Jaleh Bisharat, Silicon Valley Marketing Guru, on Growing Startups into Vibrant Brands

The NextWomen Career Theme: Marketing

For this month’s theme, we will be interviewing a number of women from around the globe who have reached the top of the world’s most prestigious and/or male dominated professions. This is the story of Jaleh Bisharat, one of Silicon Valley’s most respected marketing executives, currently the VP of Marketing at oDesk, the world's largest online workplace.

Jaleh Bisharat has an impressive history of growing startups into vibrant brands that inspire passion in their customers, as well as inspiring other businesswomen through her mentorship. She currently leads marketing at oDesk, the world's largest online workplace. At oDesk, Jaleh helps to raise global awareness of online work -- encouraging businesses to find the talent they need on demand, and professionals to love the way they work, whenever and wherever they want via the Internet.

Before joining oDesk, she served as Vice President of Marketing at companies including OpenTable, Jawbone, and Amazon.com, also serving on the Board of Directors at OpenTable and Homestead Technologies. Jaleh was recently featured on Bloomberg TV, following a blog post about the challenges women face in balancing career and family. She holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in Government from Harvard-Radcliffe and an MBA from Harvard Business School.

We spoke to Jaleh about starting a career in marketing; what motivates her; and the highlights of her career so far!

TNW: What are the main responsibilities of your current role as VP of Marketing at oDesk? 

JB: We see the job of marketing at oDesk as growing the size and loyalty of our customer base, while building a vibrant, trusted brand. In terms of my own responsibilities, three stand out

1) Hire the very best people and make sure they are empowered to have meaningful impact, each in their own way.

2) Identify the 20% of the effort that gets the 80% of the business results. Ensure that everyone on the marketing team is maniacally focused on the 20%, and is not distracted by all the “good ideas” that add up to a lot of motion as opposed to genuine progress.

3) Ensure we all walk in our customers’ shoes, understand their DNA inside and out, and think creatively about ways to delight them.

TNW: What do you enjoy most about what you do?

JB: I love seeing how customers’ lives are transformed by oDesk. Our platform lets businesses hire, manage and pay freelancers online. We are the largest and fastest growing online workplace in the world and that translates into plenty of customer happiness.

Nothing is more exciting than when a freelancer says they have been able to live a life of freedom, while still supporting their family.

Or when an entrepreneur says their business could not have grown without the ability to hire online through oDesk. We are never finished with the work of delighting our customers. But I enjoy nothing more than when we hear that we do.  

TNW: What is the biggest challenge you face in your role and how do you tackle it?

JB: It is never easy to manage, motivate and inspire a well functioning team in which people genuinely enjoy their work and each other. It takes a great deal of thought and constant re-evaluation. Every time you add a team member, the culture shifts in subtle but important ways and it is critical to keep a close watch. Here are some of the ways I try and tackle this challenge:

A. Every single team member gets a written document on their first day. It includes a crisp set of overarching objectives, as well as short, medium and long term deliverables. It also includes a list of personal characteristics we like to see on the job. I believe this is good for both the employee and the manager. The manager is forced to clarify his/her thinking by writing everything down, and the employee spends no time wavering or wondering what to focus on.

B. If I see the slightest sign of internal competition or tension, we confront it right away. Every minute spent on internal issues is a minute away from focusing on our customers.

C. When hiring, it’s hard to be perfect at what everyone will be good at, and how things will change over time. Once we see them in action, I am constantly thinking about people’s skills and passions so that we can align individuals with the intersection of what they love and are good at, and what the company needs.

D. We love to celebrate. Birthdays, successes, you name it. A lot of cake gets consumed by oDesk
TNW: What three pieces of advice would you give to someone starting a career in marketing?

A. The most important criteria for your first job is not the salary, the brand or the company. It is the manager you will learn the most from. Choose carefully because great managers are rare.

B. There are lots of skills required to be a great marketer, but two are especially important. If you are an exquisite writer, you will go far. If you are brilliant with analytics, you will go even further. There has never been such a treasure trove of data as has emerged in recent years. If you have an affinity for it, develop your expertise in statistics, data mining and the like.

C. Do great work and do it with an upbeat, collaborative attitude. The person with the sunny, team

oriented disposition is always poised to advance as long as the work is excellent, of course.

TNW: What has been the highlight of your career so far?

JB: I am honest in saying oDesk is my favorite company of all time. I had wonderful experiences at other companies, including OpenTable and Amazon.com. However, a few factors make oDesk pretty unique for me, such as:

  • We spend all day thinking about how to improve the way people work and grow their businesses. Hardly anything could be more fascinating or inspiring to me.
 I love our culture. We emphasize transparency, collaboration and high performance.
  •  The company practices what it preaches. We have 120 onsite employees and 250 FTE contractors around the world. We are measured on results and all work from home on Tuesdays in order to experience what our freelancers experience. It is a Tuesday, so I am writing this from my kitchen table right now!
TNW: Have you always aspired to a career in marketing? If you hadn’t chosen marketing, which other career paths might you have taken?

JB:

When I was in business school, I aspired to a career in the nonprofit world, with a special interest in international development. In fact, to be frank, my marketing professor pretty much scared the wits out of me.

He was an ex-Marine and halfway through the semester he marked me as a dreaded “low pass,”explaining that he wanted to see more aggressiveness in my demeanor. Compared to what he was looking for, I was shy. It took all the grit I had to succeed in the class by the end of the semester. With that scar, it took me some time to recognize that what I love to do is put myself in customers’ shoes and understand what delights them. In other words: marketing.

TNW: Is your current role the result of a carefully planned career strategy, or have you made the most of opportunities as they have presented themselves?

JB: Very much the latter. I never once said to myself “What is my grand plan? What is my next step?” I focused pretty much exclusively on following my heart, finding something to love about every job, prioritizing adventure over “safe choices” and doing good work on what mattered to the business.

The one issue I did pay a lot of attention to has been people. Great people are like a magnetic pull for me.

After the birth of my first child, one of the most talented entrepreneurs I had ever met asked me to join his startup. What mother of a newborn leaves her job at a medium sized company to work in a garage like atmosphere with three engineers and a 20 something CEO? To make a long story short, I explained my  boundaries as a new mom and wound up in the job.It was the adventure of a lifetime, and is still paying dividends 20 years later. That entrepreneur is now on the board of oDesk and was instrumental in bringing me here.

TNW: Who do you most admire, both within your own field and as a role model in life?

JB: There is no end to the list of people I admire. I love many writers and artists including Alvin Ailey, Jane Austen, Betty Friedan, Jhumpa Lahiri, Edward Said, Vikram Seth and Abraham Verghese. When I first moved to Silicon Valley I worked under Claris CEO Bill Campbell (now Chairman of Intuit), who is a legendary leader / mentor / coach. I continued to be lucky, working for a delightful string of entrepreneurial CEOs who I admire to this day: Jeff Bezos, Kevin Harvey, Thomas Layton, Hosain Rahman, Danny Shader, Clara Shih and Gary Swart. Most of all, I take inspiration from our customers, who teach us how to be better every single day.

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