First Customers e37 podcast cover Jon Darbyshire

37: Jon Darbyshire sold a company for $200 million, now has 600 customers at his new startup. How does he find his first customers?

Jon Darbyshire ran the global security practice for Ernst & young, then started a company called Archer Technologies that he sold for $200 million after 9.5 years, and now he’s currently Founder & CEO of SmartSuite, a company he’s grown to 600 customers after 2.5 years.

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Show Transcript

Paris Vega (00:01.185)
Welcome to the first customers podcast. Today we have John Darbyshire with us. He is a veteran to the business world. He’s been through the whole cycle multiple times. I started out running global security practice for Ernst & Young. Then he built a successful company called Archer Technologies that sold for $200 million. Then, not done yet.

He founded and is the CEO of Smart Suite, a company he’s grown to 600 customers after two and a half years. John, welcome to the show. Really excited to hear your story.

Jon (00:40.398)
It’s a pleasure to be here. I’m looking forward to getting into all things first customers with you.

Paris Vega (00:46.478)
Yeah, so let’s get right into it. How’d you get those first customers?

Jon (00:50.498)
Yeah, I’ll tell you from two different perspectives, maybe going back to the days at Archer Technologies first, what was very different than today’s model that I’ve been through. But at Archer Technologies, I started with an idea and worked for a couple of months just on the idea itself without writing any code. Did a lot of, at that time, HTML mockups, put those on a floppy disk, for those of you that remember what those are. And I got on a…

got on a plane to Plano, Texas to meet with a company called EDS, which had about 110, I think 10, 20,000 employees that provided outsourcing services for IT outsourcing for some of the largest Fortune 500 companies that were there. And this is one of those stories that looking back, you didn’t understand how big it was going to be until after it happened. But we met in their boardroom. I pitched them on an idea of how to manage governance risk and compliance, which was a new word at that time.

Meaning, how do we secure all the systems at the companies that we outsource systems for? In their case, it was General Motors. They are outsourcing IT, and they needed a way to first understand all of the different assets that they needed to manage and what level of security to have these different assets on so they could ensure that people were not going to be breaking into General Motors to see confidential information. So I pulled out my floppy disk, put it in my computer, and said, here’s…

here’s a new way that’s not ever been invented before to manage governance risk and compliance as a process, like any other process you have in a business, like accounts payable, accounts receivable, payroll. Here’s what that process looks like. And long story short, after about a 45 minute presentation, the lead person stood up and said, we’re sold, we need it, we want it. How soon can you implement this? And I had to step back and say, we haven’t written a line of code yet.

Paris Vega (02:43.317)
Wow.

Jon (02:44.022)
This is just a prototype, but we can deliver this in about three to four months, I think. We had that discussion. They asked me to come back in a couple of weeks to talk about the contract and the details. This is where the story got really interesting. I went into the gentleman’s office to negotiate the contract. I don’t remember the exact numbers, but I want to be close with what I share. We went in at like…

five or $600,000 and said, hey, we want to sign a multi-year contract. We want to sell our product as a software as a service, which was one of the first companies to do that back at that time. Uh, so it’d be the same price every year, as opposed to selling it once and having maintenance and support of 15 or 20% per year. So I, I went through my spiel. The guy was very deadpan on his face. Like I was really hard to read him. And then he looked at me and he said, I counter with, uh, 850,000. I, I.

For a minute, I stepped back in my chair and I’m like, what did I say that he just countered with that? And I’m like, did I mess this up, right? And he, after a while, after like 20 seconds of just silence, he just started laughing. And he just said, look, John, we need your product so bad. You just don’t understand the need that we have. We need you to be successful. We’re not gonna nickel and dime you. We want you to use that money to hire developers. It has to work for us. And that became our first customer. They signed a three-year contract that was.

three million dollars. I took that back to the bank and said hey they’re not paying me until I deliver for the first year so I’ve got about four months but I need to go hire a team. So I got a loan to actually fund the business. Didn’t have to bring any outside capital in because I had the signed contract which was really key in that instance. And that started a company that went on today. It’s the leader, the number one player in the GRC space globally. They do about 750 million a year in reoccurring revenue.

It all started with that one simple conversation with the customer. You know, and what was unique about that story for us at the time is we didn’t write any code before we approached the customer. It was just a prototype, basically HTML that was just linked together like a website to show the concept that got them excited.

Paris Vega (04:52.463)
Wow.

All right, let’s back up a little bit into the weeds of that situation. So, and I may, I just may have missed it because I was busy counting how much $200 million was, but, uh, how did that relationship with that first customer, like how did that connection happen?

Jon (05:05.411)
Hehehe

Yeah. So I, when I was at Ernst & Young, one of the employees that I had that was on my team, a consulting team at Ernst & Young had left prior and went to EDS. That was my connection in. And I contacted him early on and said, Hey, I have this idea. He said, you know, I can’t be involved in this and it’s kind of outside of my group, but here’s the group you need to talk to. And at that time it was, you know, phone calls were the way that you made connections. And I, we just started calling, made a connection.

They said, we’re interested enough for you to come and present to us because it’s very topical based on our recent contract with General Motors. We have to solve this problem. We either have to build it internally or work with somebody externally. What we found out later on was that they had tried to build it internally for a while and they just didn’t have the team and the skill sets from a development standpoint to make that happen. So it was actually better for them to work with a development company to actually build that product.

Paris Vega (06:10.549)
Wow. And what year was this when that started?

Jon (06:14.23)
This was in, started in 2000. And what I did mention was that all at the same time, I was getting married, going on my honeymoon when they wanted the product actually delivered as well. And the co-founder of the company was my wife, Tara, who ran sales and marketing for us, so it was getting married, starting a new company and trying to deliver a product there in the first three to four months. So it was pretty hectic. And the way that we made it work is I basically went to.

Paris Vega (06:30.974)
Oh wow.

Jon (06:43.662)
Plano to EDS, they put me in a really, an office like a closet almost. And I just sat in there and worked with our development team. And as they made updates, I loaded the updates on the server at EDS at real time each day. Then I went back out into the midst of the people. There were about 40 or 50 people on that core team. And I just started, you know, I got feedback all day, every day. How about this? How about that? Does this work? You know, tell me a little bit more about the process. I’d write requirements at night. The developers would.

have a new batch for me in a day or two. We did that cycle for a couple of months. And that’s what got really our MVP product to market was having the opportunity just to be inside of that company with the people that needed to do use that as part of their job. To understand how they would use it, what information they needed, what reports they needed.

Paris Vega (07:33.457)
so interesting that they chose not to build it internally. If you were basically working there, like almost an employee, like while you were building it.

Jon (07:41.046)
Well, our team and our company was in Kansas City when we got started. So I would just fly there during the week. The problem at that time was, you think about today, you have this large cloud infrastructure and it’s easy to load product updates for people to see. EDS didn’t have that and in their case, they were also very security conscious. So they let me have access to one server and one room via a modem back then. And that’s where I would have the updates that would come in.

do all that magic behind the scenes, and then work with them, and then I come home on Friday, go back on Monday, that type of thing. But it was the customer feedback that was so important. We didn’t just build a product and then try to go find customers. We actually listened to what the customer needed and then built the product. What that allowed us to do over the next two and a half years was 29 of the top 30 financial institutions in the US became customers. And the majority of those

Paris Vega (08:17.333)
Amazing.

Wow.

Jon (08:38.73)
were because of that relationship that we had with EDS.

Paris Vega (08:44.477)
And so was this, just to get to the fine detail here, was this something that you were already, like had an idea about offering to people or was it more inspired by, you heard that they had a problem and you knew how to solve it?

Jon (09:00.878)
I had an idea, so I was partnered with Ernst & Young and one of their consulting groups. I had the chance to kind of travel the world and listen to customers. And we were providing at that time kind of cybersecurity services back to customers that were trying to go online for the first time. It was kind of when the internet was beginning to take off there. So we were helping them understand the systems and processes and applications that were related to that and how do we make sure that people have the right access and that the bad guys can’t get it from the outside.

And we offered that as a service. And we would go into all these Fortune 100 companies and we’d provide the same service. We would get done with that and they’d say, what’s next? And we’d say, we’ll be back in four months and we’ll do it all over again. And that was the service. So the idea was instead of offering that as a service, let’s build a process that can be managed inside of the company. Again, just like counts payable, counts receivable payable. It’s just people that are involved in getting things done and making sure things are done. So.

I stepped away for, it probably took me about six weeks, kind of just being heads down with just what I call my blue book. And I just tried to start figuring out how all these connections fit together. And I’ll never forget just one day, I just looked up and I’m like, I figured it out. Like, I figured out this problem that nobody else has figured out yet. And that’s what I put in the prototype and kind of showed the concepts and how they fit together. And then I presented it in a way that was just like any other process in a business.

that people are associated with doing their job each day and how all the pieces start to fit together.

Paris Vega (10:32.445)
Wow. Did you have to get like a patent or anything like that to try and protect your idea?

Jon (10:38.858)
We didn’t. You know, a couple of times we looked into that. And we basically, Archer was a no-code platform that just allowed you to build and manage business processes. And we focused on business processes around governance, risk, and compliance. And the process itself was a starting point, but each customer modified that process to their unique way that they wanted to do business that was there. And that was the power of kind of the no-code platform approach that we took.

So everybody had the same base process, but I could tell you that Goldman Sachs was very different than Credit Suisse, that was very different than EDS in the way that they managed that particular process.

Paris Vega (11:18.249)
Wow. So it sounds like it was custom per customer, what you had to do or did your system that you set up and sounds like maybe eventually software that you’d made, it was just something that they could customize just by using it.

Jon (11:35.266)
Yep, so we tried to stay away from the word customized because at the time that was a pretty bad thing, meaning that each person had something that was so custom that it was hard to maintain. So Archer was the software platform. It allowed you to use the software to tailor the process the way that you wanted, but it was exactly the same code base at every customer. So when we did a software update, it was just a general update to the platform to support whatever process flow that they had. And simple things when I talk about changes like…

maybe you’re looking at a form that has 20 fields of data on it. And instead of seeing a dropdown list, you want that to be a text area to type in data for that particular element. So it just allows you to basically say, here’s the data that I want to collect. The way that I want to visualize that data. And then you set up charts and graphs and dashboards, you know, that kind of show the flow of the work that’s happening.

Paris Vega (12:28.669)
Okay. And when you were kind of building your idea, were you also creating like what your ideal target customer profile or your target audience was going to be for this product? Was it just based on your Ernst and Young experience? Were you already thinking of just those Fortune 100 companies or were you also considering like smaller businesses or you talk about that targeting aspect of it?

Jon (12:53.358)
Sure, yeah, that’s a great question. So we knew that this particular problem manifests itself inside of the Fortune 500 type companies that was there. And the price points that we were gonna sell it at were at a point that people underneath that probably couldn’t afford it as well. So the base offering started at about $350,000 and kind of went up from there. And that was a yearly, yeah. So it was sold as a software as a service.

Paris Vega (13:15.805)
Is that a yearly fee or is it just a one time yearly? Okay.

Jon (13:23.238)
type of product. So we, we targeted mainly Fortune 1000 companies, or we totally Fortune 1000 companies. And then we broke it down by industry. And in the first two years we said, we’re only going to sell into financial services. And my wife, Terry, who ran sales would come back in and say, we’ve got a hot deal in technology or somewhere. I’m like, we’re only selling into, and we took, we did, we did.

Paris Vega (13:44.746)
Really? So you were turning down leads. Wow.

Jon (13:49.746)
And I’ll tell you the reason for that in just a second. But what we did was we took the top 30 financial services companies, broke them down into groups of 10. And we said, we’re not going to sell into all 30. We’re going to sell into these 10. Then we said, all right, how can we get access to those 10? Are there trade shows, industry groups? If we get a connection with one chief information security officer, which is who we sold to, do they have connections with other people that we could use their network?

And that’s how we started to get in was to go to those trade shows and things that we knew those 10 people, uh, we’re going to be at each time. Yeah. And the, you know, the reason for that was we felt that if we could sell into financial services, it’s kind of the beachhead because that’s, it’s hard to get entry into those, that there would be a big me too mentality across the other industries.

Paris Vega (14:23.957)
That is a super specific target. 10 people.

Jon (14:44.118)
the other people outside of the top 30 in financial services. So what that allowed us to do was then we moved into insurance companies, technology companies, telecommunications, healthcare. And we could always go back and say, we have Goldman Sachs, we have city group, we have bank of America. Like we could really name drops and big companies. And it just took all those credentialing conversations off the table and became more of a, if they have it, why don’t I have it? Right. Conversation that was there. And we can’t, I think.

can’t take credit for understanding that was all going to happen because of the approach that we took, but we very quickly learned that me too mentality was just, it was amazing for the growth of the company over time by having those first 10 kind of really strong logos.

Paris Vega (15:31.433)
So you said your first one was GM? Is that who it was or EDS? EDS.

Jon (15:36.465)
It was EDS who did the house. So EDS, I think has been sold and is now part of Hewlett Packard. So HP.

Paris Vega (15:42.781)
Okay. So you got that one first. And then did you immediately like put that logo on the website?

Jon (15:50.53)
We didn’t, I don’t know that we even had a website then. So we, the next thing that happened is we, we went after this group of first 10 and Credit Swiss First Boston was one that was in that initial group. And they just happened, they were the first one that would take a meeting for us in New York. And what was interesting about them was they were, they’re more of a global bank. So they’re not just US centric, they’re very global. I did the very similar approach that we took at EDS there and that we met with them, they liked the product.

They signed up, but they said, look, John, we need you and some of your team members on site full time for a few months to help us get this integrated into the organization. So I would travel to New York Monday through Friday. Basically, they put me in, this is a great story, they put me in what used to be a closet with two interns and I’m the CEO of this company. And I’ll never forget the interns came in, they introduced themselves and they said, what do you do, John? Like, you know, what are you going to be focused on?

thinking I was just another intern at the bank as well. So my ego got hurt just a little bit from that. But again, being there each day, all day, every day, working with the customer and their environment was just so beneficial to understand how we needed to build the product, continue to enhance it, to support those processes that they had. And we did that for the first three customers that we had in that before I could kind of step away and.

I didn’t need to spend that much time with them. But that gave me a lot of domain knowledge that I could then share when we were talking with new customers to really get into the details about how things would work.

Paris Vega (17:27.989)
So was the main strategy the conferences you talked about or were there other things you did advertising or any other tactics that you?

Jon (17:35.69)
Yeah, no advertising, no marketing. There was a conference that we found for financial services called the FS-ISAC. It was a information analysis and sharing conference. Basically it was invite only for financial services companies to share threat information about what is happening, how people are trying to break into their online banking and how they’re securing those vulnerabilities that they’re seeing in different software products that they use.

So we were one of the very first vendors that actually got into that group. And then that allowed us to, we didn’t sell. That was pretty interesting. We didn’t go into any of these trying to say, this is our product. We’re so great. Here’s how much it costs. We went into that building relationships and we had the chance to go to dinner with these people, have drinks after dinner with them, just get to know them. And then I would present at times that these conferences, they would ask me to present on various topics as the subject matter expert.

And that’s what began to build the relationship. So it wasn’t a hard sell. It was more of a, let’s credentialize ourselves, kind of become part of the community. And then that’s when things really started being successful for us on the sales side.

Paris Vega (18:43.889)
Okay, so you’d already, when you started going to the conferences, you already had at least one customer or maybe a handful, two? Okay.

Jon (18:50.806)
We had two. Yeah. We had Credit Swiss and EDS.

Paris Vega (18:55.377)
Okay, was that enough, I guess it was, to be seen as an expert in the space or?

Jon (19:02.71)
I don’t know that I was considered an expert until maybe two or three meetings. They met quarterly, so I would go to these. But when I went, now I had people that I knew that I could kind of hang out with. And they introduced me to their friends and their networks. And eventually they realized what Archer was all about and how we were helping credit Swiss mainly at the time and ask us and then our next two customers were, uh, Wells Fargo and bank of America. And once that happened, that’s.

We were very credentialized in that little group because those were the guys that were running the FSI sec that were on the leadership team that was there. So then they would ask me to talk about or be in discussion panels with, you know, other people, the companies that were there.

Paris Vega (19:46.857)
So it’s through the customers, not necessarily like blogging or, you know, putting any other kind of content. Yeah.

Jon (19:49.04)
It was.

Yeah, you have to think back. This is back in early 2000s. You know, there’s none of that was really there yet, or it was just starting to start.

Paris Vega (20:01.029)
Yeah, there’s a little bit of blogging going on back there. Yeah, it’s just interesting to hear how you got into that aspect of kind of thought leadership because you hear that kind of buzzword thrown around a lot these days, becoming a thought leader and whatnot. And it seems like you just got there by just solving your customers’ problems and having more of a customer focus and it kind of naturally happened based on those relationships.

Jon (20:16.973)
Right.

Yep. Yeah. The next big thing that happened to us was our core group of customers. We probably had six or seven at the time. We would put them in contact with each other to answer questions from time to time, just phone calls. And we were on a phone call with Wells Fargo credit Swiss and Bank of America. And the gentleman from Bill Linder was his name from Wells Fargo said, John, this is great, but we want to start a user group. And I want to meet with these other two companies and their teams.

And we’ll host it in Phoenix, which is where they were based. And he said, I just need you to set it up and organize it. So we organized a three day event, which is basically two and a half days, two days of courses, and then, uh, the night before it was kind of more like a reception just to get to know folks. And it was very rudimentary at the time. Maybe 25 people total showed up to that. Today, what would you fast forward? Like five or six years from that first event, we would have four and 500 people show up for three days at an event. And.

The key to the events was that we did not present to the customers other than we would talk about our product roadmap and the features that they had requested and the timeline for those happening. We had customers do all of the breakout sessions, the panel sessions. I would moderate some of those, but it would be all the customers telling their perspective on how to manage risk or do certain things that were there. And that, that became like the go-to conference that almost felt like family, meaning.

Paris Vega (21:48.089)
interesting.

Jon (21:55.734)
go back now, there are people that have been there 18 years in a row. Like they go every year and they, they just know everybody. That’s kind of their community that they have. And we would invite prospects to attend for free. Again, we, our goal was we don’t sell during any of these. We just let our customers talk to each other. But what happened was customers were sold by other customers by just watching how they’re solving these problems. And we did main sessions where everybody would be in the room together, but then.

three quarters of the day were breakout sessions where we had five or six little sessions going with customers leading them doing demos of how they solved it. So it wasn’t just a presentation. They were actually showing the product, answering questions. That’s what became kind of the sales engine for Archer long term was that particular event.

Paris Vega (22:42.929)
Wow. And that was an event that you guys were putting on yourselves, right? Even though the customers had asked for it, but it sounds like it became your event.

Jon (22:53.206)
We, yeah, it was our event, our yearly event, and it still goes on. We sold the company, but that event is still underway. I can’t even guess how many people attend that today. And for us, what happened was that event was so successful and we nominated what we called a user group chairman that was a customer that presided over that event and helped organize the breakout sessions and what they wanted to talk about. So we funded it, hosted it, did everything, but it was meant for the customers.

That group came back to us after maybe the third event and said, this is great, but we don’t want to wait a year. We want to do regional events every quarter or every six months. So the people in Atlanta could get together or the people in LA could get together. Not as big of an event, really just a classroom for a day, just for us to meet and talk about things. So that then led to what we call regional breakouts. And again, those are still going on today in every major city and now around the world for auction. So it’s a…

Paris Vega (23:52.297)
Wow. And so did you ever start doing other types of advertising or anything?

Jon (23:58.498)
We never did. We didn’t do any type of marketing outside of those events that I just talked to you.

Paris Vega (24:04.385)
Wow. And that was enough to exit for 200 million. That’s awesome. That’s really cool.

Jon (24:10.506)
Yeah, I think, you know, I get the chance to talk with a lot of entrepreneurs and I, I love to kind of talk about that journey and the story and let them understand that, you know, the focus, if you can keep the focus on the customer and the problem that you’re solving for the customer, that’s your best salesperson. Right. And you know, you don’t have to ask them to sell. You just, you just build that rapport where they, they’re so excited about what they built.

and what they’re doing in their job, they become an expert, they’re willing to share that with other people that are there. And in some cases, you need to compensate them for that in some way. And it’s not always just money. Some customers can’t take money, but different types of gifts or events or recognition in front of the group that really, that people enjoy. And I forgot one part of that. We also, during those events, implemented an award ceremony where we had…

five or six different categories. We’d have the people at the conference vote on who should win those categories based on all the presentations that were done. And we had little trophies that were meant to be mementos that were set on somebody’s desk that had our name on it, had their name on it, but it was right where they worked every day. So anybody that came in their office would see our branding inside of these large corporate accounts that were there.

Paris Vega (25:31.105)
Wow.

Really cool. I think the main lessons there, like you were saying, focus on the customer, solve a big important problem for big important companies. That’s a pretty good strategy. And do you feel like your background at Ernst & Young, seems like that would like personally validate like you as a founder, because that’s a really well-known brand, right? Known for like security, compliance, auditing, and all that kind of stuff.

Jon (25:45.93)
I should have read.

Yeah.

Jon (26:04.09)
It is. Yeah. That was a big part of my kind of the growth in my own personal career where I’d learned so much in a short amount of time that really set the stage for me to be an entrepreneur and to know how to run a business by just seeing these partners that are all around the world and how they ran their little pieces of the business that was there and how process was so important to make all of that work and how you hire people. Like it just all kind of fit together. So when I left and started Archer, like I took.

all the best things that I learned from there with me. But at the same time, I had the credentials when I was talking to customers to bring up my background at Ernst & Young. And that added some credibility when we were really young to, okay, we should at least listen to the pitch that’s here to see if this might be for us.

Paris Vega (26:55.597)
Maybe you could speak to that for just a second, because I know, like a lot of, especially younger entrepreneurs, they might hear, you know, the kind of really lucky flash in the pan stories that get a lot of media attention about some super young software founder, you know, the classic Mark Zuckerberg, you know, he dropped out of college, started a thing and it took off. And so they feel maybe a internal pressure to

Jon (27:10.065)
Right.

Paris Vega (27:20.225)
hit some huge level at a really young age when that’s like the rare exception. Um, because I think what the average age of a founder is actually something like in the forties or late thirties or something like that, like actually companies that stick around. Um, what do you think about that? Like the importance of having some experience before launching into entrepreneurship.

Jon (27:36.673)
Right.

Yeah. If you take out of kind of those exceptions that you’ve talked about that are maybe like in the eight to 10% range, right? Just really young founders, great ideas that just hit the market at the right time. The other 90% is not like that. Um, I’m a big fan of the book outliers by Malcolm Gladwell. I don’t know if you’re familiar with that book at all, but Malcolm went through and tried to understand why all these different types of people were successful. Like.

Bill Gates and Steve Jobs and HP and the Beatles and some lawyers. Like he just said, I understand the story. I want to get into the why, like what, what happened, what was there. And he found a couple of things that are very true in that I, that I’m a big believer in. The first was he came up with this concept of 10,000 hours. It takes 10,000 hours and a particular discipline to become an expert. When you reach that expert level, the doors really begin to open for you.

You’re going to get more opportunities to do more things because you are now considered to be an expert that’s there. Most of the founders that you’re mentioning that are in their thirties and forties that are, are backed by venture capital groups come with that background. They have that domain knowledge and a particular topic. They have 10,000 plus hours that are there. And now they have the opportunities to go build their own company because of all the work they’ve done for other people that are there.

So with, with people that are kind of coming out of college, I usually spend a lot of time with them and counsel them that maybe you have a great idea. That’s great. That’s that eight to 10%. Right. That could hit, but what’s more important is how are you going to get your 10,000 hours? Pick the type of job, maybe not focused just on the money, but focused on the knowledge and the opportunity that you’re going to have for the first two or three years, because what I found is the people that get that, and I was lucky enough to fall into that where I was trained really well.

Paris Vega (29:13.993)
Mm-hmm.

Right.

Jon (29:32.67)
first three years kind of out of college. And I found that I started to trump all the other people that were kind of my age because I had experiences that they didn’t have. So I started way behind them on the compensation side. They had better jobs, higher paying, but ultimately I trumped them in a big way. And in some cases became, you know, their managers and their bosses over a period of time, because of the experience that was there.

Paris Vega (29:58.685)
really good. Let’s switch gears a little bit and get into the story of Smart Suite.

Jon (30:05.066)
Yeah, I would love to. So the story of Smart Suite is this, in that I had the chance to leave and retire for a period of time after selling Archer Technologies. I invested in about 400 different startups. So I’ve had the chance to be involved with a lot of really interesting people. And as we were talking about how they run their business, there’s a common theme that kept coming up. What products do I use to manage the processes in my business? And as I grow,

Can I stay with those products or do I need to get another product? Like what do I use for a sales CRM? What are you for marketing? How do I manage my HR or my IT, my product teams that are there? So the idea behind smart suite was to say, I want to build a platform to manage any business process in a company, regardless of the size of the company, whether it’s two people to thousands of people, tens of thousands of people on a single platform. And there were two.

There are two main disciplines that kind of fall into that project management tools and process management tools. Our thought process was let’s bring both of those together into one platform. So you have all those capabilities together, but let’s add in what we used to call integrations now are called automations where I need to share information, not just inside my workflows, but with products outside of my workflow. So that’s built in the core product, but then you need business analytics and dashboards to be able to report on things.

So we built a core platform. We took very different story than, than Archer. We took a little over two years with about a hundred developers, no customer to build the core platform itself. So it, this is a big lift. It’s not just a little MVP in three or four months that was there. Part of the reason that worked for me is because I had so much domain knowledge to know what the customers wanted that I.

Paris Vega (31:35.37)
Whoa.

Jon (31:51.57)
I didn’t have to have that constant feedback like I needed to have an archer to figure the problem out. I understood the problem and I needed to let the software first catch up with what would solve the base of the problem. And then we would enter the market because we felt like if I went to a customer and said, I, I can only solve 20% of the problem that you have, they’re going to say, you know, we’re, we’re going to put you at the bottom of the stack. So at, at smart suite, we’re a product led growth company, which means, you know, you come to our website.

Paris Vega (32:12.736)
Yeah.

Jon (32:20.45)
You start a free 14 day trial at the end of that trial. You can either convert to a free plan that we have or convert to one of our three paid plans that we have. We’re not pressuring you on the sales site. We’re letting you experience the product and make a determination. If that product’s for you. So a lot of, or many of the features that we had at Archer that were built into that product for only enterprise customers that were paying in a minimum of 350,000 a year.

are built into Smart Suite for two users starting at $10 per month. Right. So it’s very different model. So our game, we have over 10,000 companies that are in our product today. 600 and some of those are on our higher level pay plans that you’ve kind of mentioned at the beginning, but we have a whole host of people that are finding value in the product and that’s what PLG is all about. Um, and what was PLG? Yeah. Product lead growth. Yeah.

Paris Vega (32:47.883)
Right.

Wow.

Paris Vega (33:03.241)
Mm-hmm.

Paris Vega (33:10.485)
You said PLG, product lead growth. Okay.

Jon (33:15.302)
And that’s just a fancy word for, for meaning that, you know, you do your marketing to drive people to your website, to start a free trial of your product without having, you know, directly contacting customers from a sales perspective. It all happens from that engine.

Paris Vega (33:27.657)
Gotcha. So you have upsells and different things within the software itself, the interface to let them.

Jon (33:31.718)
Exactly. Yep. So it’s all up to the customer. So when they reach certain usage limits and things, messages pop up, ask them, would you like to upgrade or not? And it just kind of handles it all inside of the process, or, you know, the product itself that’s there. And the interesting part of a PLG company, and especially for smart suite is we had to find like, how do we drive those customers back to our website to start those trials and what we found was that the single best way to do that, there were two ways.

Um, the first was we, this company, we, we had a partner first, uh, kind of approach, meaning, you know, at Archer, we went directly to the customer, had a customer first, this one was partner first, and that we wanted to attract partners that would, could provide services around our product and help our customers implement those, implement the product around all these different processes that they had. We.

Paris Vega (34:24.713)
So instead of having like a fleshed out support team and that kind of thing, you were kind of offloading that to kind of agency style partners.

Jon (34:31.882)
Little, little different. So we still have all the support and our onboarding teams and all of that. We wanted our, we wanted those partners to take us into their accounts that they’re already working with that’s there. So we built the product in 15 languages so we could go international very quickly. And then we started signing up and educating partners. We have about 130 partners today. Those partners are where the majority of those leads are sourced. They are driving people to our website.

Paris Vega (34:36.879)
Okay.

Whoa.

Jon (34:59.678)
And we pay them 50% of the first year revenue for any deal that they send us that converts. So they not only get the services, they get a piece of the revenue. And we go up to 40, 30 over two years for our, our platinum level. So we have partners that maybe bring us into Belgium. This happened this week, had a pretty good account and they’ll get paid over two years as opposed to a single year based on the level of partner program. And then the second part of that is we found that video.

YouTube videos and YouTube videos on LinkedIn had the biggest impact of driving people to the website to try, to try the product because we could tell the story. So we started signing up people that would create videos and affiliates. And today there’s 350 or more videos about smart suite on every kind of topic. And that’s what kind of keeps the funnel consistent for us with driving traffic back that starts tribes.

Paris Vega (35:55.925)
So how do you target partners? Since you said a lot of the customers come through there, how do you define those and go after them?

Jon (36:01.367)
Yeah.

Yep. So, you know, it’s pretty easy nowadays to get a list of companies by type. There’s this all different places you can do. So, you know, we targeted three or four different segments of consulting companies from kind of the entrepreneurs, they’re kind of themselves and maybe one other person to teams that are in the 10 to 25, kind of the agency realm that’s there, all the way up to the, you know, we have 50,000 consultants, you know, in our company, like a Wipro or a…

You know, just the large consulting houses that are there. And we just started, um, emailing them, sending them video content. We, we, we found that when we would send a video to somebody and introduce ourselves and show the product in about a minute and a half. Made it personal, like, you know, Hey John, right? This is, this is what we do. I’m reaching out to you for X that we got a much higher response rate than just an email that was there. So we’re very big believers on.

on video and that’s what started building those relationships. And then we built a smart suite. Those are, yeah, those are all cold calls to get started. Now our name is out there, so word of mouth is happening a little bit more, but that’s how it all started. And the first thing that we needed for partners to know our product was for us to be able to train them. We didn’t want to be able to have to do one-on-one training. So we built an academy that has about 120 or 30 courses in it.

Paris Vega (37:04.637)
And that was a cold, that was a cold email with the video.

Jon (37:30.05)
that allows them to go through, do the training at their own speed, take certification exams, become certified, now they can go back to our customers and say, you know, I’m a certified consultant in Smart Suite, and that means something to the customer, but it also means something for the person’s personal career that’s there.

Paris Vega (37:48.149)
Right, they got a little badge they can put on things. What do you use to make the videos for the emails?

Jon (37:50.976)
Right.

We use Loom, which is low cost, super effective, super simple. I’ll give you a couple of thoughts on that. So what’s happening in the kind of that world right now is pretty fascinating with AI in that you can create a video. I could introduce myself for a minute and a half. I can go back into the text of the video that gets, you can use an AI product that shows, it says, okay, I’m going to now show you the transcript of what you just said. I could take out the word.

Paris Vega (37:57.469)
Loom. Yeah.

All right.

Jon (38:25.866)
Fred and I could put in your name that I just I’m pulling from my CRM and it actually, my mouth changes and I pronounce welcome Fred or John or whoever it is. Right. And you can. Yep. Descript is one I’m drawing a blank on one. I just saw this weekend that I was just shocked at how good it was. Um, it’s, it’s one of the plugins for chat and GPT four that’s out there. Someone’s trying to find it. Super simple. It was free. Um,

Paris Vega (38:36.221)
Yeah. I think Descript is one of those products. Okay.

Oh, really? OK.

Jon (38:54.934)
but you can insert stuff all the way through your video like that, where it feels like it’s personal. And now you’re seeing as, especially in customer success, as a new customer sign up for products, they’ll get a welcome email that goes right back up from the sales rep. But the sales rep just recorded this two months ago and all the fill in the blank stuff are happening, but it feels personal back to the user.

Paris Vega (39:16.919)
And so you’ve got it automated to insert customer name and then produce a video and send it out.

Jon (39:19.718)
Exactly. And in more than that. So you could talk about the industry, their company size, like different things that you’ve collected, maybe during onboarding, or you went to their LinkedIn profile and typed in and will help build all that and where that’s heading. Is using AI to actually tailor that whole video you’re still talking, but you didn’t say any of those words. AI just generated that very custom message for you.

Paris Vega (39:44.681)
Yeah.

awesome. So you could almost, well, everybody’s threatened by AI these days, it seems like, if you think about it long enough. But I mean, you could have, you could be the only salesperson at the company in a sense, like you could be the one individually being that persona, that AI avatar talking in all the videos or whatever. But I guess you’d want to have more of a direct connection with whoever they’re going to be physically speaking to at some point, if they are going to be speaking to a human at some point.

Jon (39:55.088)
Alright.

Exactly.

Jon (40:14.826)
Yeah, for sure. So I think as far as the AI revolution that just started like six weeks ago, like it, it’s, it just went from zero to a hundred in just a week. Um, content creation is the number one use case, whether that’s, you know, content for your website or creating websites or content for videos or helping you write scripts for videos. Like it’s pretty amazing at all those things I just mentioned. And in most cases, way better than what a human could do because you can tailor.

Paris Vega (40:21.618)
Right?

Jon (40:44.586)
I want to write it in this tone, right? To this audience with this directive and this goal that I have. And, you know, it just iterates and gives you options until you say like, that’s the one I want, you know, and I could do what I just said myself in some cases in a minute and a half, two minutes versus me working on an hour, you know, to write a video script, uh, maybe.

Paris Vega (41:04.853)
Sure. Yeah, it’s just about to the point where I don’t even talk to my kids anymore. I just, all right, GP, please. We could. Here’s your bedtime story. Let’s read what the AI said.

Jon (41:10.946)
You’re right.

Exactly.

Paris Vega (41:19.865)
Okay. So that’s, that’s really interesting to see that contrast between the two companies and the two strategies and tactics that are basically opposite ends of the spectrum.

Jon (41:27.926)
They are for sure. And I think you’re going to see more. Well, for founders that have a great idea and don’t have any capital to put in themselves, right, they’re going to have to go to a venture capitalist and they’re going to have to do an MVP and build something in a short amount of time. Because the venture group is going to say, I’m going to give you a little bit of money. If you get some customers, I’m going to give you, I’m going to continue to feed you more money, you know, develop things, but you have to prove it really fast. That’s there.

The other side of that spectrum is if you have entrepreneurs that are maybe had a successful exit and have their own capital, it gives them a little more luxury to actually listen to the market need, the customers build something that really fits in the space and then go to market that’s there. So very different. Both of, both of these are super successful venture capital firms bring a lot to the table to help beyond entrepreneurs that have great ideas, make those successful, uh, that are there, but they iterate really, really fast.

And if they see something’s not working, they pivot, like they may change the direction, complete direction of the company over a weekend based on data that they’ve seen for three weeks. Right. Like it’s very quick pivots that are there. Versus.

Paris Vega (42:36.341)
Yeah.

So the worst case would be venture capital backing a stealth startup that’s going to launch in a couple of years.

Jon (42:45.574)
Exactly. I, I do have a friend that I talked to that, that raised capital a year and a half ago, and he raised the capital by saying, I don’t have any idea what the product or service is going to be that we’re going to offer in the no code space, we’re going to start with building a community of no code people. And we’re going to get those people talking and out of that community is going to come a need and then we’re going to focus on that need and they bought into that.

and raise quite a bit of capital to go down that path. Um, you do see that from time to time, but it’s, it’s kind of rare.

Paris Vega (43:20.325)
Yeah. And that’s kind of following some, a good process though, because if you have a community, it’s kind of like you have like pre-sales almost built in. If you’ve got a community that you can sell to or, you know, a big following, just like all these influencers, they can come out with any branded product related to them and they’ll make some sales, you know, just because they have such huge distribution.

Jon (43:32.543)
Exactly.

Right?

Yeah. I think in today’s market, especially with millennials and Gen Z ears, they appreciate being a part of a community that they find meaningful. So if you’ve got them in your community from a product perspective and they feel valued and feeling valued means they’re providing product feedback and you’re actually listening and changing your product roadmap, implementing those features, like those companies are just golden because of that community. That community is going to drive the value of that company long-term.

that’s there. We’re building our community. We have a pretty robust community, but we want it to be much bigger at Smart Suite, just because we’ve seen that the companies in the last three years that have done that have gone on to do some pretty special things.

Paris Vega (44:24.489)
And I guess in a way that’s kind of how your first company evolved was kind of around a community of customers. You know, it was just a, I guess it kind of grew as your company grew instead of, you know, building that community first.

Jon (44:38.946)
Yeah, communities in today’s market, you know, basically mean, you know, I’m using software to let people come together and, and discuss things, ask questions, you know, do things together in the time of Archer, there was no software. So it was all physical community that was getting together. Or we had a lot of, um, calls that we would make where we get, you know, 20 or 30 people on a call to have those discussions, but in today’s world with video and with actual community software sites that you can use, it makes it much easier.

Paris Vega (45:10.017)
This is really interesting. Let’s pivot a little bit. We’ve talked about a lot of the overall strategies and some of the tactics, but you mentioned, the game now in your current company is, you gotta get traffic to the website to get them into that kind of funnel of experiencing the product and getting up sold eventually and everything. So you’ve to do the cold emails with the videos. Are you doing any other tactics to get traffic?

Jon (45:27.66)
Right.

Yeah, the only tactics we’re doing is really the feature videos that we do that are hosted on YouTube. And we, the first thing that we did there was we went to who we thought were our four largest competitors. We found that people that were producing the highest quality videos, talking about those products and, and had an audience in the 20 to 30,000 subscriber range, we approached them and said, look, we’re a new player in the space. We’re going to compete head to head with the product that you’re kind of built your career around here.

Um, we’d love for you to just, you know, try us out and do a video and compare us against the product that you’re using. Right. We, we did it in a way where they thought that, okay, I’m going to talk about this newcomer, but I’m going to pound them really hard because the product we’re using is better. What we wanted to happen and what happened to those, the four first people was they came back and said, wow, how long have you been building this? Like, this is really good.

Can we create video content around your product? And two of them changed their business model to include smart suite in addition to the products that they were including. And those were the top two vendors in the space, air table and click up. Uh, influencers. So they still produce videos, some of them once a week, and we reach their audiences that are there and that, that continues to drive just a, a lot of volume. And then there’s a lot of me too. Influencers, meaning they’ve seen how these influencers have built their, their career around video. And they’re.

kind of their brand. So they’re trying to do the same thing, kind of emulating that. And they’re starting to pick up smart suite that’s there. So that’s how we got so quickly to the, you know, 300, 350 video kind of milestone.

Paris Vega (47:11.897)
Okay. And how did you target those influencers?

Jon (47:17.574)
Welcome. We cold emails. We, yeah, the first, the first one was exactly the story that I told you before in that these people produce video for a living, so we thought an email is not going to do it. Let’s give them a couple of sentences in an email, but let’s do a personal video loom video back to them, describing what we want. And the first one, his name was, was Gareth Provenos from Gap Consulting. And he was, he’s all things air table, or he was until eight months ago. And he responded back with the video and he said,

Paris Vega (47:19.203)
Really? Okay.

Jon (47:45.586)
No one’s ever reached out to me with the video before I’m responding because of this, like he said, this is very cool. Like you’re talking my language. And that allowed us to begin to build that relationship with him because of that. If we would have done just an email, I don’t know that we would have got his attention to start having the dialogue.

Paris Vega (48:03.317)
reaching our time limit here, but this has been packed with some really cool insights. It’s a, it’s a really neat story having those two companies that you’ve, you know, built each of them successfully. Uh, so I think people are gonna get a lot of, a lot of value out of this episode. Um, where, where should people look you up and, uh, maybe real quick speak to your target audience about why they should sign up.

Jon (48:27.822)
Sure, yeah, feel free to reach out to me on LinkedIn at any time. It’s just John Derbyshire, John is Joanne. Either DM me or hit me at this, uh, on the smart suite, uh, LinkedIn page. You can also come to our direct to our website and the bottom right-hand corner. There’s an icon that you can click and have a live conversation with a member of our team. And if you want to talk with me, you just let them know. And I respond back that way as well. And if you’re an organization that’s managing, uh, needing to manage workflows in your business, whether you’re.

mom and pop business and SMB business, or all the way to enterprise, and you want to see how you could have a single platform to help manage the core processes around sales, marketing, IT, HR, product, those types of things, or a platform that you should take a look at.

Paris Vega (49:10.937)
Awesome. Thanks everybody for listening and we’ll see you next episode. Thanks, John.

Jon (49:15.746)
Thank you, it’s a pleasure.


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