Interview: The Female CEO In the Spotlight with Susan Marshall
Oct 23, 2020 Torchlite
A 25+ year technology professional, who held successful leadership positions at Adobe, Apple, and Salesforce before founding her own company.
As the visionary behind Torchlite, Susan brought the first Torchlite Marketplace online in 2015 to create a roadmap for marketers to successfully navigate the digital learning curve ahead, while giving highly skilled, professional freelancers the opportunity to expand their own businesses. Now a Certified Salesforce Partner, Torchlite’s primary focus is to serve enterprises to working with cross-cloud Salesforce products.
Susan loves technology, digital marketing, and building teams of super-smart people and I am honoured that she has chosen to share her journey with us. Over to you Susan…
So, Susan, what’s your story?
Thanks for asking. I came out of the midwest to Southern California in the early 1990s. I was young with a fresh degree in History from Denison University and fairly limited work experience. Life was still analogue for most of us, but I quickly began hearing about what technology was going to do for society. What was going to be possible in our lifetimes. It all seemed so fantastic and exciting at the same time. In the early days, close proximity to the creative forces was pivotal to understanding the innovation ahead. You had to hear it for your own ears to believe what was coming down the pipeline, and quickly.
With strong writing skills, I got in on the ground floor, creating marketing copy for the incredible new video and graphic design technologies coming online for professional use. It was so new that we were making up words and phrasing for it on the spot! From there, I was hired by Apple to join its product marketing team under the leadership of Steve Jobs. I worked on pro tools for the early tech adopters, high-skilled web developers who could code like it was their native language. Steve had just come back to Apple, and we were all vibrating with his renewed creative energy. Although coding was still the most prized skill among developers, even back then we were working toward universal usage of these tools to democratise access and get everybody on board.
The rest, as they say, is history. One opportunity led to the next. I was very deliberate about the positions I accepted before breaking out on my own in 2015 to start Torchlite. I am a lifelong learner, and while I was recruited into subsequent leadership positions, I deliberately chose mentors and projects that I knew I could get behind with the full force of my intentions. By the time I had dreamed up Torchlite, I knew the path we would take to get there – and the sacrifice it would require for my core team of stakeholders and me to achieve success. I was ready for that new challenge.
You’ve worked for some of the most successful tech companies in the world, including Apple, Adobe and Salesforce. That’s quite a resumé! What made you decide to set up on your own and how scary was it to leave behind the security of those massive corporations and go solo?
Life often pushes us in the right direction. I had returned to my midwestern roots, and the timing just felt right. I’d had this idea percolating in the back of my head as I brought one innovation online after another. With each new product launch, I could see the access broadening exponentially but not necessarily the users’ bandwidth. While we are adapting as consumers to adopt technology on the fly, complex systems still require some finesse.
Specialised skills that may require an effective setup are not necessarily skills an employer needs in a long term employee. Over and over, I heard about customers frustrated that they couldn’t get their investment in technology to help them work more efficiently and perform as expected. What’s worse, they’d limp along getting more and more discouraged. I knew that professional help would always be necessary just based on the light-speed rate of innovation coming to market. This digital divide was opening rather than closing.
Fortunately, Salesforce recognised the same problem. To make sure the Salesforce technology performed as their customer expected, they began providing robust online training and certifications through the Trailhead training centre. This action and that of other enterprise marketing tech companies gave me the cornerstone to Torchlite. Our customers would have access to the very best freelancers, and their skills would be clear to everyone through a transparent network of high skilled workers with an online profile detailing their expertise. The model has worked well for us and our network of freelancers.
I’ve worked on thousands of marketing campaigns and kept pace with the technology to support it. I was ready to break away from the corporate world at a time when freelance work was on the rise. I had a solution to my biggest challenge as a product manager – how do you get technology into the right hands at the right time? By building a network of high-demand, high-skilled experts across industries, I was able to bring together my passions to create my marketplace. I love working with engineers. My team is building the bridges powering innovation. I can stay connected and put people to work. That is a good feeling.
2020 has been a challenging year for many businesses with flexibility being key to surviging this global pandemic. Many businesses are going to see changes for years to come while we work the new ‘normal’. How do you see using companies such as Torchlite assisting small businesses through the transition? Can you give our readers the top three benefits of hiring nonpermanent assistance?
We hit the nail on the head in terms of timing for 2020. I’d argue that we have never seen such incredible adoption of technology from both business and consumers in our lifetimes. We all jumped on email and such as the world came online, but today is different. I don’t know about you, but I remember the analogue world, learning what WWW would mean to society in our lifetimes. It was exhilarating.
Now, twenty-odd years later into my career, technology plays a larger role in commerce than ever before. Digital adaptation is moving so fast that manuals have turned into FAQ pages and automation is king. Understanding the backend of this process is more critical than ever before.
Just as we went into lockdown Salesforce graduated its first cohort of Essential Advisors for SMBs. As a strategic partner to Salesforce, we built out a dedicated portal for small and midsize businesses to find the expertise they need to stay relevant in a transformed world. Our playbooks, with the guidance of a certified Advisor, walk clients through the project step-by-step or Advisors and customers can create custom plans to meet the SMB’s needs in consultation on the marketplace platform. It’s all transparent and clear to ensure on-time delivery of exactly what the customer is looking for.
The three big reasons to hire freelancers are simple. Freelancers are flexible, specialised, and focused. We do the legwork to find and recruit the best of the best so our customers can entrust the marketplace to give them the insight to make smart decisions. So much is expected of a business owner, learning how to set up and implement technology may not get the attention its investment deserves. This is where a professional consultant is critical. As businesses grow, they have the option to tap back into the marketplace to find an expert ready to support that process.
How do you handle criticism?
I’ve worked in some very high-pressure environments where sensitivity to how criticism is received isn’t a factor. I learned to take it, and praise for that matter, at face value, setting aside an emotional response to get to the source. Is this something I can fix, do I need expert support to sort it out, or is this something that doesn’t apply to my vision? Because in the end, I have the final say and so it is essential that I hear what is being communicated to me by my colleagues and board members, taking the necessary actions to keep us moving forward.
I also give frequent feedback to my team and network of freelance professionals as we continue to grow Torchlite. I believe context is so important when communicating difficult information. I value my team and want them to know that I am invested in their success as much as my own. Critical feedback is always delivered in the context of how we can make this better. Because in the end, we all want to be on the same page or else it isn’t worth it to be here. I am not a big corporation, and I rely on the freelance model to power Torchlite. Those relationships are built on trust. The ability to give criticism in context of success powers that trust leading to long-standing, mutually beneficial relationships.
What has been your biggest hurdle to overcome so far in running your own business?
Freelancing has so many benefits, but it does require a steady stream of clients in need of those services to stay afloat. We are a niche marketplace that isn’t going just to run itself. I know who our freelancers are and their high level of skills. I work closely with my BDM to get in front of the businesses that will benefit from that expertise. I also follow business trends very closely to gauge what kind of talent I need to add to Torchlite to meet our clients’ needs.
My days are filled with meetings – more now than ever that people don’t have drive time between appointments – I do media interviews like this, podcasts, and will talk to anyone that wants to know more about us. I am continually hustling to bring new clients into the Torchlite marketplace. This level of engagement has nurtured a network of loyal freelancers and customers that have maintained steady contracts since our inception. There may be other ways to do it, but this works for us. I like to know what’s happening with my baby, who is working in our network and what is happening in the broader marketplace.
What is your favourite thing about being your own boss?
I work where I want when I want. I am fortunate to split my time between Colorado and Indiana. Each place is so beautiful, and I wanted to be able to enjoy both of them to the fullest. I can set up in a room next to my family and get more done in a few hours than if I was going into an office, putting off time with them. The efficiency allows me to balance my drive to succeed with a life that is fulfilling and rich with experiences outside of my business. Like many CEOs, it is hard for me to stop sometimes with that ease of access, but I’ve got a team that I trust to keep the plates in the air when it is time for me to go offline for a hike with my kids or to make dinner. It is always there when I get back, and usually, they have made progress on projects I set in motion. More importantly, my brain has been cleared, and I am ready to give it my all again.
One of the questions often raised when it comes to outsourcing work is, ‘how can you know if the person(s) you are outsourcing to are qualified/safe/competent’? As the CEO of a freelance marketplace, how do you ensure that your clients get the right match and it it easy to check credentials?
This is the cornerstone of Torchlite. Our freelance marketplace is designed to answer precisely those questions. We vet and interview our freelancers for both the hard skills and soft skills necessary to work with our clients. Less than 4% of the applicants are accepted into the Torchlite marketplace because of the rigorous interview process. This is not a self-serve marketplace for freelancers to sign up for, and it shows in the quality of our projects. Of those accepted, we verify certifications and provide a user profile detailing their accomplishments. Client reviews are posted with their profile so new customers can be confident they are matched with the best consultant for their projects.
What is the first thing you check in your business on a daily basis?
I have a team Slack channel that we use for daily check-ins. We are scattered all over, so it is an excellent centralised place for us to keep each other up to date, sharing our successes and frustrations. I trust and rely on my team and the various freelancers I am working with at any given time to keep me informed. In return, I stay super responsive to their needs. It is a virtuous cycle we started well before the pandemic, and it has become a lifeline these last few months as we all stayed close to home.
What have you found difficult on your journey and what would you avoid if you were able to do it all again?
There have been so many challenges, but I don’t know that I would have it any other way. Those painful moments in my career, and there have been many, pivoted me into something bigger and brighter than I could have imagined. Leaving Salesforce to start Torchlite was hard, but I was propelled on a path that got me here when I took that leap of faith. I had to believe in myself above all others, and I don’t know that many women my age were taught to do that. I’d successfully worked in a male-dominated field for so many years, and I was good at meeting the goals set out for me to advance their objectives. Finally, I permitted myself to put my ideas first after years of striving to please someone else. It was incredibly liberating, and without those challenges, I wouldn’t necessarily have arrived at this point.
What’s your top tip for our awesome female entrepreneurs reading this article?
Stay focused. Entrepreneurial initiatives require flexibility and sometimes radical change to achieve success. Without a guiding mission and laser focus on the end goal that flexibility can become muddled, and we find ourselves being pulled in too many directions. I start every day with an intention. I have my punch list to get through, and I always ask myself, will this move us forward? Is this the best use of my time or can I rely on someone on my team to make this happen? I take my responsibilities to Torchlite very seriously, which means I need to know everything that is going on. I cannot possibly micromanage any of it, but I can step in at a moment’s notice if need be. Fortunately, I have a great team that allows me to maintain high-level engagement with day to day operations while focused on issues that will continue to grow our network.
Digital marketing is often seen as complex and there’s no doubt that the need for such expertise is only going to grow exponentially in the coming years. Do you feel there should be better educational programmes for young people emerging into the job markets?
You are right. I know there are better educational programmes available right now for anyone motivated to get trained up. One significant change emerging from the pandemic, coupled with the current student loan crisis is a serious reevaluation of how and where we learn. Industry leaders like Salesforce know the value in ongoing training beyond profits. The Trailhead program provides viable, certified paths for freelancers to gain the expertise required to join the Torchlite network as a professional consultant.
Again, as a Salesforce partner, we rely on the virtuous cycle as they up their game in training, we can improve services offered to our clients. The new Advisor program is a perfect example. Launched in the winter of 2019, Salesforce Advisors are CRM experts ready to help small businesses get started quickly on the Salesforce platform. We network those new admins with small companies invested in the technology but in need of a hand getting going.
For all this to work, it requires each of us to do our part. Our freelancers operate as small businesses. Their next gig depends on the success of their current one. The most successful freelancers anticipate that next gig and make sure they are ready. The Trailhead program encourages ongoing learning as the platform continues to innovate.
What’s the number one played song on your iPod?
I am a classic rock girl. I’ve been listening to some deep cuts from Janice Joplin lately. She’s got a rawness to her voice that really speaks to me.
What do you know for sure?
I know for sure that I can do this. It is not always going to be the easiest path, but it is the one I have chosen. I can be a workhorse, or I can lead. I am dedicated to my team and the success of Torchlite, so I decided to lead. It feels as right as that first copy editing job that opened my eyes to the power of technical innovation.
I believe in what we do and the abilities of my freelancers. As a small business myself, I am invested in their success and will continue to build out this network because no one has to be here. They all chose to work with my team. I don’t offer the benefits of a traditional employer. But I do provide a pipeline for more work so they too can dictate the terms of their work-life balance like I do. And to me, that is really rewarding.
Do you have a book or favourite podcast recommendation for our female CEO members?
I highly recommend Masterclass.com. It’s important to continue growing and learning no matter what it is.
What’s next for Torchlite?
We will continue to grow our network to meet the needs of our customers. It isn’t just about traditional marketing. Businesses are in desperate need of the broad range of digital expertise we provide. There isn’t an industry untouched by the digital transformation. The services required to bring it all online from our health records to the financial powerhouses and back to the mom and pop retailer are profound. We are going to keep pace and keep innovating to meet those needs. And we are going to hire professional consultants to help us get it done.
What makes you truly happy and how do you handle downtime?
I am feeling really content right now. My kids are teenagers, and I am so proud of them. I’ve sacrificed a lot of time with them for my career, and it is so gratifying to see that they are thriving despite our non-traditional household. Their dad’s dedication to their well being allowed me to “have it all” if there is such a thing. My downtime is about my kids. I now can go offline to be with them without feeling stressed about what I might miss in my inbox. Colorado offers incredible vistas with zero wifi, and I honestly breathe a little deeper when that part is shut down for a while. I know it will be there when I get back.