Women in Business Q&A: Adele Revella, CEO and Founder, Buyer Persona Institute

Adele Revella is CEO and founder of Buyer Persona Institute and author of Buyer Personas: How to Gain Insight into Your Customer's Expectations, Align your Marketing Strategies, and Win More Business (Wiley). For more than 25 years, she has been developing marketers who are the trusted source of competitive strategies and rapid revenue growth. In her decades-long marketing career, which started at Regis McKenna, the PR firm that launched Apple, Revella has seen the discipline from all sides: as a sales and marketing executive, consultant, trainer, and entrepreneur. She is widely recognized as a marketing and business leadership speaker, consultant, blogger, and workshop facilitator.

How has your life experience made you the leader you are today?

Because my dad was a career Navy pilot, we moved almost every year when I was a child. I would make friends at a new school and before long it was time to say goodbye and do it all over again.

This might sound difficult, but I'm sure this experience is one of the reasons I find it easy to quickly get comfortable in unfamiliar situations and build relationships with many different types of people.

Then when I was ten, something tragic happened -- my father was killed in a plane crash in the South China Sea. I grew up too fast after that, and it would be decades before I fully understood the impact. But I certainly learned that you can never predict what the next day will bring, and if you keep your head, things will work out.

How has your previous employment experience aided your current position as CEO and Founder of Buyer Persona Institute?
I once read a Wall Street Journal article by cartoonist Scott Adams where he suggested that one path to extraordinary success is to combine relatively ordinary skills. He described himself as "a cartoonist with negligible art talent, some basic writing skills, an ordinary sense of humor and a bit of experience in the business world."

That article stuck with me because I know I am not the world's best marketer, sales person, trainer, public speaker or writer. I attribute my success to the combination of experiences I gained in each of these roles. And then I was just plain lucky to fall in love with the technology industry in the '80s, back when no one could possibly appreciate how important it would be today.

Eliminate any one of these experiences and I know I wouldn't be where I am today.

What have the highlights and challenges been as CEO of Buyer Persona Institute?
When I started the company five years ago, I wanted to build a training company that helps marketers interview their target customers about their buying decisions. I learned to do these interviews early in my career and knew that this skill had been critical to my success. I had just sold my first training company and it was clear that nothing similar was available.

We had great customers and experienced rapid growth, but I soon realized that most people were uncomfortable conducting the unscripted interviews required for this research.

By then the need for buyer personas was growing like wildfire, so we added a new service, offering to do the research on behalf of our clients, and shifting our workshops to focus on utilization of the insights.

We tripled in size last year, but it wasn't easy to let go of my original vision. That helped me see why it's sometimes difficult for our clients to make the changes that our research recommends. Once you've got a vision, it's not easy to hear that the market has a different idea.

What advice can you offer women who are seeking to start their own business?
First, test your premise: is there a market full of customers willing to spend money to solve the problem or achieve the goal you envision? Even if you have an entirely new product or service idea, find people who are likely to be your prospective customers and listen to them tell you what they're currently doing to deal with the need your solution addresses.
Be open-minded, ask a lot of questions and really listen. Don't sell your idea or ask people for feedback about it. If you do, people will frequently tell you what you want to hear and that's useless.

And please, don't use surveys. The first answer to any question is something obvious that you already know. You need to have a real conversation with real people and think like a journalist, following up with probing questions until you get the whole unvarnished truth.

How do you maintain a work/life balance?
I think that work/life balance is a very individual matter. People might say that this is about dividing their time between work and play, but I'm happiest when I'm being productive.

For example, my favorite hobby is gardening. When I'm bogged down with a never-ending list of problems to solve or work to complete, it helps to steal a few hours to clean the garden or plant flowers. Unlike anything about running a business, I get an instant sense of gratification and feel like I've accomplished something.

My husband also helps. He is much better at play than I am and reminds me to take time out. Plus we have two large dogs that demand walks every day, rain or shine. When I was writing my book and working seven days a week, those big eyes begging for my attention reminded me to get up and move for a while. Physical exercise is very important.

What do you think is the biggest issue for women in the workplace?
I am certainly aware of the statistics about the inequalities for women, so I know that this is a problem. It's just that I have never personally experienced the issue.

I was a member of three senior executive teams over eleven years and on two of them I was the only woman. All three were technology companies, which is predominantly a male culture. But I never felt that my gender affected my ability to get my job done or to earn the recognition I felt I deserved.

I realize that inequality in the workplace is a huge issue, and wish I had advice for women on dealing with it. From my personal experience, the best I can offer is not to be afraid to go after roles and industries that are seen as male-dominated.

How has mentorship made a difference in your professional and personal life?
During the early '80s, I worked for a small division of a big bank and my boss suggested I attend a seminar about something called "word processing." That's when my love affair with technology began. Later, when he told me that the best path to career success would be found in a company where I was interested in their core business, I left to take a job in the tech industry.

By the time I became an executive in 1990, I had a lot of experience with mentorship and dedicated myself to doing the same for others. Two of the people I promoted from individual contributor roles are now in VP-level positions.

In 2001, when I decided to leave the executive track and start my own business again, I realized that I wanted to do something that would combine my two favorite past-times - mentoring people and public speaking. That was the inspiration for the training companies I've run ever since.

What do you want Buyer Persona Institute to accomplish in the next year?
Buyer personas and content marketing are big topics, but most companies are missing the insight into their customers' buying decisions that these investments require.

The scary part is that marketers don't know what they're missing. We didn't see it either until we started building buyer personas for our clients. Over the last year alone we interviewed 419 C-level executives, mid-level managers, engineers and physicians, asking them to describe a recent buying experience. Far too many struggled to recall a meaningful sales and marketing interaction, and were only considering the companies their peers or prior experiences recommended.

Sales and marketing isn't having nearly enough impact on buying decisions. We are rolling out services now to integrate buying insights in sales training and playbooks. This will be in addition to our current focus on marketing teams. Our plan is to ensure that both teams are prepared to earn their customers' trust by helping them make educated decisions.