The Inside Story of How Trello’s Marketing Team Evolved After the Atlassian Acquisition

October 14, 2020

Imagine you’re a member of a small marketing team at a growing startup. You’re wearing a lot of different hats, hustling and making things happen.

And then your company gets acquired.

Suddenly you go from being a big fish in a small pond, to a small fish in a much, much bigger (and more sophisticated) pond.

How do things change? How do you adapt? How do you thrive?

This is the story of Trello’s marketing team—a scrappy group whose world changed when their company was acquired by Atlassian in 2017. While becoming part of a world-class marketing organization with a global footprint was exciting and opened a lot of doors to new learning and capabilities, it also required some fast and deep transformation.

As it turns out, both marketing teams—the big and the small—had value to bring to the table.

On a recent episode of the BUILD Podcast, we got to hear this story from someone who experienced it first-hand. Stella Garber, Trello’s Head of Marketing, was the first marketing hire at Trello back in 2014. As an ardent fan of the visual collaboration tool, the invitation to come on board was a dream come true for her.

Listen to the episode below, or scroll down to read the rest of the recap.

Starting out small but mighty

When Stella joined the company, Trello was seeing tremendous organic growth driven by the intrinsic virality of the product. Her first task was to come up with a plan for what she would do in her first 60 days. Using a Trello board (bonus points), Stella developed a detailed plan for moving people down the funnel from free product to paid product.

She presented it to her boss, who said it was great—and then asked her to throw it away and create a marketing plan that was all about growth.

Undaunted, Stella went back to the drawing board and came up with a plan that carried the Trello marketing team through the next couple of years.

“We fixated on growth and creating a moat around our early advantage,” Stella said. “The consumerization of enterprise software was still an emerging trend. Between that and the fact that we didn’t have a giant budget, our plan focused on building an outsized presence in all things organic: inbound marketing, content marketing, PR and so forth.”

And the plan was working. By focusing all their efforts on removing barriers to trial, Stella and her “small-but-mighty” team of multiple-hat-wearing marketers were building up an impressive user base, both in terms of numbers and loyalty.

They’d just launched internationally in 21 different languages and were starting to think about their Series B and monetization, when Atlassian came in and changed the game.

Overnight transformation through acquisition

“We were building out our sales team, which shifted our marketing priorities toward sales support and generating MQLS,” Stella recalled. “We were transitioning from being 100 percent growth oriented to being revenue oriented. And then we were acquired by Atlassian. It was an amazing, life-changing, crazy rollercoaster ride.”

At the time of the acquisition, the Trello team was about 120 people and Atlassian employed more than 2,000 people. But size wasn’t the only difference. The Trello marketing team was, by necessity, an adaptable full-funnel team who managed to get a lot done with relatively few resources, a generous helping of ingenuity, and a lot of elbow grease.

The Atlassian marketing team, by contrast, was a world-class organization with hundreds of specialists who focused exclusively on specific areas of marketing.

While Stella and her team were excited to be part of such a well-run and well-respected organization, the initial integration was unsurprisingly a little daunting. It was an immediate advantage to have so much learning at their fingertips, but the question remained: How would the Trello marketing team fit in?

Discovering that everyone brought value to the table

Interestingly, while the casual onlooker might assume that Atlassian’s size and level of sophistication would automatically give their marketing team greater influence over Trello’s smaller team, it turned out that both the titan and the upstart had lessons to teach the other.

Atlassian to Trello: Data and deep knowledge, long-term planning, procedural tools
In addition to being more metrics oriented and data driven, Atlassian gave the Trello team instant access to a vast library of learnings from marketing campaigns and experiments.

As a startup, Trello didn’t have the resources to build out full-fledged data or growth teams; but becoming part of the Atlassian team gave them access to a world of knowledge.

“We use Confluence,” Stella explained, “So anything you ever wanted to know about any initiative or plan is all openly shared via Confluence.”

Another area in which Atlassian offered guidance was long-term planning. As a startup, Trello had always planned quarterly. Atlassian’s planning cycle was annual and generally more detailed. This was a new approach for Trello.

Then there were tools for decision-making and other core business processes. As an example, Stella mentioned Atlassian’s DACI framework, which gives teams a structured and proven way to make group decisions effectively and efficiently.

Trello to Atlassian: Delight, the freemium model, and remote working expertise
One of the reasons Atlassian acquired Trello was Trello’s throng of passionate users. Trello is strategic about cultivating this audience of superfans—always focusing on delivering real value,which they then work to convert into revenue down the line.

Besides bringing this group of users under the Atlassian umbrella, the acquisition exposed Atlassian to Trello’s lighthearted, delightful and more consumer-oriented approach to software.

As Atlassian got to know Trello, they began to understand the power of a branding and marketing approach that was more playful, human and personal. Trello is all about being collaborative and fun; it’s part of their product philosophy and personality.

One of Stella’s primary post-acquisition roles was ensuring that Trello stays Trello-y.

“Early on, one of the banes of my existence was trying to define for the larger organization what the hell ‘Trello-y’ actually meant,” Stella said. “Since then, we’ve defined the product principles, and I put together a brand manifesto to really hammer down exactly what we want to accomplish with our more human approach.”

Trello's homepage

Trello’s homepage

A big part of Stella’s strategy hinges on understanding that—for the customer—there are no boundaries between marketing, product and support. It’s all a single experience, so it needs to act like one.

“One thing Trello has always excelled at is aligning all the different functional areas to create a seamless experience with a cohesive brand voice,” Stella says. “Staying very, very close on the product and marketing side is something our leadership team thinks about a lot.”

In addition to the Trello-y vibe and cross-functional alignment, Trello also brought Atlassian its first experience with a freemium model.

Related read: Freemium vs. Free Trial: How to Know Which One to Pick for Your SaaS Startup

“When they acquired Trello, Atlassian didn’t have any freemium offerings,” Stella explained. “That was an area where we could help Atlassian learn, and ultimately Atlassian launched free versions of our cloud products last year.”

Remote work is another area in which Trello has expertise that came in especially handy as COVID-19 upended work-as-usual. At the time of the acquisition (and before the pandemic hit), Stella’s team was already about 65% remote.

“We brought a new way of working to Atlassian, one we really believed in, and that really worked well for our team,” Stella said. “We advocated for remote work internally and helped open minds to the idea that there were alternate ways of working beyond having everyone in an office in San Francisco or Sydney.”

Blending B2C and B2B strategies for success

Trello’s more consumer-oriented approach was a major departure from Atlassian’s core B2B approach to marketing.

“People are people,” said Stella. “You’re always selling to humans, and all humans have the same motivations: to be successful, to achieve things, to look good in front to the boss.”

Because of this human-centric marketing philosophy, the Trello team doesn’t think as much about traditional personas as they do about what it is people want to accomplish using Trello.

“We focus on what they want to feel like and how they want to collaborate,” Stella explained. “We think about the application of Trello from both a professional and a personal perspective.”

“People are people. You’re always selling to humans, and all humans have the same motivations: to be successful, to achieve things, to look good in front to the boss.”

This outlook means that instead of honing in on a specific vertical, Trello is a more horizontal product. Stella’s team markets to everybody, and that works because their messaging focuses on themes like productivity, project management and working as a team—all ideas that can be applied across a wide variety of use cases, from the board room to birthday parties.

“People are whole. You can’t just pigeonhole them into a certain area,” Stella said.

Even when Trello developed its enterprise product (which, by the way, more than 80 percent of Fortune 500 companies use in some capacity), their marketing strategy was still bottom up—individual people being drawn in by how easy and fun it is to use Trello, and then usage spreading organically throughout a business via an advocate or evangelist. This is a very different path than the traditional B2B model that involves sales people, demos and trials.

Ultimately, the Trello way of marketing evolved into what we now call product led growth. “At the time, we just called it ‘growing Trello’ between marketing and product,” Stella recalled. “It’s driving growth within an organization by finding the existing champions and helping them understand the value of our paid products by showing them that value early on via their usage of the product.”

When Atlassian and Trello came together, Stella quickly saw that B2B and B2C marketing strategies don’t have to be mutually exclusive. They can actually work together really well. The trick is in developing the full spectrum of experience—you can keep the delight factor of your marketing materials to appeal to individual consumers, but your brand must also have the range to be able to speak the language of the enterprise buyer.

Sharing a cross-functional approach to collaboration

The way the Trello marketing team operates within Atlassian reflects the rising trend toward more fully cross-functional teams. The old-world mentality is built around the idea of distinct funnel stages that are each owned by a particular function—marketing owns the top and is responsible for generating MQLs, and then the sales development team turns those MQLs into sales qualified leads that get accepted by account executives. And eventually the gong is hit when a lead is closed and won.

More and more, however, organizations build strategies around the reality that there is a fair amount of overlap between functions. Companies are realizing the importance of being able to think about the customer journey as a whole, rather than as a series of disparate chunks owned by different functions. Customers want a consistent and cohesive experience that’s seamless at every touch point from marketing to sales to product to support.

While Trello’s approach definitely follows the traditional stages of a funnel, it also includes consistent and fairly deep collaboration between functions across all those stages.

“Our sales folks have a direct line into our enterprise product team, and they’re constantly sharing customer feedback,” Stella said. “With silos, you just can’t get that really useful first-person data that’s so critical to informing product decisions.”

The idea is to make sure that the right hand always knows what the left hand is doing. This is obviously easier to achieve in a smaller organization where everyone is already working together, but it can be achieved at larger companies if you have the right team structure.

For Trello, that team structure includes product managers, designers, engineers and product marketing managers, whose job is to represent the customer and the full customer journey.

Having all these functions working together helps Trello ensure consistent messaging and that the Trello product delivers as promised at every stage of the customer journey.

That said, each team has their own responsibilities. Marketing does the heavy lifting on getting users to the website, driving signups and handing off to sales.

“Marketing has an MQL number to hit, and sales has a bookings number to hit,” said Stella. “So the KPI objectives of the traditional funnel are still there, we’re just more collaborative about how we achieve them.”

Staying true to who you are

Throughout the entire journey from being a small-and-mighty team at a startup to being an integrated part of a much larger, world-class team, Stella and the rest of the Trello marketing team have always stayed authentic to their vision and their brand’s identity.

“If I had to name the most important marketing lesson of 2020, I’d say the number one thing I’ve learned this year is how important authenticity is in terms of generating and sustaining brand loyalty,” said Stella.

Her team clearly stayed true to the friendly and fun aspects of Trello’s brand. And they shared that Trello-y nature with their new Atlassian teammates, expanding the influence of their consumer-oriented approach across the larger organization.

But authenticity is about more than just your products or even your brand voice and marketing strategies. One example Stella shared was how the Trello team was able to step up and support a broader community when the pandemic hit. Trello had been committed to and talking about remote work since 2014. When COVID-19 forced almost every company to quickly adopt a remote model, many of these companies suddenly became overnight experts on the topic. “These companies started pumping out content,” she said. “It felt so inauthentic.”

Because Trello actually had the background in remote work, they started rereleasing existing content that talked about Trello’s experiences with a distributed workforce—leadership conversations, scaling, hiring, onboarding. They had content to cover all the aspects of going remote that could really trip people up.

“The result was not only a huge influx of interest,” Stella recalled, “but also deep appreciation that we actually knew what we were talking about and weren’t just being opportunistic. You have to lean into what makes your brand authentic, and stick to it.”

Listen to more episodes of the BUILD Podcast

Subscribe on Apple Podcasts, Spotify or listen on our website.

Managing Editor<br>OpenView

Kristin joined OpenView after spending over four years at InVision managing their Inside Design publication and helping build brand love as chief storyteller, lead producer and editor. Before InVision, she co-founded the digital strategy agency Four Kitchens, spent several years in the restaurant industry as a chef, and was Editor-in-Chief of the nation’s largest college humor publication, the Texas Travesty, as an undergrad at the University of Texas at Austin.