The CEO of one of Oregon’s most successful startups has the same advice as your elementary school teacher: Pay attention.
Pay attention to your prospects, he says. Pay attention to your customers, and pay attention to your team.
We would also hasten to add: Pay attention to Eric Winquist. As the CEO and Founder of a company that had already grown by 2,000 percent in its first five years, Eric spoke at OEN’s Entrepreneurial Summit 2013 about the opportunities and challenges that come with rapid growth.
Well, Jama Software‘s rapid growth continues. After closing a $13 million funding round and surpassing 100 employees, Eric will return to OEN for our May PubTalk to discuss the highs and lows of an eventful year.
Here, Eric addresses three key questions: 1) How did you close your first customers? 2) How did you get past that magic million-dollar mark?, and 3) How did you make sure the wheels didn’t fall off? Register for our May PubTalk to hear more.
How did you close your first customers?
We had this opportunity with a company called SpaceX, which now has been in the news a lot. The technical folks there wanted our solution. To convince the decision-makers, a bunch of us got a video camera and we made a very personal video. This is who we are, this is why you should work with us, we understand your problem, and we’re going to do everything it takes to solve it. And that actually made the difference. We won that deal and they became one of our best customers over the years.
Another example is that we had another prospect who had been to Portland and mentioned that she loved Stumptown coffee. So we immediately ran out and grabbed some coffee, some mugs, and we wrote a handwritten note and sent it to her. We won that deal.
The video took a day to create, it took us a couple hours to run to Stumptown—but the takeaway of those early days is, pay attention to your prospects and figure out unique low-cost ways to stand out from the crowd.
I’d become that founder who couldn’t let go. I started paying attention to the results instead of how people were doing it.” (Tweet this)
How did you get past that magic million-dollar mark?
So we had our first customers, but we didn’t have many, we just had a few. We were competing in this space where we were going up against HP and IBM on a daily basis. They had every feature,their products were massive. We were cranking away, building every feature we could, and our customers were like, but you still don’t have this feature or that feature. And it really sucked. It’s really hard to compete against large companies.
Finally we decided we were going to spend the summer streamlining this feedback process. We built a review center, which allows writers to pull reviewers into the process much earlier. It’s social, it’s collaborative, it’s fun to use, and it just worked. It’s basically ‘track changes’ done right.
When we interviewed our stakeholders they said, we really want to be part of the process. It became a differentiator for us. And overnight, well not quite overnight, but within a year, we grew the company from 1 million to 3 million. We were kind off to the races. We had found something to differentiate us, we were passionate about it, we were excited about it, and that just came through in everything we did.
How did you make sure the wheels didn’t fall off?
We went from 8 people to about 45 people in 18 months. Now we’re scaling the company, we’re cruising right along, it’s really easy at that point—you just hire people and point them in the right direction and everything’s great, right?
Not really. The problem was the founding team, like myself, we were still doing everything ourselves. We were hiring these brilliant people and we said, hey, you’re so brilliant, you’ve got to come work for us, you’ve got this unique genius, you’ve got to join the team and help us grow and show us how to do things. Then they showed up we said, actually, don’t do it that way, we do it this way. And we said, yeah I know, that’s a great idea, but it’s really not that great. We’ve tried it already and it doesn’t work.
So even though I’d read all these books and blogs, I’d become that founder who couldn’t let go. What I started doing was watching the results. I found that actually, we had hired pretty capable people and they could get the job done, a lot better than what I could do. That helped me let go.
The problem was when I did that, everyone was doing my job. I didn’t have to on sales calls anymore, the product was being built without me, I didn’t have to log into Quickbooks and see how our balance sheet was doing. So I started wondering, what’s my job?
Today I really work on setting the vision, building the team, making sure we have enough cash in the bank, and setting the tone for our culture. That fourth thing is critical to scaling the company. Someone told me once, Eric when you talk, you have a megaphone. And I said, oh no, I’m just part of the team, I’m one of the guys. They said, no actually, when you say something people pay very close attention to that.
I could either ignore that or use it. The way that I try to use it, and I’m still figuring this out, is I look for examples of our team living our core values. As an example, if you remember SpaceX, fast forward a couple years, they had a new team that came on board with a really aggressive plan. Our services team went above and beyond to help them ramp up and achieve that goal. No one asked them to do it. It was the right thing to do, and they did it.
On Friday, I came back to the office after traveling, and there was a box there. And in the box was a letter from SpaceX and a plaque. They said, “Hey Jama, thanks so much for helping us achieve our goal. We made history, we hit the international space station, it was the first step to colonizing Mars and as a thank you, we sent this patch up to space and back and we put it on this plaque.” The whole team was like, “Wow! This is such a cool moment.” And it was all because our services team went above and beyond.
See more from Eric at OEN’s Entrepreneurial Summit 2013: