People-First Innovation: Five Tips from Susan Marshall

A good team is hard to find. Perhaps few people know this quite as well as Susan Marshall. After years working at tech industry juggernauts like Apple, Adobe, and Salesforce, Susan realized something was missing from the marketing tech landscape: the human element. People were missing.

Marketers don’t just need new technology to help them succeed. They need the right people—experts who can help them use that technology to manage their workflow. That’s what inspired Susan to found Torchlite, a digital marketing software and services company.

Torchlite is a project management platform that combines technology and talent to help marketers, alongside their enabling agencies and freelancers, do more. As its CEO, Susan applies the same people-first mindset to every area of leadership. It’s helped her scale the company, build a strong team, and dramatically grow Torchlite’s customer base in just two years.

Five principles to help innovators establish a people-first culture from the first stages of a company and beyond:

1. Know Your Customers

Focusing on customers is the best way to build something they actually need. In the years preceding Torchlite’s launch, Susan got to know marketers and the challenges they were facing. “I was talking to marketers all the time,” she remembers. “They’d say, ‘I’ve just spent hundreds of thousands of millions of dollars on MarTech [marketing technology], and I still can’t seem to get anything done. I can’t find people to do it. It’s so frustrating.’”

As she listened, Susan empathized. “When you hear that over and over, you start to feel a little personal responsibility—kind of, ‘Well gosh, how do we help them?’” she says. “I was trying to figure out what could we build that would help them get more done, and better organize all of their data and their content, and match them with people.”

This approach naturally results in a customer-driven model. Susan explains, “We set out to solve people’s problems and make them successful. If you can’t do that, then you don’t have the right solution.” The right solution for one customer may be wrong for another, so she also says it’s important to recognize when a client isn’t a good fit: “We started realizing who we shouldn’t sell to. …Now we’re turning away business, which is good for them and us.”

The Takeaway: Everything begins with the end user. Take time to listen to your customers: what they like and dislike, what they want and need, where they want to go and what’s standing in their way. You’ll find it’s much easier to solve their problems when you understand those problems from their perspective.

2. Know Yourself

Of course, before you can build the team that will serve your customers, you need to assess what you can and can’t do yourself. “A leader has to know their strengths and weaknesses,” says Susan.

Know what you’re good at and what you’re not good at, and then find people that complement you in different areas.

Some areas of need will be immediately apparent. For example, Susan knew right off the bat she’d have to find a software engineer because she didn’t write code. But other needs aren’t always as obvious. Although Susan had over 20 years of marketing experience, she realized detailed administrative tasks were not her strong suit and found someone to help with that, too.

You don’t have to be a do-it-all superhero to lead well.

Susan believes it’s better to balance out your weaknesses than try to fill a role that doesn’t come naturally. When you identify what kind of help you need, you can benefit from others’ expertise and free yourself to focus on what you do best.

The Takeaway: As you map out your first steps, consider what you do well—and what you don’t. Take stock of your strengths and weaknesses, asking advisors for their input and reflecting on your previous roles. That way, you’ll be able to determine which initial hires get highest priority and save yourself a lot of grief.

3. Know Your Network

Finding the right people to fill those key roles starts with reaching out to your network. As Susan assembled the launch team for Torchlite, she started with her contacts, her former colleagues, and their recommendations. Her first team member was a highly recommended software engineer, and she soon hired other former colleagues.

Network-based recruiting has a snowball effect, since good talent attracts good talent. Susan says you know you’ve found a good hire when “you trust somebody that works for you, and they do a good job, and they’re really smart…they say, ‘This person is also really good.’”

She’s quick to add that staffing is about more than finding people you personally want to work with. New hires need to mesh with the entire team—not just the CEO—and their strengths, personalities, and backgrounds should balance out those of other team members.

The Takeaway: You’ve put in work building your network, so make sure you get all the benefits of their contacts and their advice as you start building your team. And don’t neglect these relationships as your company grows, either. Instead, keep expanding your network to help diversify and strengthen your team.

4. Know Your Team

As a manager, putting people first means that Susan prioritizes feedback and communication with her team. “I’m trying to create a culture where people feel like they have a voice, and that they should challenge and have ideas,” she says. “Smart, creative people need to be heard and be given an opportunity to grow.”

This takes more than a verbal commitment. Susan recommends establishing structures that make it easy for employees to share ideas. Torchlite uses Friday huddles, Slack channels, and weekly email updates to help everyone keep in touch. “People are excited, and they feel part of it, and they’re driving it,” Susan says.

If you want people to trust you, you have to trust them.

Susan also expects her team to practice open communication and think beyond their own job descriptions. “If they’re in sales, I want them to have product ideas, and product people should be thinking about the types of customers we should be selling to,” she says. “We all grow together, which means that you have to communicate and work well together, and then always stay curious and challenge everything.”

The Takeaway: A people-first culture doesn’t happen by accident. Build listening and feedback into the rhythms of each week, month, and year. This not only uncovers valuable insights but also lets employees know that their voices matter.

5. Know Your Values

“People-first” doesn’t mean “group-led.” Susan cautions that seeking input from your team is just one part of leading them. Ultimately, an innovator has to define the mission. “You have to have a clear vision and direction. It can’t be the collective,” she says. “Otherwise, people feel like, ‘Which way are we going? I’m not really sure who’s driving the bus?’”

It’s a delicate balance—being influenced by others but not too easily swayed. “You have to listen and be open to other people’s ideas, but you have to also follow your own instinct,” says Susan. “I try to take in as much as possible, but then stay focused on what I think and where we need to go.”

Susan articulates Torchlite’s vision through three core values: “Collaboration, communication, curiosity.” Using these as a roadmap helps her guide employees. “Each one has an important part, whether it’s service or sales, but they need to know how that works with the vision,” she says. “You have to clearly define their roles.”

The Takeaway: Innovation can’t function as a pure democracy. You’ll wind up with too many cooks in the kitchen pretty quickly if you run every single decision by every single stakeholder. Even as you listen to customers, advisors, and employees, your vision has to guide the ship.

Maintaining a People-First Culture

Understanding yourself and others is the foundation of a people-first culture, but the mindset doesn’t stop after launch. Listening and leadership must continue to go hand-in-hand as a company scales. “I’m constantly reading and listening to other people,” Susan says. “You have to have a really genuine interest in other people’s ideas and how they shape yours.”

Empathy and understanding takes constant effort. But there is good news. When people-first thinking guides your decisions, useful innovations are a natural outcome. Listening to your customers tells you what they need. And in turn, listening to your network and employees gives you the tools and the team to meet that need. Listening to your gut helps cast a vision, and your vision will help you continue to lead your team toward progress.