Turkish Airlines seriously messed up this time. On a flight from Tel Aviv to Istanbul (my stop-over on the way to the Bay Area, where I live) one of the cockpit’s windows broke and left the pilots breathing 30,000ft air. This forced us to land in Anatalia. This isn’t the screw up though — as these things can happen. The way they handled it, was pure atrocity. So it is with that backdrop that I read Frank Slootman’s Tape Sucks: Inside Data Domain, A Silicon Valley Growth Story. A short and enjoyable book, I managed to finish it before we took off from Anatalia.
Across one hundred pages, Frank dispenses immensely useful advice on the process of building a startup. One of the main points there, is how to treat your customers. I’ve written about this recently here — how we should embed ourselves with our customers, as well as make sure we make their lives better — and believe this is true in all my heart. Turkish Airlines have treated 260 of their customers disgracefully in this occasion and as a result I will never fly with them again.
The goal of this post, though, is not to rant about an airline (Twitter seems to be a great place for doing that). But rather, collect a few snippets out of this fantastic book and add my two cents, in the most humble way I can. After all, Frank was the CEO of the super successful Data Domain, and is now the CEO of the even-more-successful ServiceNow. All I have to my credit is being the CEO & Founder of a far smaller company.
“Data Domain had the good sense to attack a product category that was not much short of loathed”
At indeni, we’ve decided to attack the monitoring product category in full force. It is the result of on-going conversations with would-be customers long before we wrote the first line of code. When we would ask them for their impressions of their existing monitoring tools, they were always lukewarm. They said the tools were nice, but fall short of what they need. The product category is cluttered with dozens of different tools that are hard to differentiate from one another. The pitches for those tools were always the same — avoid the next downtime — and it was hard to know which was better. Once you made the choice with a certain tool, you came to realize it could only really do 5% of what you needed it to and there wasn’t anyone else out there that could help you.
“Many technologies are conceived without a clear, precise notion of the intended use… if you haven’t [figured out the intended use] you are relying on luck.”
For us, it was clear early on what the intended use for indeni is — find complicated problems before they happen and give people specific instructions for how to fix them. I often see companies in Silicon Valley with some amazing technology, but not a very clear understanding of what anyone would do with it. I find it to be a highly risky proposition, considering customers buy value, not just technology.
“We always reverted to our True North, the customer”
Making the customer happy is the #1 goal at indeni. Without our customers we have no existence. We will only be successful if our customer base grows, our existing customers renew their annual subscription with us and that from year to year each customer expands their use of our product. This drives our product decisions and our resource allocation. I often find myself spending a lot of my thinking time on specific customer issues.
“Resellers start getting interested when their bread-and-butter customers begin asking about your product…”
That’s just one of many points Frank makes very well about resellers. If you choose to take a channel-based distribution model (which should never be the default) you need to make sure you keep a direct sales force. I’m very much against competing with your channel (be “100% channel”) but at the same time suggest you don’t rely on them to do the work for you. Find the customers and build the deals yourself, showing potential resellers they would be missing out greatly by not promoting your product themselves. Protect your top resellers, by using mechanisms such as deal registration, and penalize those resellers that ignore you or waste your time by taking business to their competitors and downgrading their margins. Many of indeni’s resellers have seen us implement these exact tactics, sometimes they got pissed off by them. We didn’t invent these tactics, but we’ve seen them work well and so adopted them. As a reseller, you stand to gain a lot more by working with us, and that’s important for our survival.
“The turning point comes when your sales activity is solidly paying for itself”
We always ask ourselves — how fast should we grow? How many people should we add, in what departments and when? It is very challenging — if you grow too fast you’ll burn out and die. If you grow too slowly, you will miss the market. Frank’s point about looking at the sales team and only growing when they are paying for themselves, plus partially paying for the rest of the company, is a good one. Our total sales spending is well below the amount of sales we book every month and hence we pass this “check”. We will be growing our investment in sales and keeping a close eye to ensure we don’t overgrow it. A difficult thing to get right.
“Big company thinking: check it at the door”
I have a long list of mistakes that I’ve made since founding indeni. One of them was not shedding enough of the big company mentality I absorbed in my days at Check Point. There are certain things I’ve done, processes I’ve put in place and people I’ve hired, that were incorrect for the stage we were in. They were so off, they are even ill-fitting for the stage we’re in today! If you start a company, or join a startup, from a large corporate, don’t forget this.
“Once it’s apparent you’ve made a mistake, own up to it”
This sentence opens chapter 10. I see chapters 10, 12 and 13 as related — they are very much around how the CEO behaves and what the rest of the team gets from this behavior. I used to be more mechanical — I would show less emotion (yes, there is a “less” to the amount of emotion I show today), not let people see my true personality & quirks and act like I represent a foreign government. This is one lesson it took me a long time to realize — you must be yourself. You must show your team what kind of person you are. The underlying assumption is that your personality traits are probably mostly positive as far as the company is concerned, otherwise you wouldn’t be in the role you are in. So show your team who you are and admit your weaknesses and mistakes when they happen. Embed that as part of the company culture and that will help build a healthier one.
“Data Domain’s sales organization sometimes acted like a single organism”
That’s why our entire sales team is in one open space. They listen to each other, learn from each other and feel free to ask questions and point out mistakes. One of the biggest difficulties at our stage is to get a repeatable sales model that works well in a consistent fashion. Much like ants keep perfecting their path to food through on-going trial and error and sharing of information, so should the sales team.
There are a lot more great nuggets in Frank’s book and I urge you to hop over to Amazon and order the book. Two hours of your time and I’m sure you’ll learn, reflect, relate and enjoy yourself.
Thank you Frank Slootman for sharing this.