Coffee Talk: Stephen Lambright

Each week, we sit down with a different member of AEye’s leadership team to discuss their role, their view of challenges and opportunities in the industry, and their take on what lies ahead.

This week, we talk with CMO, Stephen Lambright.

Stephen Lambright 1. Tell us about your role.

My role is to manage the overall marketing, communications, and branding for AEye. Initially, when we were pre-product, it was more of an evangelical role promoting the core basis of the technology, fostering partnerships, and helping to create an ecosystem that would enable us to be successful. Now that we are delivering products and can do so at scale, the job has evolved from evangelism to creating a sales funnel and managing against that funnel. It’s really a standard evolution of technology marketing, where you go from an early-phase startup into a startup at scale.

2. As you scale, what do you see as the most important part of your role?

I see three components to it. The first is to drive effective communication and messaging for the company externally, which is really about the ruthless consistency that’s required of branding. It’s making sure that we’re all using the same terms and the same messaging and the same language wherever we communicate – personally, through social media, over email, etc.

The second is promoting and projecting the brand, the company, and the culture – who we are and why we’re different – not only from a technology perspective, but from a company and culture perspective. It’s putting the mix together that enables that. Marketing plays a role in humanizing the company. I believe that the culture that you create within the company, and supporting employees and partners in an effective way, is as important as how it’s reflected externally: that’s the yin and yang of marketing.

The third is ensuring that we emotionally engage with people through effective storytelling, through narrative. I’m a big proponent of content and content marketing because I believe that’s how you effectively communicate with people – through stories, not through textbooks and data sheets. That’s why we build in narratives, and work to deliver them effectively.

3. How has COVID impacted marketing at AEye in 2020, and how have you and your team adapted to the new reality?

First and foremost is the lack of travel and the inability to be in front of people and interact with them. COVID hit during a product launch, which drove us to come up with a new way of doing demos and engaging customers. We looked at gaming platforms and adopted the Discord platform for doing interactive demos with people around the world, and it’s been extremely effective. We’ve customized it to fit our needs with multiple servers and a very sophisticated scheduling system. We’ve connected our demo vehicles to Discord so that we can do live, interactive Discord demos from Interstate 580 in the USA or from anywhere in the world. People can engage with our engineers in real time to really get a sense of what the product is and what our product platform is capable of. It’s unique and has been a real boon for us because it’s opened up an entirely new way to engage people without having to travel.

Discord has truly transformed how we think about product marketing. It’s not just data sheets and brochures and demos: we’ve created a very interactive way of engaging customers that’s much more fluid and continuous than it has been in the past.

The other big change has been the absence of physical events and shows. Virtual events have been a challenge for all marketers because, while everyone’s trying, it’s very difficult to replicate the energy and interchanges that occur in a physical event. There are a lot of attempts at it, but I’m just not sure it’s possible to replicate. There are some advantages to virtual events: you can be more time efficient in picking and choosing content that you want to see, and some platforms have done a great job creating focused, engaged events with a broader audience in a subject matter-focused way. But it’s not the same.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t talk about internal communications. With COVID forcing remote work, we’ve put a renewed focus on how we communicate internally. We established weekly Zoom lunches, where we share information. We try to bring in people from different departments to talk about what they are working on, and to introduce the rest of the company to what their world looks like. This has been a good opportunity to cross-pollinate, and I think it’s good for everyone to take a few minutes every week to step back from their world and hear someone else’s perspective. It’s been very helpful from a communication and community standpoint, as well.

We’ve tried very hard to increase inter and intra department communication, and because managers have been encouraged to do a daily outreach and to communicate with their teams on a more regular basis, I think we are communicating better as a company now that we are apart than we did when we were together. We miss the water cooler or break room conversations, but we also seem to be more effective at communicating because we’re more apt to pick up the phone or email or slack to touch base with people.

4. You are going to market with 150-year-old global suppliers and working directly or indirectly with some of the largest OEMs in the world. How has Silicon Valley melded with traditional business, and what advice can you share about how to approach these relationships?

Silicon Valley is built on the idea of being disruptive: disrupting technologies, disrupting markets, disrupting established companies and business models, and finding new ways of doing things. Sometimes it is appropriate. Sometimes it’s better to leverage something that’s existing in order to gain greater market momentum, faster. It’s important for a technology company, whether they’re based in Silicon Valley or Austin or Boston or anywhere else, to understand the value chain in the market and understand where they add value, how the customers perceive they’re adding value, and to understand how customers want to buy and want to engage, and to find those leverage points that are most appropriate. Sometimes there are none and you need to establish something entirely new. Other times you’re getting a lot more momentum and it’s a lot more effective to leverage existing business models and ecosystems.

I learned a lot about this from my first job in the technology world, as a product manager at Autodesk. Autodesk, in my mind, established the ultimate partnership strategy, where they built a platform, AutoCAD, that was open and cost-effective relative to the existing systems that were out there. They then went to market with thousands of systems integrator partners who were experts in dozens of very specific vertical markets – everything from architectural design to civil engineering to forestry mapping to graveyard management. These systems integrators took AutoCAD and customized it to meet the very specific needs of each of these very specific markets. I find this model very compelling because it delivers better value for the end customer. It’s similar to what AEye is doing today. We have built an active, intelligent, software-definable sensing platform – which we call iDAR – that can be used in a variety of different markets, and we’re enabling our systems integrator and Tier 1 partners to take iDAR and customize it to the unique needs of each of these markets. These partnerships are a win-win for everybody: for the customer, the partner, and for us because everyone gets something better out of the equation.

5. You’ve said your personality and interests have tended to find you in positions where innovation is the driving catalyst and sustainable growth is the primary business objective. How does marketing support innovation and growth at AEye?

A great example of this is our basketball demo at CES in 2020. A traditional marketing group probably wouldn’t have said, “Let’s do real-time motion forecasting of a basketball shot at CES.” But in a brainstorming session in the summer of 2019, one of our brilliant engineers said, “I think we should predict whether a basketball shot will go in the hoop”, and at that point I said, “Yes, we’re going to do that!” Marketing then pushed to make this demo happen over the last half of 2019. It turns out there was a huge, virtuous cycle in this process where, because we were determined to do this demo, the engineering team learned a tremendous amount about forecasting, not just from a perception perspective, but how the sensor needed to operate in order to get the best quality information. Marketing’s big audacious goal of doing a basketball motion-forecasting demo at CES actually drove product innovation.

6. Certainly the world has changed this year. What macro trends do you see on the horizon for marketing in 2021?

There’s going to be a huge amount of pent-up demand when things start opening up – when everyone’s gotten the vaccine and they’re able to go out and see and meet and greet people again – to be with other human beings. I think marketing has an opportunity in the last half of 2021 to find ways of leveraging this desire for human interaction.

That being said, I think virtual components of events are here to stay: most events will be hybrid, with a real-time, personal portion, as well as a virtual connection. To me, this is one of the most interesting things about where marketing goes in 2021: Once we can resume events, what happens? What will they look like? Events will be different in the future, and I think there’s going to be a very interesting opportunity for events to differentiate themselves based on how they manage that hybrid environment.

7. I understand in your free time you are a theater buff. What’s your favorite genre/favorite show of all time?

The best play I have ever seen performed live was Arcadia by Tom Stoppard. What I like about Tom Stoppard in general is that he weaves storylines together across time and/or space, and he does it with such elegance and his language is so perfect. He’s just such a craftsman.

My greatest theater experience was to be in the audience for the very first performance of the first full staging of Angels in America by Tony Kushner at the Eureka Theater in 1991. It was breathtaking. At the time, we were in the midst of our last great public health crisis – HIV/AIDS – and Kushner’s masterpiece perfectly captured the emotion and trauma of the time. I anticipate that someone will create an equally compelling theatrical response to the COVID pandemic. I look forward to seeing that play in a theater packed with people.

8. What’s your favorite mode of transportation?

I guess my feet. I live in a walking city, and I love walking. One reason I love living in San Francisco is that I can walk anywhere I need to, and it’s just so easy to get around.