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Show 152 – Unicorn Interviews – Doug Winter, Seismic

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The 26th in our series of episodes that we’re recording in partnership with the European PR agency Tyto and their own Without Borders podcast, where we are interviewing leaders of unicorn companies to find out about the key issues, pain points and challenges that start-ups face and how they can address them with a strategic approach to communications.

Russell Goldsmith and co-host, Tyto’s Senior Partner, Holly Justice were joined online, by Doug Winter, CEO and Co-Founder of Seismic, the global leader in enablement, helping organisations engage customers, enable teams and ignite Revenue Growth. Since founded in 2010, Seismic has raised $440 million and now has a valuation of $3 billion.

Doug began by giving an overview of Seismic, explaining that with it being a leader in sales enablement, it’s helping sellers improve using technology, whether that be using training, in the form of machine learning and coaching. They assist in the creation of playbooks that help the seller determine what is critical to do next, as well as content, which Doug said is important in engaging buyers.

He said that everyone probably gets hundreds of emails trying to sell you something, but how do you stand out? How do you engage in a way that’s unique and different from your competition? He highlighted that in today’s world, technology can be used to understand what’s working and what isn’t, and by collecting data they can help sellers improve their organisations.

Sales is a rapidly evolving field, and nobody knows what the ultimate solutions will be, but using technology to help sellers get better and grow, is called sales enablement and is what they do, he said.

The Buying Process

Doug thinks the buying process has evolved, with the buying process being much different than in the past, where buyers now do all the research online, and use crowdsourcing sites to understand what people don’t like and don’t like. When these buyers engage with a seller, they’re educated and the seller has to be able to respond efficiently, with personalised content.

He gave an example where a company in the automotive industry asked for solutions and were given entertainment examples and were rightly like, ‘This isn’t relevant to me’.

Previously the buying process meant that there would be one or two decision makers that needed to be influenced, whereas today regulations and corporate governance means there are 15 people involved in a buying decision from a large organisation. He said that an answer that might work well with the IT team might not work with the sales or marketing team, so being nimble, responsive, and better than your competition is essential.

He explained that they are the bridge between sales and marketing because marketing has influenced everything in the sales funnel. He said: “I like to joke, if you go to someone’s website and you sneeze on a page, they know about it, right?”. He thinks when opportunities arise and goes into the hands of sales teams, they need to consider whether they’re being successful, and whilst they’re creating white papers, videos, and PowerPoints, is anyone looking at them? Do they work? Are they helpful? He thinks marketing is blind to that, but they’re building the bridge between marketing and sales.

Industry Players

Doug emphasised that there are fast-moving industries where Seismic plays a more critical role, those include complex sales cycles such as those within large technology companies, like Microsoft, Google and IBM. Other industries they work in is financial services, because although not indicative to most people, but finance is sales, with them selling to one another, whether that be mutual funds to the public or to financial advisors, but all involve a complex sale. All of these include complex sales, with every bit of information needing to be factually correct, whilst relayed efficiently to stand out against competition.

He said that manufacturing is an industry they succeed in, with there being thousands of products to sell, which poses the questions of, how do you keep up? How do you know about how to answer questions about certain products? Technology is the answer, providing the tools needed to create the solution. Life sciences is another industry that they work within, where again there are lots of different products, but also quite a few regulatory requirements, that mean answering something incorrectly can lead to trouble. He said that sellers within this type of science have to stay trained and on top of their game. They also have sellers in the non-profit sector, as well as the services space, but the problem that they provide solutions to happens in about every industry, he added.

Hybrid Working Trends

Doug explained that the trends of digitalisation, digital selling, digital working and remote working since 2020 has been a huge acceleration for them. He recounted a time where he used to meet one of their customers every two weeks, because they were co-developing some products together, but when lockdown hit in 2020, he disappeared. They missed about four meetings in a row and once he’d come back, Doug asked him “Jeez, where have you been? I was getting a little worried!” and he said “Oh well, the month before Covid hit, we were about to do a one-week trial with 5% of our workforce working from home for one week. And then on Friday, I found out that on Monday the entire workforce was going to be remote indefinitely.” So, he said: “I obviously had a whole lot of things I had to focus on” and Doug explained that they became a big part of that because of all their sellers needing to work remotely, and needing to adapt to engaging with remote buyers, where the days of printing things and sitting down face to face, were long gone.

It started an evolution of everything becoming electronic, and shorter time scales were a norm, which Doug said meant they had to be more tactical, especially when companies started to slow things down when they weren’t sure what was going to happen with the economy. After a couple of months everyone started trying to figure out what was going on and they saw a huge increase of new customers signing on, he explained.

Founding Fortune

He recalled how Seismic went from five budding entrepreneurs working in a basements, breweries, and beaches in San Diego, to a multi-million-dollar company. He explained that when they got together, they knew there was a pain point in this area. They had been entrepreneurs before and had worked in a few different industries, where they collected real data, so they weren’t taking a “huge leap of faith”.

He said it’s easy to create a spreadsheet that shows how you’re going to grow, hire people and expand revenue, but when it comes to achieving that and getting up on stage in front of all of those people, whether it’s customers or teammates, and watching those that had faith in them from an early stage, progress within their careers and grow along with the company, that’s the most satisfying thing for him, he said.

Challenges

Doug explained that there was a lot more basement than there was brewery or beach, but it makes a really nice story.

He added that there have been lots of challenges, with plenty of ups and downs along the way, and every time they think things are starting to settle, the next curveball comes along. A great example of that includes COVID, with everyone feeling much more settled now and heading towards whatever the new normal is going to be, he explained. Now all of a sudden there’s a major war and conflict going on in Eastern Europe, meaning inflation is through the roof, along with the labour challenges that the great resignation is resulting in, he said. All of which are perfect examples of scenarios where you think you’ve solved it, and there comes the next hurdle.

He recounted a day described as “dire”, when on a Leap Day in 2012 he and one of his co-founders Ed, had a big meeting scheduled with a potential customer, and it turned out their cloud provider had a bug associated with leap day and certificates. Suddenly, whilst sitting down to do their demo they experienced a multitude of issues with the server, and they couldn’t understand why. A few days later they received a call from one of their big customers explaining that they wouldn’t be needing their help anymore as they were going to build it themselves, and they couldn’t understand why. He said the key takeaway was that it was a “marathon not a sprint”, and “you keep trudging through the tough times”.

Changing Perceptions

Doug thinks that every milestone has been exciting, especially when they set a target aim for it, achieve it, and then Monday comes around and the realisation hits that the next step is going after the next milestone.

He said: “on Friday you are one thing and on Monday you are something else and it doesn’t really matter. You still have to keep moving forward and setting that next target and going after that next target is really what matters.”

Becoming a unicorn was a huge honour he said, especially the notion of finding the right investors at the right time, particularly T.Rowe Price.

He said: “I think that’s the fun part, is figuring out what the next mountain is you’re going to climb and setting targets.”

International Growth

Doug said that international growth is something he’s had to learn more about over the years, due to the multiple ways to do it. He explained that something he’s learnt focuses around being ready to commit to significant investment in a region, and if not then don’t do it. When referring to this type of investment he means being able to transplant the company culture by sending key people in specific roles to resurface the culture, as well as the history, both of which are hard to do without an initial seed or person to do so. In their experience bringing a few people in specific roles, sales, customer success, and sales engineers, so people that understand the product, is a critical step.

He said: “expat is an expensive investment that you need to make you got to be ready for that. You need to be able to invest in marketing and sometimes maybe even over invest in marketing because no one in the new region probably knows who you are.”

People may not even know what sales enablement is, he explained, and educating them can really help in getting your name out there. Another thing could be investing in the partner ecosystems, initially finding partners to work with customers in the new regions, who know the language, customers, and nuance. Getting out there and understanding where the footprint needs to be in relation to where you want to start, and what is the beachhead you can use to establish the core of the business on, and make further investments, continuing to grow.

Growth and Investment

Doug explained that they’re currently generating a lot of capital, with the most primary source being from their customers it’s the best place to be in. Another advantage is the concept of being in a new space where capital is coming in from customers as apposed to investors. Although, more recently they have taken additional funding from investors, particularly the acquisition that took place nine months ago.

He added that as they grow, they look out for product, person or geographic areas that would work with an acquisition. They try to avoid raising capital, unless the time is right, particularly now the private capital markets have dried up, even though there’s lots of capital available, investors are sitting on it he said.

He noted: “then we make calculated investment choices both on R&D product areas that we want to invest in, new things to sell to our customers, or ways to make our product more competitive and go to market areas where we’re either investing in a new geo, investing potentially in just overall expansion of the team or potentially in a new vertical area of expertise.”

Doug see’s lots of opportunity for them to grow, particularly at a 40% or more pace because there are lots of companies that have yet to make big investments in sales enablement. He said there are a lot of companies that still use outdated technology or tools to solve their problems, which is why they invest in new products that are going to help.

In terms of anticipated revenue, a goal they want to achieve is around the $500 million mark, and to do so probability, accelerating growth and retention are areas they need to prioritise.

He said: “if we continue to do that next Q, after we hit the half a billion-dollar milestone here in the next couple of years, we’ll figure out what the next step ought to be.”

Key to Communications

Doug admitted that that being publicly showy and visible and high profile has never been his personality, and the company has reflected that over the years. They’ve got some great people on the team and recently went through a rebranding that they’re proud of.

Due to sales enablement becoming more mainstream, they feel like it’s the right time to tell their story a lot more loudly and publicly, which is part of raising the visibility of Seismic as well as sales enablement in general.

When it comes to communications Doug said: “going to continue to see our name out there and a little bit more than we have in the past. I’d be lying if I said some of it doesn’t make me a little bit uncomfortable. Just, again, not quite my personality, but we’ve got a great team leading the way and it’s exciting to see the acknowledgment that sales enablement is a core strategic capability at most organisations. And Seismic is a leader, currently the leader in the space.”

Company Culture

Doug thinks they’ve always had a great culture at Seismic, people like each other, and they’re excited about what they’re doing. It’s not something they’ve heavily invested in due to a bit of scepticism from Doug in the past, he said: “we’ve all probably seen companies that had wonderful words written on the wall in the lobby that then ended up doing terrible things that were completely contradictory to those words that they had on the wall.”

He said that as a start-up company, they’ve spent lots of time together and culture just develops, and reflects the founders, employees, teams, interactions with customers, because everybody is internalising the role modelling, they see. He added: “You attract people that are like minded and similar in how they think”.

He explained that consequently the team weren’t together anymore through COVID, but it enabled them to grow substantially. For example, the Head of People, Linda Ho, told him recently that half of all current employees, joined them after March 2020, and so subsequently never met anyone on the team face-to-face. He said that getting together as a company has always been salient for them, particularly to do an annual event called Seismic Activity, which involved getting together to discuss the importance of culture and what that looked like to them. Unfortunately, u for three years they’ve been unable to do their annual event, which he said, “was kind of number one in an observation that, hey, we’re drifting apart or, it’s really easy for us to drift apart”. Much of their work now takes place remotely.

After acquiring Lessonly, a company based out of Indianapolis, they learnt a lot from the founders Max Yoder and Conor Burt, who had done a lot regarding culture. He said that “Their culture wasn’t our culture. We’re all unique. Every company is different”.

Max wrote a book called ‘Do Better Work’, a really short but impactful read, that Doug thought could be applied to the whole company. So, led partly by Max, they went through an exercise developing and formalising what the culture is, but he said “you don’t just say, hey, this is going to be our culture. You don’t just make it up and then tell the company go become that. In fact, it’s quite the opposite.”

He said it’s crucial to create a process of documenting culture, and really defining a mission, because it is an exciting process to go through, one that they’re still going through. They’re rolling out an initiative internally called culture labs, where each office comes together for a few sessions of an hour or so, to discuss the mission, vision, values and what they mean to them. He thinks it’s a great initiative to get the company together.

Enabling Efficiency

Doug noted that they lean on their own technology quite a lot. He said that companies require more than just sales enablement but it’s a pretty important function, especially in getting employees to perform to their best ability, whether that’s finding, knowing or being able to say what they need.

He explained that they invest heavily in their own capabilities, the team leader in that department constantly encourages to take chances and try something different, because they aren’t just developing technology for sales enablement but helping evolve processes.

He said: “Our customers ask us that all the time. What does great look like, and we can point to this company and that company that are doing amazing things. But I also like to be able to point to ourselves. And so going out and trying something new, even if it doesn’t work, I think is an important piece of it”.

Managing Internal Communications

Doug suggested that there were some beneficial consequences from COVID, including it forcing them to formalise their internal communication strategies and how those were implemented for employees. One of the communication techniques they have applied is the creation of a town hall concept, where every quarter Doug sits down with everyone in smaller groups, often organised by geographical locations, and has a Q&A. Sometimes those groups will also be organised into job functions, so he may speak to the marketing teams or sales teams. Working remotely forced them to tighten up those initiatives, and continued to help improve their agenda, as well as generally disseminate information that people can be excited about, rather than reluctant to attend a meeting in which employees are solely watching PowerPoint slides.

External Communications  

Doug said: “what I’ve learned is, as much as anything, that it’s a skill like any other that you can improve and you can work on, and that if you put time and energy and effort into it, you’ll get better and you’ll do okay. And if you don’t, you probably won’t”.

He explained that external communications must be treated as a significant part of the job, and the more the company expands so does the importance of being a public company. He said having a team to focus on communications is critical, their PR team helps him get ready for public speaking, along with practicing it and getting opportunities to work on it.

He said: “I’ll probably never be the best in the world at it. But the more I practice, the less uncomfortable and the more reps you get”.

Biggest Challenges

Doug emphasised that a challenge is being agile, there are multiple challenges that come your way being a CEO of a unicorn company. He said it’s important to trust those around you, and building a team is the biggest and most important part. Over time, continuing to strengthen the team at all levels is crucial, as is constantly evolving.

He said: “I look back at what my job was ten years ago, and I was taking out the trash and doing our finances on QuickBooks and doing demos for customers. Now I’ve got so many people at the company that are 100 times better than me at all of those things, except maybe taking out the trash!”.

He noted that it’s important to not get too in love with the things you do, and those that have worked in the past, because that by far is the biggest challenge for any unicorn, due to the exponential levels of growth. He said “It’s exciting, but boy, you better stay nimble. You better stand on your toes.”

Advice for Younger Self

Doug said his advice to his younger self would be to believe in yourself, and don’t be afraid. When reflecting on what held him back when he was younger was being afraid to take chances or put himself out there. He said it’s hard to grow that confidence without some failures, some successes.

He finished by saying “if I could go back and whisper in my ear and say, you’re going to do, okay, don’t be afraid to take that jump and go for it and get up on that stage. Get in front of people, say what you really think”.