Most tech founders start with an idea, spawned either in a coffee shop, a bedroom, or a basement. As this idea manifests, excitement mounts and visions emerge of creating a company that gains global traction, experiences hyper growth, followed by the inevitable billion dollar IPO. For many this is all it ever is, a dream, but for Ben Wright, he experienced this journey. As one of the early employees of Ariba, he helped take the company from early stage all the way through to IPO, and beyond. We met with Ben to find out more about his time during this part of his career, and ultimately what he learnt from the overall experience.
You were one of the early employees at Ariba and stayed with them through their IPO, can you describe your role within the company? And, what key things did you take away from your overall experience with the company?
That’s a great question. I joined Ariba when I was already working in Silicon Valley – previously for Oracle – and my initial role was to run Product Management and Product Planning, though as there were only around 20 people in the whole business when I joined, we all did pretty much everything from sales to support to marketing, to… well, everything. Then after a few more years of working in the US I came back to Europe with one of the Ariba founders and started it all again growing the Ariba European business from scratch. Again, as there were only a handful of us in Europe at that time, we all did pretty much everything and my role evolved into the VP of European Marketing running all marketing and PR activities across 12 countries in 8 different languages.
There were three key things that I took away from my experience with Ariba.
Firstly, the absolute importance as an early stage company to define your own Category and to create a strategy that aligns the product and the entire company’s operations around the design of this Category to position yourself as the leader of that Category. This is something we did when Ariba was still relatively small and it had a dramatic effect. If you can get this Category strategy working, you get a sort of flywheel effect where everything you do re-enforces the strength of the business and yourCategory to help you grow even faster. It’s super important for early stage companies to think about this.
Secondly, rapid growth can be painful and it’s important to have a strategy for growth in place before the rapid expansion phase. As I said, I joined Ariba when we had around 20 employees and left when we had over 1500. That growth happened over less than a five year period, which is pretty steep by any imagining. Even if you’re not growing quite that fast, you still need to make sure you have scalability built into every part of the business before it happens. If you’re trying to rapidly scale and simultaneously firefighting to fix your scalability problems, that’s when it gets really painful. And I’ve seen it both ways – some parts of the business at Ariba were built more with scalability in mind, some weren’t. The ones that weren’t were where we really struggled.
Thirdly, success can breed it’s own sort of problems. It’s easy to get distracted by the hype around a business after a successful IPO or a big funding round. It’s really important for the entire management team to keep the business focused on the fundamentals of success – which for us at Ariba was being pathologically obsessed with customer value. It’s important to think about an IPO or big funding round as just another step on the journey of becoming a long-term successful company delivering real-world value to your customers.
When I was much (much) younger, I somehow managed to scrape through my grading to get a black belt in kickboxing. I was pretty impressed with myself at the time, but my sensei took me to one side and told me something I’ve never forgotten. He said all I’d done by that point was learn the alphabet – now it was time to start learning how to build words and, if I worked really hard and was lucky, to start stringing a sentence together. That’s how I think about the IPO – we’d really only just learned the alphabet.
And finally one of the key things I learned was – for reasons I’ve never quite worked out – that people understand things more easily if you explain them in groups of threes – a rule I’ve clearly just broken!
You’re now working extensively with start-up and scale-up companies, do you have a set criteria for the type of company you work with? And, is there a particular focus area you help them with?
I’ve spent my entire career working in B2B tech, so my main criteria for a company is that it’s B2B. I have helped a couple of B2C companies, but it’s not really my strength so I generally tend to stick to B2B. Other than that I don’t have set criteria – I’ve helped a pretty wide range of start-up and scale-up clients from FinTech, Manufacturing, Recruitment, PropTech, Search, RetailTech, EdTech and several more – pretty much every tech sector you could think of really.
I help in three main areas:
Firstly with Category Creation – helping companies to define their own Category and then putting strategies in place to align the whole business and the positioning of the company around this Category. To create a Category you can’t just be better, cheaper, faster, more cost effective etc than an existing provider – well, you almost certainly have to be these things too – but what you really need is to articulate what you do in a way that shows you’re demonstrably different to anything that’s come before.
Uber didn’t become a Category King by saying they were going to give us a better way of ordering a minicab. They became a Category King by articulating their vision for an entirely new Category – On-Demand Transportation. Their early vision was to make ‘Transportation as reliable as running water’ which is the most beautiful articulation of a company’s strategy that I’ve ever heard. That’s how a company creates a new Category.
Secondly, I perform Full Stack B2B Sales Audits to help companies identify the areas of their sales processes that will need addressing when they start rapidly scaling the business. This looks at the entire sales stack from how companies are hiring, on-boarding and training sales people, right the way through the sales pipeline looking at how they’re doing lead gen, lead qualification, customer discovery, customer engagement, stakeholder management, proposal management all the way through to getting a deal done and handing the customer over to customer success.
Thirdly, I run Sales Acceleration Programmes – which often come as an output of the Sales Audit – to put scalable sales processes in place to ensure that every single sales person is operating best practice at every stage of the sales cycle. And that there is a process in place to regularly review wins and losses to ensure that the Playbook is regularly updated with what the business is learning about best practice as it grows and the sales team is regularly re-trained in the new best practices being developed.
You talk about category creation, and companies dominating their own category, can you explain what you mean by this and why it’s important to have this defined early?
In any given market, life becomes much easier for everyone if there’s a clearly defined market leader. Buyers want leaders because it’s generally safer and easier to buy from the market leader, funders want to fund the early leaders because their returns will be greater, the press and social media want a leader so they know who to talk about, the ecosystem wants a leader so they know who to partner with, even talent want a leader so they know who they should be working for.
So the whole market is conditioned to look for and accept a leader. And once a leader is established, these same gravitational forces will always re-enforce the position of an existing leader. So once a Category Leader gets established, properly established, it’s incredibly hard for anyone to unseat them. You have to do something an order of magnitude – 10x – better to have any sort of chance of taking over a Category. Look at market leaders such as Salesforce, AirBnB, Google, Apple, Uber – it would take a change of seismic proportions to even risk unseating these companies as leaders of their categories.
So the choice becomes simple. Either do something 10x better – which is pretty hard even if you have a unique technological advantage – or create a new Category where by definition, there is no existing Category leader. Or better yet, do something 10x better and articulate what you do differently so you can create your own Category.
A great example of this is Hubspot. Hubspot is essentially and emarketing tool and more latterly a CRM platform. When they launched there were already a hundred other emarketing tools on the market. They could have come out and said, ‘We’re a better emarketing tool than all those other emarketing tools on the market because of X, Y Z etc.’ But they didn’t. What they did was articulate the problem and then explain how their new Category was going to solve this problem.
The problem Hubspot articulated is that outbound sales and marketing sucks. It sucks for the people doing it, it sucks for the companies doing it on their conversion rates, it even sucks for the people on the receiving end of it.
Their solution? Inbound Marketing. An entirely new Category, completely different to anything that’s come before it.
To which most people probably had the response, ‘What the hell in Inbound Marketing?’ And so Hubspot’s job became educating us in what this new Category of ‘Inbound Marketing’ actually is. Not educating us in what they do or their features and functionality, but the problem they were solving and the benefits of this new Category they were creating.
That’s a really super-important point. The best Category creators don’t talk a great deal about the details of what they do and how they do it (features and functionality in other words). They instead take a new non-consensus Category – such as Inbound Marketing – and their job then becomes to convince us of the importance of that Category. Once they’ve done that, they naturally become the Category leader.
Hubspot is also a great example, because in the very early days their product was a bit sucky – so much so that they didn’t even use it themselves for the first few years of the company’s life (for more details and hilarious anecdotes on the early days of Hubspot, read Dan Lyons’ Disrupted: Ludicrous Misadventures in the Tech Startup Bubble). But they did such a great job of articulating their new Category and executing on their vision, that they still became the Category King of Inbound Marketing. Where they go next from here is a discussion for another day.
The challenge then for early stage start-ups is to create and articulate their Category strategy as early as possible. As soon as you have some great case studies of early customers getting real value from your solution, you should be mapping out your Category strategy and start conditioning the market to the future of that Category with you as the leader.
Because if you don’t, someone else will. And if someone else gets their Category flywheel turning faster than you earlier than you, then they will be seen as the leader and you… well, there’s no polite way of putting it. You will be pretty much screwed.
(Please check back tomorrow for the second part of this interview)