Building a Better CRM with Jeroen Corthout

Brian Sierakowski on November 23, 2021

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In this episode we talk with Salesflare cofounder Jeroen Corthout about identifying the value of a product, gathering actionable customer feedback, how Jeroen’s engineering background influenced his decision to be an entrepreneur and more!

About Jeroen Corthout:

Jeroen is the co-founder and CEO of Salesflare, a simply powerful CRM that automates data to build better relationships and make more sales. It’s a fast, visual and easy-to-use sales machine. Salesflare is the most popular CRM ever on both Product Hunt and AppSumo. It also got featured on TechCrunch and Entrepreneur.com. Prior to Salesflare, Jeroen was helping companies to implement their new CRM, marketing and sales.

About Salesflare:

Salesflare is the intelligent CRM startups and small businesses love to use. It’s a zero-input sales pipeline tool that thinks and works for its user, not the other way around. No more manual data entry. Salesflare fills out your address book and keeps track of all interactions with the people you’re in contact with. It takes data from social media, company databases, phone, email, calendar and hands it to you in automated customer timelines that tell you everything you need to know.

Brian Sierakowski: Welcome to Founder Chats, where we chat with founders and hear how they started and grew their businesses.

This week, I talked with Jeroen Corthout, the co-founder of Salesflare. In this episode, we talk about your Jeroen’s story, customer development, and a whole lot more. Enjoy!

Brian Sierakowski: Hey, Jeroen. Welcome to Founders Chats. How are you today?

Jeroen Corthout: I’m good. How are you Brian?

Brian Sierakowski: Doing well, thanks for joining us. So usually how we like to get started is to take it all the way back as far as, as it makes sense for your story, like where did you get started on your entrepreneurial journey?

Jeroen Corthout: I always liked building stuff when I was a kid. By building I mean creating, drawing classes. I don’t know how I’d say it in English, but create stuff with whatever. Like at some point I remember I was on vacation in Italy with my parents. I was dreaming about the catapult that was going to make. I don’t know why somehow, like my brain was not occupied and I was like, I’m going to build this thing.

I would also make this kind of flowing pipe. I once hurt my finger real bad while making one completely. Huge gut lots of blood, fainted because I was using scissors to take the sides of branches off. And then I was going to hollow out the branch from I don’t remember what, and then that it would be this pipe.

It didn’t make a lot of sense, but I think where all this building and creating and started and where I became a little bit entrepreneurial was when we got internet when I was 12, 13. And when I was 15, 16, I discovered the joy of building websites. Like I discovered all the cool stuff you could do with flash back in the day, you could build this really animated, beautiful things.

And it wasn’t really hard. I mean, I could do it and I didn’t have programming experience or so I learned a little bit of HTML and CSS just off the internet. I learned flash in a flash action code, I think it was called also. And I built the site for myself. And then I think I built one for my mom.
She’s an architect. And then I started building for other people.

I don’t remember exactly what I did, but that was really fun. It was my first time that I actually started designing also in a certain sense and coding. I mean I did a little bit of coding if you want, like, hacking the games or so too, for instance, I remember I found out how you had to, or you could change the properties of cars in GTA, you know what I’m talking about, Grand Theft Auto 1?

You could actually change the properties of cars so that a normal looking car would be really, really strong or fast or whatever, if you would just go in the confession that changed some stuff. But really coding, that was the first time.
I saw myself starting a web design agency at some point. I even considered, because I studied engineering, I went to the open day and I thought I was going to go for computer software engine because I thought that’s where my future is. But then I came there and I saw that they were exhibiting stuff to make you interested in different engineering disciplines.

I just really didn’t like what they exhibited. And also the people exhibiting then, I didn’t really have a great connection with them. They seemed really, really nerdy and I ended up doing something else. I actually ended up doing electrical engineering together with business management in my bachelor’s, because I liked doing stuff with people.

And I just figured that sort of there, that was where my future was. Not just purely doing the engineering, but also the business side. And then in my masters, I could choose between different electrical engineering disciplines. And I chose biomedical engineering because I felt like it could make the most impact with it… it’s all subjective, right?

But it felt best to me like versus energy where you work in power plants or microcircuits when you’re like chips and stuff or telecom, you know? Mobile phones and don’t come operators and all that. And it was also really interesting to also have medical courses. It made it all the more, all the broader.

That’s where I actually started my career, not in real engineering. I started off in pharmaceuticals, but that actually happened because I went to interviews. And I figured I want to do something with people. So I looked for application engineer, and then it still seemed quite engineering. I wouldn’t really talk with the customers that much.

I asked them, could I do something else more with customers? And they’re like, oh, project manager, perhaps? And then they made me do a test for that. They figured that was not a good project manager based on their test. So I didn’t want to hire me for that.

I was so frustrated that evening. I was like, okay, to hell with all this, I’m going to do business school. And a friend of mine was coming over and I was going to go out with them and I used his credit card for the fee for the application. I actually ended up entering business school. I did that for a year.

And from there that actually allowed me to go straight from studying engineering, with a year of business school in between that, I went into a marketing job in a pharma company. And that was actually because I thought if I want to start a company, the best way to get experience is to put a product in the markets and to be responsible for a product. So I’m going to be a product manager.

I figured that’s sort of like having your own company, except I discovered really, really quickly that it wasn’t. I had nothing. It wasn’t at all me who would put the product in the market, somebody else way higher would make all the decisions and I could do some really basic execution, well paid, but still a very basic job if you ask me.
I was immediately fed up with the job at some point, I figured that nobody else in the pharma company knew anything about websites. And I did. So I thought, why don’t I start a web agency for pharma company? Because I understand the pharma marketing thing now, I’ve done it for a few months and I understand websites, so I could do that.

I had dinner with a guy and he said, you have no experience. Nobody’s going to believe you. Join us, we’re going to teach you everything and then you can see in six months if you’re going to do something else.

He supported me a lot in the company, at first I was on all the cool strategic projects together with him. And then afterwards I became an account manager and I was the youngest account manager in the company, which was really, really nice because that was way more like having my own company. I was responsible for clients. I would basically find clients. I would find what needs they have. I would make a proposal. I would make a budget, outline the whole project, do the high level project management, or sometimes the whole project management, make sure people did stuff and then report back until when the invoice was paid. So it was a very independent job where I was doing a lot of stuff that prepared me for having my own company after that.

And then actually doing that job, I still wanted to start my own company. I went part-time, which was great. I was still doing the consulting and part-time, I was starting some projects. I had a bunch of projects, most of which failed. I started a company making a way for doctors to stay on top of the latest research.

There is a huge group of people that follow research, but are not researchers, and it’s really hard for them to follow things that they’re interested in and find the relevant articles for them. That failed because I didn’t really find them a viable business model. I thought ads would be the business model, but it’s just not a great business model if you don’t have a huge audience.

Of course, I knew people in pharma marketing and I knew how to sell up. It’s still very hard. And you can’t sell ads before you have the audience. So it’s a sort of Catch 22. When I was getting sort of at a dead end with that, I started a website for people who went to the world cup in Brazil, to organize their trip around it. My wife helped me. She is Brazilian. So you could figure out, like if you go to this game, you can do that, you can use these companies to fly. You can stay there, you can visit these things. It was nice for a bit. I learned a lot about SEO while doing it. I got a good amount of traffic. It actually made some money because the main thing that people were clicking on that I got referral fees for were flights, and I think I got 8% of the flights or something at that point, which was money. But then of course the world cup happened and…

Brian Sierakowski: Yeah, not exactly evergreen.

Jeroen Corthout: No. Yeah. That’s when the site died at the same time, I went to a health startup weekend. We won the health startup weekends with a software company that was going to make it easier for nurses to follow up on pacemakers. Like every manufacturer makes their own portal and sends out emails and stuff, but it’s very hard for nurses because different patients have different brands of pacemakers and they need to go through all these portals to follow up.

So we made this one dashboard thing. We went to that health startup weekend, right, after that we raised some funds from an accelerator. It was 50K or something, but good to get started. We were like a bunch of guys and met each other on the weekend, didn’t know each other beforehand, all had jobs and I didn’t feel like it was going anywhere.

A bit after we got started, I actually decided to drop the project because I didn’t see it going anywhere. That was a bit of a mistake because by now they’ve raised many millions. I stopped keeping track. I think the last time I checked, it was at least 6 million or so, and I am not in the company anymore, but also most of the guys that started with me are not there anymore.

I think it’s just still the CEO and then a whole new team that was actually consciously hired. At the same time, my current co-founder… one day I actually met him when starting that first company. I was in an accelerator called the Founder Institute. And he was in there as well with his company, which was an easy way for developers basically to set up a database and an API on the data.

And he didn’t end up starting that, or I don’t know exactly where that stopped, but one day he called me because he had another software company that was building business intelligence software, and he was going to go to a big conference in Vegas. It was a big IBM conference, the yearly one, they were selling BI software that was compatible toIBM’s and they still needed a salesperson.

So he thought about me and he called and was like, do you want to go to Vegas for a week? I’m like, sure. Why not? So I took some days off at work and we went to Vegas becaus that was such a big success, we had a lot of leads at that conference, ots of people interested in buying the software, I started collaborating with them.

And it’s actually while doing that, that we got the idea of Salesflare and started working on it because we have so many leads and we need a lot of follow-up. There were people in business intelligence and they’re very slow. Like you emailed, and they say like, yeah, this is really great. We’re really interested, but now we’re doing something else. So why don’t you contact us again in seven months or something?

So we needed something to track very well. Like we contacted this person about that, but he said less contact with them again, and we thought that CRMs should solve it, so we tried a bunch I personally had experienced with Salesforce, and I knew that Salesforce wasn’t really built for that. It was more built for, let’s say for management reporting rather than for end users. They focus on enterprises, right? So what’s most important is that the enterprise can do everything they have on their list.
That it’s perfect for the way the organization works, but not necessarily how the end user would like to have an interface. And we tried a lot of other stuff and I think the guys at Soho at the. Time, which was basically a cheap Salesforce, which we tried. I don’t remember all the different software we tried, but any system that we used, basically, we ran into the same issue.

And that was that we didn’t manage to keep the system up to date the way the system expected to be kept up to date because every single system came with the expectation that we would be these supernatural data input robots or something. Oh, it’s keeping track of every single thing we did, like very diligently consistently.

We would email or call or meet with someone and always end up in the system. Somebody else would be involved from the company that will be in the system. They would share their phone number with us. That would be in the system. And well, it wouldn’t be in the system. And that was the big issue, which made our sales followup process sort of fall apart.

And we were like, how come this is so bad? Why do we need to do all this? We started thinking, why do we have to do this? Because the data that we’re putting into these systems is already somewhere like we have our emails in our email inbox. There is information about the person they’re in their email signature. There’s the email, obviously the name, the email address we were using email tracking.

There were meetings on the phone with who is involved and what it’s about and all this kind of stuff. When that happens, obviously there’s things in your phone like calls, there’s things on social media, there’s things in company databases, there’s web tracking.

What if all of these things could be integrated and then the system keeps track of it for you. And all you need to do is curate basically, and it helps you to do the followup instead of you having to work to keep the system up to date. And if you don’t do it and it falls apart, but this does it for you and it’s a robot so it doesn’t need discipline. It just does it.

That’s when we got the idea for Salesflare. Like seven years and five months ago or so. We immediately saw that it was a bigger issue. It’s not just our issue. Most salespeople hate CRMs because they don’t just don’t help, so we started working on it.

Brian Sierakowski: Yeah. Wow. What a journey. That’s really cool. And I’m sort of struck by… it’s interesting. You said when you were young, as you can remember, you sort of had this instinct around. I don’t know, actually, I don’t even know how to phrase it. It’s almost like a sense of visualization or maybe it’s just like a classical sense of design where you look at a branch and you see a flute or you, you just, you know, just they dream, like, you know, what the optimal catapult design would look like.

It’s really interesting how that sort of carried through like even just to the next step of like, okay, well, we have the internet and people need websites. It’s almost like the work of like, okay, well, it’s very clear to me that this is the direction I should go in and you just kind of do it and he’s kind of figured it out.

Jeroen Corthout: Yeah. I don’t think that was the blowing type there, that was just because my grandfather always thought about how he did these things. And then my mom told me about it, but then the rest… I was raised in… let’s say my dad would always enjoy very technical stuff and explain them to me and show them to me and all these kinds of things.

So I got a bit of a technical sense and interest there. I always got all these books with how things work, et cetera. When I was a kid, I had a bunch of history books that I read. And actually when I was a kid, I would read a lot of books. I recently started reading a lot again, but not at the volumes that I would read back then.

Back then I went to the library every three weeks and I would take away five books and four of these books would be actual books. And one of them, a comic book that was unlimited. My mom said one comic book, man, actually I would usually finish these five books before the three weeks ended. It was a lot of books.

My mom is an architect. She often showed the signs and she would get very excited about changing this now sort of dad. And it’s a, it’s sort of, you could say my mom’s interest and my dad’s interest sort of fused into sort of very technical side and the sign signs, but at the same time also, What always slightly annoying me as still.

My dad is still technical for the sake of it. And he enjoys that. But, but I don’t somehow I just, I just can’t be interested in technical stuff for the sake of it. For me, the technical things do need a purpose for people, these to be useful, you know, It needs to do something.

And I think that’s partly also why I didn’t want to do a pure engineering job. I wanted to do something that would involve people because not seeing the effects, not working with people to make something useful. I just can’t, I don’t know.

Brian Sierakowski: That’s interesting. So you said that you, you were into websites for awhile and you made a website for yourself and a, and a website for your mom.

Were there any other people that you created websites for, or was it mostly just sort of for yourself or for immediate family?

Jeroen Corthout: I created one or two more, but I really don’t remember. It was also, it was a short period and I was very excited, but it was basically I think, mostly summer vacation. I had to go back to school on it and it became very quiet.

Brian Sierakowski: No websites at school?

Jeroen Corthout: No, no, we didn’t even have computer class. I think that was not a thing. I think when I was 17, 18 or so that’s when one teacher started involving computers at school, he would make graphs. It was in math class. It was eight hours of math, So we have a lot of time to learn math. Like eight hours means we have like, I think two hours or something of school hours in the week or something, and eight of those were math. So it was a big chunk of my last two years. But that teacher, he would enjoy making graphs on the computer, but he was a bit older and he wasn’t really good with software.

So if he started creating graphs, we knew we could sit back and the rest of the lesson would be chill because he would be struggling with the computer while…

Brian Sierakowski: It’s like a livestream tech support, tech support, inaction. They just kind of like to sit there and watch it unfold.

Yeah. We were like, try that, try that! Cool. And so you went through that, that totally makes sense. Like you had this sort of, you know, it was kind of like the excitement of that summer of building websites and learning about that. But yeah, as you get back into school, you kind of get back into the normal swing of things.

Jeroen Corthout: I actually really wish that though during that time, and even during my time at university, I would have done more things like that, but somehow when school or university or so started, I would, I would get really consumed by that next to that. I would maybe read some stuff and I would maybe go out or, but I wouldn’t get really entrepreneurial.

Somehow I’m happy about it. But on the other hand, I also don’t think that as a kid, you need to be an entrepreneur from as early as you can. I think it needs some sort of exploration as well, but I feel that a lot of time was also just wasted watching TV or so.

Brian Sierakowski: Yeah, totally. I think we all can think back, especially in the day of like, video games and things like that being modernized, and they can kind of report back to you on the number of hours that you’ve invested in video games.

I could be speaking a foreign language or I could have some advanced math skill or be more physically fit with the, you know, hundreds of hours that I’ve spent across all these different games.

Jeroen Corthout: Oh definitely. Even with schoolwork I’d have to move for gaming at some point when, when we had exams and I was in secondary school in Belgium. That’s like when you’re 12 to 18, I think we were also like 15, 16 or so when we had exams, we would only start studying when my mom came home, because before that we were at the computer and we were playing these games, my brother and I, and then when she would arrive in her car. And we would press the button of the PC, send it off very quickly. Our books would already be spread out on a table. We would sit behind them and pretend we were studying all afternoon.
Brian Sierakowski: So it was premeditated. You’d already, you didn’t have to pull the books out of your bag.You set the scene. As soon as mom gets out, you just jump right into the books. You, you just came home. Mom. We’re ready to take a break. We’ve been studying. So what is the

Jeroen Corthout: When is the food ready?

Brian Sierakowski: Did you say you were moving, you know, kind of beyond the summer of, of, of websites and you kind of went into university. Did you go directly into biomedical engineering from there? Or was there, did I miss a step?

Jeroen Corthout: Biomedical engineering west university. So yeah, I mean, it’s like, I went to secondary school. I studied Greek math, but that was like, the direction, whatever. And then I went into electrical… well, at first it’s just general engineering, then I specializedin electrical business. And then in the master’s program, I did biomedical engineering and then I added a year of a business school.

Brian Sierakowski: I think it makes sense. But how did you make the decision going down the engineering path? Because it does seem like there’s a lot of, there were a lot of other things you could have chosen to move towards, even just with the experience that you, you had already.

Jeroen Corthout: I think that was largely influenced by my dad. I always knew I was going to study engineering. My dad wanted us all to study engineering. I think I know when I was still living at primary school, I was 10 or so I knew I was going to become an engineer. I’m actually happy I did it. It’s a very useful thing to study. Even though I don’t really use most of what I studied today, I was lucky to take some courses I could choose in databases and we have a little bit of programming and all that.

That was good because that’s the things I use most today, but just in general, you learn how things work technically, which is something I’d like to wonder about. And it’s generally useful, I think, when you start work.

Brian Sierakowski: Were there any other principles that even just like the engineering mentality that you, that you took with you, that you find are useful in what you’re doing now?

Jeroen Corthout: Yeah. Yeah. I think it’s partly shaped, shaping your brain to look at things, understand them, think about how can we solve this to it from an applied sort of perspective, versus when you’re like doing pure science, then. You just analyze, you don’t necessarily apply to get a solution, but in engineering that’s very much the purpose.

So yeah, I think that’s, that’s maybe even the most important thing. This is the way of thinking that you acquire when studying and studying it.

Brian Sierakowski: Interesting. So you completed that degree, and then you went to work at the company for a little bit and you wanted to have the more human, more human facing role and was at the time in which they were like, yeah, we don’t think you’re, you’re cut out for this.

And that’s what made you decide to go the feed business degree route?

Jeroen Corthout: I was just applying there, I didn’t actually work there. I was at a company called material. One of the very early 3d printing companies and they were having medical applications that were, why is lying there? And they indeed didn’t really want to give me a very human facing role. There I was project manager.

That’s when I said, well, okay, good. But I really want to go that direction. So then, I decided to go for business school.

Brian Sierakowski: For me listening, and it kind of sounds like a little bit of a leap, but I think it makes perfect sense. So that just seemed like the logical, logical next step for you?

Jeroen Corthout: Yeah, that’s something I would really recommend. I think it’s a good business school. Of course it gets… they don’t teach you super deep things, like studying engineering. It’s very broad. So you touch all aspects of business.

You also learn how to work on things, because you get a lot of group tasks that you have to put together. It’s all like simulating working in a company before working in one while at least this wasn’t a master in general management is sort of like an MBA, but you don’t have experience. You get all the same courses, but the students you work with also don’t have working expenses.

Plus you may get the cheaper professors or something because it’s, it’s, it’s much cheaper than the MBA itself. I think it’s four times cheaper or so, still expensive. So I wouldn’t necessarily recommend it just for the sake of it. But if you want to do something in business, more general management wise, it’s definitely good.

Especially if you want to go into a corporate job, because then you can use it to get a better job.

Brian Sierakowski: Interesting. And aside from sort of the, you know, kind of the structure of the program of like learning how to work with other people and getting projects accomplished, were there any, like, kind of like specifics, other skills that you learned or any specific knowledge that you found was like really useful to deploy on a regular basis?

Jeroen Corthout: I think what I use the most today is the financial knowledge. We had some financial management courses and I had to build balance sheets and all those kinds of things. That’s probably the most useful technical skill I got from there. The marketing courses, I wouldn’t say were particularly useful. I think marketing at school is not really well done.

Some of the cases in the entrepreneurship courses were interesting, but still very distant from my current reality. Let’s say they were kind of this kind of these perfect Harvard case, you know, these big companies have made it with a specific sort of backstage, which isn’t really applicable on the, on the, really more like the small entrepreneurship level.

It usually already has entrepreneurship that reaches a certain scale, which then, when you start a company, doesn’t make it entirely useful.

Brian Sierakowski: Yeah. It seems like you don’t really study businesses which have failed, which is maybe more instructive for the early stage companies. And if you do study a company that’s failed, it’s like Enron or others, you know, some sort of major, you know, it’s like, it’s not like, Hey, they had this idea and they couldn’t figure it out quickly enough.

It’s more like, oh, well there’s this major ethical issue.

Jeroen Corthout: We definitely saw Enron. We watched a movie on the TV in the classroom. That was one of our most interesting classes. I watched the movie afterwards even again, it’s the documentary about Enron is really good, but I wasn’t necessarily talking about not studying about companies that fail.

It’s more so when they discuss business strategy, even in entrepreneurship, it’s about companies that they’re not in their starting phase. There’s somewhere way beyond. And they’re discussing how the strategy played out perfectly or something, but they don’t tell you, this is how you start a company. Actually, the way they told us to start a company was horrible.

We had to write a 40 page business plan for this company where we’re supposedly starting, and then they would grade us on the business plan. And it wouldn’t be like “do customer interviews, build an MVP. Create a small deck or something.” Now it would be the total opposite of that.

Actually, all of the things it taught me then I didn’t do for Salesforce. At some point, I did have a pretty detailed Excel with like forecasts of the amount of sales we were going to make and all the amount of costs. We were going to have bending on how we’re going to scale and all, none of that actually played out the way I simulatedit there.

I think it was pure Excel magic. And when we talked to business angels, at some point, there were some business angels that wanted to see that and I would send the truth. And I remember one that was even commenting on details of the model as if it really mattered. I’m happy that the business angels we got on board in the end weren’t the ones that didn’t want to see the Excel model, because it’s just not reality.

You start something and you think it’s going to work a certain way. But it doesn’t and all of the models you made in the basket, just obsolete. It’s somehow good as a mental exercise for yourself to figure out what is needed and all that, but it should stay very basic sort of back of the envelope because any of the detailed things you’re going to simulate, it doesn’t happen anyway.

Brian Sierakowski: Yeah, totally. Yeah. We work with people with their financial models too. And yeah, I see the same thing, especially if you’re just getting started, to your point, like, you don’t even know what assumptions to make or you don’t know if what you’re writing down is an assumption. And then you’re, you’re so far away from the, you know, the actual mechanism of your business, where it’s like, if you’re actually running a company, then tightening up your forecasting and your operating model is much easier because you can troubleshoot it.

You can say like, Hey, well you have your revenue is, you know, tripling, you know, Five years, but you haven’t forecasted additional salespeople or, you know, commission, you pay your sales team commission and you know, you have your commissions flat, but your revenues tripling, you know, what’s going on there?

That’s the type of troubleshooting you can do. And you can, you know, through that process, you can get to something that actually turns out to be pretty accurate. But when you’re first starting. And to your point, it’s like, well, you know, this is who we think we’re going to sell to.

We think we’re going to sell it for this amount. And, you know, it’s just like, everything is, is, you know, I think you’re right that writing it down is useful, but, you know, cause it can get all the thoughts out of your head, but you know, building a five-year projection off of that and then hoping to stick to that is what I have.

It’s optimistic, I would say. Let’s use that phrase.

Jeroen Corthout: For instance, most of our costs are going to come from having salespeople. Because initially we saw Salesflare as a sales platform that we would sell to medium size and larger companies that would basically versus you already had Salesforce.

And you’re obviously not going to trust Salesforce is a huge company, but your salespeople didn’t really have something they could work with. They wouldn’t really use Salesforce. And then we would come in and say, Tada we have sales flair. This is actually built for salespeople. It tracks stuff for them automatically.

They’ll use it. It’s a sales platform, just like MailChimp is for marketing and Zendesk is for support or whatever. This is for sales and that’s the way we’re going to sell it. And I had booked in all these salespeople and I, they were scaling up and we would sell an amount of licenses per customer and all that.

But that all didn’t happen because at some point we decided to switch to small companies and actually sell a CRM and other sales platforms and everything, the whole model fell apart. I think it’s, it’s really hard before you have your business running and sort of, I don’t know whether it’s a built product market fit or so to really forecast correctly, rght?

I mean, today I have a cash forecast that goes into, I think, 2023 or something. It’s not too hard in SaaS. You know what your costs are, you know, how they scale, you know, how your revenue goes up, you know a lot of things, but in the very beginning, it’s just, again, I’m for doing something basic and thinking through some things quickly, but the whole Excel modeling at some point, it doesn’t make sense

Brian Sierakowski: Yeah. It’s like, there’s like a very narrow window, like in the middle of like, if you’re too early than the, I I’m with you, I think we’re on the same page here for like, you know, writing down what you think your assumptions are and like where you think you’re going to get to even just to sort of say like, well, Hey, what is my expectation?

Do I expect that I’m going to make a million dollars a month off of this? Or, you know, like where do we think this is going like directionally and how do we think we’re going to get there? And you know, how can I even pretend to do the math that I can start to work backwards from this very large goal?

But yeah, like, like doing a big Excel model, doesn’t make sense at that point. But once you start running the business, we see this all the time where we have companies that are doing pretty well. You know, if you’re, if you’re running a business, right, always have, you know, enough cash or you’re breakeven by the end of the month, then it’s like, yeah, you can have an Excel spreadsheet and you kind of do the math.

And like you said, usually within SaaS, it’s predictable enough that it’s like, yeah, you can run your company off of that. And then at some point things get more complicated where you need to be. More thoughtful with all the different, you know, all the, all the different gotchas and all the different components and the interconnectiveness.

Maybe I’m just more sensitive to that because it’s like the line of business that we’re in, but then all of a sudden, like, okay, well now Excel is a, is a mess. So there is that time. There is that phase where, you know, the Excel model has its day in the sun then, but too, too early and too late, you might wind up running into two more issues, especially too early.I agree with you on that.

I had a, maybe not a similar startup weekend experience, but I’m just sort of curious, like how, how did you decide to attend a startup weekend? And maybe you can speak a little bit more to like what that experience was like.

Jeroen Corthout: Actually, it was the first health startup weekend, which is exactly what I was, I was like in healthcare.

I wanted to start something in healthcare. So I was super excited. I skipped a lot of startup weekends before that, but this one I was like, I really need to go to. The experience was actually great apart from the fact that I was sick during the weekends. And I was like having a cold and I remember the showers were cold and all that.

The work to get out with all these other guys was really, really cool. It’s basically a bunch of, I think only guys that were getting together to solve something. And we did it really efficiently, like a few more working on the solution. I was actually thinking about the marketing model.

I did a few forecasts as well, relatively basic ones. And then turn it into a presentation partly then our CEO. So the rest of the work there, we did a lot of work during that weekend really quickly, which was, which was quite exciting. I think the issue with such a startup weekend is continuing it afterwards.

I think because everyone comes in with the expectation that it’s a weekend that we’re going to suppose we’re going to start something. Most people don’t get it, get into it with a serious intention of starting something together with a bunch of people. That’s where it went wrong for us as well.

Actually I saw quite some themes from startup weekends coming into the incubator, or we used to be in. And I think today there’s only one company that I can imagine that still exists from such as startup weekends. Apart from the one that I was in that also still exists. Actually, both the one I was in.

And the one I’m thinking about, it’s just the CEO, the guy who started the whole thing. We’re still continuing with, without all the other ones that person brought the project to the weekend. He was very excited about it. And it’s still in there and all the other people that sort of helped in its initial phase, very slow, short phase, but they just drop off.

So maybe it’s a good place to experiment with your idea. Get some other people to collaborate. I would never expect it to really get you a team or whatever.

Brian Sierakowski: Interesting. So your advice might be to maybe look at the startup weekend more as a place to meet people and gain skills. And it also sounds like it’s just like fun to do.

It’s exciting to do, but maybe don’t count quite so much on like, Hey, I’m going to go here. And I’m either going to, like, this is going to start my business or that I’m going to like walk away with like a hot startup that I’m involved with

Jeroen Corthout: Yeah. I think if you have an idea, you want to test it. You want some people to sort of give it some shape to get that might be a good thing, but then don’t expect these people to collaborate with you after the weekends.

That’s where the expectations are mostly wrong, but it’s a good way to get started, especially if you win it, you also get a bit of publicity and all, you have a feeling that your idea is worth something. Although a lot of startups that get press or awards don’t really make it in the real world.

Brian Sierakowski: I think that’s good advice. If you’re going to do a startup weekend, you might as well win it. What made you decide to go in the first place? Was it just because it was like something that was brand new and it had a sense of novelty to it? Or where did you walk in with some sort of expectation yourself?

Jeroen Corthout: I just thought it would be exciting. Lke I said, Health Startup Weekend. There wasn’t anything like it out to do something in it. I thought I’m going to meet a lot of people. I’m going to do something cool. I don’t think I’ve really had a super clear expectation.

Brian Sierakowski: Awesome. Okay, cool. So after, after the startup weekend, is when, trying to keep track of this story, is that when you were, you went to work for another company at that point, right before you started your business.

Cause that’s when you realized that there was this need for these longer sales cycles.

Jeroen Corthout: So that’s when my co-founder called, well, not my co-founder back then, but they called and they said, we need a salesperson for his software company going to Vegas. You could say that that’s sort of where Salesforce started because we started collaborating there.

We started selling, we needed the system.

Brian Sierakowski: Cool. That’s great. And how long were you in that role before you.. you mentioned that you were given some space to go part-time to get your business spun up. Like how long were you there before you really realized that like, Hey, there’s another idea that’s worth pursuing.

Jeroen Corthout: I think I was part-time for a year. By the time we got the idea for Salesfair, and then I stayed part-time for another half year until the accelerator. We were admitted to a local accelerator, which was supported by one of the big. And it was super exciting. We were one of the 10 winning companies, but one of the conditions they had was that we would go full time on our startup. And that’s when I made the leap.

That’s when I found out that other startups there had negotiated not to go full-time, but I made the leap and thankfully it all turned out well, because basically we had a 25K, I think, in the beginning and it didn’t last for long.

Brian Sierakowski: Sure. Yeah. And what were the early days, like going into the accelerator and kind of getting just started from scratch? What was that like?

Jeroen Corthout: Yeah. So initially we had the idea, we thought we needed money for it. I’m rewinding. So we thought we needed money for this. So we’re going to get it somewhere.

We know about this thing called chemo 50. It was by chemo ventures. I think Kima ventures still exists but Kima 15 doesn’t, but the offering was for 15% of your company, they would give you 150K within 15 days. It would all be arranged. That was interesting to us. So I built a deck with our usual investment deck and my co-founder built a prototype of what we were going to built

And we sent that to them, I think in a matter of a week or two, we had it all together and we sent it to them and they came back with the feedback that we were a bit too early stage, which was just true. We were a bit disappointed, but we had the deck, which we then used to go out and show it to some people with the prototype.

We also applied to that accelerator at that point, we say, oh, it accelerated, we can apply. We had our stuff together. So we have the materials, we send it to an incubator as well, where we did the same presentation and got accepted. And actually, when we, when we got into the accelerator, that was about four months into our journey.

We had done a lot of sort of sales talks already, always trying to get people interested in what we we’re going to build, but they mostly got a lot of questions. Like people say, will it do this? Will it do that? You know? And, we usually got stuck there and it was when we entered the accelerator that we got some workshops on different aspects and one of them was on customer development and they said, go do X.

I think they said 40, 50 or something customer interviews. Really understand the issue that you’re solving the context where people explore it from different positions and all those kinds of things. And that was probably the most important thing we did because joining that accelerator is really taking that step back.

And instead of taking these early steps of sales conversations, take them as research conversations, which is way easier. Second, probably what a good sales conversation is like, especially if you don’t have anything yet. In the end, these people that you interview are really good leads for after what’s, it doesn’t really make a lot of sense yet to sell if you don’t have anything yet.

Except of course, if your product is relatively simple to build and has super high needs, then you could get clients already before you have it, but in SaaS in general, I think that’s relatively hard, I think in SAS, it mostly makes sense to do good customer research. Build an MVP, right.
Jeroen Corthout: To get people to use it when they use it, try to get people to pay for it and then go from there.

Brian Sierakowski: Yeah. That’s awesome. Could you give an example of the type of way that you would conduct a customer development?

Jeroen Corthout: Yeah. I’ve changed that quite a bit since, since back then, but I think in the early ones, the most important thing is to explore the issue and explore the context of it.

And explore any ways in which they already potentially solve the issue. And what I do is I would have, this is I think a word document or something with a lot of possible questions to guide that, but it’s much more free form I think, then any later customer interviews that you do when we do customer interviews nowadays, they’re relatively well-scripted, you’re also much more specific on what people had before they had their system, why they didn’t switch until then.

And lots of other questions like that, more like following more like the jobs to be done kind of stuff. But in the very early days, what’s most important is what the issue looks like. And why didn’t they solve it yet? And in what context would they be solving it and all that, because then you really know how to shape your solution.

If you don’t know all this context, you might be building something that in the end, solves the problem, but it doesn’t solve it within the right context and in the right way.

Brian Sierakowski: Interesting. How broad would you go in your questioning? Like, for example, what you say something like, You know, tell me what your standard workday looks like, or would you try to focus a little bit more into the specific area where you think the problem occurs?

Jeroen Corthout: Yeah. I mean, now with focus on sales, I’d be like, so how do you guys manage your customers? How do you organize a follow-up? How do you track your salespeople? How do you make sure you increase your revenue? Things like that? I mean, I wouldn’t ask them questions about whatever. Where do you track your cash flows are so, and not really the context for what we were trying to build.

Brian Sierakowski: Got it. And in that call, you’re trying to understand the pain point and sort of how they interact with sales. It sounds like an opportunity for them to say that. Yeah, we manage our follow ups this way, but you know, it’s actually a really big pain because it’s a lot of manual work.

And obviously if somebody said that you would love that and then you’d be, you’d be all over that.

Jeroen Corthout: Actually what people said and was not really that, which was funny because we were like, okay, the issue is, is that yeah, too much manual data inputs. People need to put in much more. It doesn’t work. They don’t want to do it. We think the software can be better.

And when we would reach that point in the conversation, people would generally say like, no, no, I don’t think the issue is the software. I think the issue is the salespeople. They’re just lazy. And, you know, we have all kinds of solutions for that. One solution as we train them well with the CRM.

The second one is we make their bonus dependent on whether they fill it out. A third solution is we fire them if they don’t fill it out, things like that. And then I was like, no, I’m pretty sure the software can be better. And they’re like, no, I don’t think so. It’s the salespeople. So we would somehow agree that that was a problem, but we wouldn’t agree on where the problem would be and why. Which was funny. Things have shifted a lot since then, because if you’ve seen many CRMs also. While they’re different, I think we’re still the only one built actually from the ground up to really do that automated data. Then all the flows in our software are really, they automated data with as the, as the basic thing.

And then the manual data is somehow a secondary, but most software has embraced the idea that people are inputting data manually. That just doesn’t make sense. Data is something for computers. That’s what computers are built for: to manage data and to automate things around that. It’s not really people work, but back then, people wouldn’t agree with that.

They would be like, nah, this is people’s work! And that was weird in a way, because then you start wondering like, are we on the right track? Because people disagree that this is a solution. I agree that there is a problem that they say is in another place, as well as I, as somehow, sometimes you need to ignore what people think, keep your different viewpoints.

But all the rest of the information was definitely helpful. All the things we gathered, all the contexts in which they were doing things in all the different ways. They used sales data and the way they manage their people, it all informs the way we built the product.

Brian Sierakowski: Interesting. So it seems like you got positive feedback that companies recognize that there was a problem. They didn’t agree what the solution was or where the problem was coming from, but you felt okay proceeding because like, well, our solution isn’t out there yet, so it’s not really something they can even… did you also ask questions to try to like quantify the problem in terms of like revenue or time or something like that?

To try and help and get an idea of how big of an issue this was for the customers?

Jeroen Corthout: Yeah. I mean, there’s different aspects of it, but none of them are well measured. Partly because if a CRM doesn’t get filled out, you don’t know much about all the sales processes and all that. You don’t know what’s lost because of a CRM usage.

It’s just impossible to have great estimates there. Nowadays, we have customers reporting to us that they save or make a certain amount of revenue extra, but back then, that was really hard.

Brian Sierakowski: Yeah. You almost need to, especially in the super early days, you sort of need to make some sort of assumption of like, well, if doing this is going to improve your sales process or is going to save time from your salespeople. If you had an additional 20%, if every one of your sales team could spend an additional 20% of their time selling instead of entering data. What would that do for you? You could probably hire fewer people and they could, everybody could handle more leads.

It sounds like at this point, you’re sort of needing to walk the customer down the process of thinking through the monetary effect of solving this problem versus them coming to you and saying like, you know, we really want to save XYZ dollars in moving to a system like this.

Jeroen Corthout: Actually the big value is not really in saving the data inputs. It’s not really saving these hours. It’s in having a sales system that actually gets used. And the main effect is on follow up is basically why we started building it, as well. We wanted to organize our sales in a better way. They didn’t want to keep track of ourselves because we just didn’t manage to, we wanted the system to keep track and then use that to do better follow-up.

Because so much revenue is lost just by forgetting to follow-up and not following up at the right time. Like letting the momentum go away, completely not remembering the things you discussed the last time, not knowing what the next blocking point is for the customer, where they are in the sales process or whatever.

It’s really, for many of our customers, it’s a, it’s a place where they were losing a huge amount of money. One customer reported to me that they’re just three users or three people working on sales that they earn a million more now per year, just because they do better follow-up. So imagine it’s what goes lost because, because systems don’t work, it’s really not so much about the.

The data, the data input is nice, but it’s the promise of CRMs not coming through. That is the bigger problem, right?

Brian Sierakowski: Yeah. That totally makes sense. And it’s an interesting, and maybe a more challenging sales process for you, but it’s sort of like, you have to invoke the imagination of your customer and be like, well, imagine what it would be like if you knew the state of every customer and you knew when to follow up.

What would your business look like if you just never dropped the ball on a lead ever again? It’s kind of hard to admit, but it’s a huge, well, hopefully for them. It feels huge if they don’t understand that, then maybe they’re not that good of a customer for you, but anybody who can invoke that level of imagination, they can start to go like, oh, wow.

Well, yeah. Our PQL to close rate is probably going to get a lot better. And that’s a goal that we are, you know, whatever, like, however it is that they go about reasoning about that improvement.

Jeroen Corthout: Exactly. Yeah. It’s a bit like you guys, you don’t necessarily sell…the value is not necessarily in how easy it is to build a dashboard with bare metrics on top of your sales data.

It’s more of what effect that has. And I mean, you might get certain insights that then bring you extra revenue. I don’t think the win is in how easy it is to build whatever.

Brian Sierakowski: Absolutely. Yeah. It’s like the, just looking at the data is not the benefit. And I think it also depends on the stage of the business.

Certainly as we have larger customers that are willing to or are updating things through spreadsheets right now. And, and, you know, they’re like the prospect of a product that updates every 30 minutes. Like basically if they, if they could pay for a product that would update a spreadsheet, every 30 minutes for them, they would pay thousands of dollars for that.

But that’s kind of something that is only, that’s like economics of scale. Most companies come to us and the reason why they find it to be valuable is that they’re able to test their ideas and to find insight and to make changes within their businesses and monitor those changes so that they can make more.

So, yeah certainly right. It’s just like, you look at the product and you see a bunch of charts and so you might make the assumption that like, oh, this product is about charts and it’s like, well, no, it’s actually a product about actions and making more money. But I understand why you don’t think that because that’s not what it, that’s not what it looks like when you look at it.

Cool. Well, this has been awesome. I really appreciate you sharing the story and it’s just been such a cool, such a cool path to hear. I think a lot of people will sort of, I don’t think sympathize is the right word, but sort of like, like see themselves in similar spots along the way, just to kind of bring us in for a closer I’d love to hear, like, you know… bring us all the way up to today.

Like what’s going on with the company today? Like what are you working on? You know, any kind of interesting things that, you know, if people, it sounds like, I think a lot of people might already be listening to say. That’s not the way that they could solve our problems. So hopefully, uh, you know, we’ll have all the links to get people to reach out.

What’s going on with the business today and like, what’s kind of the current day state.

Jeroen Corthout: We have over 2000 companies using our software. We keep improving the software. It was a lot of cool stuff we’re adding, like we just made an upgrade to our email workflow, which is basically a sort of email outreach automation system within the CRM.

And then the next thing we’re going to release is a LinkedIn sidebar, which makes it really easy to update the CRM from within LinkedIn. And also actually, when you are on someone on LinkedIn to say, I wanna add this person, what’s his email address? And then the whole process just very quickly goes from there.

So we’re working on all these kinds of things. At the same time we’re working on getting more people on Salesflare and improving the system and getting it to more people. Apart from that, you can actually try the software if you go to salesforce.com. We’ve been working very actively on always improving the onboarding.
So one of the things we tried was, you know, go to the website and click, try it for free. You get into you, get into the system without actually needing to create an account. So you can go through a whole walk through, and if you like it at the end, you can connect your emails and it seamlessly goes into your own account with your own data.

And if you want to get in touch with me, LinkedIn is the best place, just find me on LinkedIn. I’m sure there will be a link in the show notes. And then don’t forget to add a personal note when you send a connection request, because otherwise I will have to assume it’s spam. Because usually in that case, it usually is. If you add a personal note, then also they get in touch with you and we can have a chat.

Brian Sierakowski: Well, yeah. And that’s really cool how you have your, your sort of onboarding process set up and yeah, I guess I’d invite all of our, all of our listeners to go and try it out and maybe become a customer. This is a great place to end again. I really, really appreciate your time. Such a cool story to hear.

I think we’ll be hearing a lot more from you over the next couple of months and years here.

Jeroen Corthout: Yeah. Thank you. This was fun.

Brian Sierakowski: That was our conversation with your own course, founder of sales. If you want a sales platform that works, you know where to go. Sales flare.com is business analytics and growth tools.

If you’re looking for business analytics tools, check us out at baremetrics.com. Hope you enjoyed this episode and invite you to check out our other founder chats. If you’re able to share with a friend or leave a review, it goes a long way. Thanks for listening.

Brian Sierakowski

Brian Sierakowski is the General Manager of Baremetrics, an analytics and engagement tool for SaaS and subscription businesses. Prior to leading Baremetrics, Brian built TeamPassword, a password sharing app that was acquired by Jungle Disk in 2018.