Start @ a Startup: Panel 2

We had the pleasure of speaking with John Thimsen, Qualtrics Senior Director and Seattle Site Lead, and Rob Cromwell, Inkling Co-Founder and VP of Engineering. The panel started with a quick introduction into the companies and their business:

Qualtrics is a research software company that started out as an online survey tool, measuring customer satisfaction and employee rating. Now the company is building software that can perform advanced analysis on this collected information. Interestingly, Qualtrics was a bootstrap company, meaning they didn’t raise venture capital funding early on. The company was about 8-10 years old by the time they partnered with Sequoia.

Inkling wants to make the world a smarter place—that’s the main mission of the company. A lot of content is in paper, so Inkling started out trying to replace textbooks. Today, the company is focusing largely on making Inkling the easiest platform to create beautiful, interactive documents. Inkling wants to make content engaging so that its users will care to learn.

Question: Let’s talk career advice. Can you give us a brief summary of your career path?

Qualtrics: John started programming when he was 12 and carried the skill throughout high school and college. After college, he worked for Microsoft. Citing reasons of scale, he made the choice to work for a large company because he wanted to work on a product that touched hundreds of millions of people (he worked on Internet explorer at the time). John later left Microsoft to join a small company at the time called Amazon, where he worked for almost 10 years. He just joined Qualtrics 8 months ago, and is having the time of his life.

Inkling: Rob was born in Nova Scotia, Canada, where he used to bike to the library all the time to program on a computer there. Rob got a computer for his 13th birthday, and it changed his life as he fell in love with linux and programming. At a summer camp that year, he met his cofounder Matt, with whom he worked together all throughout high school on multiple programming projects. It was the first friendship that was sustained completely over the internet, as they didn’t close to each other.

After high school, Rob got a software engineering job at a small startup in Seattle, which was later acquired by a big computer company. He got to see what it was like working for a large company, and didn’t really like it. He was later given the opportunity to move to the London office, and mentioned the drastically different culture in London—where entrepreneurs are actually looked down upon.

Question: Both of you have some experience working with consumer products and business to business (B2B) products. Can you talk about some of the differences between consumer and B2B products?

Inkling: The software is essentially the same, but what differs is how you sell it. Inkling started out selling textbook content to college students. Even after scaling the process up, Rob notes that it was a really terrible business—students seem to be too cheap. Then Inkling got a call from Starbucks one day, saying they had 100k employees it had to teach how to make coffee drinks. At first, Inkling said, “Absolutely not. We have a great model of selling to consumers.” They later realized there was potential in selling to businesses.

One of the differences Rob noted was the ability to know your user on a closer level. When he was selling to students, he would get ecstatic emails from students who had just discovered the product, but never really interact with the user beyond that. On the other hand, Rob feels like he almost knows the people at Starbucks. On his end, he knows when the product isn’t working for someone up in Seattle, and he can almost see the person banging his fist against the table. It makes the work experience more personal.

Qualtrics notes that it’s also important to be principled about product development. There will often be situations where customers need a specific solution to a problem. It’s very easy to build a one on one solution to close the deal. However, the right way to do that is to create a global solution that will make the platform flexible and allow the product to engage more than just one customer.

Question: Let’s talk about sales. Is selling fun? What’s it like selling, and how did you go about learning how to sell?

Inkling: If you want to start a company, the number one thing you’re going to have to learn is how to sell. When you raise money, you’re selling an idea to venture capital firms. When you speak at the Start @ a startup conference, you’re selling the company to prospective employees. A lot of people actually wonder why a company may need a salesperson. Well, this stuff doesn’t sell itself. It just doesn’t.

Learning to sell is a lot of awkwardness. It’s almost like dating—your first date is incredibly awkward. You have to do it a hundred times before it feels natural. We used to think sales was black magic, but now we realize it’s a lot of natural problem solving.

Qualtrics: The engineer builds a great product, but you don’t want the situation where you build a great product but no one comes. The great thing about having a strong sales team is knowing that the features you add to the product are going to change the market and the lives of people who use it. That’s why it is great that Qualtrics has one of the most aggressive sales teams.

There’s also an important distinction between authentic selling and inauthentic selling. Inauthentic selling is where sales gets some of its bad reputation from. Your typical example is the used car salesman that sells you a car knowing it will break very soon. Authentic selling is when you can articulate to a customer how excited and passionate about the product you are, and why you think it’s about to change the world.

Question: Can you talk about a new technology you’re implementing that you’re excited about? If people are looking at the company, what should they envision?

Qualtrics: We’re currently undergoing a super challenging transformation to a microservices architecture. It’s tough, but it’s necessary for scaling from 10 people to 300. Another hard problem is external data immigration. Companies collect so much external data that they would like to couple with their future transactions, but digesting that collected data putting it in the cloud is hard. Performance is another issue we’re concerned with, both on the survey taking side and the dashboard/analytics side. How do we perform this process even faster? It’s a tough technology problem.

Inkling: We would like to enable people without an art background to go in and create beautiful and interactive content that will look great on your phone and your tablet. To do so, we have to make the interface very easy to use, so that’s a front-end project we’re working on. On the back end, we started to sell internationally (which sounded great at the beginning). It turns out that everyone wants to use the platform in their own language, which isn’t so hard. The hard part is implementing search, and we’re trying to implement offline search that will work across over 50 languages.

Question: Any closing thoughts on what person here might be right for your company?

Inkling: The thing about enterprise software is that students and software engineers are so needed there. After getting fired as a paper boy, Rob got a job working with data, copying and pasting data from one spreadsheet to another. Rob automated it, finishing the entire project in a matter of minutes. The other employees were mesmerized by his work, as if it were magic. Fast forward that to today, and it’s still the same story, just in different fields or scenarios. There’s a massive land of opportunity for you to transform and make daily work easier.

Personally, we like people who are tough and can take punches. The highest highs and lowest lows of my life have all been with this company. We’re looking for people who can handle that lifestyle.