B2B Category Creators Episode 6 Transcript

Mark Huber

Feb 22, 2021

B2B Category Creators Episode 6 Complete Transcript

Gil Allouche:
Welcome everyone to the Category Creator podcast. My name is Gil Allouche. I’m the founder and CEO of Metadata. I have together with me, Michel Feaster, Nick Mehta and Mike Volpe. Maybe we’ll start with Michel, because you’re first on the Zoom video. Maybe you can introduce yourself quickly, who you are and about yourself.

Michel Feaster:
Sure. Thanks, Gil. I’m Michel Feaster. I’m the founder and CEO of Usermind. This is the fourth category I’ve created in my software career. I’m kind of a hybrid Product Manager, Product Marketing geek. I’ve spent my life building software for big companies. Usermind, I’ve been at building my company now. It’s my first company about seven years. We’ve helped create a new category called journey orchestration, which is really about modern customer engagement across the full lifecycle. Super excited to be here, Gil. Thanks for the invite.

Gil Allouche:
Thank you very much for coming. A small fact that I learned about you this week is that you worked for Ben Horowitz. It’s very interesting to me, particularly because I finished the two books that he wrote, the most recent about culture. So a lot of very interesting experiences I’m sure you’ve had in the work area with him.

Michel Feaster:
Yeah, I helped acquire his and Mark’s last company Opsware. He joined HP Software and became my boss and he’s why we’re talking. Told me I was a crazy entrepreneur, and what the heck was I doing in a big company? I’m here today meeting all of you because of him. [crosstalk]

Gil Allouche:
… a very anecdote. Cool. Nick Mehta, the man, the legend. Definitely heard about you many times. Very, very excited to have you on the podcast. Although you’re very well known still, maybe you can give it the one minute overview of who you are and what you do.

Nick Mehta:
Sure, yeah. Hey, everyone. Nick Mehta CEO of Gainsight. Gainsight, we’re helping businesses in the subscription and cloud based models, optimized net dollar retention by doing everything from managing and scaling CSM teams to making your products easier to adopt, to driving higher renewals and cross sell upsell.

Gil Allouche:
Awesome. Nick, one thing I’ve heard about you over and over and over and for many people who know you and work with you is that you’re a very good CEO. A good person who establishes a good culture. I’m very excited to learn how a company can succeed and grow so fast and still institute a good culture and a good people person. I’m very excited to learn about that. Last but not least, Mike Volpe. Also very well known, but maybe you can give us a little bit of your background from HubSpot as well as the current company you’re with.

Mike Volpe:
Yeah, sure. I’m Mike Volpe. I’m the CEO at Lola.com. We do spend and travel management. We help CFOs get control of visibility over all of the spending within their company, whether that be travel, expense or just marketing budget, and things like that. I’ve worked in the SaaS industry for a long time, including as Gil was alluding to, as part of the early, early… Just after the two founders at HubSpot, I was the next person hired after that and was there for eight and a half years. And also a little time in cybersecurity and some other stuff as well.

Gil Allouche:
Amazing. Thank you all three again for joining. Very interesting conversation today. I would like to start us off, maybe with a basic question that I always like to start with. And that is, in the category creation journey, what was the biggest hashtag fail moment. Not the successful big romantic story you tell on [Saster], but exactly the opposite. The one that you try to never, ever talk about. Nick, you’re unmuted. So we’ll start with you.

Nick Mehta:
All right. So many, gosh. I have way more mistakes than successes. I’ll try to pick. I’ll pick one. I think in creating a category, one challenge is planning is very hard, because it’s hard to know how quickly things are going to evolve. You are like, “The category is going to be here.” Like the classic Silicon Valley playbook, you hire a bunch of people. You raise a lot of money, and then it’s like, “Okay, no, not ready yet.” Then you are over your skis and you have to slow down and all that kind of stuff. That fits in [stats] of how your business goes and getting the timing right on hiring and planning versus in a existing category, there’s often this mythical spreadsheet of, every sales rep generates as much as bookings. If you want to do a billion dollars, just hire 1000 sales reps. It’s very easy. It’s amazing. Maybe that works for Snowflake, but it doesn’t actually work for people trying to create a category, I think.

Gil Allouche:
Anything to add?

Michel Feaster:
I 100% agree with that. Gosh, Nick, I’ve lived that struggle. I would say one of our biggest challenges was figuring out who the buyer was. When we started our company we thought that customer experience teams would be the people thinking about journey’s end to end. And they certainly were but they weren’t really the buyer for my technology. In addition to what Nick described, we actually struggled to figure out our whole go to market motion. If you don’t know which persona you’re targeting, and who’s the core buyer every day, that is really the buyer and user of your technology, the whole the entire outbound motion is very, very challenging to build. I’d say today, we figured out our buyer’s digital, and we understand our ideal customer profile, and what elements need to be in place for someone to be ready for Usermind and ready for journey orchestration. But holy hell, that was just so hard for us. I think we wasted money, and we ran so many experiments. We just had to be comfortable that we were wrong half of the time.

Michel Feaster:
I’d say, that’s the second challenge we had, in addition to the one Nick was describing.

Mike Volpe:
I’m curious, Michel and Nick, if you had this other challenge, which I felt like in the very beginning, I or we were the only ones talking about this new category. A Boston guy. I’ve always worked at Boston companies. I felt like I was on a soapbox in Harvard Square, yelling and screaming at the top of my lungs about inbound marketing, and everyone’s just walking by going about their business and not paying attention. And it took like, a long, long, long time before a couple people stop. And then people see that people stopped, so they stop and then, eventually down the block, you hear somebody else yelling and screaming about the same thing. And you’re like, “Oh, it’s finally working.” But I felt like it was a extraordinarily long time of just screaming into a black hole before you felt like you got any feedback. Did you two feel that?

Nick Mehta:
Only on days that ended in Y. Like only on… Honestly that whole idea of, “Is this just me? Am I pushing a rock [inaudible] pushing the rock uphill?” Totally Mike. Sounds like Michel might have experienced that too. I think for me, that whole idea that, “Am I wrong? Is this really going to happen? All the doubts.” One of the things I would always tell myself was, let’s go back to first principles, like in our business. In the future, will there be more or fewer cloud and SaaS businesses? I’m like, I think more. They’re not going to be fewer. And will cloud and SaaS businesses need to have customer success to manage their customers? I think yes. If people don’t believe now that’s just because a future hasn’t happened yet. That’s what I would try to tell myself to not feel like a crazy person.

Michel Feaster:
Yeah, no, I fully agree with that. I called it the years of wandering in the wilderness Mike. I’ll never forget my first demo at [Andreessen EBC] to like AT&T, and they were just like, no one needs what you did. No one cares about journeys. No one has enough cloud technology to need orchestration across adtech and martech and CRM, etc. But I don’t know about your evolution, but I found our whole early life was finding these occasional visionaries, where you might have 100 conversations, and then eventually one person would just be like, this is obvious. Until the category crosses, and I think Geoffrey Moore is really right, until it becomes more mainstream.

Michel Feaster:
I think we’ve been very blessed in the last year. Our idea’s become mainstream. Adobe launched a product in our space, there’s a lot of validation. Nick, I’m sure you guys must feel so much better. Your idea just seems so clear today. Man, for a long time, I just lived on those occasional visionaries where I was just like, I got to believe that they’re right. I’m not the only one who sees it, right? They see it. That was for sure. [crosstalk] that was five years.

Mike Volpe:
Yeah. And I think paired with that, the other challenge we had was a lot of feedback in the early days. The market was too small. Anytime you’re creating a market, I feel like by definition, today, it’s small. But it’s the future, and it’s going to be giant, and you have to believe that this thing should exist. And also the corollary to that is it’s going to be way, way bigger than anyone can imagine. I know your products less Michel, but Nick, I know your world well, and I would guess you got a lot of that in the early days.

Nick Mehta:
Oh, my God. Yeah. All the time. Especially fundraising and stuff like that. Where it’s kind of that litmus test and mirror in front of you. You get the same question over and over again. What’s the TAM and things like that. You have to almost just get good at answering the question without really having a quantitative Gartner report or something to point to. But Mike, that’s like 100%. Yeah, and honestly, in some ways, I think that never goes away because your ambition goes up too. That’s why it is super inspiring to see HubSpot at $20 billion market cap and whatever. It’s like, okay, eventually it does work. It’s pretty cool to see people that are ahead, that it’s like they did it, got through the desert, as you said, Michel.

Gil Allouche:
What is that answer? Is the answer what Michel mentioned before, which is obviously it’s small now and very reoccurring category, and it’s going to be huge and growing. Is that the answer you give to the VC when they tell you it’s not there currently?

Nick Mehta:
I think that for me, it’s the first principles. It’s like, whatever the markets are now for stuff is not interesting. What’s interesting is where’s the puck going? It’s like, first principles, are there going to be more SaaS businesses or less? Are they going to need to worry about it? I think something like that. But honestly, I actually think investors are getting a better handle on that, because a lot of great companies are in TAMs that didn’t exist five years ago. I think it’s changing. But some people have that old fixed mindset from before. I think so.

Mike Volpe:
I think that’s right. I think there’s probably something more of like, our [RA] around at HubSpot was almost 14 years ago now. I think back then it was more of a thing. And again, it was the same thing that was like, “Okay, there’s a lot of small businesses. You agree with that, right?” And they were like, “Oh, yes. There’s tons of small businesses.” And you say, “Okay, the way they’re doing marketing is probably going to change over time, because it’d be more of the internet and all these things.” They are like, “Okay, yeah, right.” And you’re like, “Okay, one plus one equals what?” And you kind of just put them together. I don’t know. Michel, any techniques that you use to solve this problem with people early on?

Michel Feaster:
Yeah, no, I think we were lucky in that sense. We never really got that your TAM isn’t big enough. If you think about the idea that, all Fortune 2000 companies have a need to connect together all the lifecycle of their customer communications. No one ever said, “Hey, 5 to 10 billion isn’t enough.” And it was pretty easy to size. But we definitely got the pushback, like, “Is there a category at all?” If you don’t know who your buyer is, because I couldn’t say I wasn’t sure. Maybe Nick, this is something you live. When we started, marketing didn’t care about the full lifecycle, and digital didn’t really exist. Actually, customer success would be a champion for us, but didn’t necessarily own the full journey either. My biggest challenge was that buying center. Everybody was like, “We get that your TAM is big but if your buyer never emerges, you can’t actually get to the TAM.”

Michel Feaster:
That was always my challenge. Never really conceptual, never really market size based. More like, do they believe me, that someone’s ever going to own this and buy it? I think it’s a similar challenge. People are not going to give you money if they don’t believe you can go sell it, but it was much more persona based.

Mike Volpe:
Yeah, I think that persona thing is so big, because it is. They do emerge. I’m sure it’s emerged for you now. It sounds like Michel has it. And it’s like, for us, obviously, we had a well defined one, but a tiny one. There were like 500 CSMs in the world when we launched. Something like that. I didn’t actually know at the time, but later on, we were able to see the LinkedIn data. We’re like, why did we ever do this company? Because there wasn’t enough, but we knew they’re going to grow. And there was like, 150,000 or something now and so. But yeah, that person that is passionate. It goes back to your point about the visionaries. It’s like, what’s that small group of people that actually do think differently, and hopefully they’ll be more.

Michel Feaster:
Yeah, totally.

Gil Allouche:
When you mentioned the Geoffrey Moore’s Crossing the Chasm division are the early adopters, very, very early in our stage, we have something like 15 of our 10 and 20 customers are an investor in the company. For me, every time that happens, I am in cloud nine, because that’s exactly for me what I’m holding to, against all the rest of the reasons why not to do this. How long did it take you when you were at that stage, kind of still questioning yourself but holding on to those visionaries, until that moment where you had the first signal that this trend that you were talking about for years is happening? The market is converging to where you thought it’s happening. Maybe Michel, you can start?

Michel Feaster:
Sure. We’ve been at this journey almost seven years. I think our one big compelling point, we’ve been working [Forrester] for years. Joanna told us she’s going to ride a wave. Sure, she wrote a market scope or market note or whatever it was. And it was like, hallelujah. This is what you need. You need an analyst firm to kind of help the broader market digest the idea. So that was one turning point. We thought maybe this thing will start to happen. And I would say the second one was 2020 for us. Both Adobe dropped a product and I think that was a huge validation. It doesn’t work well, but it caused a lot of people to say, JO’s the next thing. I think COVID just drove a ton of dollars in the digital and really coalesced our buying center. I feel like for me, there were two points. The wave is like, the hope moment that it’s going to happen. And then I feel like last year was the year it was like, okay, it’s happening. But yeah, scary moments, otherwise. I don’t know-

Gil Allouche:
[crosstalk] a competitor. Interesting.

Nick Mehta:
Yeah, I love those, Michel. Those both resonate as we have a COVID one, especially. The thing I’d add in for me, I think people talk about product market fit and all these things like it’s a line you cross and everything’s magic and rainbows afterwards, and before it’s so hard. There’s very few binary moments in Gainsight history that I can really remember. It’s all been challenging and hard and fun and rewarding and everything at the same time. One I do remember was the first time we closed a six figure ACV deal that I wasn’t involved in at all. And that was like, “Wow, I didn’t talk to that customer at all. I don’t even know they’re talking to us. And it just came in on Salesforce.” And I was like, “Okay, that’s cool. How do we have more of that?” And so now, we definitely have a lot more of that. That kind of feeling of, you’ve created a little bit of a machine and it’s not 100% dependent on you, I think as an entrepreneur, that’s something for me, it’s been interesting.

Mike Volpe:
We definitely saw over time, competitors at least pick up your messaging. Maybe don’t launch a whole product, maybe they repackage a couple of features and call it something new but then they claim to have this thing which you know that means you’re in a lot of their deals. They feel like they’re losing deals because you have this thing that they don’t have. I also think that for us early on, a lot of it too, was just other people starting to write about the same concept. Even small industry, people on blogs and things like that. People that had read your stuff long enough that they’re starting to nod, and then they’re doing their own stuff on those same themes and using those same terms. We used to track how many people put inbound marketing in their job title on LinkedIn, and all sorts of things like that around how much is this having an impact on the world of marketers in that community. And those are things that after a certain period of time you start to see that snowball start to roll and it gets very exciting.

Nick Mehta:
I think that’s interesting, just connecting the dots in both of yours. Because I do think there’s this thing of when did the big companies or bigger companies try to pretend to be in the market, like Mike was just saying, and Michel, I think what you’re saying with Adobe as well. Obviously, I’m not judging either the companies but I’m sure, it’s like some mix of scariness and validation at the same time. It’s kind of… Yeah.

Michel Feaster:
Yeah. 100%. It’s always scary, because you’re like, “Oh, my God. Did it just change the landscape and the bar and in a way that changes the structure of the company?” And on the other hand, it’s beyond exciting, because you see this giant marketing machine pouring money into this idea. You’ve been this little voice, the engine of the car going up the hill. I think we’ve been massively more excited than concerned but it’s just a validation point. If one of the top marketing and customer engagement companies in the world is saying, “Hey, journey orchestration is the next thing that you need, that’s been, I think on balance much more good than bad for us. Cool moments. Definitely, cool moments.

Gil Allouche:
Let’s cheer to that. I like that. I’m going to pour myself another one.

Michel Feaster:
Cheers.

Gil Allouche:
Cheers, everyone. Happy Friday.

Mike Volpe:
Yeah.

Michel Feaster:
Happy Friday.

Gil Allouche:
Hashtag failed moment. Hashtag success moment. It’s very inspirational to me. Some of these super small signals are things that I sometimes start to look for and identify. But a lot of the rest is vague for me. I don’t know a lot about everything, but particularly in category creation, I’m interested to learn from the three of you. I don’t know, you probably did like 50, 100 different things to experiments to try to tackle the category creation, the category domination and the rest of the words that we use to build a new market. If you had to distill like three to five of the factors, in orders of magnitude, they were exponential, that really changed the direction for you. I did some research, I remember with HubSpot, if I’m not mistaken, I’m a customer for maybe a decade now. I remember when HubSpot had their website ranker, I think or ranking tool. It was a freebie that I looked somewhere and-

Mike Volpe:
Yeah, website grader. Yeah.

Gil Allouche:
Website grader. There was like hundreds of thousands of downloads. Someone told me that you got maybe in the millions today. And there was the certification program that became extremely successful, the inbound.org. Maybe Mike, maybe you can start. Maybe you can tell us about some of those well known and less known elements?

Mike Volpe:
Sure. I think, especially if you’re selling into the SMB world, there’s rarely a lightning strike that just ignites everything. I’ve lived that a little bit of the enterprise and you sign that multimillion dollar deal or your first $5 million. Maybe it’s a $10 million, three year deal. Those can be like, wow. It doesn’t exist as much in the SMB. The SMB is much more about, climbing Kilimanjaro and it’s one step at a time. And maybe you have your pace quickens like a little bit, but there’s nothing that accelerates you 1000 feet. So for us, it was a lot of things. Website grader was super successful in the early days and over time it just got used more and more and more. Our blog, and all of our content, our SEO really grew a ton, especially in the early days. And little things.

Mike Volpe:
It’s like the first webinar we ever did, we used all the email addresses we were gathering from website graders. We actually had a good healthy list to build off of, and we got 500 people to sign up for a webinar, which is great for an early small company. [inaudible] maybe 15 people at the time. She was like, okay, there’s something here. And then it was a couple years later, we kept growing and growing and we actually had a webinar about using Twitter for marketing. This is back in late ’07, maybe early ’08, something like that. There was like 5000 people signed up for it.

Mike Volpe:
But again, none of those one things completely changed the trajectory of the business. Just like you’re building off the success and growing over time. It’s like you’re building a giant Cathedral, but it’s one brick at a time. And you hire a couple more people so you can lay a couple more bricks every day, but it really is this incremental thing. The good part about that is, there’s usually no one thing that can totally stop you in your tracks either. But it can be frustrating, because I think it can be a little slower to get going to be honest.

Gil Allouche:
How do you set the foundation or the culture or I don’t know, that creative environment in HubSpot in the early days, so that someone comes up with the website rank, like with that tool? How does that happen?

Mike Volpe:
That particular one was Dharmesh, one of the co-founders. That was lucky because he was a dangerous enough coder, that he could build the alpha version of it himself and sort of a proof of concept and things like that. And we started to do a little marketing around, and it got a lot of traction. But I think what we tried to do early on, at least there was have a strong culture of ownership, a strong culture of allowing people to have some goals, but sort of figure out how they wanted to meet those goals. And just overall, a really strong entrepreneurial culture.

Mike Volpe:
I even think back to today, about half of the revenue at HubSpot comes through channels. So marketing, partners marketing agencies around the world, half of the revenue and it’s like a billion plus run rate of revenue now. All very small SaaS deals. It’s interesting. But the first rep who wanted to do some partner deals, we told him no. We said, “This is a bad idea. Come on, at SaaS? The internet is about disintermediation. Why would anybody buy from someone else and the margin and then this and they go direct. That makes no sense. That’s old school. That’s enterprise, license. Like why, why, why? It doesn’t make any sense. Doesn’t make any sense.” And continuously just told him no, no, no. And finally, he just started doing it. And we finally had to sit down and tell him, “If you keep hitting your quota this is fine, but the second you miss your quota, you’re not doing this anymore.” And he just kept crushing his quota. And then we said, “Okay, you can hire a couple of people and hire a couple more, hire a couple more.”

Mike Volpe:
And this guy’s Peter Caputa, it’s sort of a well known story within the walls of HubSpot. Then he ended up being VP of sales, number two. Driving tons of revenue through the IPO, everything. He’s CEO of Databox now. And just built a gigantic portion of the organization, and did something that not only was it entrepreneurial, but we told him not to do it. We told him it was a stupid idea. And so we built enough independence there that the CMO, the CEO, how he was telling me this, we could tell him, it’s a stupid idea, don’t do it and he still did it and still made it work. So in some ways, especially early on, it was kind of just a special place culturally, but there were lots of weird examples of things like that.

Gil Allouche:
That is a bad ass example. That’s amazing. I’m going to try to get him on the podcast. Nick Mehta, I remember talking to Anthony Canada, maybe four years ago, and he was mentioning looking for CSM on LinkedIn to see that curve grow. I don’t know how old he was at Gainsight but he definitely knew about that one. And then, he mentioned to me the big story. There was a marketing goals were there, but creating a community that didn’t exist before, making the customer success personal, historically was a lesser citizen in their organization, suddenly became a hero, and you gave them a voice and a platform. Can you talk a little bit about that?

Nick Mehta:
Yeah, totally. Anthony was our first CMO. He is OG. He is almost like a co-founder, he’s amazing. There are I think, three things because I’m trying to give some things that are a little more practical and tactical, that fall under three different buckets, I think of category creation. Probably fit in all the other narratives, too. One of them was clearly evangelizing. You cannot avoid me talking about customer success somewhere in the world. Pretty much everyone’s seen it, whether they like it or not. I think this idea that having evangelists who are passionate and not just me, by the way. Our first set of CS, was getting dense time in. He did a ton of evangelism about it. We’ve had a couple different chief customer officers over the years. They’ve done a lot of it, they’ve written books, I’ve written books.

Nick Mehta:
And so the first thing is evangelism, but not just big, like your big conference, but literally, I’ve done hundreds and hundreds of all hands meetings for customers, talking about customer success, or prospects or whatever. I literally took tons of companies, just, “Hey, let me tell you about customers.” Not about Gainsight. I’ve done obviously, 100 of the podcasts. It’s all this stuff where you’re just talking about the category, not your company. So that’s one. Just like Mike said, it’s Mount Kilimanjaro. It’s just like, one at a time. Eventually, maybe get some big stage, but initially, it’s all these little stages.

Nick Mehta:
The second thing I think that’s worked really well for us is focusing on people’s careers in the community, because you’re trying to build this community of people. We were essentially tied to the growth of the CS community. I spent a lot of time, we all did, on everything around careers. Everything from best practice content on compensation, organization, all that to helping people in their careers, creating job boards, and internship programs. Literally, I’ve helped hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of CS leaders find jobs, introduce them to other people, whatever. And then advocating for them in that career dimension. Like yesterday, my tweet, which was probably I’m sure, it’s very self serving, but I said, life’s too short if you’re a CS leader to work for a CEO that doesn’t believe in customer success. Things like that, advocating for it.

Nick Mehta:
The third kind of chapters. We’ve talked about evangelism, the career side. The third thing was actually really bringing our culture and personality to our community. I think HubSpot does an amazing job with this too. It’s like, there’s no wall between Gainsight and our community. It’s like the same. Whatever silliness and goofiness and music videos and rap videos and all that stuff, it’s all who we are and everyone knows it. It’s exactly what they expect and that’s been incredible. Some of it’s funny, and some of it’s vulnerability. I talked at our pulse conference about being lonely as a kid in front of 4000 people and all that stuff that really bonds people. I feel like there’s this belief that your company culture should be different from how you show up in front of your customers. It’s the opposite for us.

Gil Allouche:
Very insightful. Michel, what helped you? What’s your secret source creating a category?

Michel Feaster:
I definitely agree with both what Mike and Nick have said. There’s not any one moment. It’s a bunch of just, you grind out wins and you keep learning and trying to stay humble and iterate. When I started the company, and I have this belief, I think categories are made when there’s multiple big changes hitting the same persona or the same function in a company. And it’s my core belief of, is it a product or is it a category? When I thought even back in the early days of thinking about Usermind, it was this notion that everything was going digital. More and more software innovation. Tech was being purchased by the front office, by marketing and sales and customer success. My hypothesis was, those folks weren’t going to go look to IT to manage the tech.

Michel Feaster:
And as a result, similar to the CSM, there’ll be this operations team, marketing ops, sales ops, customer success operations to manage the tech. I was super convinced that those people didn’t have that role 20 years ago, or even 10 years ago, and that no one was really focused on them. And that if I just interviewed enough of them, I’d find a problem. I would say, to me, that’s always my central bar is, “Can you find somebody worse enough, changes to their daily working life are happening, that the from two is big enough to require a mental shift and a category?” Then that’s really what a category shift is, to me. A category shift is like, the old way no longer works, and/or there’s so much change, there’s an opportunity for a new and better way.

Michel Feaster:
Nick alluded to this in his description of the market opportunity. Every business realizes subscription is the single most profitable model in the world. Every enterprise company is becoming like a Disney. Everyone’s becoming a subscription company and therefore, everyone gets focused on LTV. If you look at that, man, that’s huge. Mike, I don’t understand your world nearly as well. But I always had the confidence that that was correct. I would say, maybe another challenge or thing I learned along the way is, I had to be maniacally believing that that was true. That journeys would come, that life cycles would get here. And yet, on the flip side, really, really humbled to try to figure out, is there a signal and the negative feedback I’m getting.

Michel Feaster:
Sometimes you get this feedback that you’re crazy, and you have to realize, that’s wrong. Sometimes in that feedback of it’s not quite right, or our positioning isn’t right, there’s this nugget of learning to get closer to how to win the deal, or how to build the product, or how to explain it. I think that was a learning for me, as a first time founder. I’d never really had that true experience and it was a thing that I think about a lot is, what is true belief, and where is there room to keep being humble and iterating.

Michel Feaster:
And then the other thing I have in my personal opinion is not all customers are equal. What I mean by that is, some customers that you close are truly visionaries. Regardless of your technology, they are in their company pushing the envelope, and they are trying to create a new reality that only they see. I have found in my career, even back when I was at Mercury Interactive building testing tools during the Opsware deal, there’s that subset of customers that lead you in the right direction. I’ve always tried to collect those people and learn from them and listen to them, and help them shape my direction. I feel like, my last startup was Apptio, there’s a giant council now, but in the early days, there were three or four CIOs who were so ahead of where we were, and they were just so great at helping us shape our product direction. I would say probably those are the three things that if I look back, have gotten me through it with, a million mistakes along the way. But if I were doing it again, I try to replicate those three things for sure.

Gil Allouche:
Cheers to that. Million mistakes along the way. That’s cool. You mentioned a lot of things… Cheers. You all mentioned a lot of things that seem very reasonable and make sense, like balancing act between being crazy insane, entrepreneur’s conviction, you’re wrong. What are you talking about? I know what I’m doing between the humble nuggets of insights. It sounds easy, but it’s not and being vulnerable, also in front of a big audience and talking about your childhood and a bunch of other things. It works. I have a very small anecdotal evidence about it with my own team, but definitely haven’t done that publicly on LinkedIn. This is for all three of you, what’s the moment that, psychologically, emotionally, gets you to take that leap of faith on an action that is maybe abnormal for a regular person, but when you look back, it’s like, that was a great moment for me to do that because I came out genuine and authentic and that changed the perception of myself and the company? How do you get that…?

Nick Mehta:
I can share a little bit of that for our journey, which is what I was referring to trying to be a little vulnerable with, in this case, the customer base and all that. It was obviously not the person who came up with that idea. Brené Brown and many others pioneered this concept but for me, it’s been like, every time, I have an opportunity to put myself out there, how do I go a little further. Just get a little more human. We talked about our philosophies like human first business. That’s a thing we’re really passionate about. What happened was, in the early days of Gainsight, it was literally just talking about, “Hey, I’m into the Pittsburgh Steelers as a football fan.” That’s like, that’s human a little bit, right? And then it’s like, “Okay, let me talk about my kids.” And it’s like, okay, and you just keep doing a little bit more. We saw our company purpose statement is we want to be living proof, you can win in business while being human first. That’s actually what motivates us more than software or whatever.

Nick Mehta:
Anyways, when we came up with that statement, we were launching it at our internal kickoff, like get everyone together. I basically was like, let me try to be human first and be vulnerable, and so I talked about some of this childhood stuff. And then it really resonated. Then I tried that at the Pulse Conference and then that worked, and then I did it again, the next year for employees, and that worked. And then I did something even more the next year with a conference and it worked. You do it and it works and then you go a little further and every time that you want to one up yourself. It’s like a progressive process for me.

Gil Allouche:
Very helpful. Mike, do you have something similar that happened to you that you did a small marginal improvements on taking those risks?

Mike Volpe:
I think we were fortunate that we were marketing to marketers in the age of the Internet, and personalization, and social media and self publishing was coming alive. It’s much more commonplace today, but we did a weekly live video show that was streamed and also recorded and archived for years, a couple years. Podcasting videos and YouTube, the use of social media as a company and as executives and things like that, it was our business to do that and to be first or near first in many of those things. And I think we really embraced all of that. It wasn’t just one or two people. I think previous to that, the idea was that accompany would have a spokesperson, the way Tesla has Elon Musk, that every company had like their person.

Mike Volpe:
But Nick alluded to this earlier, I think it’s much more powerful when you have a lot of people that are those evangelists from the company, and they can all bring their own style and even some of their own slightly different opinions on the topic that you’re evangelizing. I think we were lucky that early on, we had a lot of people that could be effectively those evangelists and pre-capitalize on a lot of those new mediums that were popping up. I think it was really across the team that we were lucky that I was out there, Brian was out there, Dharmesh was out there, Mark Roberge was out there, and even a whole host of other folks as well. I think that having the vulnerability, and that accessibility spread across a lot of people on the team was very helpful for us.

Nick Mehta:
That’s awesome.

Gil Allouche:
Thank you. Michel, do you want to add something?

Michel Feaster:
Yeah, I think it sounds like all of us had different journeys to the same thing. I totally agree with Nick. I love Brené Brown but I read it later. I started the company, and I’ve never been a CEO before. Andreessen did our series A. I don’t know about other people in the early days of founding but I had no idea if my idea was any good and I felt like an imposter and I didn’t know how to be a CEO. I’m a very generally positive person, I’m always can-do upbeat. I remember going home and drinking wine and playing video games and being like, I am not my normal self right now. I ended up starting therapy and really came to realize that, as a CEO, my strengths in many ways they affect the company’s strengths, but my weaknesses and my own interpersonal struggles and challenges, that affected the culture. I think, as I understood that, I didn’t know how to really separate my personal ability to be successful and manage my emotions and manage the stress and manage the down days, from my ability to leave the team and be successful.

Michel Feaster:
I think, for me that my insight was I needed to be open because I needed grace from people at times, for them to understand that, yes, I’m the CEO, and I’m the founder. I’m doing my best to lead the company but that we’re all human. I feel like the net effect of that is that it’s given other people room to be human. I always say to my team, we don’t need to be perfect as people, we can be perfect as a team. That’s a line from that Denzel Washington football movie. And I’m forgetting the-

Nick Mehta:
Remember the Titans.

Michel Feaster:
Remember the Titans. But I was always very struck by that. I’d never heard Nick that expression of human first business but honestly, I think we’d all be so much better off if we could live that, because we’re all just people, we all make mistakes, and we don’t need to be perfect. We just need to pick each other up as a team and manage through the challenge that we’re facing. I think I came to it by necessity. I wasn’t able to kind of manage through the stress of founding in the early days and the hardships in the company without being real about it. I didn’t know any other way to manage it. And now I look back and thank God, it was one of the greatest gifts I’ve been given.

Michel Feaster:
I always say to people who will ask me, how do you feel about your founding journey. I always say to people, it’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done but it’s made me a much better human. I feel that I’ve become a deeper human, I hope a wiser human, a better leader. Even if the company weren’t to succeed, I would count my chapter of life as successful for just that reason. I think I’ve learned more about being a human in the last seven years than in the whole rest of my life put together. I just think I had to do it. I didn’t have a choice. And it’s been the best thing I’ve ever done.

Nick Mehta:
Love that attitude. That’s awesome. Really cool.

Gil Allouche:
It is awesome. It’s very interesting to always see the most successful people, they’re good at their job and leading big organization, and then the inevitable being the humble, vulnerable people. It’s interesting. Change of gears. I want to hear if you will share it with me, something that no one knows about you. Ideally, very embarrassing. I’ll give you an example. Godard Abel, CEO of G2 shared about getting arrested. That was an interesting story. We can listen to it later. We have a bunch of others. I’d love to hear something that not everyone knows about you that doesn’t have to be super vulnerable but it’s a story that no one knows that is embarrassing about you, as a person outside of the CEO, founder usual story trek.

Mike Volpe:
The list is long and there’s many but the one that definitely comes to mind, it was a very long time ago, but I threw up on a date. Not during a date, but on the date. It was a very long time ago.

Nick Mehta:
There was no video back then?

Mike Volpe:
No. Pre-video, pre-internet.

Nick Mehta:
Oh, that’s amazing.

Mike Volpe:
Yeah, like late teenage years. It was a long day. It was four of us, a friend of mine and a girl he had like just barely started dating and then one of her friends and he hooked us up. And we went to like a town fair, the old school amusement park. I’m not good with motion rides. She wanted to go on the tilt a whirl. Like a sucker I’m like, “Oh, yeah, that’d be great.” I could do this right. And halfway through, I’m puking, we’re spinning around. So you got centrifugal force happening and all kinds of stuff and not a good scene. I felt horrible. She’s screaming stop the ride. Stop the ride. The guy hits the button, stops the ride. He just walks over with an almost empty roll of paper towel, just like four sheets left on it, hands it to me and just shakes his head and just walks away.

Nick Mehta:
I always wondered if somebody ever threw up on those twisty rides. And I guess the answer is yes.

Mike Volpe:
Yeah, yeah. We have two kids now, my wife and I. Not her, different [crosstalk]. Never talked to that woman again. But when we go to the amusement park with the kids, she’s in charge of all those rides.

Gil Allouche:
That’s a great story to share. Thank you. I hope your friend in the double date did better. If he did not hate you.

Mike Volpe:
I think everyone’s fine now. Hopefully no one’s scarred. Yeah.

Gil Allouche:
That’s hilarious. Nick, you’re next.

Nick Mehta:
It’s not nearly as funny. That’s a hilarious story, Mike. But I guess a vulnerable/embarrassing… Most of my embarrassments are all online. Very unfortunate that means people know. I don’t know if I’ve ever told people this specific story, which is I mentioned that I never really felt like I fit in as a kid. I was the kid who ate alone every day from kindergarten to 12th grade and just never had really friends or whatever. Obviously my life’s changed but that’s sort of where I was. I was like the worst kid to my parents because of that, because I always wanted to be with the popular kids. I really wanted to. So what I remember is, literally I would stalk what they’re doing and want to do everything that they did, because that would somehow get me popular. Listen to whatever music they were listening to whatever.

Nick Mehta:
I remember that we were middle class, not poor, not rich, just normal, middle class. My parents, they’re Indian Americans so they were definitely thrifty. I remember the kids in high school were wearing Ralph Lauren and Polo, whatever. I was so obsessed with my parents getting me those things, which it’s like $100 shirt which for us I could not imagine buying that. We shopped it whatever the equivalent of Target was back then. I remember I was just the most annoying kid, because I felt unpopular and I wanted to be popular and I wanted to buy my way into it. I remember my for dragging my mom to the Polo store and buying that one thing and later on being totally embarrassed of myself. Now that I have kids, I’m like, I hope our kids don’t end up like that.

Gil Allouche:
Nice. Thank you for sharing that. Michel, you probably got some time to think about your most embarrassing story.

Michel Feaster:
Yeah, not most embarrassing, but one that I haven’t told, I was in pre sales years ago. That’s when I first got into tech. That was what I was doing. I remember, I just joined Mercury Interactive and I went to my first sales kickoff in San Francisco. This is at the time if anyone’s been to that Hyatt with the funky roof and like the weird open, right downtown, it was there and was my first time in San Francisco. I didn’t know anybody. I’d been with the company like freaking three weeks. We’re all standing in the lobby, and the sales reps of course, inciting trouble, ask everyone to play the, who would you sleep with game. And public knowledge, I’m gay and I was like, there are no women here. So like, I don’t know how to answer this question. There are literally like two women in this whole sales kickoff. And they were like, “No, no, you have to answer. You have to answer.”

Michel Feaster:
And so finally, I was like, “Oh, I don’t know. I don’t know.” And then I was like, “I got it. I would sleep with Amnon.” He was the CEO. And all of a sudden everyone was like, “Ssh, be quiet, ssh.” And I’m like, “No, no, I was so excited. I got it. I got one. It’s Amnon. I would sleep with Amnon.” And he was directly behind me. He was [crosstalk] the company was literally two inches from me, with his back to me, hearing me shout that I would sleep with him and I didn’t even know him. I had been in the company like 12 days. Years later, we got acquired by HP and we were doing our last Christmas party, actually, in San Francisco in the City Hall, we were doing it there. And I finally met his wife. And he told the story to her that the first time he met me, that was what he heard. He played it off, he didn’t make me embarrassed at the time. But

Nick Mehta:
Wow.

Michel Feaster:
Oh my God. Anyway, kind of hilarious. He was a great guy. He’s an incredible leader. He led the company from 2 employees to 3000 and a billion dollars of revenue. One of the greatest CEOs I’ve ever worked for, but talk about a horrible way to get introduced.

Nick Mehta:
That’s amazing. Wow.

Gil Allouche:
That’s pretty amazing.

Nick Mehta:
You must feel pretty good after they kept you there, right?

Michel Feaster:
Yeah, definitely. I turned out to be a pretty good pre-sales person.

Mike Volpe:
He also probably remembered who you were. That’s the other [crosstalk] embarrassing, but like, never going to forget you.

Michel Feaster:
Yeah, he was always great to me. But oh, my God, talk about you want to just fall on a sword or something.

Gil Allouche:
These are hilarious stories. I know, Michel, you worked with Ben Horowitz for quite some time. You mentioned him as a mentor. I’d like to start with you. For me, mentors, advisors, one has become a board member, I have CEO coach, have been a huge dramatic improvement in my capabilities as CEO and as a human honestly, because it’s kind of intertwined. Can you tell us a little bit maybe like a highlight something to change your trajectory, change your life, a comment, a mantra?

Michel Feaster:
Yeah, sure. Sure. Ben’s amazing. First of all, he’s one of the best human beings I’ve ever met in my life. If you’ve read his book or met him, he comes off as humble. He literally is an incredible family man, incredible human being just, man. He’s someone who if I could be like him, as good a human as him, I would be very proud of myself at the end of my days. But yeah, he’s told me a bunch of hilarious things that have been helpful and changed my life. I remember I had left HP and I was moving up to Seattle to take my first startup gig. I joined a company called Apptio as employee 17, running product. I had never been in a company so small and I was moving cross country. I didn’t know anybody in Seattle, and I’d never been an exec before. I remember calling him and I’m like, “Ben, they say that these three things are like… I’m doing the three most stressful things at the same time.” I was breaking up with my girlfriend, so that was the third one.

Michel Feaster:
And he said to me, “You know, Michel, for some people, maximum discomfort means maximum growth, and you’re one of those people.” Honestly, if I look at all the things that have helped me grow the most, they’re all things that scared me initially, they were all things that cause great discomfort. And frankly, I look at myself and I’ve become a different person, by going through those experiences. When I look at people, when I think about hiring, that’s a thing I ask myself like, is this person a person who will thrive in discomfort, because I think unless you are that person, it’s very hard to succeed in startups, because so much of what we do is defined by problem solving. So that’s kind of one piece of advice he gave me that changed my life.

Michel Feaster:
Maybe the other thing is he once told me, this is in my time at HP. Mercury was a very direct culture. And we were acquired into HP, which was a much more careful culture and a much more hierarchical culture and a politically correct culture. I don’t know that either is good or bad but it was very hard for me to norm into that culture. And I remember Ben, one-on-one saying to me, “Do you have to verbally punch people in the face all the time? You have to ask yourself, is it better to be right or is it better to be effective?” Honestly, it’s taken me years to internalize that and grow enough to become more deft at bringing people around to my point of view, being more open, listening better. There’s a whole lot you can unpack in that comment. He’s just been a great gift.

Michel Feaster:
Maybe one more thing he said to me, which is just amazing, he once said, “Some people look at you, and see your flaws. I look at you and see your beauty.” You just think about that as a mentor. Anything, he tells me I listen to because I know he’s trying to help me be better. His intent is so good, he wants the best for me and to see the best for me. But he’s also cares about me enough to give me that uncomfortable feedback or that encouragement, whatever it is I’m needing at that moment. Those are just some examples, I could probably give you like 50 more, but he’s been an incredible force in my life. When I have a really hard problem or something I’m struggling with, I’ll go to him. There’s always something he says like the three I gave you, that just sticks with me and is a tool I take beyond the one conversation I have with him. He’s amazing.

Gil Allouche:
That’s beautiful. Thank you for sharing that. That’s amazing. I see a lot of that in some of the humble effort that you’re showing here in this conversation. Whatever it’s worth. Nick Mehta, you’re next. Tell us, do you have coaches or mentors that help you carve the path?

Nick Mehta:
Yes, I feel like I’ve learned from so many different people. I’d say that if I kind of divided up, one thing that’s been amazing is I’m in a CEO group called YPO and that’s just the peer-to-peer honesty, talking about your life and your fears and all that with people that you can be really candid with. That’s been like the most important thing for me by far. And then for people that I’ve worked with and met, I’ve learned from everyone. There’s so much to learn. Brian Halligan, CEO of HubSpot is such a thoughtful, introspective person. Obviously, I’ve never met Marc Benioff, but watching what he does with Salesforce, the way he can market his company, and reading Ben Horowitz book, there’s just so many people.

Nick Mehta:
It’s not just people that have done this before, sometimes it’s learning from people that have never done it before. There’s a company called Guild Education. It’s run by a woman named Rachel Carlson. She’s definitely younger and earlier in her career, but she’s crushing it and she’s just incredible. I learn so much from every time I talk to her. I was talking to the CEO of GitLab the other day, and it’s the first time he’s ever done anything like this and he’s done an okay job. One of our values, our company is beginner’s mind. I learned from Michel and Mike today. This has been amazing. I learned from you. To me it’s like seeking the learning everywhere.

Michel Feaster:
By the way, I second YPO. It’s great. It’s been transformative for me. I had never heard of it and gosh, I’ve been in it now for four years and it’s helped me be a better CEO, better human. For any CEO out there listening to this, I encourage everybody to join YPO. Yeah, life changing. Sorry to interrupt, but had to-

Nick Mehta:
[crosstalk] That’s great.

Gil Allouche:
I’m writing down a lot of things and among them is that YPO thing, so thank you. Mike, who has been your mentor, your coach that helped you.

Mike Volpe:
There’s a ton. The one I’ll highlight is a woman who’s on our board. She was also on the board at HubSpot for the first five years or so. Her name is Gail Goodman, she was CEO forever of Constant Contact. I love her because there’s no BS, everything is just super direct. She cuts through like everything and just gets like, here’s really what the problem is kind of a thing. She’s been there in all the hard times that you have to go through at a startup and as a CEO, so she speaks with a lot of credibility and understanding, when she’s giving you advice about any problem you’re facing. She’s been amazing one-on-one and amazing in board meetings.

Mike Volpe:
I don’t know if Michel and Nick, if either of you have the seasons CEO operator on your board that pushes back on the VC investors when they say crazy things like, can’t you get that done in a month or whatever. Gail’s my go to on that. There’s times when I glance at her and she leans into the table and says, well, if you’ve run a company before you know that that’s total bullshit, and whatever. She’s great. She’s been super helpful to me one-on-one on the side, but also in larger meetings and things like that.

Gil Allouche:
Amazing. Look, we’re getting to the end of this podcast. I want to say big thank you. I wrote a lot of comments. Every time I do this episode, I learn a ton. I listen to them afterwards and I try to distill it even further. Thank you for being super genuine and candid, and telling all your stories and having fun, sharing that with the audience and with me. I want to say a big thank you. And that’s it. We’re at the end of the podcast. Thank you again for being a guest and sharing a lot of interesting insights. We’ll be publishing this in a couple of weeks. And have a wonderful weekend.

Michel Feaster:
Thank you.

Nick Mehta:
Awesome. Thanks so much.

Gil Allouche:
Thank you Michel, thank you Nick, thanks Mike.

Michel Feaster:
I’ve heard about both of you and it’s just so cool to get a chance to be on a podcast. Really enjoyed it.

Nick Mehta:
Yeah. Great to meet you Michel and Mike, great to meet you as well. Finally, I’ve heard your name so much.

Mike Volpe:
[crosstalk] like a dream force, like [crosstalk]

Nick Mehta:
100%. Yeah. Michel, Sue Barsamian, says hi. I texted her. She’s on my board. She’s an epic board member and I-

Michel Feaster:
I had no idea she’s on your board. I’ve known her for 17 years.

Nick Mehta:
She’s amazing.

Michel Feaster:
Yes, indeed. Yeah, she’s a machine. Whoa, that’s a good board member right there.

Nick Mehta:
She’s awesome. Yeah.

Michel Feaster:
Yeah. Very cool. Love her a lot. Guys, great to meet you, everybody and have a wonderful weekend.

Nick Mehta:
Gil, thanks for connecting us. Thank you very much. Thank you all. Bye.

Gil Allouche:
Bye-bye. Have a wonderful weekend.

B2B Category Creators Episode 8 Transcript

Gil Allouche: Hello everyone. Happy Friday. My name is Gil Allouche. I’m the founder and CEO

Sheena Miles: Why I Joined Metadata

My Journey Before Metadata: I always knew that I wanted to live in Europe, but I

How I Turned My Anxiety into a Marketing Superpower

Learn how Jason uses his workplace anxiety and turns it into a strength.

Want to get emails from us?

No product pushing. Good memes. Better content. We’re playing the long game.