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Unsung Heroes of Open Source: Tara Spalding of SugarCRM

First installment of the Unsung Heroes of Open Source Series: Tara Spalding of SugarCRM

When I thought of the idea to start an "Unsung Heroes of Open Source" series, I actually had one person in mind: Tara Spalding of SugarCRM. Tara joined SugarCRM very early in its corporate existence (Employee #4), and has been the face of the SugarCRM company at tradeshows and elsewhere. She's such a good person that you immediately like her, and such a good employee that you immediately respect her. I wanted her to go first in this series.

When I reached out to her to see if she'd participate, I was surprised to find that she's no longer "unsung." She's a VP now! I'm not sure how long ago this happened, but had I known...I would have sung her praises, anyway. The focus of this series is on director-level open sourcerors and "below," but I'm making an exception in Tara's case because she's been a manager or director since I've known her. Anyway, don't hold it against her that SugarCRM figured out what a gem she is before I was able to profile her.

Name, company, title, and what you actually do
Tara Spalding, VP Corporate Marketing, SugarCRM. I run the lead generation/ nurturing, publicity, website, events, corporate branding, sports marketing and the commuter cycling program at SugarCRM.

Do you work remotely or in an office with co-workers?
I'm an office worker. I think it's really important for me to be at HQ and get involved with other departments like our online team which runs our community, our product marketing and management team to work on product announcements and customer adoption stories, our sales teams to understand who's interested in our commercial products and our training and support teams to hear how our customers are doing. I'm a hands-on person, and being in the office and connecting the dots throughout our customer life-cycle gives me a great understanding on what makes Sugar unique. I also ride my bike into work once a week.

If you've had a similar role in a proprietary software company, how does your current role compare? Similarities? Differences?
My background started in wine sales and wound up in a proprietary CRM company web site manager before entering another proprietary CRM in a lead generation role. I think the major difference between lead generation in proprietary software companies is that they are focused on list attainment and marketing spin.

The proprietary companies would work very hard to get a demo time set up with potential prospects before figuring out if the target was interested in buying any software, as marketing would not tell much about the product beforehand as it could potentially be confusing or worse: over promising software capabilities.

Now, my whole principle to successful corporate marketing at SugarCRM is to get the product ahead of our sales people and educate the user on how to improve their lives with the open source tools that we're providing. I'm focused on making sure user's ramp-up time is minutes and self-guided, and then allowing the user to contact us if we earned their business.

Another advantage about working at Sugar is how the community of users, developers and partners really help propagate the Sugar product message. I work on encouraging programs and making our product information bite-sized and easy to access unlike proprietary companies. These programs are like our CRM Acceleration Summits and Global Developer Conferences.

It also allows me to engage with the media on a new level: by letting them use our application. It's also funny how many media firms actually use our software to manage their sales and marketing campaigns because I am such a fanatic of the software myself, and convinced them to use it.

How familiar were you with open source before you joined your current company?
Not very. But I got the chance to do a webcast with Greg Stein - from the Apache Software Foundation - while working at a proprietary CRM company, and he just blew my mind away about the whole notion of publicly licensing software to actually benefit anyone using it and giving anyone the chance to build off of it. He probably has no clue who I am today, but he greatly influenced my perspective that open source really is better code than what was provided by any proprietary vendor. I also remember his main point that open source is all about contributing back to the community to make a stronger product.

Why did you join an open source vendor?
I joined as Employee #4 at SugarCRM: the three before me were the co-founders. I was completely intrigued about how to be the first marketing person to deliver the commercial open source messaging for a business application. Everything about SugarCRM was new and radically shifted my ideals on how to market and nurture leads and how to sell. I was also challenged to make a very web-friendly marketing plan that focused on automation, driving activity to low-cost website programs and e-commerce engines instead of building up an elaborate, expensive call center or sales screening process.

The carrot for it all was for me to wear a product marketing hat until we hired real talent, and personally be the use-case for our lead module, campaign module and lastly the email module. It was at times challenging but rewarding to live and die by the product design that I encouraged our engineers to develop. It?s been a dream of mine to delve into product marketing, and I definitely got a taste of that as the first-line guinea pig.

How long did it take you to adjust to an open source operational mode?
It took me a few months to adjust during the time Sugar grew from a handful of employees to several dozen. Along with the growth, the change allowed me to figure out how to keep the open source style (transparency, honesty, quality and teamwork) as the main theme for all of our marketing activities. It was challenging to hire the right people, but now I can quickly judge and see if someone gets it or not. Now, the MARCOM crew at Sugar are really vibrant people, focused on the community, really great at our online execution, and are Sugar product user experts that produce much more than what outsiders can imagine. It's really an honor to see the succession of talent surpass me.

What do you think open source companies could learn from proprietary vendors?
I'm not sure....I think we're better at spending less money and having more impact, we are better at challenging current systems or methodologies to come up with something more efficient, and we have so much more fun because our passion is driven by this huge audience - our community - to keep the song going?It's a blast.

Tara has clearly moved out of her proprietary roots to fully imbibe the open source Kool-Aid...and I believe she has set up a Kool-Aid stand of her own. :-) But that's the allure and charm of Tara - you believe her because she clearly believes in what she's doing, and that belief translates into community/leads/sales.