Lead(H)er - Kristen Yerardi, SVP of Customer Success at WordStream
“When I ended up in information architecture, it was brand new. It became important to think about the mind map of an individual trying to find that information. Now, I’m in the same spot in Customer Success. When I first started at WordStream, there were maybe a handful of other executives in Boston with the title of Customer Success. Now there are probably hundreds,” said Kristen Yerardi, the SVP of Customer Success at WordStream.
Kristen grew up in Keene, New Hampshire about an hour and a half northwest of Boston. After she graduated from high school, she decided to attend the University of Connecticut.
“I really wanted to find a larger school that wasn’t too far away from home, so UConn was the perfect fit. I didn’t want to go to UNH because my entire high school went there. So I went to UConn where there was only a couple of us there and I hardly ever saw them,” Kristen laughed.
At first, Kristen wasn’t sure what she wanted to study. One of her reasons for attending a large liberal arts school was to have a chance to really figure out what she wanted to do.
She considered going into nursing or following her childhood dream of being a businesswoman. After trying on a number of different hats, she ended up applying to the business school and studying health systems management.
“My degree pulled together my affinity for both business and healthcare. However, I think I was more so drawn to the idea of being in business, traveling, wearing a suit and being in the boardroom.”
As part of Kristen’s degree, she had to take coding courses like C++, Basic, and HTML. She ended up falling in love with the HTML side of the house.
“The summer after taking the MIS courses where I learned basic programming, I ended up getting a part-time job helping one of the offices at UConn put their legal agreements and contracts online. I really enjoyed it and thought it was fun, as well as rewarding. I liked working with the office to understand exactly what they were looking for, figuring out the different types of contracts and organizing everything to help make it easy for people to find.”
After graduation, Kristen decided to pursue a job in website development. She ended up getting a job at DiaLogos, a management consulting firm where she worked for two-and-a-half years as their “tool girl,” building websites for their clients, creating documentation, and working with developer code.
“Most of the things I did at DiaLogos, I actually had no idea how to do. I had to figure out how to do them as I went. Working there helped me realize that I really enjoyed the tech side of the house but I was even more interested in identifying business’ needs and translating that into a technology solution.”
Kristen reached a turning point when she heard Ralph Folz speak about the work his company had done with the New England Patriots and Fidelity at the Web ‘98 conference in Boston’s World Trade Center.
“The company he ran seemed like a true website development company, not a management consulting company trying to be a web/dev company. I realized I really wanted to do the real thing. I was the only one at DiaLogos that was doing web design and I had no one to learn from. They really wanted me to stay and help build their development practice but I had no idea what I was doing so I decided to leave, which was absolutely a fantastic decision. I went to work at Ralph Folz’s company, Molecular, which is now called Isobar of North America.”
During her twelve years under Folz, Kristen shifted her focus from development to information architecture, which was a brand new concept at the time. During this major part of her career, she moved more towards business analyst information and user experience design.
Seven years ago, she shifted careers again. Kristen was beginning to get disenfranchised with the agency side of the house. She’d always been on the consulting side and decided to look to into an inside role.
“At a certain point, I was just not liking working at a larger worldwide agency. Ralph, who I’d worked for many years, became President & CEO of WordStream and told me he was looking for a VP of Customer Success. Although he knew it was nothing I’d done before, he thought I’d make a great addition to the team.”
“He wanted someone to help train small businesses on how they need to go through the WordStream software by thinking about their challenges and what their journey needs to be like. If you think about it, I had done customer journeys for almost my entire career. In this role, the only difference was creating a personal experience as opposed to an online one. So the years of experience I have in user experience design actually translated quite nicely into the customer success realm. He hired me as the VP of Customer Success and I started to build the team from there.”
When Kristen first started at WordStream, there were four people on the customer success team, now they’re over seventy and growing rapidly.
“We’ve made the Boston Business Journal’s Best Places to work three years in a row now. We’ve also made the Inc 5000 list four years in a row. We’re continuing to grow each year at a rapid pace and we’re not stopping. We really do have a mission to help small businesses be successful and grow. It’s important to note that we’re not just in paid search anymore, we’re also expanding into Facebook and other ad platforms — there’re a lot of things that small businesses need to do and we’re expanding to help them thrive.”
Rapid Fire Questions
BS: How do you manage stress?
KY: I take a lot of deep breaths, exercise when I can and I really try to get into a state of mind that if I break the problem down, it’s solvable. If you let everything pile up at once, then it feels daunting.
BS: How many cups of coffee do you drink a day?
KY: I usually drink 4 cups of coffee a day; mostly in a large Venti from Starbucks. In the past two months, I’ve tried to cut that back to about two cups a day. I drink it in the morning, I try not to drink it in the afternoon.
BS: What do you like to do in your free time?
KY: I said this in my interview at Wordstream. When I first started working there, the four-person team was made up of people aged 22 or 23. They asked me that question and I gave my honest answer which is I love spending time with my family. Three people on the team thought that was great and endearing and one thought it was corny, but endearing. I work so much that I don’t really see them during the week. I get them on the bus in the morning but by the time I get home at night it’s either after their bedtime, or now that they’re older I see them for maybe a half an hour before they go to bed. I really do enjoy making time each weekend to do something as a family. My kids are involved in sports so we love being outside and active. We go for bike rides or hikes. Sometimes we’ll just hop in the car and drive someplace and explore for the day.
BS: Where is your favorite spot in Boston?
KY: Whenever we go downtown as a family, I really like to go where the swan boats are in the Public Garden. It’s so quintessential Boston, it’s so unique with the swan boats and the old iron on the bridges and you can turn around and see the buildings on Boylston and Newbury. I just think that it’s truly the heart of Boston. The second place would be TD Garden because we love hockey.
BS: If you had to choose one thing, what would you say is your greatest accomplishment other than family?
KY: In all honesty, I think right now the team that I’ve grown at WordStream is one of my greatest accomplishments in my career. To help take a company that wasn’t doing well when we started and to turn it around into the company that we have now is incredible. Plus, knowing that customer success is truly the linchpin of that. I mean, our product has gone through its stages and there were times when it wasn’t great. It’s great now. Our sales and marketing teams have grown as well. I think everyone in the company has done an amazing job to help us grow. But to go from four people to over seventy people and truly have our team be looked at as instrumental to the creation of our culture and the backbone of our success, I’m really proud of that.
BS: Ten years ago, is this where you would have seen yourself?
KY: Absolutely not. I don’t know where I would have seen myself ten years ago. Ten years ago, I was at Isobar and I think I would have still seen myself in the user experience web design space. And even at an agency. I know I wouldn’t have seen myself in a brand new thing again like Customer Success as I did with Information Architecture earlier in my career. What I find really interesting about my career is I sort of meandered into website design and ended up in a company where information architecture was very important but at the time it was brand new. I’m now in the same spot in customer success. When I started, there were less than a handful of other people in Boston with the title of Customer Success. Now I don’t even know how many there are. Now there are probably hundreds. I would never have guessed that I’d be in customer success because it didn’t exist. It’s really interesting to see something that started small, almost didn’t exist, not just in Boston but across the country.
BS: What one piece of advice would you give to a recent college graduate?
KY: I love that question! I think my answer to this question would be a couple of things. The first one is, if you can, if you’re career trajectory would allow you to get into some form of consulting early on in your career, do it. I learned so much from DiaLogos and Molecular/Isobar working across multiple different projects across multiple different companies across multiple different industries that I think helped me be who I am today from a professional standpoint. I’ve worked on so many different varied things and you just learn so much. You learn how businesses operate, what’s important to businesses. I think it’s information you use no matter what career path you go down. I think the second one is follow what you like to do. Don’t try to pin hole yourself into your degree so much that you don’t take opportunities to just learn or enjoy yourself. I think a lot of people spend so much money on their degrees that if they’re not doing exactly what they studied, they think they’ve failed in some way. But if they can keep themselves from doing that and just go do what they want to do or feel accomplished in doing and if they’re growing every day and they’re feeling that they’re expanding who they are every day, go do that. Because I would never have figured that I’d be where I am.
Images and video courtesy of WordStream and Kristen Yerardi.