Vertical vs Horizontal Approaches to B2B Sales & Marketing

In business, dichotomies are everywhere.

Vertical vs. horizontal.

Marketing vs. sales.

Legal vs. illegal.

Granted, that last one's pretty legit. But in general, polarizing these categories isn't helpful. Marketing and sales can absolutely work together, and companies can (and maybe should) take a blended horizontal and vertical approach.

I recently interviewed David Chao, head of industry marketing, and Rich Liu, VP of corporate sales, at MuleSoft about how they work together. MuleSoft has a fairly uncommon identity in that its marketing and sales teams work cross-functionally. And while MuleSoft at its core offers a widely adaptable product, it has mastered the art of translating that horizontal core into specific industries.

It's hard to oversell the importance of collaboration between marketing and sales in MuleSoft. The company can only expand into verticals if the two sides work in a tight interlock.

I'm going to summarize my interview with David and Rich here in the hopes that you would be inspired to think differently about sales vs. marketing and vertical vs. horizontal.

As you're diving into a new vertical, what specific things should the sales team look for to inform the assets that marketing is putting together?

MuleSoft has one product that can do many things, like a bucket of parts that can be extracted and combined differently with every new project. It is a horizontal platform that speaks to the heart of digital transformation. But while the value prop of the product is horizontal, there are industry-specific elements.

When MuleSoft goes into a new industry, marketing and sales have to know when to push and pull together. For example, they know what they believe large government organizations can use MuleSoft for, but often the reality lines up differently.

The sales team comes into play by speaking into the core assets the company is going to market with. Sales notices, "Hey, it sounds like there's a great pull to speak more around this upcoming regulation," or "We're hearing from this set of government agencies in Australia that they're having all sorts of issues with pressure from central government to do 'X.'"

This helps ease the central burden of going to market in a new industry. You take those pieces of feedback that help you shape a narrative, then start to package your core horizontal elements with added elements to make your efforts feel truly customized. This could be using the right terminology, using the right use cases, or building the narrative that speaks to pain points within an industry.

Collaboration also keeps sales from complaining about assets and "just making do" with them. MuleSoft challenges its sales team to actually influence content creation. If a salesperson thinks an asset was too generalized, they're encouraged to share that feedback and work with marketing to go build the right customized asset.

If sales views their role as simply consumers of what marketing creates, instead of collaborators and builders, that's a huge miss.

MuleSoft has made a shift from a technical solution conversation to a transformational one. How?

This is one of the hardest shifts to make. In Rich's career, he's seen very few companies truly bridge that gap.

Every company likes to say, "We're really helping these companies transform their business; we're strategic thought partners with them." But when you ask the companies on the other side, the response is often, "Yeah, what they do is interesting. But would I call it transformational? Probably not. I think of them as vendors."

A few years back, MuleSoft was more of a true technical solution. Now, MuleSoft is finding that every company wants to master digital transformation because they realize they'll be dead without it.

The challenge then became, "How do we become compelling, build a point of view, and bring honest-to-goodness IP to the table." For MuleSoft, the answer was around the idea of application networks and really thinking about not just unlocking information but truly producing reusable building blocks of data that developers can plug into and innovate off of with APIs.

Here's the reality: finding transformational solutions is not a marketing problem. It's not a sales problem. It's a go-to-market problem.

Few companies can figure out how to tell that story credibly. To be able to say you have a technology that's so different that people owe it to themselves to align with you . . . finding that fit doesn't come overnight. You don't go into a room and come out with a narrative or a sales pitch that makes everyone say, "What was I thinking all these years? I absolutely need to be working with you guys."

Instead, that narrative is the result of sales and marketing working hand in hand. It's coming to the table with great ideas and massaging them. It's about honing: not just in focus groups, but actually in the field.

How has this vertical/horizontal approach scaled as MuleSoft has grown?

MuleSoft had to learn how to scale its message while at the same time making it reflective of individual market needs. For example, what it means to play in healthcare in the U.K. is very different from here in the U.S.

Thereagain, partnership across teams is crucial. Marketing drops in on sales calls and hears how the message is resonating; sales contributes content ideas and provides feedback on how that content is being received.


At the end of the day, sales and marketing have common goals. Forays into uncharted verticals are far less mysterious when you align those goals.

For more on how to become an industry-transcending company, check out the MuleSoft blog.

You can find the interview that this post was based on, and many more, by subscribing to the B2B Growth Show on iTunes.


James Carbary
is the founder of Sweet Fish Media, a podcast production service for B2B companies. He's a contributor for the Huffington Post & Business Insider, and he also co-hosts the B2B Growth Show: a podcast dedicated to helping B2B executives achieve explosive growth.