The most important thing to do, in my view, is to obsess over your customer. Constantly ask them for feedback and really listen to them. Watch them use your product and gain a clear understanding of their problems. In that way, you become one with them. And then perhaps most importantly, continually strive to delight them.
As part of my series about the “5 Things You Need To Know To Create a Successful App or SaaS”, I had the pleasure of interviewing David Politis, founder and CEO of BetterCloud, the first provider of SaaSOps solutions to manage and secure the digital workplace. With 300+ employees in Atlanta, New York City, and San Francisco, BetterCloud has raised $187 million to date from investors including Warburg Pincus, Bain Capital Ventures, Accel, Greycroft Partners, and Flybridge Capital Partners.
David’s entire career has been dedicated to improving the modern workplace through innovative, next-generation cloud (SaaS) technology. Before founding BetterCloud, David was an executive at Cloud Sherpas (acquired by Accenture [NYSE: ACN]), a leader in cloud advisory and technology services. Prior to Cloud Sherpas, David was the founding employee and general manager of Vocalocity (acquired by Vonage [NYSE: VG]), which he grew into one of the top providers of cloud PBX technology. These companies have served thousands of businesses — of all sizes and across multiple industries — around the world.
David is a long-time contributor to TechCrunch, Mashable, VentureBeat, and Forbes, where he writes about topics like enterprise cloud technology, cloud computing, and entrepreneurship. He has been featured in The New York Times, the BBC, CIO, Fortune, and more. He is the author of two books, The IT Leader’s Guide to SaaSOps (Volumes 1 and 2).
Thank you so much for joining us! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
Thank you, I appreciate the opportunity to share my story with your readers. My professional career began in 2004 at a SaaS company called Vocalocity, where we built one of the first cloud PBXs. This was in the days before SaaS and Cloud were even terms people were using. Six years or so later, I moved on to a company called Cloud Sherpas — one of the first and ultimately most successful cloud consulting companies — as one of their first employees. In the 18 months, I was there, the company grew from 10 people to over 100. It was there that I got the idea for BetterCloud.
What was the “Aha Moment” that led you to think of the idea for your current company? Can you share that story with us?
While I was at Cloud Sherpas, Enterprises, in particular, early adopters were starting to push their productivity and collaboration suites to the cloud. I realized then there was a huge opportunity ahead in this space. As more and more companies adopted cloud and SaaS, it became clear that a whole new set of tools to manage and secure those environments was needed. So I started BetterCloud in 2011 with the vision of providing a platform to deal with the new challenges of managing and securing SaaS environments.
Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey? Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard?
As I mentioned, we got our start in the early days of SaaS and Cloud. The upside was that the market was clear for the taking as there were no incumbents to go up against. The downside was that, again, it was very early. There was no Slack, no Zoom, no Office 365. This meant we had to educate the market from zero. We had to help IT professionals understand this new paradigm of best-in-breed SaaS environments and the challenges they were going to run into. We had to evangelize on our own with no help from other companies, analysts, etc.
But without question, my toughest challenge was in early 2017. At that time, we’d spent nearly two years undergoing a risky rebuild. Our team worked countless hours and we invested $25 million into transforming our business from one that managed G-Suite apps for business users into a company that could manage and secure any SaaS application for IT. But after putting all of that time, effort and money into this initiative, we ran into a problem. No one was buying our new and improved product.
This was a really bad situation in many ways. We had bet the company on this new product and strategy. We were frustrated because we spent a lot of time with customers researching what they wanted to see us deliver, what kinds of problems they needed us to solve with this new platform and we felt like we delivered exactly that. We were also getting to a point where we needed to raise more money if we wanted to scale the business. I knew that without clear traction, we wouldn’t be able to raise money from top investors. Every investor I spoke with said: “come back with proof.” Honestly, it was two of the worst quarters of my career.
That’s when I decided to start meeting personally with as many of our customers as possible. I took all of that feedback. I then met with our sales and customer success teams and asked them to give me every possible reason why a client wouldn’t buy this new platform. We took on each of these reasons one by one and worked through all of them — whether it was that our pricing was too complicated or we needed an integration to a specific SaaS application or we needed to make the app more user-friendly. It didn’t matter — we took them all on and came up with smart solutions for each.
As we headed into the fall of 2017, sales picked up. We signed multiple million-dollar contracts and had a record fourth quarter, and exceeded our initial expectations.
Ultimately, I see the time when I reached out to our customers as the most decisive action that led to our turnaround. Their feedback was priceless, and I’m eternally grateful to them for sharing it with us. I’ll never forget the role they played in helping us get back on the right track.
So, how are things going today? How did your grit and resilience lead to your eventual success?
These have certainly been challenging times for everyone involved, but we’re used to working hard for what we want. As I mentioned previously, we were first to market in an industry that barely even existed. We persisted, we evangelized, we educated the market. And I believe our work has paid off. Today, we have thousands of customers across 60+ countries that rely on our solution to automate processes and policies across a company’s SaaS application portfolio. We have a team of 300 people and we’ve raised $187M in funding from some of the best investors in the world, including Warburg Pincus, Accel, Bain Capital, Greycroft and others.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?
I think the funniest mistake I made was when we moved into our first office. We were obviously tiny, just getting started, and we had to be very careful with how we spent money. We looked all over to find the cheapest office space we could. We found exactly that, probably the lowest per square foot price in a two-mile radius. There was no carpet and the paint was chipping off all the walls — needless to say, it was just not in great shape. I told the team this was the space and if we wanted to make it look better, we would have to do the work ourselves. We laid the carpet, we painted the walls, we did it all ourselves. It was good team building, but it wasn’t the best use of the team’s time — not to mention for all the years we were in that space, there were nails sticking out from the floor that we’d trip on. I’m not sure how many combined hours the team worked on the office space, but that time would have been better spent writing code or marketing our product. It was a good example of being penny-wise and pound-foolish. It’s just important to look at the bigger picture and think about how you can enable your team to have more time and focus to do their jobs, how you can remove obstacles and distractions.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
There are so many things I am proud of. It’s hard to single out one, but if I had to choose, it would be the customer experience we deliver. Nearly nine years ago, at our first-ever all-hands meeting, I told the company — which was six people at the time — that the way we treat our customers would be the one thing that would set us apart from anyone else in the industry. We’ve lived up to that every day for the past nine years. One of our four company values is “Strive to Delight,” and it’s rooted in the idea that we’re going to deliver an experience to our customers that is above and beyond what they expect.
There are a bunch of examples of companies that provide amazing customer service and customer experience. There are companies like Zappos, where customer service is their differentiator. There are companies like Disney that are entirely built around customer experience, and many more. But almost any example you can think of is that of a consumer company. It is very rare for an enterprise technology company, let alone one that serves IT professionals, to be so focused and invested in the experience and support they provide to their customers.
There are so many stories about ways we stand out in this area, but probably my favorite was when we implemented a program we called “proactive support.” The idea, which originated from our head of technical support at the time, was that we would monitor our application for error messages, push those to support agents and have those agents proactively reach out to customers to alert and solve the issue they were experiencing. We did all of that without the customer having to open a ticket. We did something completely opposite of best practice — we didn’t deflect tickets, instead, we proactively created and solved them.
Our team has continued to raise the bar, every month, every quarter and every year. We’ve been running at a 99 percent CSAT score for almost six years straight. Our team responds to in-app chats in less than eight seconds. We have created a culture of delight that I couldn’t be prouder of.
Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?
In my opinion, the way to avoid burnout is to avoid trying to take on everything yourself. That’s hard, I know, especially at the beginning, but here are the ways you can achieve that.
First, surround yourself with a great team, a team you can trust. It’s probably the hardest thing about building a company, but when you finally build that team, they can step in for you, they can have your back, you can lean on them. You have to be ok delegating and trusting them to take work off of your plate, though.
Second, be transparent. Share the good, the bad, and the ugly with those around you. Especially the latter two, the things that are most stressing you out. It’s important to have others around who are aware of these matters. In many cases, they can help you and provide solutions. I can’t stress it enough: be transparent.
Lastly, blend your personal and professional life where it makes sense. Be as transparent with your family as you are with your team. I wouldn’t be where I am today if I didn’t have a support system around me: my wife, my parents, my kids. They’re all involved in one way or another.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
Running businesses runs in my family. My father has always had his own businesses, doing work all over the world from New York (Harlem, South Bronx) to emerging markets (China, Nigeria, Russia, and Turkey). Throughout all of that, he would travel with me, bcc: me on all his emails, and encourage me to learn by osmosis. Exposure to his hustle, intuition, leadership, and follow-through shaped the way I do business.
Ok thank you for all that. Now let’s shift to the main focus of this interview. Approximately how many users or subscribers does your app or software currently have? Can you share with our readers three of the main steps you’ve taken to build such a large community?
As I mentioned previously, we have thousands of customers across the globe. This is a result of being laser-focused on our customers’ needs. And this goes beyond our product. This is about building a community where IT pros can connect with their peers to learn about their day-to-day challenges, best practices, etc.
In the beginning days of BetterCloud, we put up a company blog, much like many young companies do. But readers wanted more. So we responded by creating a daily newsletter focused on what we today call G Suite — which is the solution we supported at that time. As we started expanding beyond G Suite, and our customer base continued to grow, we realized we needed a much bigger property, we needed to cover a broader set of topics. That’s when we launched the BetterCloud Monitor, a comprehensive site and daily newsletter where anyone in the industry — not just customers — could stay up to date on the latest industry research, resources and articles. Needless to say, it was a hit. We now have 50K+ subscribers to the BetterCloud Monitor and its respective newsletter.
Around that same time, roughly 2016, we launched a live Slack community called BetterIT. We wanted to provide the best IT resources possible, and Slack’s real-time format would provide a great forum for answering questions on the fly, hosting AMAs, etc. We started with a core group of power users who gave us valuable feedback and direction, and the community has since grown to over 4,500 members.
To sum it up, our forums have proven invaluable to our community. A prime example was at the onset of pandemic. We were able to quickly respond by organizing thousands of IT professionals via BetterIT to help IT execs navigate this new normal. There is a lot more detail, but hopefully, this gives you a sense of how dedicated we are to helping our customers and the IT industry at large.
What is your monetization model? How do you monetize your community of users? Have you considered other monetization options? Why did you not use those?
Today, we offer three different product suites: BetterCloud Manage, BetterCloud Secure or BetterCloud Manage + Secure. Those offerings are aligned to our most common use cases and come with support for a set number of integrations. Customers pay a “per user / per month” price for the solution. Additionally, we offer add-on modules to enhance the experience, such as professional services, additional integration support, and enhanced API capabilities, to name a few.
All investments that we make into our various community initiatives are available for free to both BetterCloud customers and non-BetterCloud customers. We are committed to driving awareness and adoption of SaaSOps as a standard practice for IT professionals and acknowledge that any efforts to monetize our community would slow down our objectives in this area.
Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things one should know in order to create a very successful app or a SaaS? Please share a story or an example for each.
1. The most important thing to do, in my view, is to obsess over your customer. Constantly ask them for feedback and really listen to them. Watch them use your product and gain a clear understanding of their problems. In that way, you become one with them. And then perhaps most importantly, continually strive to delight them.
2. Look to “improve the machine” every day. That means striving for progress, not perfection. Focus on evolution, not revolution. Until you’ve got enough data and operating history to see a clear picture, you don’t even know what you don’t know. So, if you try to design perfection, there’s a 100 percent chance you’ll miss the mark.
3. “Don’t do it for the ‘gram (Instagram).” By that I mean, saying you’re crushing it all the time doesn’t somehow make you successful. A top-tier venture capitalist once said, “If a CEO says everything’s perfect, they’re either lying or they’re disconnected from what’s happening at their company.” Be open about the challenges you’re facing. You’d be surprised where help can come from. Everyone is dealing with the same issues. Nobody knows what they’re doing. It’s okay.
4. Always remember that your team is everything. Be honest about your weaknesses and your shortcomings. Delegate the tasks that you can’t handle on your own. Find people to fill the gaps in your knowledge and your abilities. Give them a real sense of ownership over solving these problems.
5. Enjoy the journey. This is all about the journey, not the destination. You don’t know what the future holds, so if you’re expecting a particular outcome, you’ll probably fail. Too many twists and turns lie ahead. You’ll grow every single day. You’ll make friends for life. You’ll have the most rewarding wins at the most unexpected times. Stick with it.
You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
A movement that would empower people from all walks of life, from any and all backgrounds, to start businesses. People need mentorship, they need financial support, they need certain skills, and sometimes they just need that extra push. I strongly believe that the best solutions are those that are developed by people who have first-hand knowledge of the problem they’re solving. To truly solve a lot of the challenges around the world, faced by different communities, we need to empower people in those communities to start businesses and organizations that can solve those problems.
David Politis of BetterCloud: 5 Things You Need To Know To Create a Successful App or SaaS was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.