Detailed Notes from SaaStr Annual 2017

This was my first SaaStr Annual conference and I took as many notes as possible from the excellent talks and panels I attended. The purpose of this post is to share my notes from the conference with those who couldn’t make it. I intend to write a “Lessons Learned” summary of some of the key points from the conference at a later date, but figured there is value in an unabridged notes recap as well for some people, and that’s what this post is.

Warning: This is long, so I tried to organize the information by subject and session to make it easier to filter and find. Each new session or panel is in bold and questions posed are in italics. I put an asterisk (*) in front of my favorite sessions.


*Twilio, The Inside Story — 1st developer-centric company to go public. Everyone needs to deliver on great customer experience regardless of your business. Communications is a major part of that experience, and Twilio facilitates that and rides that wave. Jeff thinks of developers as a new entry point to get into the market, not a new market. Ship a product before you can start the enterprise sales process and then use a roundabout way to get into customers that is more efficient. Similarities to Stripe story.

Use marketing to spread general awareness — for example Twilio’s sign on the 101 saying “Ask your developer”. NetSuite billboard another example — when choosing what to replace QuickBooks with Jeff immediately just thought of NetSuite vs. Intacct or others.

Jeff described the process of product development/iteration where you hear feedback from customers that your product needs certain features and you write them off initially, but eventually you realize that for certain customer segments you need these items (for example, enterprise vs. SMB customers). Jeff doesn’t believe in freemium for their product because usage based pricing can be incredibly inexpensive. Customer revenue size results in how, when and where Sales gets involved.

Early sales team and culture was hard to develop because Engineering was the dominant discipline initially. Jeff felt he had to go overboard to support Sales and say it was important. It was really hard to pull off and to have a balance, as most companies choose one dominant culture (e.g. Salesforce: Sales, Google: Engineering). Pricing tactics are tough as is Sales compensation when you have self-service customers. How do you associate Sales activity with revenue? Management struggled to credit Sales — where does the “sale” occur? At what revenue number can the Salesperson declare victory?

Jeff as CEO was doing the Sales for the first 50 biggest customers and didn’t realize that he was really “doing Sales”. That was the realization he needed to hire Sales people and not just support, customer happiness type people. Myth that product is so good it doesn’t need to be sold. Jeff says you can get started, but if you want to get to a big number you need to do more than just put products out there.

Agility discussion — how to manage multiple product lines.

How do you support Voice and SMS? Launched Voice in 2008, then started to hear from customers they wanted to be able to text as well. Twilio launched SMS about 18 months later, realized it was a completely different market with different use cases, etc. but it came from following customer needs. Advice to “find a niche get rich”, “focus focus focus”, etc. is bad advice according to Jeff. Every time you ship a product it’s a bet that you’re solving a customer problem and that if you iterate enough you’ll get it right. It’s a probabilities game, so the more at-bats you have the higher chance of success with one of them.

Believer in the power of a small team to build a product. You need 5 engineers that know the customer and can prioritize well, not 100. They had a series of discrete teams, break problems and products down into small enough chunks for 5–10 person teams to tackle and own.

When do you shoot something if it’s not working? They have never killed an API they built, but they will repurpose teams and change priorities. Don’t want to damage trust of customers by stopping supporting an API some use and like. Agility with resiliency — a lot of companies believe they can be agile but they’re going to discount quality (i.e. move fast and break things). At Twilio they ship 100 production deployments a day. Small teams approach has been critical. Dev teams are responsible for the products and can’t hand them off to someone else to own. They train everyone on an OMM (Operational Maturity Model — monitoring, security, architecture, etc.) and then test them to see how strong their knowledge is across the board. Lots of buy-in and pride for developers.

Twilio uses Developer Preview, Beta, GA phases. GA should be a signal that we stand by this as an operationally excellent product. In early days you don’t have to make that claim, but once you figure out you’ve built the right thing and customers want it, you need to harden it, prove that it is robust and then you get to call it GA. Then communicate what you do internally to customers.

Jeff is spending a lot of time meeting customers now — at least 3 a week — not doing speaking gigs and PR. He feels that sets the tone for the company on being customer-centric and also has the maximum impact on performance.

*Veeva, Biggest Vertical SaaS Success Story — Peter Gassner, CEO. Pharma CRM initially, 10 years ago, in 2010 expanded to content management and some newer products in the data area. Still all specific to Life Sciences. Peter had been early at Salesforce and other SaaS companies. Studied enterprise software for 30 years (starting at 20 at IBM), never followed the herd, and enabled him to spot trends. Everyone thinks you’re wrong when you’re early but Peter has a knack for doing that. When you get that thing where you rationally believe something will be great and 99/100 people think it is bad, don’t get discouraged, that’s when you’re on to something.

After Salesforce he retired a bit, then became a Product guy and ran into some folks who wanted to fund him. He figured they’d be able to hire a CEO if the Product did well. Found out he enjoyed being CEO and was doing a good job, worked on improving himself. Knew the likelihood of success was low but it wasn’t going to be due to lack of effort. Never had a plan that extended beyond 90 days in the first year and a half of the company. Why bother when you could be out of business? Only quarterly plans. Then graduated to annual plans, then later graduated to 3 year plan. Just now working on 5 year plan.

Less than 500 customers, mostly big deals (8 figures). Secret to defending pricing is to sell yourself first. If you’re selling something YOU get to set the price. If they don’t want it it’s not your problem. Otherwise you’re always floundering and lack confidence in deals and negotiation. Not knowing what something is worth is not OK — the price you set is self-fulfilling about quality of product. If you make it cheap people won’t think it’s good. If it’s expensive you can’t accept problems because it’s a premium product. The better your team, the more you should anchor high and it starts with the CEO. It must have the value that you assign.

You can’t let uncertainty of the market affect your plan. Need to plan with confidence and then adjust if you end up being wrong vs. letting uncertainty cloud your plan. Need to be aggressive as well. Put a number on things. Don’t be reckless though — be honest about your capital and intellectual capital to achieve your goals.

Raised $7 million but only used $3 million. Had pressure to spend more — investors said he “just didn’t get it, too conservative.” He disagreed and did things his own way — with discipline. Sometimes lack of capital is an excuse but it depends on the business. Scarcity of capital can help you — just need to have money to hire dedicated people to work on the problems. Get to a dozen great people as quickly as you can and then worry about what comes next. A dozen is good multidisciplinary number, cohesive group.

Don’t waste any money on hiring, be frugal, get the product out quick, sell it for a good price to as big a customer as you can, don’t give away your people’s time (i.e. Professional services). Rule is don’t give away their work. If people aren’t worth the customer paying for them, they aren’t worth having. If the deal tanks because of that, so be it, because they’re not giving away professional services as a RULE. Typically companies lose money on services, but Peter disagrees with this approach. You have to look at yourself and assess why your value is so low that it’s not worth more than the cost to deliver support and services. Whatever your product should come with, don’t charge extra for that, but the other stuff beyond the core you need to charge for…

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