketing, but JUST marketing? I wasn’t sure I could do it.”
But similar to that first triathlon, even years later, she dove in with a patient, practical approach. “I’m not an artist or a splashy creative… my brain doesn’t work that way. But I’m more logical and organized – that’s how I took on marketing.”
Turns out her cross-functional career – constantly living on intersection of sales, product, and marketing – worked out in her favor. Elisa describes herself as someone always looking to solve problems with whatever tools she has at hand – a pretty good way to take on marketing.
“You get out of anything – a job, a relationship, a race – only exactly what you put into it, and not one thing more. It can be uncomfortable, but it’s a deep truth.”
Elisa has run 72 races since starting triathlons in 2006 and has run a total of 957 miles. And she’s also settled into her role as a marketer.
What’s next? Continuing her work in marketing, but with a focus on the next generation.
“I really enjoy connections with people. Which is why when I asked a select group of people to tell me what I was good at doing, no one mentioned sales, product, marketing or technology at all. It was mentoring – guiding younger professionals in their career – that people told me was what made me different. So I’d like to continue to be able to support young professionals and help them on their own journeys.”
Which is great, because two decades into her career, Elisa is able to do just that in her current role – coach and mentor younger marketers.
“Your career isn’t some linear path, but a complicated journey – I’ve learned to trust myself, trust the process and be patient in finding my way to every next step I’ve taken.”